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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Two bicycle specialty stores closed in Metro Detroit this year. Three more suddenly changed “ownership” in November on their way to eventual closure.

On the national scale, Advanced Sport Enterprises, parent company to Performance Bicycle and Bike Nashbar, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy last month.

After decades of failure to adapt, Southeastern Michigan bicycle retail is in a brutal phase of enforced transition. Despite an overall economic boom many bike shops are a bust. Southeastern Michigan bike store closures and hasty ownership spin-offs that precede further closings confirm that.

The questions are; how did this happen; how can it be avoided and what will the industry look like once the rules of business exact their toll?

Like most significant shifts in business there is no singular cause.  A conspiracy of factors combines to weigh heavily on traditional bicycle retail. The reality that the industry has ignored these factors for so long manifests itself in this crisis.

Not every bicycle retailer is in crisis though, and some old-skool bike shops not only survive but are capitalizing on the increasing failures of retailers who thought they knew it all but had neither solid financials or enough vision to adapt in the changing retail landscape.

Southeastern Michigan bike shops like Jack’s Bicycle and Fitness, Roll Models in Allen Park, Michigan, Brick Wheels in Traverse City and Wheels in Motion in Ann Arbor are still there, still doing business and quietly surviving and growing as the others collapse around them.

In the renaissance of downtown Detroit, a new generation of bike family businesses has emerged on the shoulders of men like Jon Hughes of Downtown Ferndale and Downtown Detroit bike shops. Hughes also leads the family effort to grow the Lexus Velodrome and launch a new demi-empire in media and cycling in post-recession Detroit. He comes from a dynasty of bicycle business that stretches back three generations to Mike Walden and the formation of the country’s second oldest cycling club, the Wolverines. Even Bob Akers, who runs the decades-old, dingy, crumbling International Bike Shop in Garden City has survived as the shiny newcomers who thought they knew it all have tumbled.

Why do some shops survive while others fail? One factor common in the surviving Michigan bike retailers is they own their own real estate. But the ingredients for success, not just survival, are more complex than just owning your building.

Harvard MBAs don’t start bike shops. Bike shop owners don’t have business degrees. They start bike shops because they love bikes or have no other opportunity. They’re hobbyists. Not businessmen. The barriers to entry are low. Got $100K? You can open a bike shop. You’ll never tell a bike shop owner he doesn’t know business. As far as bicycle retail store owners are concerned, they are experts at retail. The crash of Michigan high-end specialty retailers proves otherwise.

I was this guy.  I lost my own store after 17 successful years during the recession. Then, like a scene from a movie where the plot repeats again and again, I went to work for two other retailers around the U.S. who, like me, thought they knew everything and couldn’t be told anything. They’re gone now too. More will follow.

Failure is only failure if you fail to learn. But in bicycle retail, no one listens. The first bike shop I worked for when I was 15 years old went out of business because the owners failed to adapt. The last bike shop I worked for four decades later did exactly the same thing. The owners refused to adapt. In a repetitive pantomime, I tried to convince the owners of the last shop I worked at to move the cash register to facilitate better customer traffic flow. It was a minor change that may have resulted in a minor improvement. I tried for a year. They never moved it. They went out of business months after I finally quit in frustration and left to work in another industry.

I take some small satisfaction in knowing the store that lasted the longest was mine. But business is pass/fail. You can run a successful business for 6,205 days like I did, but if you fail on the 6,206th day, you are a failure.

The first lesson I learned in losing my own store is you have to own your failure. Mine was my fault. While there were factors including a global recession that contributed to my 17-year-old store failing, I could have moderated them. Others did. I wasn’t smart enough or humble enough at the time. Some people pay college tuition for an education. I paid in bankruptcies and a modern day “Grapes of Wrath” by losing everything. While the second way may be a more durable education, it’s also more painful.

I went on to work for two more bike retail owners who made exactly the same mistakes I did while ignoring the changes that could have saved them. But bike shop owners don’t listen.

