Shop Profile: Doing Their Part
This Flagstaff bike retailer, like many, provides extra value to the consumer—and thereby the whole industry—by doing the hard work of trail building, community service and more. Are suppliers who sell to online discounters doing their share? “There has to be some accountability for the value we’re providing them,” he says.
Words by Peter Koch
Set beneath the snow-dusted San Francisco Peaks—where skiers schuss down Arizona’s second-highest mountain— Flagstaff is surrounded by trail-rich Ponderosa pine and aspen forests where trail runners and, yes, mountain bik- ers could spend days exploring the nearby backcountry. Grand Canyon is just over an hour north, and the red rock country of Sedona, with its epic slickrock trails, is even less than that south. In other words, it’s the kind of mountain town that attracts outdoorsy types eager to play outside year-round, and makes visitors consider relocation.
All of this makes it fertile ground for a mountain bike shop, something Ken Lane noted as far back as the late 1980s when he opened Absolute Bikes there amid the mountain bike revolution. As the market has matured, competition has moved in and, today, at least four of eight shops in town are fat-tire focused, selling and servicing all of the latest full-suspension rigs in every wheel size imaginable (three of those rent to out-of-towners, too).
It’s a crowded but limited market. Despite Flagstaff being the commercial and cultural capital of northern Arizona, the surrounding country is as lonely as the whistle of a freight train rumbling through the star-pitched high desert night.
But these challenges don’t keep Lane up at night. Instead, he and his staff have driven impressive community building and advocacy efforts—including everything from simple financial support to mobilizing trail building efforts and race support volunteers, to sitting on cycling-related government committees and not-for-profit boards, holding charity rides and sponsoring community events—all in an effort to make more cyclists. The upshot is that you’d be hard-pressed to point to a trail, bike lane or cycling-related event in Flagstaff that hasn’t been touched in some way by Absolute.
Certainly there’s altruism involved. (“We really do love cycling and believe that bikes might be a part of saving the world,” says shop manager Anthony Quintile, “or at least our small part of northern Arizona.”)
But it has also been a smart, cost-effective investment that, over the years, has served to set Absolute apart from its competitors while making the area a better place to ride.
Lane first came out to Flagstaff for different reasons (a lovesick Massachusetts teen back in 1982, he followed his high school girlfriend out to Northern Arizona University), but the local cycling culture soon took hold of him. It was here that he fell in love with bikes, built his first commuter and started riding it everywhere (he has not owned a car for most of his life) and quickly fell into wrenching at Flagstaff Schwinn Shop, where he met NAU student Shawn Gillis.
Mountain biking was on the rise in those days and the million-plus acres of Coconino National Forest was a blank canvas spreading out from town in all directions, ripe for trail building. “We were really into mountain bikes,” Lane says. “They were fairly new, so we had a lot of enthusiasm for it.”
So much enthusiasm, in fact, that he and Gillis opened their own shop, Absolute, in 1989, and made mountain bikes the primary focus. They sold Bridgestones in those early days, which helped set them apart while mountain biking grew in popularity locally.
Not long after, the City of Flagstaff created a Bicycle Advisory Committee to advise the city on matters like bike lanes and infrastructure and bicycle-related laws. Lane was appointed to that first committee, setting the stage for deep involvement in the local cycling community, and he’s been an influential member ever since (even chairing the Committee for the past decade-plus).
Finding the Right Fit
In 1998, Lane and Gillis decided to expand operations by opening a second shop. But rather than setup across town or one town over, they bought and remodeled an old, abandoned feed store 500 miles away, in the small Colorado mountain town of Salida. Gillis moved out to Salida to run the new shop, which was in the middle of downtown, on the banks of the Arkansas River. Though it was an unusual arrangement, the partners thought they could make a go of it.
But the shops were in very different places. The Salida shop, like all new businesses, was proving a money pit, while the Flagstaff location was generating solid profits. And that caused friction between them. “We realized we had different goals and aspirations,” says Lane, and a separation was in order. They settled on a value for the business and, over the next few years, Lane bought Gillis out. “And now we’re friends again,” he laughs.
As a solo operation, Gillis has had great success of his own in Salida, and in 2015 the shop received Interbike’s prestigious Best Mountain Bike Shop award.
By 2001, Lane was itching to have another go at expansion, but this time he settled on a location much closer to home—Sedona. Just 30 miles to the south through Oak Creek Canyon, Sedona is famed for the Martian red rock formations that were the backdrop for so many Hollywood westerns and, among mountain bikers, for hundreds of miles of scenic, technical singletrack. The new, 2,000-square-foot shop focused on mountain bike sales, repairs and—thanks to Sedona’s tourism draw—rentals.
It has proven a good fit for Absolute, and today the Sedona shop acts as a satellite shop to its Flagstaff headquarters, where a general manager, inventory manager and service manager oversee operations for both shops. Still, Flagstaff generates the lion’s share of the business—roughly three times as much as Sedona—and remains its primary focus with a much broader selection of gear for bike commuters, roadies and kids.
“Flagstaff is definitely a cycling town,” says Quintile. “You’ve got a university, you’ve got a lot of professionals who ride their bikes to work and ride bikes on the weekends for recreation. There’s a core cycling community here in Flagstaff, where Sedona is much more about destination cycling.”
Not “Turn And Burn”
“When you buy a bike from us, you aren’t just getting a bunch of bolted-together parts,” declares Absolute’s website. You’re also getting meticulous assembly, according to Quintile. “We do things a lot of shops don’t,” he says. For example, they disassemble, inspect and grease (or Loctite, Ti-prep or carbon paste, as appropriate) every part. They use tension meters when they true wheels and torque wrenches when they tighten bolts on lightweight components to ensure each bike is assembled to manufacturer specifications.
