Bike market at ‘tipping point’

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Bicycle shops have been a part of Colorado Springs’ business scene for more than a century, and they’re as successful as ever amid an active biking culture.

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.

Advice needed

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.”

Helpful ingredients

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.”

Network required

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.”

9 Responses to Bike market at ‘tipping point’

  1. With folks like Al Brody and Allen Beuchamp literally championing bicycle advocacy for our city, I have personnaly been willing to spend 30 minutes to commute from Austin Bluffs and Academy to Downtown. And I have no intention of stopping. The first ride is the hardest you will ever ride because google maps can only do so much and the routes, like our streets, aren’t straight forward. If I manage to find employment sometime soon, I will upgrade my bicycle and further the cause of a bike-friendly COS.

    Ken Brickman
    November 30, 2012 at 11:42 am

  2. I moved to the Springs last year because I had to drive 30 minutes in Detroit to ride my bike safely. Colorado Springs is much safer for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that drivers tend to be much more courteous of bike commuters. In Michigan, drivers would blare their horns, squeeze me off the road and roll down their windows to swear at me when I dared to ride on an actual road.

    That said, I’ve been bike commuting for over a year and I have the following recommendations:
    1) Most bike paths in the city are counterproductive. When a bike path crosses a road, you either have to stop at a light, or worse, wait for some driver to realize you want to cross and decide to stop for you, if there is no stoplight.
    2) I have yet to find a demand light that detects bikes. Those lights that I know to be demand lights, I just blow, unless there are cars already waiting. I’ve heard that they rarely even detect motorcycles.
    3) Don’t build a path next to a road and think that cyclists will use it. I’ve learned that those are the MOST DANGEROUS for cyclists – drivers never think to look for fast-moving cyclists along those paths and it’s safer to ride on the road. It’s better to have a wide shoulder and a sidewalk.
    4) Speaking of shoulders, it would help if those got swept regularly. Most of the roads I ride on get swept once or twice a year, and it seems that the week after they’re swept, some moron throws glass bottles everywhere to make sure they’re hazardous for cycles. In the winter, all the sand gets pushed to the side and makes turns hazardous as well.
    5) While most drivers are courteous, there are still some morons out there, and one serious close call is going to deter people from riding. Is it really going to make a difference in your life if you spend the extra two seconds to wait for a bike to clear an intersection instead of playing chicken?
    6) Overall, though, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed cycling here.

    Mark Schaefer
    November 30, 2012 at 1:57 pm

  3. Excellent article John!

    We have an awesome network of trails from casual to extreme all over our town that are fantastic. Coming from the Midwest (and Vegas prior), it’s a pleasant change of scenery. Though what it could be is yet to come with many proposed connecting paths we’ll have loops anyone can attempt safely.

    This is a great town for cycling. Only reason I (and many others) stay here is because of our vast array of trails from commuter to world class off road trails….all just a few minutes from downtown.

    I’ve said it for years, this town could/should be the hub of all things cycling. We have the following to note outside our fanastic local bike shops:

    -The Velodrome on Union is one of a handful of such facilities in the country. And with Tom Vinson’s vision, you’ll see packed house community events there on a weekly basis by summer.

    -Rockshox is located in town, many know this. But what few know is it’s part of a 1/2 billion dollar a year company with multiple other brands called SRAM.

    -Carmichael Training Systems HQ. Many world class athletes train out of there and Chris Carmichael is a former Tour de France rider, former Olympian, and a fantastic local community advocate.

    -SRM Powermeters has it’s North American HQ here (www.SRM.de) SRM is a German company that revolutionized the sport…supplying Greg Lemond in the early days to the top 10 finishers of the tour each year.

    -Colorado Cyclist is one of the largest bicycle mail-order catalogs in the country. Based here.

    -We’re home to 3 custom frame builders (Tessier Bikes, Ground Up Designs, and Crolley Custom)

    -Numerous current and former wold class professional athletes live here.

    -Almost all of the early suspension design development that got us to where we are today was done here, and Rock Shox is still the industry leader…..all design done in Colorado Springs.

    I’ve also personally done my own things:

    Front Range Cyclist-We cover cycling news for all of the Front Range out of Colorado Springs.

    Colorado Springs Cruisers-A weekly and special events cruiser ride.

    Cycling Sundays-Gather with 30-40 other cyclist to watch the Spring Classics at Mccabes.