The specifics on what is killing some of Michigan’s bicycle retailers is a fascinating case study in the evolution of business that could fill a book. Bike shop owners and bike shops are, in many ways, indicative of the American economic condition. They are the epitome of small business America. As the small, independent bike goes, so goes all of small retail- good and bad. Small restaurants, pet stores, book retail, independent jewelers and all small retail can learn something from the enforced evolution and bizarre non-evolution of bicycle retail.

Small bicycle retail has been quick to scapegoat the big, ugly mega-retailer and the .com as the reason for their bust. That is a lie. In the broad sense, bicycle retailers are killing themselves by failing to adapt and innovate. They do it in hundreds of small ways every day they continue to do the same tired things over and over and over. Even the bicycle retailers who have survived could do better. For most of the survivors a major reason they still exist is they own their own real estate and remain impervious to swings in the volatile southeastern Michigan economy. But even their future is increasingly in doubt as forward-thinking innovators understand new opportunities in the age of Amazon One-Click.

What will happen to Michigan small bicycle retail? One thing is certain: it will continue to change at a rate that outpaces the ability of most shop owners to adapt. That means we’ll see more southeastern Michigan bike shops closing. Unless they learn from someone’s mistakes the cycle of failure in Michigan cycling retail will continue.

 


 

Tom Demerly is a 42-year bicycle industry veteran who owned his own business for 17 years. Today he is a defense and aviation analyst for several international publications including TheAviationist.com published in Rome, Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

It’s Saturday at Motor City Powersports in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. Their large parking lot is blocked off to cars. A half dozen new motorcycle owners negotiate a series of traffic cones and practice skills under the watchful eye of a certified motorcycle instructor who teaches the new riders the skills they need to survive in traffic and to get their Michigan Driver’s License motorcycle endorsement.

It’s Saturday at Motor City SCUBA in Novi, Michigan. Students sit in the dedicated classroom at the SCUBA retailer taking a written test to earn their basic open water diver certification so they can be SCUBA divers. Before they can buy their own regulator or SCUBA tank, before they can rent equipment and before they can go out on a boat to SCUBA dive while on vacation, they must pass this written test and the practical pool examination of underwater skills.

It’s Thursday night at Target Sports in Royal Oak, Michigan. A crowd of people is in a classroom near an indoor shooting range learning basic firearms safety before they are given instruction in practical firearms handling with unloaded weapons. Before any of the people can carry a firearm in public they must past a Concealed Carry License written test and practical firearms safety instruction course.

The motorcycle, SCUBA and shooting sports industries have all taken proactive responsibility for teaching and certifying their customers for competence and safety before they allow them to use their products. Each of these three industries also has some type of state or commercially mandated licensure that tests competence prior to practice and collects revenue to provide for safer end user experiences through advocacy.

Each of these three industries also incurs significant risk to users. Each has proactively managed the user-risk experience. As a result, business in each category is doing well.

And then there is the bike industry. We just sell you a bike and turn you loose. As a result, the road cycling industry is tanking.

The bike industry’s answer to sagging road bike sales has been to introduce more bike categories. That creates more sales and marketing expense within the industry. It also relies heavily on non-paved riding areas to continue to grow when, in fact, gravel roads used for automotive travel are usually destined to be paved when populations and traffic in their region inevitably become large enough. As it is, cyclists are squeezed into a smaller and smaller artificially sustained environment of rails-to-trails and bike path/park settings that cost big money to maintain, require travel to access and, while growing in some regions, aren’t yet reliable enough to sustain the sport and likely never will be without some organized contribution from the bike industry.

Rather than working to sell what we already have and support that end-user experience through responsible instruction, the bike industry just keeps trying to sell a new category every few years. The recent contraction in bicycle sales suggest this approach is not working. But in SCUBA, motorsports and shooting sports, selling what they have through responsible instruction and advocacy has worked.

The bicycle industry has not been proactive in offering even basic cycling instruction to new cyclists buying performance-oriented road and triathlon bikes. Set against the backdrop of a recent influx of brand new cyclists entering the sport mostly as a result of triathlons, the bike industry has done an abysmal job of leveraging rider instruction as a safety benefit and a sales tool.

