Coasting

High gas prices, a growing green movement and a more  bike-friendly city have helped boost business at local bike shops

Brian Rose’s business has got to have one of the worst storefronts in the city.

It isn’t even a storefront, really. It’s a door in an alley with a small, faded piece of computer paper taped to it that says “Shockspital.”

A step through the doorway, even a walk down a flight of stairs, won’t immediately get visitors to the shop, but Rose doesn’t fuss over such details.

His business is bikes. And these days, business is booming. 

“I’m in a basement, and I’ve got no sign and no ads and I’m swamped,” said the self-proclaimed shock doctor, who specializes in mountain bike suspension and hydraulic brake repair in a tiny space near 34th Street & Lyndale Avenue.  

In sharp contrast to some retailers struggling to stay alive in the face of a stumbling economy, bike businesses are coasting. Several in Southwest have reported banner years, thanks in part to soaring gas prices, a growing green movement and improvements to Minneapolis’ bike infrastructure, such as the completion of the Midtown Greenway and development of designated bike routes on city streets.

 “Everybody that rides is riding more, and a whole slew of people who never got on their bikes the past 25 years are riding now,” said Jamie McDonald, owner of Sunrise Cyclery at Lake Street & Bryant Avenue. “They’re getting their bikes out of the basement or the garage or the attic and bringing them down. Our repair business is nutso.” 

Sunrise Cyclery, which focuses on used bike sales and repairs, has sold more this year than during all of 2007, McDonald said. He attributed the boost to Minneapolis’ bike-friendly community, improved bikeways and the tipping point: fuel costs.  

“Every time that sucker hits $4 a gallon, I pop a bottle of Dom (Perignon),” he joked.

But as the cost of fuel has gone up, so has the cost of bikes and parts, particularly tires, tubes and just about anything made of plastic, said Joel Erickson, manager of the Alternative Bike and Board Shop (better known as The Alt) at 24th Street & Hennepin Avenue. Nonetheless, The Alt is having the best year of its 35-year history, Erickson said.

He said customers seem to be able to justify spending money to keep up their bikes these days.

“It’s something that is kind of a necessity if you’re using it as your mode of transportation,” Erickson said. “Everybody’s going to have to come to terms that everything is going up in price, not just bikes.”

The Alt has added additional sales staff to tend to its record number of customers. Custom bike builds have been especially popular this year, Erickson said.

“People are just making a bicycle what they need it to be because they have to ride it every day, as opposed to buying it off the shelf,” Erickson said.

Unlike other area bike shops, repairs at The Alt have been surprisingly flat, he said. The shop still guarantees next-day pickup.

Linden Hills resident Mark Hastie recently stopped by The Alt for a tune up, a new wheel, new tires and handle grips for his 8-year-old bike.

“I want to use it more. That’s the bottom line,” he said.

Hastie was off to Target on his refreshed bike, a trip he said he probably would have made in his car when gas was more affordable. 

At several other bike shops, including any of Penn Cycle’s stores, customers can expect to wait a week for a tune-up. Pat Sorensen, president of the company, said his stores are usually giving 48-hour service by the end of summer. Not this year.

“Normally by August things are starting to slow down, (employees) are starting to go on vacations and things like that, but we’re trying to keep people on and stay ahead of the curve,” he said.  

Like its competitors, Penn Cycle has raised prices because of the increased cost of products and freight. Sorensen said he’s expecting a 15–18 percent increase in the cost of rubber next year.

But costs haven’t held back customers, particularly those ditching their cars.

“We’re seeing a much bigger awareness of people using the bike as an alternative,” he said. 

Minneapolis cyclist Scott Puhl, a customer of Rose’s Shockspital, is one of those. He said he’s been trying to put more miles on his bike each month than on his car, regularly pedaling a 26-mile round trip to work in Eden Prairie. The car is reserved for out-of-state trips, he said, at least when the weather is warm.

As his main mode of transportation for much of the year, Puhl said he’s willing to invest in his bike’s maintenance just as he would with his car. He’s intent on keeping his bike on the streets, where he’s noticed an uptick in fellow riders. The popularity of biking feeds its growth, he said. 

“The more people see other people doing it, the more they realize they can do it themselves,” he said.

And as long as cyclists need shocks, Rose will be in business. The former Pittsburg bike messenger moved to Minneapolis to work for Quality Bicycle Products before starting Shockspital (think shock + hospital) two years ago.

A website and references were all he needed to build his basement-based venture. Today, he’s got customers lining up from across the globe.

The shock doctor has done about three times the business he did last year. But for all the success, no major expansion plans are in the works. Not yet, anyway.

“My main goal is to continue to do what I’m doing,” Rose said. “And not become a real bike shop.”