Bike shop shifts, finds right path

Jan 22, 2016, 3:00 PST

By Adam Worcester
Contributing Writer

Dan Towle's strategy for R+E Cycles is simple: Provide great service and wait for satisfied customers to spread the word.

"It seems kind of old school, I guess," Towle said, "but we pride ourselves on never having someone on one of our bikes who is unhappy."

Puget Sound Business Journal 2016 Photos BUSINESS JOURNAL PHOTOS | ANTHONY BOLANTE

He will buy back one of his custom bicycles (average cost: $3,000) if the crew at his Seattle store cannot satisfy the purchaser. That doesn't happen often. The shop is known in the bicycling community as one of the trusted go-to makers of custom cycles and parts. It delivers old-school know-how with innovative, modern manufacturing techniques that keep the upper echelon of cyclists coming back.

Towle has owned R+E Cycles, aka Rodriguez Bikes, for 23 years, about seven years longer than founder Angel Rodriguez. He has worked at the venerable Ravenna shop since 1987, with the exception of a two-year hiatus to protest a brief sale to owners "outside the bike world," he said.

When he returned, it was to buy the store, which he immediately set out to transform. Instead of selling premade bicycles, R+E began to build custom bikes. Today, it sells only tailor-made Rodriguez and Erickson brands, with the exception of a few KHS-brand bikes a year, sold mostly to college kids.

A team of two designers, two builders, a painter, three repair persons and a salesperson oversee production and delivery of 300 to 400 custom bikes a year, a little more than half for online buyers.

"We run a pretty efficient ship," Towle said, which enables R+E to set prices as much as 30 percent lower than other custom builders.

It also makes bicycle parts, including two patented products - a chain-tension adjustor and a brake - which sell better per unit than the cycles.

Annual sales have grown from about $1 million in 2003, when Towle fully committed to the custom-design model, to about $1.5 million today.

"We go slow and steady," said Towle.

Bicycle sales are on the upswing nationwide. In 2014, retail sales of bikes, related parts and accessories through all channels of distribution were $6.1 billion, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association. This is an increase from $5.8 billion the previous year.

Specialty bicycle retailers, including R+E, comprised 14 percent of unit sales but 50 percent of the dollars. The crew's nimbleness gives R+E its competitive edge. Instead of trying to anticipate customers' desires, R+E reacts to them. Touring bikes - large, heavy duty commuting cycles - are big now. Ten years ago, it was racing bikes.

"We're not trend chasers," said Scott Rock, a designer and R+E repair manager. "We're building bikes we want people to have for a long, long time."

It takes five to eight weeks to design, build and deliver a custom-made bicycle. The key is to discern what the customer needs.

A few years ago, for instance, triathlon bikes were popular. Rock would ask potential buyers if they raced regularly in triathlons or were training for a singular event.

"Just asking that one question goes toward getting it down to the kind of bike they should have," said Rock. "That's the kind of bike that gets ridden."

Because of the intimacy developed through the custom building process, satisfied riders often become hooked for generations, coming back to the store for parts, maintenance, and eventually new bikes for kids and grandkids.

"We're the only shop that does what we do the way we do it," Towle said. "We do everything from start to finish. That's how a bike shop's supposed to be."

R+E Cycles AKA: Rodriguez Bikes

Headquarters: Seattle

Owner: Dan Towle

Founded: 1973


Price range:$1,000-$9,500

Annual sales:$1.5 million

Read the article on Puget Sound Business Journal's site here.