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Vancouver's North Shore still thumping with MTB energy

Published June 3, 2015
Sasha Tomchenko, Cove's general manager.

NORTH VANCOUVER, British Columbia (BRAIN)  — Like Vancouver, which the BRAIN Dealer Tour visited Tuesday, the North Shore bike retail scene is crowded, competitive and apparently profitable. As in Vancouver proper, finding and keeping qualified staff — especially mechanics — was a common challenge from retailers we spoke with on Wednesday.

The big difference, once we pedaled up and over the landmark Lions Gate bridge spanning Burrard Inlet, is that the product mix on the sales floor is heavy with enthusiast-level mountain bikes and road bikes. The lightweight urban and family bikes that are keeping shops in Vancouver buzzing get less attention on the North Shore. 

Several of the shops we visited Wednesday have ties to the early days of freeriding on the North Shore. Kim Steed, owner of Steed Cycles, opened his store in 1997, just as the trail scene was exploding. Steed appeared in several of the early North Shore Extreme videos that helped establish the North Shore as one of the handful of legendary spots in the history of mountain biking, along with places like Moab, Crested Butte and Marin County.

Now Steed’s store is a thriving, well-merchandised location that offers brands including Giant, Santa Cruz, Devinci and Specialized. While the store is still tied tightly to the hard-core riding community, the shop leverages that reputation to help sell a wider variety of bikes, including road bikes and, increasingly, women's models.

“We’ve always had a lot of focus on the high end,” said Steed. “But even when we are selling a $500 bike or a $1,000 bike, people know that we sell the high end and that we live and breathe this stuff, and that helps our credibility.” Last year the store’s average retail bike price was $1,700.

A few miles away, Cove Bike Shop’s roots date back even further. It first opened in 1981 in North Vancouver’s Deep Cove community. It moved away from Deep Cove more than a decade ago, and a year and a half ago left its home of 10 years to a space next door — a former motorcycle shop — to take advantage of the corner location, said Sasha Tomchenko, the shop’s general manager the past eight years.

Cove has been a Kona dealer from the start, and it still remains the top brand in Cove’s lineup of bikes, which also includes Quebec’s Devinci Cycles and the suggestively named house brand of Cove bike frames, including the Stiffee, Handjob, Hustler 27.5 and — ahem — Hummer 650Bj. The Cove line numbered as many as 10 different frames in recent years, but is paring down to four as of 2016, Tomchenko said.

Many early Cove employees went on to pioneer some well-known brands across the industry, and the store retains a hard-core, young rider vibe. 

In a more urban setting in North Vancouver, Obsession Bikes occupies a stately 104-year-old former bank, now crammed with inventory and repair bikes. Owner James Wilson said the location has been a bike shop since 1992, first as the Bike Cellar and then as Dizzy Cycles. It became Obsession Bikes in 2006. 

Obsession carries Trek, Specialized, Scott and Pivot, and Wilson’s strategy is to develop a long-term relationship with customers and the community — a relationship that spans generations. 

“Our mission is to sell a family a lifetime of bikes. That leads to continuous growth, and in fact that’s what we’ve seen since 2000 — nonstop growth.”

With the Dealer Tour editors and guests crowded into his 1,400 square feet of sales space, Wilson took the opportunity to push for the re-establishment of more regional, decentralized wholesale distribution in the bike industry. His position is that shops are giving up potential service work, brand building and profits because few shops can afford to stock all the necessary repair parts. Instead, most shops have to order in parts from a distributor hundreds of miles away. Wilson would like to see a system more like what auto repair shops enjoy, where shops can get parts delivered from local suppliers often on the same day.

“I think one of the great failures in the bike industry is the centralized distribution,” he said. “It’s stupid that we have to go four or five days to get parts. We hold $200,000 in parts here, but not everyone can do that, and we still need to order parts all the time.”

Our next stop was Mountain Equipment Co-op, inevitably referred to as “Canada’s REI.” MEC has 17 locations nationwide, and is based in Vancouver. It jumped into the bike market about seven years ago, first with its own MEC-branded line. Now all the MEC stores also offer Ridley and Ghost bikes — MEC has been Ghost’s exclusive Canadian retailer for four years.

About a quarter of MEC’s North Vancouver location is now devoted to the bike department, which employs about 20 people. MEC offers everything from kids’ balance bikes to many-thousand-dollar Ghost full-suspension bikes, and the store is as connected to the local riding community as any IBD, with frequent store-sponsored trail days and other community events. MEC’s Tim McDermott said the retailer has donated a total of close to $80,000 to North Shore trail building efforts over the last four years.

The BRAIN Vancouver Dealer Tour wraps up Thursday with visits to four more shops. Watch for full coverage in the July 15 issue of BRAIN.

The BRAIN Dealer Tour of Vancouver is sponsored by Cannondale, Sugoi, Finish Line, PeopleForBikes and Interbike. Our rides are being led by staff from Hub, Vancouver’s regional advocacy group.

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