    We hav a lot we can do yet. We do need to teach local businesses how to cash in on catering to cyclists. I’ve helped a few places do so, be happy to help. We should strive to get more bicycle companies to move here, get more races going on here, and create more cycling events period that anyone can do.

    ps Dan Grunig is pretty awesome….he’s from Iowa. His first mountain bike race was one the shop I helped manage in college put on. Small world the world of bikes is, we need to take advantage of that!

    Jon Severson
    November 30, 2012 at 3:12 pm

  4. Have to disagree with Councilor Leigh, Colorado Springs is not that Spread out, almost the whole of the Springs is within an 8 mile radius from downtown, with most residents well inside that distance. A five mile commute is not a difficult distance to make even for a novice commuter. We also have some of the best weather in the US and one of the fittest populations, so a thriving bike commuting community is not unlikely.
    Portland which is mentioned in the article has a greater spread (10-12 miles), and far far worse weather for commuting but are still able to be a center for bikes in everyday transport. I have already seen an increase in bike commuting over the last 2 years due to increased lanes and bike paths.
    With our healthy active population, great weather and fantastic work undertaken by the city and parks we can make bikes not only a greater part of our culture but also a draw for those considering visiting.

    Doug Bursnall
    November 30, 2012 at 3:15 pm

  5. I’ve lived in Colorado Springs for 13 years now and cycled here for the past 12. When I grew up back in the South there were no trails or bike lanes (although lots of rednecks in F-150s to blow the horn and cuss at you) so I’ve been riding on the road since I was a kid and for the most part still prefer that. I’m not a huge fan of multi-use paths because they can be congested with walkers and dogs and moms pushing baby-strollers but I realize a lot of cyclists feel safer there. The hills and the altitude were the things that got me when I first moved here and I suspect are still an impediment to many would be commuters. Even more important though are some of the places that force riders out into the road. I’ve had a number of coworkers tell me that they would try bike commuting but they don’t feel there is a safe route from their home to the office. A good, fully connected network of paths and trails will go a long way to addressing that. Even so there are only a few roads that I don’t feel comfortable riding on. Most of Filmore and 30th alongside Garden of the Gods come to mind. I also don’t think Colorado Spings is too big or spread out for commuting. In fact it seems to be a fairly compact city but then I’ve lived in New Orleans and Houston so maybe it’s relative.

    Derrick Bourgeois
    November 30, 2012 at 4:52 pm

  6. Doug-Agreed. And when you consider MPLS/St Paul (in my home state of Minnesota) see’s some of teh coldest temps in the country…..it’s also one of the top 3 cities for cycling.

    Jon Severson
    November 30, 2012 at 5:00 pm

  7. Colorado Springs already has many factors which could make us the nations center for cycling. The diversity and ease of access to trails is hard to match anywere. We have America’s Mountain which will soon end the prohibition of unescorted bicycles on the Pikes Peak Highway. There are millions of cyclists who dream about the most challenging climb and we have it adjacent to our city. We will be added to the Adventure Cycling National Bicycle Route System. Eventually the Front Range Trail will connect our city with all others along the front frange. We have the Wonder Road above the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, 7 Falls, and the Cliff Dwellings, all great place to bike to. Eventually the owners of these tourist destinations will comprehend the revenue that could be generated by ending their anti-bike policies. The Trails and Open Space Coalition is working on a bicycle economic impact study. Bikes will not outdo cars anytime soon but cycliststs do drive a portion of our economy which should be understood, respected, and appreciated. I don’t think there is a tipping point, I believe the steady climb which bikes have been on for years will continue. As more young folks choose urban over suburban lifestyles, the rate of bicycles in our culture will accelerate.

    Al Brody
    November 30, 2012 at 6:11 pm

  8. Totally disagree with Tim Leigh. As a bike commuter, I rarely go more than 6-8 miles somewhere. Loving the energy building in our city for bike commuters. I’ve been at it for 7 months and its the best decision I’ve ever made. It’s so amazing to end work by jumping on a bike. And with 300 days of sun, its a perfect place to do it. Have only had two rides in pouring rain. The rest in beautiful sun.

    Sam
    November 30, 2012 at 10:46 pm

  9. And yet, we have too few and underfunded cycling events.

    Not one of the companies noted above contributes financially to local events.

    Andy Bohlmann
    December 4, 2012 at 3:38 pm