Say what you might about Peoria, Illinois, real estate here is relatively stable–especially compared to the Phoenix metro area. Prices there dropped more than half between 2006 and 2011. In 2009, Phoenix had more empty commercial space than anywhere else in the country.
While the home and commercial markets have bounced back, the local chaos in real estate, combined with the 2008 recession in the rest of the United States, hit the Phoenix architectural community hard, leading down-on-their luck practitioners to look for other options.
What Al Cappello found was folding bicycles, and he turned that find into Portapedal Bike in Tempe. (His former partner, Jeff Looker, turned to guitars. For a musician, walking into Acoustic Vibes Music next door must be a lot like a folding bike fan like me walking into Portapedal Bike.)
How long have you been here in Arizona?
I graduated and started an architectural firm in 1987 with my business partner, Jeff Looker. Donna [Al’s wife] was our office manager, and we did well until the first recession in the early 1990s. That lasted a year, year and a half.
Then we got together again, and Donna, again, became our office manager. And, again, we did pretty well until the last recession. That was a real killer for us.
The bank that funded most of our projects in the Las Vegas area went under, so we didn’t get paid. Contractors didn’t get paid. We thought after a year we’d be back into things, but year after year it got worse.
Don’t get me wrong. Architecture’s a great profession, but it’s a god-awful business. It’s rife with problems and issues and liabilities. No one was really happy in it, and during the last recession we went from 13 employees plus Donna, myself and Jeff to one employee in a matter of months.
How did you get into the business side of bicycling?
It was my sin-in-law. I can’t call him my son-in-law yet, but he’s a wonderful sin-in-law. He and my daughter live in northern California. He used to fly into a little airport that was three miles from our home but 30 miles from where we work.
When they would fly in, they would call us to pick them up. Donna or I would leave work and drive thirty miles to drive them the three miles to our house. Once he mentioned that if they had folding bikes, they could ride from the airport to the house and pick up their stuff later.
So I started looking for used folding bikes and got to know them and appreciate them. I was amazed at what a quality ride they provided. I became fanatical about them because I had a lot of time on my hands.
I bought 10 bikes to find the right pair to refurbish and give them for Christmas. But then I thought to myself even that pair didn’t look that good, so I bought two new bikes.
That left me stuck with a lot of folding bikes, so I went down to Tucson. They have a bike fair down there. It’s quite nice. They close down the old downtown area. Out of the 10, I sold seven within an hour and a half.
I thought this could be quite a niche market. But it wasn’t until a few months later, with the recession dragging on, that I knew I had to do something,
I knew of a pair of Italian folding bikes called Amicas that had been for sale. I called the guy, and he said they hadn’t sold yet. I was with Donna that day doing what she wanted to do because she had been working really hard and taking care of her dad. So I asked her can we go look at something now–we spent the day doing your stuff. And she said sure, as long as it doesn’t have anything to do with folding bikes.
I said well, it does. And she agreed to go anyway.
So we went down to Mesa, and when the guy pulled the bikes out, Donna nudged me and said, you gotta buy these bikes. They were gorgeous, gorgeous condition, really cute. So I bought them. Later, Jeff looked at them and said you gotta open a folding bike shop, and that’s how it all it all started.
What about the lines you carry now? How did you start carrying them?
Jeff started a guitar shop called Acoustic Vibes Music. He’s right next door. That’s where our bike shop used to be. We were calling some of the major folding bike manufacturers in the world, like Bike Friday and Brompton. We’d tell them that we’d like to sell their bikes, and they’d ask where the shop was.
We’d say we don’t have it yet, but we’re going to remodel our building, and by the way we do sell guitars, and this is what our web site looks like. I don’t know how we convinced them, but we did.
I called the Moulton distributor. He was here in Phoenix. He came down to our building, and we told him what we wanted to do.
Lucky for us he started in the music business. He was a guitarist. So when he saw the guitar shop, he said we could sell the bikes, because he wanted to come down and see the guitars every once in a while. That’s how we got started.
We started with the minimum number of bikes on a credit card. We had to sell at least three bikes to buy four, then we had to sell five bikes to buy seven, and we just slowly eked it out that way. We started with Moulton, Brompton and Bike Friday. Those were our first three lines.
Everything here is for easy transport, easy stowage and a fun ride. Because when you ride a small wheel, the steering’s much more responsive than the big-wheel bikes. It’s the difference between driving your dad’s big old Buick and a Mini Cooper.
Could you tell me a bit about each line? Who buys a Moulton, for instance?
Moulton probably attracts the most sophisticated buyers–people who have ridden high-end bikes like Bianchis or Pinarellos. They appreciate the mechanics of the bike. Not only is the Moulton quick and agile because of the small wheels, but the front and rear suspension allows you to use high-pressure, low-rolling-resistance tires. So it’s really quick but extremely comfortable.
The Moulton is not a folding bike, it’s a separable bike. You can easily throw it into your car or disassemble it to fit into a suitcase. A faired Moulton holds the land-speed record for a rider in a normal riding position: 51.29 miles per hour. It’s almost revered in Japan. Moulton doesn’t advertise, but I think it’s the best-riding bike in the world.
Moulton is not well known here in the States, so you have to have a history in cycling. It’s usually the older crowd that buys a Moulton. I sold one to a 76-year-old gentleman in Milwaukee. He wrote me back. He said the last time he rode 40 miles without wrist, shoulder and neck pain was 25 years ago. Said he felt fantastic.
That’s the Moulton.
It’s like the Moulton; it’s a handmade bike out of the U.K., and like the Moulton, designed by a mechanical engineer. It is the most compact of all the folding bikes.