Motorsports, SCUBA diving and shooting sports have all had success with that marketing script. In fact, in the case of shooting sports, it helped keep that sport alive in the face of a divisive national argument over firearms ownership rights. What if cycling had an industry and user lobby as powerful as the NRA?

The impetus for teaching new cyclists how to use their bike safely has been on cycling clubs and national governing bodies like USA Triathlon and USA Cycling. But in a click-to-own culture it is a big leap to expect a new bike buyer to buy a bike on Saturday and seek out 3rd party instruction and certification before using their new bike.

In fact, most cyclists and triathlete revel in fact that buying a racing bicycle is one of the few things a person can do that is free from licensure, formal instruction or user certification. Think about this: what if you loved airplanes or high performance race cars and could just show up and buy one then use it that afternoon without instruction or certification? That analogy isn’t a stretch since going from a decrepit hybrid in your first triathlon to a narrow-tire, performance oriented bike in your next one is tantamount to transitioning from a passenger car to a NASCAR.

Here Is What The Bike Industry Could Do:

As an industry, cycling needs to organize. As with SCUBA, shooting sports and the motorsports industry, both the retailer and the brand level, need to shoulder the burden- and opportunity- to sustain the sport and take responsibility for the cyclists’ end user competence and experience.

The bike industry, bike brands and bike shops, needs to start teaching cycling, including bike handling skills, safe routes for cyclists, basic maintenance and other skills that build a safe, sustainable, responsible culture of new cyclists. It is likely this single opportunity, simple in proposal but labor-intensive and significant in execution, is cycling’s greatest hope not just from prosperity and growth, but survival.

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Terry Lacroix (left), the driver who killed Karen McKeachie, during a court hearing Monday, March 6, 2017. (Photo Credit: John Counts Photo for The Ann Arbor News)

Terry Lee Lacroix is responsible for the death of Karen McKeachie.

That is a fact.

Had it not been for his willful actions on August 26, 2016 at approximately 10:45 AM, McKeachie would be alive today.

There is no question about the responsibility of Terry Lee Lacroix. He caused her death. That is known.

But what is mysterious is what should be done with Terry Lee Lacroix in the aftermath of Karen McKeachie’s killing? And it is a killing. It is not an accident. Lacroix’s willful decisions directly caused McKeachie’s death.

Emotionally some may want to exact a type of “revenge”, a willful infliction of loss or suffering upon the perpetrator Terry Lee Lacroix for the killing of Karen McKeachie. There may be a circumstance when this is appropriate. If Lacroix were in a position to willfully kill again. Then his capability to do so must be neutralized in the interest of public safety.

How our courts decide to punish Terry Lee Lacroix for the killing of Karen McKeachie will say a great deal about our society. It will place a value on a life. It will demonstrate what we are willing to do to prevent further loss of life, and it will reveal structural insights about our character and intellect.

What was Karen McKeachie’s life “worth”? What is the value of the life of the next victim of a similar killing? And, there will be more willful killings of cyclists by motorists.

To decide you must look in the mirror. Put a price on your life. What would you exchange for it? What is the correct toll for your life’s forfeiture?

I’ll suggest no such comparison; no such valuation can be assessed. The value of your life, and the loss of McKeachie’s, is incalculable.

But what about the next life lost to willfully deadly driving? And there will be more.

As a culture have we learned anything from losing Karen McKeachie? Will we change anything? Will the existing laws be applied as a template, and then reused on the next willful killing of a cyclist?

On Monday MLive.com reported that Terry Lee Lacroix pleaded “no contest” to a “misdemeanor charge of a moving violation causing death”. The maximum penalty is one year in jail. We are, in effect, stating clearly that, “If you choose to kill a cyclist with your car, you may go to prison for a year.” That is the value we place on a bicycle rider’s life. One year of confinement. Three hundred sixty five days confinement and the remaining legal record and expenses. That’s it.

A one-year jail term is not a substantial enough penalty for willfully killing a cyclist with a motor vehicle.

