MONTRÉAL (BRAIN) — David Bryson has been a specialty retailer since the 1980s, first riding the windsurfing craze from boom to bust and then running a well-regarded ski shop that sold Specialized bikes in the summer.
But Bryson was forced to shut it down in the mid 1990s as the bottom fell out of the ski market and Canada struggled through a major recession.
"I had to close it," he recalled. "We were just losing a boatload of money."
But Bryson is back with Cycle Néron Sud-Ouest — a tidy operation tucked away in the Saint Henri neighborhood astride bike lanes that lead to a major network of paths that flow off the 14.5-kilometer Lachine Canal.
Bryson's store was one of the three that the BRAIN Dealer Tour group visited on Wednesday as we biked around the city. While pedaling the streets and a long-established network of multi-use paths and separated lanes, we once again discovered a city with a passion for road riding and triathlon — despite a tough climate that forces many athletes to train inside for many months.
The 63-year-old Bryson, a native of Montréal, is back in retail and back with Specialized, thanks in part to his many years of friendship with Larry Koury, Specialized's longtime managing director in Canada.
"I wouldn't have started this store without the brand," said Bryson, who launched the operation in 2012 with the owner of three other Cycle Neron stores. But the store has prospered since its opening and does a vibrant business in what Bryson calls the "mid-market" category. While he sells some high-end S-Works bikes, it is midprice bikes that are the store's bread and butter.
Montréal is a tough market, Bryson admits. "There's something like 200 stores in the region and there's three or four within a mile or so of here," he said. "I'm used to doing it, and the market is still growing and we're quite lucky because of the bike path," Bryson added. On a busy weekend several thousand cyclists will go past the store.
Like other stores BRAIN has visited, service plays a significant role at most operations. That's the good news. The bad news is that Montréal's thousands of cyclists brush off the winter mud and flood local shops with repairs and tune-ups that surge in April and May.
"At the peak we may have an average of a week wait, but we want to do better and see if we can get that down to 48 hours and maybe 24," he said. Like other stores, Bryson gives cyclists who make a reservation preference.
Allo Vélo Boutique & Cafe
On noisy Notre-Dame Ouest in the Saint-Henri neighborhood in southwest Montréal is Allo Vélo, a boutique specializing in European city and cargo bikes, served alongside your choice of coffee or espresso. Saint-Henri is an up and coming area that's gentrifying, with many folks moving from the northern part of the city. As such, the streets are abuzz with construction crews.
Allo Vélo is relatively new shop, in business for four years. Lamar Timmins manages it, and owns it along with his mother. We rode the Lachine Canal bike path, a scenic waterfront route, to the shop.
Timmins, 28, who led bike tours in Germany, said four years ago he saw a growing trend for bike commuting in Montréal, but most shops were performance oriented and not very friendly to transportation cyclists. "We just wanted to offer a comfortable space, more of a boutique," he said.
So he opened up the 700-square-foot shop and decided to differentiate by focusing on European bikes with internally geared hubs, lights and fenders. He carries Crème, Vanmoof, Gazelle, and cargo bikes from Danish brands Bullit, Butchers & Bicycles and TrioBike. He doesn't have to compete with other nearby retailers on many of the brands, because he is the Canadian importer for several of them.
That unique selection is matched by a comfy ambiance inside — where there's a chandelier made of handlebars, a rustic table, bench and couch and handlebar art on the walls.
Timmins is a cargo bike enthusiast — so much so that he rode across Canada, from Montréal to Vancouver, in 40 days on a cargo bike.
He ships cargo bikes all over the country. Online sales make up 30 to 40 percent of his overall business.
"I would like to see cargo bike share in the city," he said, adding that families rent his cargo bikes to ride on the Lachine Canal on summer weekends.
While there are two cargo bike retailers in Montréal, the category is still very much a niche here.
Timmins said Montréal is a tough market. It's heavily taxed, entrepreneurs have to work through lots of red tape to get their business up and running, and there isn't as much discretionary income compared to Vancouver or Toronto markets. It's also saturated with shops.
"Here, people like to negotiate or ask not to pay taxes," he said.
While ridership has grown in Montréal, Allo Vélo still closes over the winter.
Cycle Technique doesn't have a lot of curb appeal: from the street it's barely noticeable, with its dark doors and windows protected by security bars. Inside - what a surprise.
The store, which began as a tiny service-only shop 11 years ago, is now a 15,000 square foot pro road and triathlon emporium with nine high-end bike brands on display, plus a large selection of high-end clothing, racks of uber-fancy wheels and other drool worthy items on sale.
Gilbert Ayoub, an avid triathlete recently retired from a successful career in clothing manufacturing, bought the store about seven years ago. He now focuses on athlete coaching, while his son Michael Ayoub is store manager.
While the high-end gear in stock was impressive, what was more striking was the store's emphasis on selling service, including bike fits with a Guru Fit Machine and perhaps the largest tech area we've seen on any of our Dealer Tours.
Building, repairing and customizing triathlon bikes is a specialty. When we visited, one technician was soldering what he called a "Di2 hack," splicing together four Di2 sprinter shifters to serve as shift buttons to be paired with the hydraulic rim brake levers on a Cervélo aero bike.
Then we went downstairs, where we saw an indoor cycling room with 24 CompuTrainer stations on two-tiers. Next door to that was an indoor running and core workout room, with four treadmills and a running gate analyzer and other equipment. Next to that was the swim room, with a two-lane Endless Pool with underwater cameras for stroke analysis.
Hundreds of Montreal triathletes and cyclists buy memberships for classes and coaching at Cycle Technique, with many storing their bikes there for the winter in between classes. The operation also has lockers and showers downstairs.
It's all part of the plan to emphasize service over sales in the Internet Age, several managers and owners told BRAIN during our tour.
"We know it's getting hard to make money selling bikes, even when you are selling very expensive bikes like we are. So we are more and more looking at ways to do what they can't do online," said sales manager Sean Finkel.