Business

The 21st century bike boom is here. Recyclistas has their pedal to the metal

People are cycling like it's the 1970s, and the local shop is eager to meet the demand—even if the bikes themselves sometimes come from the 1970s

By Josh Kozelj
April 21, 2021
Business

The 21st century bike boom is here. Recyclistas has their pedal to the metal

People are cycling like it's the 1970s, and the local shop is eager to meet the demand—even if the bikes themselves sometimes come from the 1970s

By Josh Kozelj
Apr 21, 2021
Josh Kozelj
Business

The 21st century bike boom is here. Recyclistas has their pedal to the metal

People are cycling like it's the 1970s, and the local shop is eager to meet the demand—even if the bikes themselves sometimes come from the 1970s

By Josh Kozelj
April 21, 2021
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The 21st century bike boom is here. Recyclistas has their pedal to the metal
Josh Kozelj

Capital Daily business coverage is supported by Tiny but the stories and journalism are produced independently by Capital Daily. Per our policy, Tiny had no editorial input into this story.

The bike shop didn’t open until noon, but Ryan Harris arrived two hours early. He sat outside, sweltering in the dry southern Arizona heat, until the store opened. 

It was the early 2000s, outside an old warehouse that used to be a meat locker, and Harris had just arrived in Tucson to visit a friend who was working inside at the time. 

Originally, Harris started biking because he couldn’t afford a car. Growing up in Winnipeg, he worked as a bike courier in the late 1990s, and appreciated how he could go far without needing much money.

Back then, Harris didn’t fret about tire pressure, gear shifts, chain grease, or any other fine detail. He rode bikes without knowing much about them, until he visited the bike shop, Bicycle Inter Community Art and Salvage (BICAS), on that warm Arizona day two decades ago.

When the clock finally struck 12, Harris entered the warehouse. 

There were piles of handle bars, an area for a classroom, and all kinds of different bike parts littering every nook and cranny of the basement. He observed that BICAS not only repaired bicycles, but also provided teaching opportunities and created art from recycled materials.

Within five minutes knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. 

Filling a gap in Victoria’s popular biking community

When Harris moved to Victoria after visiting Tucson, he assumed there was a shop like BICAS—a hub that repaired bikes with both purchased and donated parts, and provided mechanical training—already in town. 

With a plethora of bike lanes, trails that extend to Swartz Bay and Sooke, and favourable weather year-round, Victoria has all the components of a popular biking destination. In fact, two years ago, Victoria edged out Vancouver for the top spot in a report led by a US-based real estate firm, Redfin, which graded cities on their access to bike lanes, road connectivity, and hilliness to come up with the most bike-friendly cities in Canada. 

However, noticing there weren’t any community bicycle education centres, he decided to open one himself. In 2003, alongside a pair of partners, Marcella Obdrzalek and a friend, Milenkovitch, he started a bike shop—Recyclistas—with the goal of reassembling some of BICAS’s values north of the border. 

Located on the intersection of the Galloping Goose and Lochside trails, nestled between Uptown shopping mall and the Trans-Canada Highway, Recyclistas has emerged as a convenient pit stop for a quick fix and learning space for aspiring cyclists. Recyclistas employs eight people year-round, and brings on more staff during the summer season.

On a sunny April day earlier this month, Harris told Capital Daily he’s hired more staff than he normally would this time of year—13 people—and that day saw customer traffic comparable to that of a day in mid-July. 

A 2016 Census found that Victorians walked or cycled to work at a higher rate than any other city in the country—with 6.6 per cent of the 16.9 per cent of workers who actively commuted to work choosing to cycle. 

Prior to the pandemic, a 2015 report, “Bikenomics,” led by the Capital Region District found that bike stores contributed $4.5 million in direct economic impact in the Greater Victoria region. Two years ago, local businesses alongside bike lanes and infrastructure also saw positive economic impacts as a result of cyclists.

