Portland Bike Shops Offer a Wheel Local Deal
It’s no accident that Portland has been incredibly successful in making bike ridership a big part of the Northwest city’s daily life. Increasing and sustaining the use of bicycles is written into the city’s long-range development plan. And Portland bike shops help locals get around on two wheels, while also serving as community hubs.
Portland’s commitment to all sorts of biking, both commuter and casual, has not gone unnoticed. It’s been Bicycling magazine’s #1 bike-friendly city for many years running. And Portland was recently named a “platinum” bicycle-friendly community by the League of American Bicyclists—its highest rating.
How Portland gets biking right
“It’s one of the reasons I moved to Portland,” says Sky Boyer, owner and operator of Portland’s Velo Cult, a unique bike shop, craft beer bar, coffee shop, and performance space. “A lot of cities get [bike plans] wrong. It’s about integrating commuters into the city. [Instead] some cities think that a bike lane next to a four-lane street with a 45-mph speed limit is good. And they throw a lot of money at that sort of infrastructure.
“I prefer Portland’s method, which is to integrate the bikes into an existing city. For example, if a neighborhood has 100 streets going north/south do cars need all of them? No, they don’t. Take a few and call them bike boulevards. That’s why so many people ride here. It’s safe, feels safe, and all of your schools, stores, jobs are along these routes, rather than shooing bikes on some path somewhere that doesn’t link together any of your normal stops. Portland found a way to integrate bikes into people’s daily routines and therefore it works really, really well.”
In fact, over seven percent of Portland commuters get where they’re going by bike, the highest percentage of bike commuters among large American cities. That translates into over 17,000 workers in Portland choosing to bicycle. As that number keeps growing, so do the number of Portland bike shops.
Just this year Portland introduced a bike-share program—BIKETOWN—an innovative mode of transportation allowing users to make trips using publicly available bikes. A fleet of specially designed bikes are locked into a network of stations throughout the service area. The bikes can be unlocked from one station and returned to any other station in the system, making BIKETOWN ideal for short, one-way trips.
The accidental bike shop
If you run a bike shop, it helps to be in a city with a plan for bike and bikers. Northeast Portland’s Velo Cult is a multifaceted business catering to all cycling disciplines, out of a 5,000 square-foot former antique mall space in the middle of the fun and funky Hollywood District.
Boyer still remembers his first bike: “A 1980 Mongoose BMX. At that time they were really nice bikes.” For most of his younger years, he was a track, road, and mountain bike racer. Boyer started working in San Diego bike shops when he was 15. “It was the job to have if you were traveling every weekend to races,” the 41-year-old reminisces. “[The shop was] also my sponsor, so I was able to be gone a lot of time to race.”
But he didn’t like any of the shops he worked for, and Boyer never intended to become a bike shop owner himself. “I ended up restoring bikes [through an online business] when I lived in San Diego. I did pretty well at that, and after five years, I got a workshop.”
According to Boyer, that workshop “accidentally” became a bike shop. The accidental shop got really busy and quickly developed a worldwide following. Within six months he had shut down his online business, had four employees and substantial worldwide popularity.
“And that’s when, in my mind, Velo Cult really happened.”
Unique among Portland bike shops
Once he’d opened shop, Boyer found himself faced with all sorts of questions. “At the time of the build-out of a second Velo Cult store [in San Diego], I had real questions that kept coming to mind,” says Boyer. “First, What am I doing? I don’t like bike shops. Second, was, Why did everyone like my workshop so much?”
There was one answer to both questions: “Just do things for myself. Honestly, when it came to the build out, I never thought about anyone else but myself and never considered what was, or is, ‘normal.’
“I would stand in the door and say: What kind of experience would I want if I were the customer? What product would I want to see? What kind of employees would I want to talk to? I had the opportunity to build that mythical dream shop I always wanted to work at. It’s a somewhat selfish business model, but it’s what works for us.
“From day one, there has been no start-up capital, no banks, and no loans. We did six years in San Diego, and now four in Portland, but I say we are still only 10-percent done. Without startup capital we have to go very, very slow in how we grow. There are still lots of things to do with Velo Cult, and we are still fighting our way to our potential. Our Portland store is eight times larger [than San Diego’s], so we still have quite a ways to go to fill out this place.”
Velo Cult is different from most bike shops in other ways, too.
Not only is it a performance venue/art space that stays open at least until 10 PM Tuesday through Sunday, it’s also the first craft-only beer bar in a fully-functioning bike shop in the world. Craft beers are not a gimmick for Velo Cult, “rather a respected craft beer bar specializing in the rarest of the rare craft beers.” The shop also has a pour-over coffee counter, a projection screen with surround sound, and a stage made out of an old castle drawbridge, accompanied by a PA system and sound board. (The Hollywood Bluegrass Band is playing Tuesday, December 27 and twice in January 2017.) The shop also screen prints its own brand of clothing, and the basement is home to a cool mid-century lounge for hanging out.
“We have lots of customers that only come for beer or the venue and don’t even ride bikes,” said Boyer. “That was my plan. Again, I don’t ever look to what is ‘normal.’ I just push forward with all my weird and odd ideas and see if they take or not.”
And in Portland it seems like his ideas have taken hold.
In Portland, biking, beer and coffee are “just the normal way of life,” said Boyer. “I’m not sure how I was the first to put all of them in one building, but it seems to be a natural fit.”
Still, Boyer doesn’t encourage budding entrepreneurs to start by opening a bike shop, unless it’s really a labor of love.
“Absolutely not. Bad margins, [the product] takes way too much floor space, and every customer requires a lot of attention. You need a substantial payroll to make it all work. And by make it work, I mean pay the bills. It’s not a business to be in if you want to make money or have an easy life. Some people can make it work with lots of start-up capital but those people are pretty rare.”
If you do end up going into the biking biz, Boyer believes the most important thing is “good employees who are smart but kind.” Virtually everyone, he says, “walk into shops expecting to be talked down to, or are at least a little nervous about the experience. A good shop can wipe those worries away quickly and make the shopping experience pleasurable.”
Making the most of a biking culture
Boyer encourages novice bike commuters to take it easy, too. “Number one thing is to have a bike that is very capable,” said Boyer. “Get a bike that can take rain, carry stuff, and be very utilitarian.” He suggests an 80’s mountain bike converted for commuting. After that, he says to take things in stages. “Map two miles around your house and call that a ‘no car zone.’ With that, you’ll start to get comfortable with bikes, and you will start to get the right clothes and gear and, really, the lifestyle.
“You can progress from there. Too many people bite off too much, like [immediately] trying to ride to work. Work takes a lot, you need to carry extra clothes, food, prepare for bad weather, show up not sweaty, find a safe route, get the right kind of bike, and so on. I find that leap to be too much for people.”
And Boyer believes we should support those local shops that are doing things their own way too.
“There’s way more rad shops in Portland than anywhere else I have been,” said Boyer. “The culture for that is just ripe. [Velo Cult] tends to be a tourist draw and people always ask me for [recommendations about other shops]. I tend to point them to the shops that are doing more unique things that a tourist likely won’t have in their home town. Take Clever Cycles for example—totally unique business model that emphasizes European city bikes and family cycling. There’s a lot of highly specialized shops here doing incredibly unique things. The city is full of them.”
All images courtesy of Velo Cult.