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Carolinas Dealer Tour: Competition heats up in fast-growing Charlotte market

Published October 25, 2016
The Dealer Tour crew makes its way to The Bike Gallery in Charlotte.

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina (BRAIN) — The opening day of Bicycle Retailer's Carolinas Dealer Tour was short on mileage but long on diversity of retailers as our dozen-strong contingent of editors and sponsors pedaled 11 miles of streets and bike paths in Charlotte, one of the fastest-growing cities in the nation.

Departing from the city center, known as Uptown Charlotte, the Dealer Tour passed by the NASCAR Hall of Fame and Bank of America Stadium — home of the NFL's Carolina Panthers — en route to the first of Monday's four visits: Uptown Cycles.

Located in the northwest corner of the Uptown area, the retailer was founded in 2008 by former pro road racer Chris Sheehan. While Uptown Cycles was initially a road-focused shop, Sheehan has added mountain and urban bikes to serve an evolving customer base. Service makes up about 50 percent of the shop’s business.

Sheehan added a Retül fit studio four years ago, and a bank of eight Computrainers hums with as many as 20 classes a week during Charlotte's colder months.

Parallel with Charlotte's growth, more shops have opened recently, making the city a more competitive bike market, said Tim Anderson, Uptown Cycles' service manager. “There are a lot of shops here, but the cycling community and the shop community are very tight. We work together — when we can’t help someone, we send them to a shop that can. And they reciprocate,” he said.

No one may have a better historical perspective on Charlotte's bike market than Al Lizarazo, a bicycle racer who emigrated from Colombia to Charlotte in 1962 and went to work in 1970 for a local hardware store that also sold and serviced bikes. In 1974 Lizarazo opened The Bike Gallery, and he has operated in his current location in a now-gentrifying area of Charlotte since 1980.

While bike brands have come and gone from the shop over the years — Panasonic and Peugeot among them — Lizarazo has carried Fuji and Raleigh since the beginning. He keeps the doors open by keeping his overhead low — rent increases are modest, and the shop has only two additional employees, including Lizarazo's son Andres.

The 76-year-old still goes to the shop every day, but he says the business is changing and he wants to turn it over to his son. “What I really want to do is retire and get the hell out of here,” Lizarazo laughed.

We've seen our share of shop dogs, cats and other pets over the years on Dealer Tour, but Charlotte Cycles had a first when it comes to retail mascots: shop goats.

An adjacent lot next to the shop was overgrown with weeds, so owners Francisco Montero and Brian Doolittle brought three goats from a neighboring farm for weed control. The goats transformed the property from shoulder-high weeds to minimal ground cover in a little over a year. Neighborhood grade-schoolers add variety to the goats' diet by feeding them leftover lunch items on the way home from school.

Charlotte Cycles opened in September 2015 in a beautifully maintained 100-year-old building with wood floors, exposed brick and a stamped-tin ceiling. Originally a general store, it has remained a retail location for over a century. Most recently it housed Charlotte Energy Solutions, which sold energy-saving products like solar panels, corn stoves, low-energy lightbulbs and, since 2007, Pedego e-bikes.

Owners Montero and Doolittle continue to offer Pedego as well as recumbent trikes, folding bikes, electric conversion kits, and road, mountain and hybrid bikes from brands like Felt, Jamis, Pedego, Easy Motion, Benno, Terra Trike, Catrike and Yuba. They are currently moving similar numbers of non-powered bikes as they are e-bikes, as well as a number of electric retrofits. But they expect their e-bike sales will dominate their future business.

“Charlotte's e-bike market is a few years behind California, so retrofits are still a big part of what we do. But as our customers return for a new bike, many of them are stepping up to mid-drive designs from Pedego or Easy Motion,” Montero said.

Meanwhile, in Charlotte's increasingly trendy Elizabeth neighborhood, the modus operandi at The Spoke Easy is the “reverse mullet”: party in the front, business in the rear, said shop manager Dread Fiyah. Customers walking through the front door might not even realize at first that the combination beer bar and bike shop also houses an architectural design firm right behind it in the same storefront.

Architects and bike fans Kevin Kennedy and Chris Scorsone have operated Cluck Design Collaborative for more than a decade, and added a bike shop and bar five years ago. They've been in their current space on Elizabeth Avenue for almost two years.

Fyah, who does drafting work for the design business, also manages the bike shop and bar, which offers seven beer taps as well as a number of canned beers and ciders. The shop stocks a mix of city, 'cross, mountain and BMX bikes from Surly, Salsa, Fairdale, State Bicycle Co. and Sunday. But The Spoke Easy's big movers are stylish European-inspired city bikes from Linus at $600 to $850.

“I think we have one of the broadest ranges of customers,” Fiyah said.

Service accounts for about 60 percent of The Spoke Easy's business. The shop also stages a number of weekly rides for all skill levels and offers a six-week mechanic class that teaches commuters how to diagnose and fix problems with their bikes.

Fiyah believes Charlotte's recent growth has been a boon to local cycling.

“We're seeing more people on bikes as more people move in from the north and west and bring in the culture,” he said.

The BRAIN Carolinas Dealer Tour continues Tuesday in Charlotte with sponsors Hawley, Finish Line, Hutchinson Tires, SmartEtailing, PeopleForBikes and Interbike. Shop visits will include Espada Bicycles, Bicycle Sport, Trek Bicycle Store of Charlotte-South, and NC Velo.

On Wednesday's final day, the tour will travel to Columbia, South Carolina, to drop in on retailers Outspokin' Bicycle and Cycle Center before heading to Lexington to visit the headquarters of Dealer Tour sponsor Hawley.

Keep tabs on the tour on social media including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #braindealertour.

Watch for web updates this week and a full report in the December 1 issue of Bicycle Retailer & Industry News.

 

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