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Montréal Dealer Tour: Focus and ambition in Quebec's Metropolis

Published June 9, 2016
The view of Montréal's downtown from atop Mt. Royal, after which the city is named.

MONTRÉAL (BRAIN) — On a cool, sometimes blustery day, the BRAIN Dealer Tour of Montréal wrapped up Thursday with visits to four stores: a third-generation powerhouse retailer, a basement-level store that began just a few years ago as a bike tour operator, a new, elegantly designed store that serves commuters and winter indoor fitness athletes, and a high-end road shop founded by a Canadian racing hero.

ABC Cycles & Sport

ABC Cycles & Sport is one of the oldest shops in Montreal, founded in 1932, during the midst of the 20th century’s worst depression. Today ABC Cycles is owned and managed by Francois Sylvestre, grandson of the founder. This third generation store bears all the familiar hallmarks of a modern-day operation, but it’s easy to see that Sylvestre deeply feels the store’s heritage built up over 84 years by his grandfather and father.

Sylvestre recalled how when cleaning out the basement finding six, five-gallon buckets filled with used nails that his grandfather, who left Italy as a youth, had found and straightened as a source of income. 

But the store has evolved over the years and stocks an array of bikes from Norco, Cannondale and Specialized. And Sylvestre has taken advantage of entry-price point bikes from Diamondback and Raleigh to better serve customers wary of spending big on higher-end models. 

But last year Sylvestre foresaw deep changes arising in the industry and at retail. At one point he had been managing 55 employees, but has reduced that number to 25. He has aggressively managed his inventory, especially bicycles. Sylvestre pays his bills on time, trimmed his orders, and made it clear to suppliers that he will buy what he wants when he needs it. The result? “I feel a lot less pressure from suppliers now,” he said.

Fitz & Fowell

While ABC Cycles may be one of Montréal’s oldest, Fitz & Follwell is one of the city’s newer operations as it works to blend traditional retail with what began as a fledgling service that took tourists on guided bicycle and walking tours of historic Montréal.

Shea Mayer, the company’s founder, said the name reflects his grandmother’s maiden name, Fitzgerald, and his grandfather’s name, Follwell. The store, tucked downstairs along a busy street, is just minutes from Mount Royal Park, one of the city’s largest green spaces. The park’s namesake, a 233-meter hill, towers over the city offering tourists—and tourists taken there by Mayer’s guiding staff — a sweeping view of the city and the waterways that surround it.

Mayer’s approach is a nicely diversified operation. It combines guided bicycle tours, walking tours, and winter snowshoe tours up Mount Royal, all tied to a small but growing retail operation where Mayer sells European-style city bikes and some cargo bikes, from brands including All City, Linus, and Yuba. Last year Mayer’s 12 guides took some 5,000 tourists, 60 percent of whom were Americans, around the city. This year he’s on track to boost that number to more than 8,000.

The store, all 1,300 square feet, has a limited inventory of bicycles and accessories. Helmets from Nutcase and Giro; locks from Kryptonite and Abus, and other small items, plus a selection of guidebooks that appeal to those visiting the store. He also has a small service center to maintain his fleet of 80 bicycles, and to repair bikes brought in by customers who live in the so-called Plateau neighborhood.

Mayer has plans for the future, but those would require a move. He would like to offer his customers beer, wine and coffee; and expand his retail operation. He also is considering the pros and cons of adding fat bike tours in the winter and overnight guided tours. But when it comes to revenue and margins, his tour business still produces that highest margins and pays the bills.

Momentum

Momentum has the polished, designed, feel of an upscale clothes retailer. In bike retailing, that’s a look normally reserved for pro road shops. So it’s a little unexpected for visitors to learn that Momentum’s bread and butter business is in sales of modestly priced hybrids for nearby commuters. 

The store, which has three locations, owes its design elements mostly to co-owner Alexandere Shareck, who invested in the Momentum, joining store founder Yannick Guimond, after a career in architecture. 

“We wanted to give the boutique a warm feel, with a lot of wood,” Shareck said. “We want to be welcoming to a lot of people and be the local shop for the young families and students in the area.”

Guimond founded the store when he was still in his early 20’s. A pro racer sponsored by Marin, the store began as a Marin concept store. Now, it still carries Marin, but also BMC, Trek and Louis Garneau bikes. 

Like all shops in Montréal, Momentum has had to come up with a plan to stay afloat during the long winters. And, like several other stores we visited the week, Momentum’s solution is indoor cycling. Come winter, the store clears out an area of bikes and brings in a row of Louis Garneau spin bikes for classes about four times a week. Momentum also has Tacx stationary trainers and a library of 250 training videos available for rent. 

The store also supports a club and a racing team and hosts regular group rides from the store in season. It offers bike fitting services, with a relatively low tech approach using a Juteau-Cantin bike fit machine. 

Cycles Gervais Rioux 

Gervais Rioux is one of Canada’s road cycling heroes: a three-time national road champion and a participant in the 1988 Olympic road race in Seoul. Rioux is also increasingly well known, world wide, as the owner of the Argon 18 bike brand.

But Rioux is also a retailer. After retiring from racing in 1990, he bought a bankrupt store in Montréal named Argon 18. He renamed the store with his name, and later resurrected the Argon 18 brand for the bikes. The bike brand began as a shop brand and slowly expanded to now have worldwide distribution.

The store is focused on a deep selection from a small number of brands: Argon 18 for bikes, Assos for clothes, Rudy Project for helmets and glasses, for example. 

Alain Pelletier, who has managed the store for about 13 years, said   there’s no reason to carry more. Customers know what brands the store stands behind, and know that the store is the best place in Montréal to buy those brands.

“Oakley makes fine glasses, but I can buy them anywhere,” Pelletier said. “No one is going to leave downtown Montréal to come here on their lunch hour to buy Oakleys.”

The store also does more with less when it comes to staff, with just nine employees, including several who have been with the store for decades. Mechanics serve a long apprenticeship in the store before being entrusted with assembling the most difficult builds, like aero bikes. 

The store is crisp and clean, with white counters and glass cases. The workshop area is especially tidy, complete with a custom-made indoor bike washing station designed by Rioux (whose father was a plumber).

As the Argon 18 bike brand continues to grow, Rioux said he figures he is one of the few owners of a world wide bike brand with extensive experience as a pro racer, pro mechanic, and store owner. 

“I don’t think there are many of us with the same experience, I’d challenge you to find another one,” Rioux said with a smile. “I’ve been doing this for a while now and I’ve learned a lot of things.”

The BRAIN Dealer Tour is sponsored by Louis Garneau, Finish Line, PeopleForBike and Interbike. Watch for complete coverage of the  tour in the July 15 issue of Bicycle Retailer & Industry News. 

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