Rethinking Retail: CycleLife puts on a new spin on health club, bike shop concepts

In November 2008, they opened CycleLife, a facility in Georgetown that is not just a bike retail shop or a health club, but a cycling enthusiast’s Nirvana, complete with a full range of high-tech cycling and fitness training equipment, exercise classes such as indoor cycling and yoga, cycling coaches, a café and even a lounge for socializing with others equally obsessed with the two-wheeled lifestyle and fitness. Equipment includes CycleOps stationary bikes, Concept2 rowing machines, Life Fitness treadmills and a full line of Keiser strength equipment.
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Professionally, they had little in common. A 4-star admiral, an architect, a software salesman and a former chairman of a Fortune 200 Company. But the men did share one thing -- they loved to ride.

The camaraderie these four developed while cycling together sparked a thought: Why wasn’t there a central gathering place for cyclists, some place that cyclists in the District could call home?

“A little more than three years ago, we were riding along and started talking about the state of the industry, and there’s really no social environment for cyclists, except for bike clubs,” said Michael Sanchez, CEO of CycleLife Sanchez and his riding partners -- Admiral R.J. “Zap” Zlatoper, Bob Guatelli and Rui Ponte -- agreed to go into business together and create some type of new entity. “The business around cycling is typically retail, and we wanted to do something different,” said Sanchez told SNEWS®.

SNEWS knows the current economic state is having a huge impact on the specialty retail business. This is one look at different ways retailers are rethinking their retail strategy to become better at serving customers and keeping their bottom line intact. We will take a look at different retail concepts we find in a periodic and ongoing series of stories in SNEWS. This time around we focused on a new cylcing and fitness retail store with an emphasis on being THE place for cyclists who not only seek community but a broad rangen of services for their cycling lifestyle and staying fit. Stay tuned for more in-depth reporting on the current situation both economically and at retail as it develops and changes.

Cyclists' Nirvana

In November 2008, they opened CycleLife, a facility in Georgetown that is not just a bike retail shop or a health club, but a cycling enthusiast’s Nirvana, complete with a full range of high-tech cycling and fitness training equipment, exercise classes such as indoor cycling and yoga, cycling coaches, a café and even a lounge for socializing with others equally obsessed with the two-wheeled lifestyle and fitness.

Equipment includes CycleOps stationary bikes, Concept2 rowing machines, Life Fitness treadmills and a full line of Keiser strength equipment. CycleLife also has an extensive bike repair department, plus an “out-of-towner service” that allows a traveler to rent a bike and use the facility. CycleLife will take the out-of-towner’s measurements, and in the future deliver a bike to the person’s hotel room. Plus, a bike valet service allows a rider to drop off a bike in the morning (as well as dirty riding clothes), and get the bike and clothes back that afternoon in clean, tip-top condition.

Prior to opening CycleLife (www.cyclelifeusa.com), none of the founders had experience running a retail or cycling business. But this may have worked to their advantage and allowed them to stand on the outside and look in to recognized social trends not being addressed.

“It used to be that, as you got older, you would find golf as a way to stay connected with people, and cycling was becoming that,” said Sanchez. “But the question was, where is the golf club for cyclists where they can hang out, get coached and trained? That’s how CycleLife came to be. It’s a vertical lifestyle company.”

Cycling, retail and fitness merge

The men also recognized where the cycling world and fitness world could cross paths in the 12,000-square-foot CycleLife facility. The upstairs portion has elements you might find in a fitness club, including rooms for exercise classes and fitness training, and a state-of-the art lab that runs diagnostic tests on things like VO2 max and body composition. There is a room with computerized exercise bikes that allow riders to use training software and compete against other in virtual races.

“It’s a very integrated approach,” said Sanchez. “You’re working indoors, but we’re creating an environment that keeps you motivated because there’s a lot of high-tech equipment, and also measuring devices that let you make it an integral part of your training program.”

Also upstairs are a lounge, massage room, video library and café, which makes sense as pretty much every group ride these days begins or ends at a coffee shop. The upstairs also offers a pastoral view of the Potomac River. “It looks like you’re somewhere in the country when you’re actually in downtown Washington, D.C.,” said Sanchez.

