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Biking Booms in Seaside City

Published July 6, 2010

BY MARC Sani

IT’S CALLED STP—SHORTHAND for the 202-mile Seattle to Portland Bicycle Classic. It’s an annual two-day ride-fest, held each July, and it puts 10,000 cyclists on a string of back roads that links these two Pacific Northwest cities.

And while Seattle often takes a backseat to Portland when the discussion turns to bicycle-friendly cities, cyclists here point out that it’s STP not PTS.

And this July is no different. Some 10,000 riders—the official cap—will hit the pavement July 17. And if this year’s ride follows years past, cyclists will swallow some 26,000 sandwiches, 35,000 cookies and 11,000 fig bars, plus hundreds of pounds of bananas, oranges and grapes.

Serving up those numbers is the Cascade Bicycle Club, the ride’s organizer. STP, now in its 31st year, is a major funding source for the club, which also hosts the annual Chilly Hilly.

The club is often cited as the nation’s biggest with 12,000-plus members and a budget pushing $3 million, said its executive director, Chuck Ayers. And the club keeps almost two-dozen employees busy pushing an agenda of cycling, advocacy and education.

And no U.S. city, not even Portland, has a mayor quite like Mike McGinn, who can be found most any day of the week pedaling his beat up Trek 700 to City Hall where—among other things—he pushes a pro cycling agenda in a car-choked region.

And he’s not afraid to mix it up with pols like Washington’s governor, Christine Gregoire, or the City Council over a highly controversial plan to build a tunnel along the city’s waterfront to replace the deteriorating Alaskan Way Viaduct, a $4.2 billion project.

Most city cyclists and others have opposed it in favor of a more boulevard-style option, and they backed McGinn in his run for mayor.

On any given day, more than 160,000 car commuters from outlying suburbs flood into this city. But Seattle also enjoys a booming cadre of cycling commuters, advocates, racers both road and mountain, and families who enjoy weekend outings on the popular Burke-Gilman Trail. Seattle also is home to several dozen stores, a few of which we toured by bike in May.

Seattle proper boasts a population of more than 600,000. Surrounding suburbs push the regional total to almost two million. It’s an affluent and outdoor-oriented population that spends big on sports activities.

Corporate giants like Boeing and Microsoft help anchor the economy and boost the average median income for a family to a healthy $62,000 a year. Seattle is HQ for REI, Starbucks and Red Hook, plus dozens of smaller high-tech companies.

As a result, bicycles and accessories are big business for local retailers. How big? Like all things in the bicycle industry, data is scarce.

But companies like Raleigh USA, FSA, ProNet Cycling, Kore, along with custom framebuilders like Bill Davidson, and others call it home. Seattle Bike Supply, founded in 1974, adopted the city’s name to emphasize its Pacific Northwest roots.

SBS president Chuck Hooper, said companies like his attract and retain high-quality employees thanks to the city’s location and its outdoor environment.

“People here ride whether it rains or shines,” he said.

Hooper’s been at SBS for 25 years and a few employees have been there longer. His newest management hire was nine years ago.

Six years ago Steve Meineke left Southern California to take the helm at Raleigh USA and, in one sense, it was a homecoming.

“Before I ever lived here I competed in ski competitions here, I later climbed Mount Rainier, and I would often visit, so I knew I could live here,” Meineke said.

From a business perspective, it’s easier to attract top talent to Seattle, he said. Washington has no state income tax and it’s near major recreational areas like Whistler and Hood River. “What really makes this place attractive is there’s a kind of an urban-meets-mountain-and-sea dynamic,” Meineke added.

Another fan is Mike Kalmbach, president of ProNet Cycling. He grew up in this Pacific Northwest port and began working in a local bike shop in 1960. His years in retail (he’s owned three stores), his move into distribution and as a trading agent has taken him around the world.

“There’s a wealth of entrepreneurial people here. It’s just amazing the number and variety of companies scattered around throughout he peninsula who do a huge volume of business,” he said.

One of those entrepreneurs is Lance Bohlen who, along with several investors, has relaunched Kore, a once significant brand started in Santa Ana, California, that rode the mountain bike boom until it went bust. Bohlen and the others bought it in 2005. With a growing roster of distributors and increased OE spec, Kore is bouncing back, he said.

“For me, Seattle’s perfect,” said the Pacific Northwest native. “We make everything in Asia and Seattle’s a great gateway to the Asian market,” said Bohlen, who also has an office in Taichung. “The convenience of having the airport here, the cycling culture, the strong retail culture and Seattle’s a hotbed of cyclocross, makes it a great business location.”

Ric Hjertberg, who just launched his new composite wheel brand Mad Fiber here, called Seattle the “capital” of carbon fiber given the number of local carbon fiber subcontractors.

“You don’t have to look far for carbon fiber sports applications in Seattle, whether it’s racing shells, sailboats or kayak paddles,” he said.

Marine companies in Seattle adopted carbon early on, but it was the aerospace industry that raised its profile. “There were always a lot of resins and fibers way before Boeing, but now there’s been a convergence. When we go out to source things, it’s easy,” Hjertberg said.

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