For the 20 years that I have lived in Georgia we’ve been fortunate enough to have a really good local bike shop here in Marietta, Georgia: Free Flite Bicycles. The store was first opened in 1978, 13-years before I arrived in Georgia in January of 1991, but it turns out that back-in-the-day Free Flite was where Debbie had taken the kids to buy and repair their BMX bikes.
Given I’ve always been something of a bike geek even before I became a tandem geek, rule #1 of cycling was to find a good local shop, get to know the owner and staff and then do everything you could to patronize them and send other’s their way. After all, if you don’t take care of your local bike shops, they won’t be around to take care of you when you really need their help. Now, that’s not to say that I haven’t been affiliated or patronized other bike shops in the area over the years. I belonged to a few cycling clubs back in the early 90’s that were sponsored by shops closer to where I live and they also earned my loyalty and patronage along the way. But, it was also shared with Free Flite who was and still is my default for where I send folks who truly need a good shop with competent staff and mechanics.
Over the years Free Flite became a 2nd generation business as Dan took the helm. Since then, and where there were opportunities to fill the void when other shops failed in under served areas, Dan expanded Free Flite by going into those under served area and opening up new stores. When I last spoke with Dan — who was single-handedly staffing the Free Flite free-bike-maintenance tent at last year’s Tour de Cure — he mentioned he had over 80 employees between the three stores and had brought in professional managers with bike industry experience to run the day-to-day affairs of the shops. So, Free Flite is has become than just a local bike shop, it’s a thriving small business with far more employees that even the biggest tandem speciality manufacturers. In his spare time, Dan is a major driver behind all kinds of community cycling sponsorships and a big player in the North American Dealers Association.
So, what’s the real story here and just who is the Wal-Mart of Bike Shops? Performance Bike. And, yes, they’ve now opened their fourth store in the Atlanta are and just like the previous three, they’ve simply identified where the good bike shops are and set-up shop next door. Frankly, I’m not exactly sure how much Performance gives back to the local community, but I’m guessing it’s not on par with what your typical local bike shop has done over the years while building good will that endears customers to that shop. Never mind a big local shop like Free Flite that has been a sponsor for just about every cycling event in the Atlanta area for the past ump-de-ump years.
And just what IS Performance bike these days? Probably not what you think. Although originally started as a home-based business back in 1982 by Garry Snook and his wife Sharon, Performance became the dominant player in the mail-order bike business and ended up buying-out its two biggest rivals: Nashbar and Supergo. Somewhere along the way, Performance’s growth and position in the market drew the attention of a private equity firm. Performance was eventually bought out by North Castle Partners for an undisclosed sum back on July 3rd, 2007. You can learn more about Greenwich, Connecticut based New Castle HERE.
So, just how BIG is Performance Bike these days? Try about 80% of the U.S. speciality bike shop market.
So, next time you complain about not having any good mom-and-pop or pro-level quality bike shops in town, ask yourself: when’s the last time you bought something from your local bike shop instead of price shopping and getting it on-line? Yeah, I’m feeling a bit guilty too, as there are a lot of things that I’ve bought on-line instead of from Free Flite. I’m thinking it’s time to change my habits, as I’d hate to see Free Flite diminished in any way by the arrival of Performance Bike, a mere 2 miles away from Free Flite.
After all, just where are all of those Schwinn, Trek & Cannondale branded bikes built these days? Oh, that’s right… somewhere else. Gone are good manufacturing jobs and all of the other associated industries associated with U.S. based bicycle manufacturing. Which is true of the level of skills that you’ll find at the Wal-Mart of bike shops who, while always well-intentioned, aren’t typically “bike geeks” who live and breath bikes.