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Entrepreneurs Riding Road to Success Thanks to Growing Bike-Based Economy

A B-cycle bicycle.

Connor Wood Cycles' Woody Cruiser.

Jake Trumble and Jeff Brown are the co-owners of CoCo Bikes.

A Cycle Fusion class.

This year bike enthusiasts hailed the opening of the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage linking Pittsburgh and Cumberland, MD.

Pittsburgh boasts biking events like the "keg ride", where cyclists parade across Pittsburgh to a secret destination where the East End Brewing Company's Pedal Pale Ale is tapped.

It's Bike to Work Day in Denver and there's been some serious growth in the local bicycle industry. From Denver to Philadelphia, entrepreneurs are building businesses around bicycles. This craft manufacturing boom goes hand in hand with trends galore -- sustainability, local-ism and alternative transit.
Jake Trumble moved to Denver in 2007 and soon got his first taste of the Denver Cruiser Ride, one of the most popular such events in the country.

"I fell in love with it immediately," he says. "It's a big party."

After restoring a 1929 Schwinn for himself, Trumble started scrounging for vintage bikes dating at  localgarages sales and restoring them, fetching $500 or more when he sold them. "I started riding cruisers with 'for sale' signs on them and selling bikes every week."

In May 2012, he launched CoCo Bikes with Jeff Brown. Now based at 932 Inca St. in the Art District on Santa Fe -- now "an unofficial starting point" for the Denver Cruiser Ride --  CoCo makes custom cruisers in a rainbow of eye-catching colors for $500 to $1,000, as well as offering full-service bike maintenance and repair. "Anything with two wheels, we can work on it," says Trumble.Jake Trumble and Jeff Brown are the co-owners of CoCo Bikes.

Why's Denver so good for bike startups? "The weather here is amazing and a lot of people are economically and wnvironmentally forward-thinking," says Trumble. "It just makes sense -- it's one less car on the road."
 
CoCo Bikes is one of many new, bike-based businesses springing up in Denver and other major U.S. cities that are gradually shifting gears from years of auto-based development. These cyclists-turned-entrepreneurs are building successful businesses that are both banking on and promoting a growing interest in riding, and in the process they are revving their cities' economies.
 
Cities grow more bike-friendly
 
Bike shops are just the tip of the iceberg -- the new bike economy is flourishing. The national startup ecosystem includes tour companies, pedicabs, mountain bike parks, artisan rack welders, bike rental outfits, bike-friendly bars and app developers. 
 
According to Alison Dewey, Program Manager for the League of American Bicyclists' Bicycle-Friendly Business program, these businesses are feeding off the rise in bike commuting and the fact that young people are now driving less. A recently released report from U.S. PIRG shows that car usage is declining after rising for six decades straight. Meanwhile, bike commuting grew 39 percent on average from 2000-2010.   
 
"Many cities are moving in the direction of trying to make streets more bike-friendly," says Dewey, citing the growth of bike lanes, cycle tracks and bike parking in many cities, which has made bike commuting safer and helped propel the cycling surge. "Studies show that people arriving by bike will spend more money at businesses."
 
Bikes and all of the trades that feed off of them are now big business. Cycling generates $6 billion per year in the U.S. alone, according to the National Bike Dealers Association. 
 
New York City has gotten a lot of well-deserved credit for developing over 250 miles of bikes lanes since 2006 and creating a bike share program, which launched on May 27th with 10,000 bikes spread among 600 stations. Now cities such as Philadelphia, Tampa, Detroit, D.C. and Pittsburgh are following its lead by adding more bike infrastructure. 
 
Denver was recently ranked the third most bike-friendly city in the country by Bike Score, after Portland and San Francisco, after being left off of the list last year. The city rode a wave of success through the 1980s and '90s as a national pacesetter. After resting on its laurels for a good part of the last decade, Denver looks like it's got its bicycling mojo back, with the launch of Denver B-cycle and the rise of numerous bike-centric startups in recent years.
 
Rust Belt cities shift gears
 
Even in cities that have historically been known as car culture havens, entrepreneurs are tapping into the growing momentum of youth-fueled bike culture. There's perhaps no city better known as being car-centric than Detroit -- but its reputation is changing.  
 
In addition to a cluster of frame builders, gear makers and urban bike shops, the Motor City now has at least six different bike tours including the annual Tour-de-Troit – which last year attracted over 5,000 riders. Two bike manufacturers, Detroit Bikes and Detroit Bicycle Company, recently set up shop here, and Shinola now makes bikes in Midtown. 
 
Kelli Kavanaugh and Karen Gage are the entrepreneurs behind Wheelhouse, a rental, sales and repair shop that pioneered Detroit's bike scene when it first opened in 2008.
  
"Detroit is absolutely a good place to be a cyclist," says Kavanaugh, who offers tours that expose locals and visitors to Detroit's hidden gems. "It's not very dense, but on a bike you can pretty much get anywhere quickly. The infrastructure we have here was built for more than double the population -- we have wide roads with very little traffic." 
 