And because it is not substantial enough, because the penalty is not commensurate with the loss, the deterrent value, the compelling reason to drive more carefully, does not exist. Until the penalty fits the crime, cyclists are little more than collateral damage that may cost a reckless driver a year in jail, a prison record and legal fees.

But one year is all. And that is wrong. Your life, the life of Karen McKeachie and the lives of every cyclist are worth a greater penalty to compel drivers to behave more cautiously around cyclists.

 

 

Story and Photos by Tom Demerly.

Karen Mckeachie Du

Last week an American woman, Gwen Jorgensen, won the Gold Medal in the Olympic Triathlon in Rio de Janeiro. It is the first Gold Medal the U.S. has ever won in triathlon, a sport we invented.

A few days ago one of the women who is more responsible for the Olympic triathlon movement than any other single female was killed by a car while cycling on Dexter-Chelsea Road near North Fletcher in Lima Township on Friday morning, August 26, 2016.

She is Karen Mckeachie, 63, of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This is (a very small part of) an enormous story of an incredible life, so I’m going to start back in 1984, at my first triathlon where I met Karen Mckeachie and Lew Kidder.

The Big 10 Triathlon in Lansing, Michigan. It’s a “Half-Ironman”, what we call a 70.3 today.

I don’t know what I’m doing, but I saw the Ironman Triathlon on ABC Wide World of Sports, thought it was cool, so here I am. Almost none of us know what we are doing yet. The sport is too young.

Except two people.

They are Karen Mckeachie and Lew Kidder.

I am in awe of Karen and Lew immediately. Lew is tall, thin and commanding. He knows every statistic, every athlete. He knows about bikes, knows how to set up a transition. He also knows Ironman champion Dave Scott, who is making a special appearance at the race today. They chat like old friends. Lew even knows Dave Scott’s dad, Verne. Lew is an attorney and businessman wired into the hierarchy of triathlon government.

Karen Mckeachie and Lew Kidder are married, and even as early as 1984 they are triathlon’s power couple. They’re from Ann Arbor, Michigan, the Midwest hub of an emerging movement called “endurance sports” that loosely includes bicycling and distance running, and this new thing- “tri-ath-alon”. We’re not even sure how to spell it yet.

In a few years Boone Lennon will invent a downhill skier position handlebar or “aerobar” called the Scott DH handlebar. Soon after an ingenious fellow named Dan Empfield will invent a wetsuit made especially for triathlon swimming. Then Empfield will design a bicycle to work with Boone Lennon’s handlebar. And a guy named Steve Hed (say “Head”) will invent a deep-rim wheel for better aerodynamics. Eventually all of them, including Karen Mckeachie, will be inducted into some version of triathlon’s Hall of Fame.

My first race is a disaster. I wind up second from last. But I am in love. In love with a sport that will take me around the world, break my heart, build me up, make me rich and break me poor, nearly kill me and then save my life. And through this conduit I will learn about triathlon, and I will learn about life- especially at first- from Karen and Lew.

Karen and Lew are remarkable people. Laser focused and white-hot driven. At the hub of everything. Constantly training, racing, advocating, organizing, traveling, starting something new, saving something old. Visiting their house is like entering the core of a nuclear reactor. So much is going on it glows with vitality and vigor.

The only things missing from their lives are limitations. There are none.

While Lew is a fascinating man, Karen is quiet- at least at first. She is trained as an engineer, wears her hair in a utilitarian bob, seems to eschew the conspicuous frivolities of gender. I will experience a massive paradigm shift about women because of Karen in about twenty years, so keep reading.

Lew and Karen start a triathlon magazine and I write for them. It’s called Triathlon Today! They start the first ever triathlon equipment mail order company, before Seton Claggett at TriSports.com and before Craig Turner at Nytro.com. The company is run, along with the magazine, from the basement of their house. Later, as both companies grow, from an office in downtown Ann Arbor.

Lew calls and wants me to visit their house off State Street in Ann Arbor across from one of the University of Michigan’s largest sports complexes. He has some new triathlon gear he wants to show me for the magazine.

