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Bike Shops Abound in Boulder

Published September 29, 2011

BOULDER, CO (BRAIN)—In Boulder, there are more bike shops than grocery stores, quipped one of the five dealers visited during the BRAIN Dealer Tour Wednesday. But in a city where most customers who walk into a bike shop own between two and three bikes and bike paths get plowed before car lanes in the winter, dealers said there’s enough business to go around.

One of the newer shops is Boulder Cycle Sport. College buddies Taro Smith and Brandon Dwight hung up the shingle to their first store on Broadway in May 2005, a decade after they finished their studies at the University of Colorado and pursued other interests. Smith got a doctorate in integrative physiology and went on to open and manage physical therapy centers for a few years. Dwight pursued a degree in Kinesiology and after graduating began racing mountain bikes professionally. Both raced during college but neither of them had previous retail experience.

“It was a blessing and a curse,” Dwight said. “You don’t have that chip on your shoulder of having worked in the business forever—we were giddy with excitement about opening and brought that enthusiasm to the business.” But there were some challenges at first: making sure they had the right product, proper inventory control and how to negotiate terms.

Still, they learned quickly and last year they opened a second store just six miles away, still on Broadway. Both locations have seen double-digit sales growth in the past year, Dwight said.

In their competitive market they stand out with a strong focus on the cyclocross segment. They’ve fueled growth in participation with a ‘cross team open to all levels of riders, by sponsoring the Boulder Racing Cyclocross Series, hosting free ‘cross clinics and leading group ‘cross rides. Boulder Cycle Sport is generally known as the ‘cross experts in town, Smith said.

“We’re Ridley’s No. 1 dealer in the nation in terms of ‘cross bikes,” he added. “It definitely extends our sales season into December and January.”

Their two main bikes lines are Specialized and Scott, but they also carry bikes from Cervélo, Electra, Seven, Ridley, Redline and Turner. “We’ve created a destination shop for Turner, Seven and Ridley—there aren’t many dealers of these brands in town,” Dwight said.

Ask Doug Emerson how he started University Bicycles and his answer is quick and to the point. “I borrowed $10,000 from my dad; it was me, some used tools and 15 used bikes that started this business.” Today, Emerson’s store, near the University of Colorado campus, is almost an institution in this affluent, outdoor-oriented city of more than 91,000 people.

Emerson opened his first store in March 1985 in a basement on Boulder’s historic Pearl Street. He rented bikes. “I killed it,” he said with a smile. Renting bikes to foreign exchange students put enough money in his pockets to move a short distance up Pearl Street to open a full-service store.

Today U-Bikes, as most locals call it, sells upwards of 3,800 units a year—mostly Specialized—and his rental business is bigger than ever. This year Emerson said he will generate about $150,000 in rentals, which he then sells as used bikes. “It’s a very nice business,” he adds.

But U-Bikes is more than a store; it is—for a lack of a better description—a working museum where staff and customers are surrounded with cycling memorabilia. A 1910 trike sits upstairs in the warehouse and the bike Andy Hampsten rode in 1988 to win the Giro d’Italia hangs inside the store.

Dozens of other historic bikes, signed jerseys (Big Mig, LeMond among others), posters, musette bags, saddles and more tell customers and staff that bikes have a place in history. And how did he get all this stuff? “Little by little.”

Where Emerson’s store tells a story as much as it is a place to service and sell bikes, Bicycle Village—not far from U-Bikes—is part of a five-store operation owned by Vail Resorts. And Chis Arterburn, manager of the Boulder location, has been involved with cycling and retail since his days racing for Texas A&M’s cycling team.

While U-Bikes is a classic downtown operation, Bicycle Village reflects the suburban area that surrounds it. Located in a bustling shopping center, a large boulder sits out front with a Fuji chained on top. It makes a statement. Inside, the store is spacious and well laid out with Trek and Scott as its dominant brands. Pearl Izumi cycling wear spreads over a far wall and dominates a customer’s line of sight when entering the store. Apparel sales are one of the store’s strong points, Arterburn points out.

It’s been a strong summer for sales, he said, despite selling out of most 29ers in June. Asked to describe his customer base, Arterburn sums up why Boulder has almost 20 bicycle stores. “Most already have two or three bikes—road, mountain and some sort of commuter,” he said. That statement reflects the kind of community Boulder is—its citizens ride bikes. “My kids business is through the roof,” he adds. And that bodes well for bicycle retailing in Boulder.

Meanwhile, Vecchio’s Bicicletteria are where the bikes other Boulder shops can’t fix end up. Not only can Vecchio’s chase the threads on a French bottom bracket and service any Campy part back to Grand Sport, owner Peter Chisholm and fellow mechanic Jim Potter actually enjoy fixing bikes and parts instead of pushing new replacements.

“Fixing the stuff other shops don’t want to, or know how to, is a small niche. However since we get all this work in Boulder, it’s a good business for us,” said Chisholm.

Chisholm started the business 11 years ago as a service and repair shop, he said, and to continue in the Campy Pro Shop tradition of fixing rather than replacing parts. And Chisholm and fellow mechanic Jim Potter run the shop from their workstations. Walk in the front door of Vecchio’s and a few steps put you at Chisholm’s work area. “The work areas are the shop. The show floor wraps around them so we can service customers from our work stands,” he said.

Service accounts for 60 percent of business. Custom wheelbuilding is its next strongest segment. Vecchio’s customers asked that it stock new bikes, so Chisholm offers custom-built Gunners, Moots and Waterfords. And there are a handful of Linus city bikes outside on the sidewalk because too many people think the shop is a racing-only service shop. Chisholm hopes they encourage people to walk in and check the shop out.

Just down the street on the corner is one of Full Cycle’s three stores (two are in Boulder, the third is in Fort Collins). The business is one of the longer standing ones—it started in the garage of Tom Morris, the original owner, in 1982. Kaj Gronholm and his wife Karli bought it in 2005.

Gronholm’s first bike shop gig was in Austin in the early 90s while getting his physics degree. After graduating college he moved to Boulder and worked at Full Cycle’s original “Hill” district store from 1995 to 1999, leaving it to pursue a master’s in business administration. Gronholm eventually started a computer software company, then sold it off to Hewlett-Packard shortly after deciding that while he was good at engineering, it wasn’t what he wanted to do long term.

“When I left Full Cycle in 1999, we were doing $1 million in revenue,” Gronholm said. “When I bought it in 2005, it was down to $500,000 in revenue, so I knew there was potential for growth.”

Full Cycle was one of five Giant dealers in Fort Collins and Boulder back in 2005. But shortly after, Giant pulled its brand from those other stores and Gronholm saw it as an opportunity to align his business more closely with Giant and expand further into Boulder and Fort Collins. In 2006 he opened two more stores. Giant accounts for about 80 percent of his sales, but the stores also stock bikes from Kona, Maverick, Felt, Surly, Ibis, Spot and Eddy Merckx. Gronholm said his bread-and-butter customer is the non-racing enthusiast that spends anywhere from $1,000 to $3,500 on a bike.

His sister and brother-in-law as well as his parents also own a stake in what has now become a family owned and run business that sells some 3,000 bikes a year totaling a little over $4 million in revenue.

For video coverage from the first day of the Dealer Tour, see the video posted on home page.

(Story photo: Jake Orness)

Topics associated with this article: BRAIN News

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