PORTLAND, OR (BRAIN)—While Portland is a commuter market, it also has a thriving mountain bike, tri and road scene. New shops offering only service are also finding success in this crowded retail market, as are Internet-based businesses that are expanding into brick and mortar.
Here’s a recap of the shops visited on the second day of the Portland Dealer Tour:
For a business whose roots are in a garage operation run by two pre-teens, Western Bikeworks certainly has come a long way.
The success Louis Doctor saw after enlisting his sons to sell unwanted Continental GP3000 tires on eBay—his U.K. source for him and his cycling buddies mistakenly shipped over treads in Bianchi blue rather than sky blue—led to the 2001 founding of BikeTiresDirect.com, a business that moved $1 million in product by the end of its first year. The boys, shipping out of the family’s Bay Area garage, were 11 and 13 at the time. “It was completely accidental,” Doctor recalled.
The site started selling more cycling products, and soon WesternBikeworks.com was born. A move to Portland followed in 2002, with the company opening a warehouse and small, attached retail storefront near Portland International Airport.
In the ensuing years Doctor and partner Jay Torborg, brought aboard by his college buddy in 2002 to set up e-commerce architecture after retiring from Microsoft, branched out into retail sites for consumer markets including billiards and golf. Today, Torborg runs the company’s entire cycling business under the VeloTech Inc. banner.
In May 2011, Western Bikeworks opened its 10,000-square-foot, road-focused store in Portland’s Pearl District as a complement to its online business. The move has boosted sales of complete bikes—lines include primary brand Cannondale plus Focus, Cyfac, Bianchi and All City—and the shop now accounts for about a third of Western’s $20 million in annual cycling sales.
Despite its history—and current involvement—in e-commerce, Western Bikeworks’ biggest stated threat will sound familiar to many brick-and-mortar stores: With its slashed pricing and built-in expectation of free shipping, “Amazon seems to be able to operate as a multibillion-dollar company and not make any money,” Torborg said.
UpCycles Bike Shop
Kai Druzdzel and Mark Hoskins started this service-focused shop two and a half years ago on a shoestring budget, renting a converted garage on NE Dekum Street in the revitalized Woodlawn neighborhood. With little to no inventory to drain their pockets, opening shop required a small investment. Aside from their main 400-square-foot location, they also lease a smaller space just a couple doors down, where they house a third work stand.
Tune-ups, flat fixes, wheel truing and bearing overhauls are its bread and butter, but UpCycles also does a fair amount of wheel builds and assembles custom touring and commuter bikes with Soma frames. It also sells refurbished bikes and offers basic bike maintenance classes. Though Druzdzel and Hoskins would like more room to spread out and stock product, including new bikes, they’re also weary about raising their cost of doing business. They prefer to keep overhead low and service prices reasonable.
Despite cramped quarters, the co-owners have managed to build up their business catering to the area’s bountiful commuters. The shop is open until 7 p.m. during the week for riders who might need to drop in for service on their commute home from work. “We pride ourselves in offering friendly service,” said Druzdzel. “We will work on any bike—stuff other shops turn down,” because they’re too run down or not worth fixing.
Hoskins, a United Bicycle Institute graduate who worked at the Community Cycling Center, Bike n Hike, The Recyclery and other local shops before buying his own stand and tools, said they have seen steady growth in business since they opened. “The neighborhood has embraced us,” he said.
West End Bikes
Mark Ontiveros may own one of the newer shops in Portland, but he’s not new to bike retail. A longtime employee and at one time part-owner of River City Bicycles, he decided to strike out on a business of his own, opening a Specialized Concept Store in January 2011 with business partner Mike France.
West End Bikes, named aptly after the West End shopping district in which it’s situated, is the only Specialized Concept Store in Oregon, and according to Ontiveros, the first in the Northwest. So far the business model has proven successful. “We’ve done $1.5 million in the first year in business with no ads or Internet sales,” he said. Specialized accounts for about 75 percent of his product selection. West End also carries bikes from Wilier, Calfee, Beloved, Santana and Cinelli, and is the top U.S. dealer for San Francisco commuter apparel and messenger bag brand Mission Workshop.
The 5,000-square-foot store is located in a historic downtown building that used to house Django Records, and Ontiveros has kept some of the old signage and wallpaper. The space required many updates, but Ontiveros said the location—a dedicated bike lane out front—was key. He leases space to a coffee shop, the Maglia Rosa, which offers curbside espressos.
The Athletes Lounge has cornered the city’s triathlon market with a 6,000-square-foot retail, service and fit space in Northwest Portland. Owners Scott Benjamin, Chris Boudreaux and Gary Wallesen bought the business out of near bankruptcy three years ago. Since then, the trio has moved into a building four times the size of the old shop and doubled revenue to $2 million annually. A big part of that success has been giving customers what they want; Athletes Lounge doesn’t shy away from going deep on product.
“You will not find too many tri stores outside of San Diego with this kind of inventory,” Benjamin said, standing in the middle of the shop filled with aero bikes from Cervélo, Giant, BMC, Argon 18 and Scott, wetsuits, running shoes, apparel and nutrition.
Athletes Lounge has built a community around its commitment to clinics, open swim classes and race and athlete support and has earned a reputation for the Portland’s experts on aero and fit specialists. While Portland may not be a hotbed for triathlon, Athletes Lounge has found its niche in the über competitive bike retail market at the same time as the three-sport discipline shows strong signs of growth. This year’s Portland Triathlon saw 900 racers, up 30 percent over the previous year, making it the largest tri in Oregon.
And while most of Portland’s bike retailers rely on the weather to dictate business, Athletes Lounge is not as subjected to Mother Nature’s whims. “The Ironman calendar really determines our sales,” Benjamin said. “In spring, weather is an issue, but if an athlete signed up for Coeur D’Alene, they’ve got to be training, they can’t wait for nice weather to get on their bike.”
Fat Tire Farm
Portland is a commuter town, not a mountain bike town. But that hasn’t kept off-road specialist Fat Tire Farm from thriving. Trail access in the Rose City is less than desirable. Fat Tire Farm, for example, is a short pedal from Portland’s Forest Park, but bikes are marginalized there mostly to dirt and gravel roads. Single track remains the dominion of hikers and trail runners.
Fortunately for FTF, the city’s dirt-addicted are willing to put in some drive time to get their fix. First-class trail facilities like Post Canyon and Sandy Ridge are within an hour’s drive, while the epic selection of purpose-built trails in farther-off Bend lures many for long weekends. Downhill riding at lift-assisted Ski Bowl on Mount Hood and challenging terrain at Port Angeles keep long-travel rigs moving out FTF’s front door.
Not that owner Park Chambers is content with the status quo of trail access in his business’ hometown. His shop helps support trail advocacy group the Northwest Trails Alliance and recently had a full-time employee dedicated solely to building trails at Sandy Ridge, a Bureau of Land Management trail system dedicated to mountain bikes.
Chambers also personally stays in close contact with land managers to improve relations with the mountain biking crowd. “It helps with riding in the community. It doesn’t matter whether the riders know about it,” he said.