If this all sounds pretty ritzy, there’s no doubt it’s a high-end facility. A full membership costs $300 a month. But many services, such as exercise classes and the very popular coaching services, are offered a la carte. So far, the club has a couple dozen full members, and CycleLife actually plans to cap membership at 150 people. One reason for this is to maintain quality experiences for all visitors.

“We have no real data to look at as far as utilization of the club,” said Sanchez. “We didn’t want to overload the club with people, and we wanted make sure we had enough capacity so it wasn’t a crowded place.”

Individually fitted

While the upstairs level of CycleLife offers cyclists a unique place to train and hang out, the retail sector downstairs also departs from the norm. While the 2,000-square-foot retail shop does carry the usual items like apparel and built-up bikes, CycleLife prefers to fit customers for a bike and then build something that fits them perfectly. “It’s a little different notion where we’re actually building you a bike as a service as opposed to just selling you a retail product off the shelf, which you could buy on the Internet or anywhere else,” said Sanchez. “People have different crank length requirements, they need different handlebar widths, or have a different reach. We like to put the components on after we’ve fit you.”

He said that professional bike fitting is one of the most popular services at CycleLife. Expert bike fitters use Retul equipment to do three-dimensional motion analysis as a person is spinning on a bike. By analyzing body movement and angles, fitters can correct things that may have made cycling painful in the past, or they can help advanced riders improve. Sanchez said a fitting could last four hours and costs about $350. “It’s a real serious event,” he said, adding that CycleLife is training more fitters to meet the high demand.

But the retail shop does not just deal with custom-made bikes and big spenders. Sanchez said it carries the entire Specialized line, from kids’ bikes up to racing bikes. Other brands include Felt Bicycles, Parlee Cycles and Guru Bikes (a Canadian manufacturer of custom bikes). “You can buy a bike for $300 or for $15,000,” said Sanchez. “We’re trying not to cater to a specific segment within cycling; we’re catering to enthusiasts. And our definition of enthusiast could be a weekend warrior, an elite cycle racer, a commuter or a courier.”

One thing CycleLife is banking on is the notion that cyclists are serious about their sport and will spend a good deal of time at the CycleLife facility.

“Cyclists are going to be more active than your typical health club member. They tend to be more fanatical about their fitness, and we believe they will utilize the place,” said Sanchez. “At our club, people do a two- and-a-half-hour workout on one of our aerobic machines.”

He said most members visit CycleLife two to three times a week and stay for about two hours each time.

Community outreach

Beyond its walls, CycleLife is reaching out to the community and even sponsored pedicabs during President Obama’s inauguration. The day before the inauguration, Washington D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (a cycling enthusiast) happened to drop by CycleLife and heard about the pedicab sponsorship. He quickly put together a press conference for the next day, during which he gave CycleLife props for its efforts and even participated in a pedicab race. (Check it out on Youtube by clicking here.)

Certainly, CycleLife has chosen a good location to launch. Last year, Bicycle magazine rated Washington, D.C., the most improved city for cycling. Certainly, it’s not a low-income city either. However, Sanchez said he thinks the business model will work in a number of other bike-friendly cities such as Portland, Ore., or Chicago.

The impressive thing about CycleLife is that the business leaves no stone unturned in looking for ways to serve cyclists, whether it’s searching for new locations or developing new services within the D.C. area. “We’re the official valet service of the Washington Nationals,” said Sanchez. If you ride your bike to National Park, you can leave it at the CycleLife Bike Valet. CycleLife also hosts group rides to games, and is negotiating for the rights to sell tickets at its facility.

“When you think of yourself as a service rather than a retailer, these things come up,” said Sanchez. “All of these things are just natural extensions of thinking of cycling as a service rather than a product.”

--Marcus Woolf



SNEWS® View:
CycleLife is yet another way to serve the needs of a niche in all ways possible -- not just retail, not just club, but everything a particular niche could want with the added advantage of establishing a community. And that community is what will not only keep them coming in but also will keep them finding ways to spend money on services and gear. The concept is certainly one that could be used as a model for other “niche” segments.

--SNEWS Editors

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