More recently, the demand for cycling is being met by Victoria council members, who in 2016 approved plans to construct a 32-kilometre network of bike lanes by the end of 2022 that will connect the city to Saanich and regional trails including the Galloping Goose and Lochside.

Like its Southwestern inspiration, Recyclistas takes in parts and bikes and repurposes them.

Since being established in 2003, Recyclistas has been able to establish itself in a market saturated with competition. With over 20 bike shops in Victoria alone, BC ranked third among provinces with 138 bike equipment stores in a 2021 Statista survey that ranked provinces with the highest number of cycling supply stores in the country.

Today, Harris estimates that people from the community drop off anywhere between 50 to 75 bikes per month. With the donated bikes, Recyclistas will fix up some to have ready for a customer, strip them for parts, or donate the excess. 

“We get way more than we [can] deal with, so we’ll distribute them to other organizations,” Harris said. 

One of those organizations is Bicycles for Humanity, an organization that rebuilds and sells bikes with the proceeds going to orphanages in Africa.

Other bikes go to UVic’s bike-share shop, Spokes, or high schools with bike programs.

“I’m always calling [bike organizations] because I’m like, ‘We’re swamped with bikes here.’” 

But early on, the shop had trouble gaining footing in the Victoria bike scene. 

“I was living in the shop,” Harris said. “I had a little space where I slept, and paid myself $20 a day for the first year and scraped by.” 

Even when Obdrzalek and Milenkovitch left, overwhelmed with the workload within the first few months of starting the shop, Harris continued to forge ahead. He credits Recyclistas’ location and educational components as two of the key factors that elevated his business profile and re-shaped the prospects of the store. 

“We involve the community a bit more than other bike shops,” Harris said. “With our classes, volunteering, how you can rent shop space, I think it gave us some street cred and word spread that way.” 

A common obstacle he’s noticed during his 18 years as owner and head mechanic of Recyclistas is the lack of knowledge and financial resources riders have to fix their bike. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, to overcome those challenges, Recyclistas offered three- and 30-hour bike repair courses, rented out their shop and tools, and provided volunteer work to individuals interested in learning a bit more about the mechanic industry. 

Harris says the workshops and community involvement reiterate Recyclistas’ mission statement of giving individuals of all ages and income levels the chance to ride a bicycle—while alleviating landfill waste by reusing and refurbishing donated bikes. 

Essentially, he says, their tagline can be boiled down to three words. 

“People, planet, profit,” Harris said. “People: We want to be in the community, get more people riding. Planet: We want to try and divert waste from the landfill and get these old bikes going again. And Profit: Of course, we need to make money just like everyone else.” 

COVID-19 Bike Boom

While COVID-19 has forced Recyclistas to postpone their workshops and community outreach for the past 13 months, the shop has kept busy due to a surge in cycling popularity that started following the first wave of lockdowns in March 2020. 

Since last year, people have been flooding bike stores to find their own ride to use as a safe form of physically-distanced outdoor exercise.

Historically, North America first experienced a bike boom back in the 1970s, but that’s nothing compared to what happened since COVID-19 hit: Market research firm NPD Group reported U.S. bike sales increased by 75 per cent in 2020 over 2019. During the first two months of 2021, there was a 130 per cent year over-year growth of American sales. That trend has played out here in Victoria, too, with a reported surge in bike sales here last summer

Although the number of Canadian bike sales nationwide aren’t tracked, bike shops across the country are struggling to meet the consumer demand. Just last month, CBC talked to bike owners in Toronto and Vancouver who had trouble keeping up with the backlog. 

For Recyclistas, however, as a community-engaged bike centre, Harris said he hasn’t faced a supply chain problem that other retailers are currently facing because they sell used bikes. There’s never a shortage of used bikes and they can be fixed, Harris says, which buffers Recyclistas in sales compared to other bike shops. 

