NY Times

The New York Times

May 1, 2008 by Sarah Tuff

Cycling Success Measured in Frequent-Flier Miles

EARLY last year, Dr. Jason Newland, a 34-year-old pediatric infectious disease physician from Stilwell, Kan., decided he would upgrade his Cannondale road bike to something more aerodynamically suited for triathlons, where riders must fight the wind on their own, without the pack shielding them. But instead of ambling into a local sports shop, Mr. Newland flew nearly 1,400 miles from Kansas City, Mo., to Waitsfield, Vt., where he bought a custom titanium and carbon Serotta Legend Ti from a specialty-fit studio called Fit Werx. The price: about $7,000, not including travel.

“It’s hard to tell people I went all that way to buy a bicycle,” Mr. Newland said. “They say, ‘Why didn’t you find a place in Kansas City?’ I’m kind of a fanatic.”

It is apparently no longer enough for dedicated amateur or recreational cycling enthusiasts to pay $2,000 to $20,000 for custom-fit bikes, a practice that has become more commonplace in the last few years. Now, to fully appreciate the magnificence of their new toys, those athletes must also be able to tell of flight miles logged and far-off bicycle gurus consulted.

“When you travel to do anything,” said Matt Boyer, the marketing director at Wheat Ridge Cyclery near Denver, “there is that cachet that says, ‘What I’m doing is very important because I have to leave town to do it.’ ”

Even with Ron Kiefel, a 1984 Olympic road cycling men’s team time-trial bronze medalist, as its general manager, Mr. Boyer has been surprised at the number of out-of-staters drawn to the fitting mezzanine at the 30,000-square-foot shop. Nor has the recent economic downturn stalled the cyclists and triathletes from outside Colorado. “If you’re a $15,000 customer, the recession isn’t going to stop you,” he said.

Feeding the fire is the fact that high-end bike shops like Fit Werx and Wheat Ridge are courting buyers, not just with travel discounts and refunds but with more personal touches like dinner recommendations.

Fit Werx arranges lodging deals at local inns and will pick up customers at the airport, said Ian Buchanan, a fitter and an owner. Recently, he said, Fit Werx found a London-based cyclist a discount at the Yellow Farmhouse Inn in Waitsfield, took him to a restaurant and, the next day, shared leftover pizza and wine when rain ruled out a ride through the Mad River Valley. “It’s a bit of a concierge service here,” Mr. Buchanan said.

In the six years Fit Werx has been open, Mr. Buchanan said, his out-of-state clientele has grown to more than 50 percent of his business. “For some people, it’s all about the bike and nothing else,” he said. “For others, it’s about the whole experience that surrounds the bike.”

Cyclists and triathletes have long sought ever-more-sophisticated equipment to help catch their competitors — or at least the eye of their competitors. But in the last few years, said Christopher Kautz of PK Cycling in Fairfax, Calif., there has been a new appreciation of proper bike fit, which can not only improve aerodynamics but also increase comfort and reduce the chance of injury.

Bike fitting involves using measurements and computer technology to adjust the seat post, handlebars, crank arms and the stem. The process, which puts the rider through a range of positions on the bike, typically takes about three hours. (When it’s time for tune-ups, long-distance buyers say they trust their local shops for minor repairs.)

Megan Tompkins, the editor of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, said more people than ever are traveling for a custom fit and a boutique bike. “They’re looking for something that’s more comfortable and allows them to ride longer distances,” she said. “For the weekend warriors, it’s also about having that unique bike, the cachet that comes along with having something that’s different.”

The increasing demand for custom-fit bikes parallels the surge in cycling, especially the growing popularity of triathlons. From 2002 to 2007, USA Cycling membership grew to 61,594 from 42,724. From 2003 to 2007, the number of USA Triathlon members more than doubled, to 100,674 from 47,373.

Thanks to gear talk on blogs and articles in magazines like Triathlete and the competitive cycling publication VeloNews, some bike fitters and shops have gained reputations as the route to the best ride. Ron Bigelow, a retired lawyer and recreational cyclist, said he spent months researching fit and interviewing shops before flying from Houston to California to spend “thousands” on a custom-fit Serotta from Mr. Kautz, and one for his wife, Ellis.

“When I talked with Christopher, I was favorably impressed with his approach,” said Mr. Bigelow, who added that he found Mr. Kautz knowledgeable, personable and willing to answer many questions. And, Mr. Bigelow said, he and Mrs. Bigelow had already planned a vacation to San Francisco.

Like Mr. Bigelow, many cycling and triathlon enthusiasts buy a bespoke machine from a distant shop by combining a bike-fit trip with business or pleasure. At Cadence, a cycling and triathlon store with locations in Philadelphia and TriBeCa in Manhattan, Karim Pine, the director of marketing, said that more than 40 percent of his buyers are from out of state or overseas and often make a vacation out of the bike-fitting experience. “They want to scratch all their itches,” he said.

Last month, Doug Jacobs, the chief executive of an auto-finance company who lives in Weston, Fla., flew to Greenwich, Conn., for meetings and squeezed in a bike fit by Paul Levine at Signature Cycles on the counsel of several members in his road cycling club.

Mr. Jacobs, 45, said he began cycling about two years ago and is building up his skills before he enters races. In the meantime, he said, “our group’s pretty fast, and if you’re not ready to ride really hard, you’re going to get dropped.”

So, after a two-and-a-half-hour fitting at Signature Cycles, which is known to pamper well-heeled clients with beer or wine and long discussions about lifestyles, Mr. Jacobs paid about $14,000 to have a Serotta MeiVici with hand-rolled carbon tubes custom built and shipped to him. “I haven’t gotten the bike yet, but I’m very excited,” he said.

Mr. Jacobs admitted that he can seem obsessed about his sport, but that considering the amount of time he puts into cycling, “it’s money well spent.”

The weak dollar is also luring more overseas customers, said Christophe Vandaele, the president of SBR Multisports (for swim, bike, run) in Midtown Manhattan. This spring, Mr. Vandaele began to promote more actively his two-year-old program that promises customers who fly to New York and spend $2,500 or more on a bike a refund of $200 for lodging or air fare.

Mr. Vandaele said many of the international customers are couples: “The wife wants to shop on Fifth Avenue, and the gentleman wants to shop at SBR.”

But how expensive a bike does one really need? Loren Mooney, the executive editor of Bicycling magazine, said that for $2,500 to $3,500, most road cyclists and triathletes can get an exceptional road or triathlon bike without traveling far. T. J. Murphy, the editor of Triathlete magazine, said the low end for a good triathlon bike without a custom fit, for a beginner or an experienced rider, is about $2,000. Ms. Mooney cautions against a keep-up-with-the-Joneses mentality that can spur five-figure splurges. “What you get for $15,000 is something ultralightweight, with pro-level performance,” she said. “But the reality is that very few people have the cycling ability to take advantage of all that.”

Even some devotees admit that what they treasure most about their trophy items may be merely superficial. Rafael Aguilar, a 38-year-old lawyer and triathlete from Miami, conceded that a perk of traveling to Mr. Kautz’s shop in California and spending several thousand dollars was being able to show off the bike at races.

“There’s always a certain amount of bling, as most triathletes are relatively affluent professionals who aren’t hesitant to spend their money on nice equipment,” Mr. Aguilar said. “But a bicycle is a bicycle. At the end of the day, it’s a question of who crosses the finish line first.”

Fit Werx

Fit Werx