There are certain corollary indicators of a thriving economy. When business is booming on Wall Street, ritzy steak houses in lower Manhattan enjoy an attendant rise in customers. So it only makes sense that when an outdoor mecca like the Flathead Valley grows like it has in recent years, there’s also an increase in the businesses that supply those pursuits.
Like bicycle shops.
“Five years ago, from people I’ve talked to, this wouldn’t work,” said Craig Prather, sitting on the front porch of his new store, Great Northern Cycles in Whitefish. Prather’s concept: a combination bicycle dealership and coffee bar. His shop will cater to a niche, with high-end road and mountain bikes ranging in price from $1,200 to $10,000 for a custom-fitted carbon-frame racing bike. An espresso will go for considerably less.
“Coffee and cycling – there’s a great synergy between the two,” Prather added. “It’s a European thing, it’s really engrained in the old world culture.”
Prather’s venture opens amid a shifting and volatile climate for such specialty dealerships in the Valley. According to the owners of some of the newest and oldest bicycle shops in the Flathead, selling bicycles is not the easy-going, recreational business it appears to be.
In this small community of bicycle enthusiasts, where many stores open and few succeed, the dealers who have been here for decades zealously guard the secrets of their staying power against upstarts.
Down the road in Kalispell, Margaret LeKander has owned and operated Wheaton’s since 1976, when she bought the business from Bernard Wheaton. She attributes her sustained success to a nimble selling attitude in a market that has evolved rapidly from the 1970s, when she dealt mainly in Schwinn cruisers and road bikes that sold for $400 at the top end. Now, her most expensive bike is a dual-suspension mountain bike with hydraulic brakes that retails for $2,200.
But selling bicycles that cost as much as a decent used car aren’t how most bike shops profit.
“We don’t really make money on the bikes, we make money on the service department and selling accessories,” LeKander said. “The big money is selling lube and tubes and tires and bags.”
LeKander also sells dozens of what she refers to as “bread and butter” bicycles: entry-level mountain bikes that cost about $380.
Ron Brunk, of Glacier Cyclery in Whitefish, agrees that the idea that area bicycle shops make money hand-over-fist from $4,000 bikes is false.
“The perception from other shops is that we sell a lot of high-end,” Brunk, who started his business as a repair shop in 1982, said. “We don’t sell nearly as many of these as people think, and they have the least (profit) margin.”
But Brunk does sell some of those extremely high-end bicycles, which he said, is part of having a shop in an affluent, resort community. The previous week he sold a specialty mountain bike for $4,500. The customer was no racer, but a casual beginner interested in the finest in human-propelled, two-wheel transportation.
“He just wanted to buy what he and we thought was the best bike out there,” Brunk said.
“Seemed like he could afford it,” he added. “At least, his credit card cleared.”
Both LeKander and Brunk were cagey about revealing their strategies on how many bikes they stock and their profit margins, because newer shops would love to know those numbers.
“The biggest danger is tying up too much inventory on bikes,” Brunk said, adding that the challenge is to stock the right balance of bicycles.
LeKander and Brunk can rattle off nearly a dozen bike shops in the Flathead that have opened and gone under over the past 20 years. Brunk speculated many closed, like Starr Bikes in Kalispell, because they stocked too many bikes in the $2,000 range, and not enough to draw in the beginner.
Other shops failed, Brunk said, because their owners were drawn in by a passion for cycling, but may have overlooked the less-exciting aspects of running a small business.
“You can be real enthusiastic and get into business without a plan,” Brunk said.
Specialty bicycle shop owners, like all independent businesses in the Flathead, also feel the pressure of competition from “big box” stores and suffer from a shortage of experienced bicycle mechanics. Every single bike shop owner interviewed has an opening for an experienced mechanic.
“There’s a shortage of bike mechanics,” Brunk said. “That’s for certain.” And there’s more to modern bicycle repair than lubing chains and patching flat tires. Veteran bike “wrenchers” must now be able to bleed disc brake lines, tune hydraulic shock absorbers and possess a working knowledge of American and European parts going back 30 years.
Few understand the ups-and-downs of the Flathead bicycle trade better than Leo Bruce Evans Jr., owner of the recently re-opened Bikology in Kalispell.
The original Bikology opened in 1972, and Evans began working there two years later as a mechanic at the age of 12. After running Bikology himself for 10 years, in 1999 Evans moved his shop to East Idaho Street. A few months later, extensive roadwork got underway, completely isolating his store and making it nearly impossible for customers to find.
The following summer, when bike shops might sell as many as 50 bicycles a week, Evans sold three the entire season.
“It was really awful,” Evans said. “We suffered just an unpredictable fluke of circumstances.”
After six years of closure, Evans re-opened Bikology in April and business, he said, is booming. Like LeKander, Evans sells the most of what he calls “normal people” bikes that range from $300 to $600.
But after nearly 45 years in the business, Evans, like LeKander, Brunk and Prather, all feel the sting of jealousy when they send a customer out for a ride on a sunny day when they’re stuck in the shop.
“It’s a lot more fun to be a cyclist,” Evans said, “than it is to be a bicycle shop owner.”
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