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Slow and steady wins the race for Baltimore area bike retailer

Alex Obriecht, Race Pace owner
Alex Obriecht, Race Pace owner - Steve Ruark
Fifteen years ago, entrepreneur Alex Obriecht was staring into a fiscal abyss.
Based on his calculations, the owner of Race Pace Bicycles would have to shutter his retail bike stores in a year if the Virginia chain Bikes USA continued to undercut him in price.

It was just a matter of how much money they were willing to throw to break smaller companies such as Race Pace to build a national chain.
Fortunately for Obriecht and his 90 employees, Bikes USA was forced to throw in the towel first. It went belly up in 1999 after running out of financing options. Race Pace, meanwhile has since expanded to a total of five Greater Baltimore stores, which pull in between $8 million and $10 million a year in sales. Bicycle Retailer and Industry News ranks the 35-year-old business as one of the top 100 bike shops in the U.S.
Next month, the company will relocate its Ellicott City store into a space where it can hold more inventory catering to women. Last year, Race Pace moved its Westminster shop to a 100-year-old, timber-frame building that it bought and completely renovated. Its other stores are located in Owings Mills, Federal Hill and Columbia. Its industry expertise, a commitment to customer service, and courting female bikers has helped the company speed ahead of the competition. The company has also benefitted from a growing interest in biking among environmentally aware city dwellers.

Of course, Race Pace still has its competitors, such as Performance Bicycle, REI, and Dick’s Sporting Goods. But it has attracted loyal customers — particularly among women —who go to the retailer for bikes, accessories and mechanical services.  
"The Race Pace guys just get it," says Evan Pavlovic, a territory manager in Baltimore and western Maryland for Trek Bicycle, a Waterloo, Wis., supplier to Race Pace. "They're equipped with the best gear in the bike business. They all ride bikes and they love the design and engineering of bikes."

The company's Ellicott City store, soon to be relocated to a nearby site at the junction of Centennial Lane and Route 40, houses its retail operation that caters exclusively to women. Called Bella Bikes, the women's store was the first of its kind in the U.S. when it opened in 2008. Now, two other companies in California have followed suit with targeted marketing strategies for women.
Sales of women’s products and services account for about one-third of Race Pace’s total annual revenue, Obriecht says. While all Race Pace stores carry lots of products made for women, Bella Bikes strictly caters to the market with gender-specific cycles, clothing and accessories. It is also managed and staffed by women.
Another reason for its success is that Race Pace employees make the customer experience enjoyable and social, Pavlovic says. Staff members regularly lead group rides, both on the road and on unpaved trails. Building customer relationships through organized group rides also extends the bond between Race Pace and its customers.

"At the end of the day, in this industry we are selling customers something that they want— something they might lust after, but usually not something that they absolutely need," Pavlovic says. "So it has to be a fun experience.""At the end of the day, in this industry we are selling customers something that they wantó something they might lust after, but usually not something that they absolutely need." - Evan Pavlovic

Also key to building customer loyalty for Race Pace has been opening up its store service centers to plain view for shoppers, and supporting personal relationships between its mechanics and the customers whose bikes they work on.

Joe Hikel of Westminster says he has grown to rely on Race Pace’s staff in Ellicott City when he needs a new bike or an overhaul of his high-end Trek model.
“I use them exclusively because of the quality of service and the personal relationships I’ve formed over the last couple years with Jon Posner, the store manager, and Nick Adams, the service manager,” Hikel says.
The owner of Westminster manufacturer Shelter Systems Ltd., Hikel says he has been a Race Pace customer since its early days and typically rides 100 miles a week.

Other avid riders are customers who bike to work, whose numbers are growing. An Atlantic Cities study found that bike commuting in metropolitan areas grew 70 percent between 2000 and 2009. In Baltimore, bike commuting grew 233 percent. Still, just 1 percent of Baltimore area commuters bike to work.
Obriecht is looking ahead at how he can capture more of that market. He says he sees electric-assist bikes, which make pedaling uphill easier, a promising technology on the horizon. He’s currently in discussions with at least one major supplier of electric-assist products about adopting the new technology.
"Electric-assist technology already has a firm hold in Europe," he says. "The idea of getting on an electric bike and going 15 to 20 miles an hour will appeal to a lot of people.”

Raymond Bolger is a business journalist who lives in West River. His work has been featured in Forbes, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Baltimore Sun and other publications. 

All photographs by STEVE RUARK.

Click photos to read captions.
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