“Say we couldn’t get a certain sized tube? We probably have a bunch of used ones [in the shop],” he said. 

Going forward, in a post-COVID-19 world, Harris wants to expand Recyclistas’ educational components even further. Aside from the pandemic, he notes the only challenge to that goal is finding the right number of bike mechanics with the years of repairing and teaching experience to lead the workshops. 

“Let’s face it, not a lot of people are suited to be training. It’s hard, I did it for many years, and you need a lot of patience,” Harris said.

With COVID-19 sparking the newest bike boom across the world, odds are the number of aspiring mechanics are skyrocketing as well—eager to learn the trade, and have their dreams realized just as Harris did 20 odds years ago on a warm desert day in Arizona.

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The Brief: Ryan Harris

What does Victoria need to make it easier to run a business here?

Ryan Harris: For me, bike lanes pop in my head. Maybe making rent cheaper? I don’t know if they can do that, I’m lucky my rent is pretty cheap so I can’t complain about that. 

What worries you most about your business?

RH: The security of my location. My location is owned by BC Transit and it’s going to be turned into a bus loop one day, but they tell me they are going to give me five years notice—which they haven’t given me yet, so it’s not impending doom, but it is coming. 

My goal for when I need to leave and find another location is maybe negotiating where [BC Transit] builds a retail space in their bus loop. That’s my hope, a bike shop next to the bus station. 

What excites you the most about your business?

RH: Getting more riders, and facilitating more people to ride their bikes. For instance, a friend of mine, who isn’t really into biking at all, I gave her a bike for Christmas and she’s been riding it everywhere. She said she’s already lost 10 pounds. 

She comes back and is like, “Ryan! Thank you so much for this bike, I’m biking everywhere, I feel great!”

What other local company or business leader do you look to for guidance?

RH: The owner of Oak Bay Bikes, Karl Ullrich, he’s been a great mentor. He’s agreed to meet with me on a few occasions, look over my financials, and see where I can improve.

If you had to run another business in town, what would it be and why?

RH: To make bike art, welded bike art. I do it as a bit of a hobby and think I could make some pretty good money doing that. 

If you had $10,000 to invest, where would you invest it?

RH: I’d open a second location. 

How do you stay inspired to keep running your business?

RH: I go and look at the pile of bikes that have been donated in the bike shop, and I just want to fix them all. I wake up in the morning and am like, ‘I’ll fix them all!’ I never do, there’s just way too many, but I just want to get all these broken bikes back on the road. That’s my inspiration. 

What is the first thing you’ll do when we can all stop with pandemic protocol?

RH: I want to ramp up my classes and education at the bike shop. 

What do you consider your biggest failure, and how did you overcome it?

RH: As an owner, I’ve heard this from so many different owners, taking on too much and not being okay asking people to do stuff for you. My first few years, I got really stressed out by that. I never asked anyone to clean the bathroom for the first decade because I felt bad. 

Just so many little things like that, and at a certain point I wasn’t able to work on bikes anymore, which is the whole reason I started doing it. I never intended to be a boss, or having such a big shop. 

That almost burnt me right out, and then I got a bookkeeper that took all the stuff off my plate that I hated doing. More, and more, and more, I was able to get other people doing things I didn’t want to do—of course, there are things I have to do that I don’t want to do—but there’s a lot of things I don’t need to be doing, or fighting for my time to do the things that I want to be doing. I’ve heard that from a lot of bosses, not being able to give up certain tasks and trusting people.

What do you wish you knew before opening Recyclistas?

RH: A bit more about business. I knew absolutely nothing about business, and still don’t know much about it, but somehow it all worked out. I think even if I had taken a business course, I would have done that, and avoided some pitfalls: how to structure [a business], work with employees. I’ve learned so much over the years and being responsible for 13 people is possibly one of the hardest parts of my job.  

Correction made on April 21 at 8:30 am: The 32 km network of bike routes was approved in 2016, not 2020.

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