A blown-up 1905 photograph of storefronts along Tejon Street, on display in the lobby of the DeGraff building, still is relevant today.
In the space now occupied by Old Chicago restaurant, a bike shop offered sales and service to Colorado Springs cyclists — 107 years ago.
Tejon’s retail mix has changed since then. Gone are the independently owned grocery stores, sporting goods stores and department stores, driven out of business (or downtown) by competitors with scale, financial heft and more efficient systems of manufacture and distribution.
But walk a few blocks south and you’ll find Old Town Bike Shop, an independently owned business that has been operating since 1976.
Old Town is scarcely the last of the Mohicans. A dozen or more substantial independent bike shops dot the region, amiable competitors who have managed to out-market, out-maneuver and out-sell the big-box stores that dominate most retail categories.
Among American retailers, bike shops are unique. Although chain stores such as Costco, REI and Wal-Mart sell more bicycles than independent retailers, small locally owned stores have a larger market share when measured by sales dollars.
That may be because bikes haven’t changed all that much since 1905. A 2012 automobile is far easier to drive than its 1905 ancestor, but a fast road bike still is a costly, complex, demanding piece of machinery that can be either a joy to ride or a literal pain in the butt.
“Our sweet spot are the bikes that cost from $400 to $1,200,” says Nic Ponsor of Criterium Bicycles. “You need to have good professional advice when you spend that kind of money, and the bike has to fit you and be professionally assembled. A big-box store that’s paying some clueless sales person less than $10 an hour can’t do that.”
High-end manufacturers are also supportive.
“Specialized and Cannondale don’t sell through their websites,” Ponsor says, “and they understand the value of their dealer networks. They know that we support and enhance their brands.”
After several flat-to-down years, the city’s higher-end bicycle retailers have enjoyed substantial sales increases in 2012.
“I’d say that we’re definitely on an upward trend,” says Ed Johnson of the Colorado Springs Bike Shop, a long-established Westside store. “There were two or three difficult years, but I’m cautiously optimistic now.”
Ponsor is even more positive.
“We’re having one of our best years,” he says. “It’s been as good as any we’ve had.”
Asked whether the Lance Armstrong doping scandal has had any local impact, Ponsor is dismissive.
“I don’t think that anyone is going to throw away their new road bike because Armstrong doped,” he says.
Criterium owner Kay Caunt suggests that bike sales may have benefited from an unlikely source — the Waldo Canyon fire.
“It was a tragedy for the hundreds of families who lost their homes,” she says, “but it created sales for some businesses. People had to replace everything — and that included bikes.”
Bicycle-friendly policies at both local and state levels also may have helped local bike sales.
In 1988, the city enacted a $4 bicycle excise tax to provide funding for city bikeway improvements. During the past 24 years, the tax has yielded approximately $100,000 annually, which city employees have used to leverage state and federal funding for a variety of projects.
A detailed map of the city’s many bike trails and routes, available for $7.95 at every bike shop in town, was funded by the bike tax and a federal transportation enhancement grant. According to the city’s website, “any proceeds the City receives from the sale of the map is returned to the Bicycle Excise Tax fund for future bicycle map updates and other bicycle-related improvements per the terms of the original funding sources used to develop the map.”
The excise tax’s cumulative impact is significant, but funding from the Trails and Open Space tax and Great Outdoors Colorado has enabled Colorado Springs to build an extensive network of bike-friendly multiuse trails. Recent state legislation, including a law requiring drivers to give cyclists at least three feet of space when passing, has made road biking somewhat safer. According the League of American Bicyclists, “Practically all of Colorado’s state traffic laws related to bicycling are national models.”
The LAB rates Colorado as the fifth most-bike-friendly state in the nation, and gives Colorado Springs a silver bike-friendly rating. That’s pretty good, considering that only three cities nationally are ranked platinum and 16 gold.
Dan Grunig, the executive director of Bicycle Colorado, a cyclist advocacy group, isn’t surprised that the cycling business in Colorado Springs is thriving.
“You’ve gotten incredible publicity in the last two years with the USA Pro Challenge,” he says.
Told that popular Colorado Springs cycling routes such as the Garden of the Gods are relatively uncrowded, Grunig laughs.
“You’d better get ready to share the road,” he says, “because more people are coming and they’re bringing their bikes.”
For the local biking industry to explode, Grunig explains, you need a network that completely supports bike commuters and recreational cyclists.
“It’s not enough to have some trails and some bike lanes,” he says. “You have to have a connected network that will convince people that they can safely and comfortably get to work and back, or take a long recreational ride. You need destination support — businesses that offer a place to change and shower and a place for your bike, parks with restrooms for weekend riders.”
A study conducted years ago by platinum-ranked Portland, Ore., showed that 7 percent of Portlanders preferred to commute by bike, 33 percent would never commute by bike, and 60 percent were undecided.
“I hate to use the phrase ‘tipping point,’” says Grundig, “but that’s where you are now. Boulder and Portland succeeded in creating networks, and (cycling use) increased dramatically. In Portland, they even have bike-assembly stations in the airport. Once the network is there, the 60 percent will think more seriously about commuting.”
In September, the Colorado Springs city government announced that it would create a new bike master plan, funding it with $70,000 from the bike excise tax and a $15,000 grant from Bicycle Friendly Communities.
Will a new plan help Colorado Springs become more bike-commuter friendly? City Councilor Tim Leigh, an ardent cyclist, has his doubts.
“I don’t think we’ll ever be a center for bike commuting,” he says. “Our geography is too wide; we’re too spread out. We’re a great place for recreational riding because of that, but not for commuting. Maybe in 10 years you’ll be able to ride from your loft to downtown — but not now.”