Business: North Fork bike shops ride boom in fitness fans and fuel prices

03/07/2011 1:28 PM |

BETH YOUNG PHOTO | Greg Williams at work in his Mattituck shop Country Time Cycles.

Bike retailers here have been battling big box stores for customers by offering quality products, repairs and support including group rides, hoping to make their businesses local hubs for people who want to get outside and exercise.

Soaring gas prices and a rising number of fitness fans are helping both Country Time Cycles in Mattituck and Twin Forks Bicycles in Riverhead draw customers, their owners said this week.

“This business used to be Memorial Day to Labor Day, but now it’s becoming more year-round,” said Country Time owner Greg Williams. He recently met with Southold Town representatives to talk about a significant uptick in the number of cycling clubs seeking permission to hold rides this year on the North Fork.

“People see a group of pretty bikes and all the colors and jerseys whizzing by and they want to be a part of it,” he said.

“People say the trend is up a little bit, but it’s always been there,” according to Nick Attisano, who owns Twin Forks Bicycles.

“Every house has a bike in it somewhere. And what’s going on with the fuel problem is going to mean more commuter stuff will be happening.”

Another factor in cycling’s favor is “it’s low impact,” he said. “A lot of runners become cyclists when their knees start to go. I’m seeing a lot of Baby Boomers turning to bicycles.”

Cheap bikes are readily available at big box stores but the bike shop owners said customers are drawn to them by the wide choice of niche bicycles in the mid-to-high-end price range they offer.

In the old days, riders had a choice of 10-speed bikes or old-fashioned cruisers. Mountain bikes blossomed in the early 1990s. But in the past decade, more manufacturers than ever before have offered every style of bike ­— from comfort and fitness models preferred by aging Baby Boomers to commuters and hard-core mountain and road bikes — through independent retailers.

“There’s a bike for almost every usage,” said Mr. Williams, who carries a wide range of styles of Giant and Trek bicycles and BMX bikes by Eastern and Fit. Mr. Attisano carries Cannondale, GT, Specialized and Schwinn bicycles, as well as Electra beach cruisers.

“It’s a very competitive market. All bike shop bikes are very, very good,” Mr. Attisano said. “I chose Schwinn because they’re really the first and last name in bicycles. Cannondale and Specialized are really the Ford and Chevy of bicycles. I personally have been riding Cannondales a very long time.”

Both shops carry a wide range of 29ers, which are a new style of mountain bike with 29-inch wheels, as opposed to the 26-inch wheels that were found on most earlier mountain bikes.

“They have a larger contact area and offer better braking and trail handling,” said Mr. Williams. “They roll over smaller obstacles more easily.”

Mr. Attisano said that, while he understands the appeal of 29’ers, they might not be the best kind of bike for Long Island trail riding.

“Our trails are tight and twisty and are better with a smaller wheel,” he said. “But you read all the magazines and that’s what’s hot.”

Though the North Fork is sorely lacking in extensive trails for mountain bikers, there is a growing number of trails in central Suffolk, including a new one that just opened on Hot Water Street in Manorville. Many are maintained by a group called CLIMB, which posts trail maps and current conditions on its website, www.climbonline.org.

Group rides are an element of each bike shop’s success. Country Time Cycles runs three rides beginning at 8 a.m. on Sunday mornings for varying levels of fitness. In July and August on Wednesday nights in Mattituck, the shop offers a time trial series on back roads, during which riders compete against themselves for their best times.

At Twin Forks Bicycles, the Suffolk Bicycle Riders Association leads several summer rides that begin at the parking lot next door to the shop at Osborn Plaza. Also in summer, the shop holds Monday night road rides for all levels and Thursday night rides for serious road racers.

Mr. Williams bought Country Time Cycles on Route 25 in Mattituck in 1997, after working at the shop as a teenager. He also worked at Arline’s Boateak & Ski Haus in Jamesport. Mr. Attisano opened Twin Forks Bicycles in 2007 after having worked since he was a teenager at bicycle shops in central Suffolk.

“There wasn’t a lot of room for advancement and I thought it was time for me to do it for myself,” said Mr. Attisano.

He took a mental inventory of all the bike shops on the East End and decided that Riverhead was the perfect place to open his shop. It’s on Osborn Avenue, about 15 miles away from the nearest shops in Mattituck and Southampton.

“It was a good distance. You can’t put two Ford dealerships next to each other. It’s the same thing with bikes,” he said. “And Riverhead isn’t like it used to be. There’s a lot more shopping here now. Everyone from the East End shops here. Why pay Hamptons prices when you can shop in Riverhead?”

byoung@timesreview.com