“We pull bottom brackets, and it’s remarkable how many—especially on less-expensive bikes—you find that are cross-threaded or the threads are goobered up on them. So we at least clean them up, if not replace the bottom bracket.”
It’s just one example, but Quintile sees it as symbolic of their com- mitment to quality. Without naming names, he recounts horror sto- ries of shops with a “turn-and-burn” approach to selling, ones that don’t true wheels on new bikes, much less pull critical-but-neglected bottom brackets.
“Bikes are fidgety enough if you do a good job with them, and worse if you don’t,” he says. “That’s how you get customers who don’t ride anymore, ‘because those damn bikes just don’t go!’”
Customers who buy a bike from Absolute also qualify for the BroBuddy Rebate, which is really just a clever rewards program intended to frame—and, in a sense, preempt—the seemingly inevitable discount request. “When you live in a town that’s steeped in bike culture,” Quintile says, “there becomes a whole conversation about ‘What kind of discount can you offer me?’”
It can be frustrating. (“When’s the last time they went into Wal- Mart and asked for a 10-percent discount on $500 of merchandise?” he points out.) Though he understands customers want to know their business is appreciated, problems can arise—in a smaller town, especially—when word gets around what deal was given to whom, and feelings are often hurt.
Now it’s simple: If a customer spends $700 or more in a calendar year (Nov. 2-Nov. 1), he or she qualifies for the BroBuddy Rebate, which is a five-percent store credit on bikes and car racks and 10 percent on anything else, and must be used before May 1. “It gives our customers a little perspective that, yes, we appreciate their business, we appreciate it more consistently, and, for that, we’ll reward them consistently.”
Now when that old sticking point comes up during a sale, the salesperson says, “Yes, we can give you a deal on the bike, and here’s what it looks like.” More often than not, Quintile says, customers drop the point and the salesperson can “start talking again about the bike that makes the most sense for them, and not just focus on how cheap things are.”
Of course, there’s another big, community-driven piece to what customers get when they buy a bike from Absolute. In addition to Lane’s work on the Bicycle Advisory Committee (and, for seven years, as a traffic commissioner), the shop and staff are involved in almost every aspect of creating cycling culture locally.
Beyond financially sponsoring Flagstaff Bike to Work Week, the Arizona Interscholastic Cycling League and trail building days in Coconino National Forest (and often roping suppliers into matching sponsorships), Absolute staff volunteer their time to them.
Quintile also serves on the board of the Flagstaff Biking Organization, a not-for-profit that promotes cycling across northern Arizona. His pet projects there include the relatively new Fort Tuthill Bike Park—a state-of-the-art, seven-acre skills park built with public donations and a Bell Built Grant.
Absolute also organizes annual charity events, including the Taylor House Century Ride, which benefits a local hospitality house, and the Flagstaff Enduro, which in past years (as the Old-Fashioned Mountain Bike Race) has raised nearly $10,000 for a local food bank and soup kitchen.
While all of this is above and beyond what many shops do, it’s also, in a sense, pretty straightforward community involvement. But one totally unique way Absolute Bikes gives back is through its sponsored racing team, Team Absolute Bikes. Instead of supporting only the fastest athletes, team members qualify by paying an annual fee and volunteering time towards trail maintenance and construction, Safe Kids bike rodeos, Bike to Work Week, and local race and ride support.
Additionally, they can earn discounts and store credit through volunteer work. “So rather than just giving them credit for being good riders, it’s more focused on community involvement,” Quintile says. “We give our team members what essentially amounts to money for being involved.” (In 2014, it totaled more than $3,000 for 1,000-plus hours of volunteer time.)
The idea is to incentivize giving back to the community rather than the more selfish aim of training to ride a bike fast. It works for Absolute, and it’s something Quintile would like to see more of the industry do, including manufacturers. He’s not sure it makes complete financial sense to everyone, but it’s been one more way for Absolute to positively brand its business and make new cyclists in the relatively small Flagstaff/Sedona market.
All of this boils down to what Quintile sees as Absolute’s role in adding value to the bikes it sells, something he speaks frequently and passionately about. It’s the kind of value, he points out, that you don’t get when you buy online, driven by the cheapest price.
In that vein, he thinks retailers need to do a better job of expressing all they do for customers, and demanding that suppliers do a better job of maintaining value by protecting brick-and-mortar shops from online discount sellers. “[Manufacturers] can’t just allow their stuff to be sold at a discount online, and then have us explain everything back to the customer for free. There has to be some accountability for the value we’re providing them.”
He admits, though, that partnership is a two-way street. “We need to do the groundwork to build up cycling in our communities in whatever ways we can—through events and through advocacy and through providing infrastructure for cycling. We also need to provide the day-to-day things a bike shop should be able to do, like fix the part, make the bike go, keep the bike running in a timely and effective way so people keep riding.”
For its part, Absolute Bikes has been adding that value to its northern Arizona playground for 29 years.
Flagstaff and Sedona, Arizona
Square Feet: 7,500 (5,500 in Flagstaff, 2,000 in Sedona)
Years In Business: 29 in Flagstaff, 17 in Sedona
Employees: 16 full-time; 13 part-time
Annual Gross Revenue: $2.7M
Bike Brands: Specialized, Pivot, Marin, Scott, Electra, Moots, Devinci, Co-Motion, IZIP, Haibike , FIT, Stranger, We the People
On the Web: absolutebikes.net
Get Social: Facebook | Instagram
This profile was originally published in Outspokin’ in November of 2015. We’ve updated some of the numbers, and checked in with Quintile, who says, “Not too much has changed in three years. We’re keeping after our constant efforts to improve, to address our customers’ needs, and to be involved in our community to make more bicyclists and make Flagstaff a better place to live.”