Karen is downstairs. She is working at a workbench strewn with bicycle tools. There are several bikes in various states of assembly around the room. In the center is a bicycle work stand. The bike on it has a saddle that appears to be held together by tape.

“Did you crash?” I ask Karen.

“No, these saddles kill me. They aren’t made for women riding in aerobars, so I cut out the parts that hurt and made this. It works much better.” She tells me.

Mckeachie has just engineered the triathlon specific saddle. John Cobb will go on to produce it when Karen visits him for wind tunnel testing. The original concept will spin off into both ISM Adamo saddles and Cobb Cycling saddles. Today nearly all of the top fifteen men and top fifteen women at the Ironman World Championship ride some version of the saddle Mckeachie innovated in her basement with a power saw and duct tape.

Karen Mckeachie is an engineer by degree and trade. She knows tools and equipment. She is analytical and has a mindset for questioning things. She is also a pragmatist. But the early 1980’s are still a time when men work on bikes and- in some sports still- women compete at shorter distances wearing lighter colors with ribbons in their hair, or stand on the sidelines in short skirts waving pom-poms. Because they’re girls. A woman named Julie Moss has already started to shift that reality at Ironman.

Karen Mckeachie is continuing that shift.

Mckeachie shows me how she engineered her saddle, changes the freewheels on a couple bike wheels, shows me how to pack a flight case to fly a bike, then looks me in the eye, tilts her head slightly to one side- and farts. Loud. It is, as if to say, “I can design, engineer, race, wrench, and do anything I want alongside you, better in fact, because I am an engineer, an athlete, and a strong person before I am anything else.”

Years pass. I’m in the military, first full time, then part time. I start a business.

I continued to work with Lew and Karen on a number of projects. About 1996 or ‘97 they sent a girl from Livonia, Michigan into my bike shop who told me she wanted to start doing triathlons. She told me she already knew how to swim.

I noticed she wore a ring with five circles on it. “Were you in the Olympics?” I asked.

Sheila Taormina won an Olympic Gold Medal in Atlanta as a member of the 1996 U.S. women’s team in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay. She didn’t know anything about bikes and wasn’t a runner, but she figured she’d try a triathlon, you know, since she was already a pretty good swimmer.

Karen Mckeachie and Lew Kidder worked extensively with Sheila from the time she started doing triathlons and for a number of years after.

Taormina went on to become an Olympic triathlete, taking sixth at the first ever Olympic triathlon in Sydney, Australia in 2000. Taormina also raced in the Olympic Triathlon in Greece in 2004, finishing 23rd after she won the ITU World Championships that same year.

Because of Karen and Lew, I got to set up Sheila’s bike for the Olympic Trials in Honolulu and traveled to Hawaii with her for the race, acting as her personal race mechanic. I did the same for her at the Olympic Trials in Dallas, Texas.

More years went by. Airliners hijacked by terrorists hit buildings in New York and Washington. A massive recession hit. A global war started. Karen and Lew continued to promote the sport by putting on events, many of them women’s only races, by hosting training sessions, by coaching and mentoring. Even by propping the triathlon federation up financially.

In 2011 I was a photographer at the U.S. National Duathlon Championships in Tucson, Arizona. I rode on the back of a camera motorcycle and shot photos in the transition area of the race.

On the first run of the duathlon I recognized Karen Mckeachie and knew she was a top contender. I found her bike in the transition area and set up to photograph her coming out of T1 to mount her bike. Then I would jump on the back of the camera motorcycle and speed out on the course to photograph her on the bike.

karen duathlon full size

Mckeachie entered T1 after the run. She was breathing fire. She transitioned in an instant, passed multiple athletes in transition, grabbed her bike and ran toward the mount line where I was standing.

She did not smile, wave, or acknowledge anything other than the urgent need to shave every second, gain an advantage, get out on the bike course and race.