Brompton owners have ridden good bikes in the past and now travel quite a bit. They travel for business or pleasure, and they know how good it is to have a nice bike with them, how it enhances any travel. What a great way to explore a new area, by bike. By car you miss a lot. Walking is too slow.
It’s so easy to take with you. You can ride to a restaurant in a new town, fold it up and take it in. It’s easy to take it on a bus. If you’re in Europe, you can hop on any of the trains with it. Unfolded, the Brompton has a 41½-inch wheelbase, which is as long as a big-wheel bike. So it’s very stable.
My Brompton customers have done 300-mile and 500-mile tours in Europe. They’ve done the Seattle-to-Portland ride with it, 204 miles in two days, and the Tour de Tucson, 111 miles in one day. It’s a surprisingly capable bike that is very portable.
Commuters use it day in and day out to get to work. Multimodal commuters combine it with the light-rail system here in Phoenix.
One of my most interesting customers is Ryan Guzy, a young engineer. He has a great website called Brompton Mafia where he posts pictures of all the places he’s been with his bike. He just got back from a Brompton race in Chile. He did the Brompton race in Spain. He rides his Brompton to work. It’s always by his side. He’s brought many people into the fold, pun intended. It’s his favorite mode of transportation.
How about Tern?
I’ve carried Tern bicycles since that company began. The younger crowd likes them. They have a more contemporary look, and they’re super lightweight. If you’re looking for a 20-pound bike, Tern has it. Tern has some lower-end models, too. They have a $400 bike that a kid from Arizona State University could at least get started with.
The originator of Tern is Josh Hon, who is the son of Dr. David Hon, who started Dahon, which is the oldest and probably the largest folding bike company in the world. Josh wanted to go off and do some things on his own.
He’s made some nice improvements in componentry and especially in the frame, in the hinges of the frame. The higher-end bikes feature beautiful components, including hubs by American Classic and low-spoke-count rims. The wheel design comes from Rolf Prima, which has been low spoke count for years and years. They’re just gorgeous bikes.
The people at Tern are enthusiastic. They come out with something different every year. I think they’re going to go a long way.
Montague is the full-sized folder. The original concept came from an architect in Boston. We primarily carry the company’s mountain bike.
There are a lot of campers here in Arizona. We get a lot of snowbirds who come out here with their RVs and camp and then go back to Minnesota and Canada, all those cold places and so they’re big fans of the mountain bike. It has 26-inch wheels that allow them to ride the fire roads.
They choose the Montague over non-folding mountain bikes because they can store it inside their cars, which is the advantage to all folding bikes. They’re easier to store, easier to protect from thieves. You don’t have to worry about them.
We don’t stock Montague road bikes because they have too much overlap with our other folders, all of which are basically road bikes. Next year, Montague is coming out with a gravel grinder that has wider tires, and we’ll stock that.
What about Bike Friday?
We’re still a Bike Friday dealer. We don’t stock a lot, because number one, Bike Friday sells directly, and number two, they make all different sizes of frames. It’s hard to figure out what to stock. You get a particularly tall person or a heavy person or a particularly short person and the medium bike you have on the floor doesn’t work.
But we do take special orders for Bike Fridays. They’re great people and they’re good at what they do. We service a lot of Bike Friday bikes.
Where do your sales come from?
Our sales are about half walk-in, half Internet. The past few weeks it’s been more out the door, more like 60/40. Next week it could go the other way. Our most-distant customer lives in Australia. He ordered a Brompton. He was in a little isolated town and found us on the Internet. We’ve also sent bikes to Canada.
We get a lot of inquiries from places like Thailand, Italy and Russia, but we can’t send bicycles to every country because many of them have protected distributors. We can’t send to Asia for instance, but we do get a lot of inquiries. We talk to people from all over the place.
Maybe I need to back up a bit. How did you get into bicycling in the first place?
I’ve been a cyclist all my life, passionate about cycling. Jeff, my old business partner, was also an avid cyclist, and we commuted to work. Originally our office was 12 miles away from our homes. We drove into work on Mondays with our bikes and four changes of clothes and rode back and forth the rest of the week on our bikes.
It was really an alternative form of transportation for us. After a hard day’s work, you ride home, and you feel great, both emotionally, physically and everything else. It’s a great way to start your day and a great way to end your day.
I rode home the day the temperature in Phoenix hit its all-time high, 122 degrees. I wasn’t aware of the record, but I should have been. Halfway through the ride I reached for my water bottle. It was like drinking tea.
You’ve started two companies. You’ve ridden the architectural roller coaster. What’s a great day for you now?
I’m 61 years old. I feel like I’m 12 years old when I’m on one of the small-wheel bikes. It just has that kind of feel to it.
I enjoy seeing excited customers.
Say a customer comes in for a big full-size bike, because, they know a small-wheel bike can’t be any good. I show them the Brompton for fun, or the Tern.
At first, they’re very skeptical. But I love seeing the ear-to-ear grins on their faces after that first ride. You don’t have to sell these bikes, just show them the features.
We get emails. People talk about going to Hawaii with their bikes and how it was the best trip they ever had. Some people say the bikes have changed their lives, that they’re using the bike day in and day out and that they’re losing weight and feeling better than ever. They design their trips around the bicycle.
That’s the joy of this business. When I get a phone call here, it’s somebody saying, hey, I love the bike, I want to order one for my wife. In architecture it’s hey, one of you guys made a mistake in the dimensions, and it’s a $25,000 mistake. Who’s going to pay for it? I don’t miss those calls at all.
We see ourselves almost as a service business, providing a service to folks. Because when you get people cycling more, you know, you just feel great. A bicycle is just a great way to experience the world, and we help make that happen.
So every day we get someone on a bicycle, that’s a great day.