Pittsburgh is another city with a growing bike scene. Although it was once known as an old-school town that was inhospitable to cyclists, the city has won the recognition of the League of American Bicyclists with a bronze-level bike-friendly community award. The advocacy group Bike Pittsburgh has also paved the way for more bike infrastructure.

This year, bike enthusiasts hailed the opening of the 150-mile Great Allegheny Passage linmking Pittspurgh and Cumberland, Md. Warmer months are chock full of biking events like the "keg ride" -- cyclists parade across Pittsburgh to a secret destination where the East End Brewing Company's Pedal Pale Ale is tapped -- as well as the Dirty Dozen hill climb.
 
"I've seen a big change in the last four or five years," says Gene Nacey of Cycling Fusion, an indoor cycling studio in Oakmont, a suburb of Pittsburgh. Nacey caters his business to cyclists who want to ride year-round, and has developed an innovative "virtual cycling" approach with video footage. He's also developed a fitness app for cycling instructors. 
 
"It used to be that I could take my own secret shortcuts and never see a soul," adds Seth Gernot of Events Unlimited, an event and trip planner who will lead excursions between Pittsburgh and Washington DC along the new trail. "Now I take my shortcuts and there's two to three people in front of me. There are more and more cyclists on the streets."
 
Uphill climb in a flat marketConnor Wood Cycles' Woody Cruiser.
 
But is the U.S. bike economy actually growing? Bike sales have remained flat for years, and so has overall ridership. Despite impressive gains, less than one million Americans cycle to work. With the market saturated, competition for bike sales is fierce -- in fact, overall, the number of bike shops is actually declining as consolidation occurs. 
 
Although Wheelhouse Detroit has grown each year, Kavanaugh says operating a bike-based business is not for the faint of heart. "Every retailer has to have a niche," she says. "We also have to deal with competition from the Internet and big box stores."
 
Yet despite the razor-thin margins, bike-based businesses are expanding by catering to the commuter market and offering niche products that are cool, authentic and unique. In Denver, for instance, Chris Connor has launched Connor Wood Cycles. Instead of aluminum, titanium or steel, he's making bikes with wood -- ash, to be specific.

"It started out as a joke," laughs Connor of his initial idea to make his wife a wooden bike. "I woke up the next morning and said, 'Maybe that's not such a crazy idea.'"

It follows that Connor started selling his handcrafted wood bikes in 2012. His background in woodworking -- he's made guitars, furniture and boats professionally and as a hobbyist -- helped create a premium bike that melds looks with functionality.

"The ride is incredibly smooth," he says. The wood "sucks up all the bumps and vibrations. Plus you get this fantastic aesthetic."

Connor's cruisers cost $3,500 and up, and he's also launched the DURT (Denver Urban Reclaimed Tree) Bike for more rugged riding. The market likes what it sees, as he's sold more than 20 bikes in thast nine months.
 
The rise of bike commuting has also created opportunities for businesses to generate products geared towards these customers. R.E. Load Bags, a 15-year-old messenger bag company based in Philadelphia, continues to grow as the city's blossoming bike culture fuels interest in its products. Founder Roland Burns says he has diversified beyond messenger bags and is now shipping his bags to more countries than ever. 
 
"People have filled in the gaps around us," he says of the increasingly diverse bike business ecosystem in Philadelphia. "There's now a pretty good range of stuff that's made here -- panniers, rack bags, clothing, cycling gear. All these little companies."
 
Growing the bike-economy pie
 
As the bike-based economy continues to grow in urban areas where bike commuting is becoming more prevalent, there are signs that its economic impact could be even more far-reaching. Bike-sharing systems have the potential to reach a very wide audience. There are currently about 30 U.S. systems; Denver's B-cycle was the first, but D.C.'s Capital Bike Share is now the largest. When Tampa adds its bike share program later this year, it will join this list of cities.
 
"More cities are seeing the value of bike sharing in generating economic activity," says Andrew Blikken of Tampa Bay Bike Share, which recently contracted with Cycle Hop of Miami Beach, Florida to install a 30-rack, 300-bike system in the Tampa area. The system is now in its final stages of development and should open later this year. 
 
Tampa Bay Bike Share will operate on a privately-financed model in which advertising revenues help pay for the cost of the system. The rest will be paid for by riders, who will be charged $5 per trip, $25 per month or $80 a year to access the system. The bikes have GPS tracking systems and can be locked up pretty much anywhere in the city.
 
Like New York City, Tampa is not forking over any taxpayer dollars for the system. Such private investment shows the growing clout of the bike economy, says Blikken. "Once bike sharing begins to generate returns for investors, it will explode," he argues.  
 
Back in Denver, wooden bike-maker Connor points to the city's reputation as an international cycling mecca as a catalyst for local manufacturing. "Somebody told me it's surpassed Portland as a bicycling mecca," he says. "It only makes sense ther are going to be a number of great builders."

Lee Chilcote, a Cleveland-based journalist, serves as an Editorial Director for Issue Media Group and writes about the redevelopment of cities for Fresh Water Cleveland and other publications.

Confluence Denver Managing Editor Eric Peterson also contributed to this story.
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