In that instant my concept of women’s athletics changed forever. I was in awe. Mckeachie was a badass, charging out of the transition area with a look on her face like an 18-year old Marine running a bayonet-fighting course. Nothing would slow her; nothing would get in her way. She was a fire breathing, take-no-shit, I am serious as hell elite athlete. Reserved, diminutive, soft spoken and analytical off the bike, a driven and practiced elite competitor on the racecourse.

My image of athletics and gender shifted structurally in that instant. When I saw this photo I shot of Karen on my computer back in the office I saw a photo of one of the greatest endurance athletes in all of history. She never appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, never wore an Olympic Gold Medal around her neck- but she did collect stacks of world and national championship medals, overall race wins, age group victories and accolades and more importantly, did the heavy lifting of getting other women into the sport, and the sport into the Olympics.

I don’t know if Gwen Jorgensen knows Karen and Lew. I’m not sure Jorgensen understands the foundational role Karen along with Lew played in, first, women’s triathlon and then the Olympic triathlon.

I do know this; Karen Mckeachie has achieved immortality because of her contributions to triathlon and women’s athletics. This horrible tragedy took her life, but they did not take her legacy. Nothing ever will.

By Tom Demerly.

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Karen Mckeachie, 63, of Ann Arbor, Michigan was killed in a collision with a car while cycling on Dexter-Chelsea Road near North Fletcher in Lima Township on Friday morning, August 26, 2016.

Michigan State Police are conducting an investigation of the accident.

Karen Mckeachie was an internationally-known elite triathlete and an iconic figure in the sport.

Mckeachie was inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2014. In her career as a top age group triathlete across all distances and many age categories, Karen Mckeachie won six world age-group championships and 15 age-group national championships. She was a multi-time Ironman World Championship finisher.

On Friday night a relative of Karen Mckeachie memorialized her remarkable life with these highlights:

  • Inducted into the USA Triathlon Hall of Fame in 2014
  • Seven-time triathlon world champion
  • Seventeen-time triathlon national champion
  • USA Triathlon’s Overall Triathlete of the Year, 1999 (the only 40+ female to receive that honor)
  • USA Triathlon Masters Triathlete of the Year, 2000
  • Is believed to be the oldest athlete (58 years) to outright win a major triathlon, beating out all the younger athletes in the race
  • Created the first-ever women’s bike saddle
  • Former coach of Olympic triathlete Sheila Taormina
  • Won two triathlons in one weekend in 2013
  • Has run a 2:48 marathon
  • Raced in 9 Hawaii (Kona) “Ironmans”, finishing as high as 8th female overall, and four times in the Top 25
  • When she was in college, and before Title IX began to level the playing field, University of Michigan wouldn’t give her an “M” shirt to wear when she qualified for the NCAA championships. So she sewed an “M” onto her own shirt, went to the championships, and won outright. Her hand-sewn “M” shirt is now in UM’s sports hall of fame. (She had to transfer to a lower-quality agricultural college in East Lansing because, even after her victories, UM still did not support women’s athletics).

Karen spent the past 35 years hosting and managing races, building the sport well before it became mainstream. Mckeachie’s influence has directly touched nearly every triathlon in Michigan that is older than 5 years.

Karen Mckeachie was an engineer with an analytical background she employed in her approach to triathlon training and equipment. She is credited with developing the first ever female-specific triathlon bike saddle when she used a hand saw to modify an existing bike seat to be more comfortable riding in the aerodynamic position. She was also co-founder of what may have been the first ever website to sell triathlon gear online.

Mckeachie, along with her husband Lew Kidder who survives her, was a tireless supporter of the sport of triathlon, contributing to the careers of many elite triathletes, managing triathlon events and contributing at every level of the sport.

Known as a quiet, reserved person outside of the racecourse, she was a fierce competitor while racing, having endured numerous physical injuries to prevail across all race distances and age categories. Mckeachie never recognized her age as a limitation and always raced for overall success.

Along with her husband, Lew Kidder, she helped found Triathlon Today! magazine that went on to become Inside Triathlon magazine under (then) VeloNews publication.

Prior to her death Mckeachie was racing and training actively, continuing to participate in national and world championship events.