These Bikes Go 'Over the Hill'

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At a Dutch Bike shop, you can forget about spandex, helmets, pedal clips or any of the other typical biking paraphernalia. The Seattle, Washington-based retailer wants to take customers - mostly baby boomers - back to the carefree days of childhood, when riding a bike was full of whimsy.

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Back then the Schwinns many boomers rode retailed for less than a few hundred bucks, but the Dutch Bike versions go for upwards of $2,000 a pop, more than what high-tech cycling enthusiasts tend to spend on a fancy road bike.

"People think that this is messing with the paradigm of biking," said company founder David Schmidt, 39, a self-proclaimed nonconformist who previously owned a window-cleaning business where he regularly rappelled off the side of commercial buildings like Seattle's Space Needle. "The bike culture is almost its own little group."

By Schmidt's accounts, it's an unfriendly world filled with attitude and disdain. His company, which operates stores in Seattle and Chicago, is offering a non-intimidating alternative to lure the relaxed crowd. Customers are encouraged to come into the shop to just hang out, often with a complimentary glass of beer. Many are well-heeled and of a certain age, with pocketbooks fat enough to afford price tags of up to $3,000.

They don't belong to cycling clubs. Some haven't ridden in years. They are searching for stylish and reliable transport for short commutes or errand junkets. They don't want to worry about the hassle of changing into special clothes just to pedal leisurely to the office. Recall the bike scene with Paul Newman and Katherine Ross in "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

"A woman came in yesterday and the first thing out of her mouth was, ‘I hate bikes. But I'm retiring; I'm going to start riding a bike,'" said Schmidt. "That happens a lot."

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BUILT TO LAST

Many of Dutch Bike's simple, but sturdy, European-style bicycles are made in Holland by WorkCycles. Consider the Oma, a popular model that retails for $1,599. Built for a lifetime, it rarely needs service. There's even a skirt on the back wheel designed to keep your clothes clean.

"When you ride them, they ride like a Cadillac - they're not meant to go fast," said Schmidt, who, after catching the bug for Dutch-styled bikes in Amsterdam, went on to purchase his first 40-foot cargo load using a mortgage on his home. "You're pedaling in a stride like you walk."

Invited to take a test ride at the Chicago store, aptly located in the city's upscale Lincoln Park neighborhood, I felt much higher off the ground than usual, allowing for a leisurely pace and a bird's eye view of the surroundings.

There are some really bizarre-looking models too, including the Bakfiets, Dutch for "box bike," which allows the rider to tote small children or heavy cargo loads in a built-in, canoe-like wooden box installed on an extended chassis between the handlebars and the front wheels.

Analysts said there has been a resurgence of leisure-style cycling in recent years, even as the overall bike market has flattened out. The sector is expected to grow only 0.4 percent to $2.6 billion by 2013, according to U.S. data from global consumer research firm Mintel. But cruiser bikes - the style sold by Dutch Bike - are among the fastest-growing category, even though it represents only 6.5 percent of the market. They include lower-priced rivals such as the Electra and Nirve brands.

"Right now that segment kind of is a novelty for people. It's not necessarily about transportation - it's about style and transportation, which is really going to appeal to people who can afford it," said Mark Guarino, a senior analyst with Mintel. "For $1,500, you can get a scooter. The hipster market is not going to be buying these bikes."

THIN MARGINS

Schmidt has no compunction about charging high prices for quality; he contends his margins are already thin. "Frankly we tell people this is a fair price, a very fair price for what you're getting," said Schmidt, who employs a staff of five. "All the people in our shops, they get it. We're actually selling something we all believe in."

Despite the recession, Schmidt said Dutch Bike is hanging on, cultivating what appears to be a loyal customer base without paid advertising and limited use of social media.

The company recently returned to profitability following a difficult 2009; it's targeting $1 million to $2 million in sales for 2011. To help supplement sales, the shops also rent out bikes to tourists and will repair any model a customer brings in.

The Seattle store, which first opened three and a half years ago, is preparing to move from an industrial boating district to a trendier locale a few blocks away, complete with a coffee shop at the front of the store. Schmidt raised some angel funding from family to help open his new loft-style location, which will be part of a mixed-use emporium that also offers oysters and booze.

He hopes to raise some venture capital to help him expand the Dutch Bike concept to additional cities, preferably those without an already entrenched biking culture.

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