Love of biking is the genesis of 4 area shops

Alex Obriecht builds a clientele by focusing on service to cyclists

Business Profile: Race Pace Bicycles

April 05, 2006|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In 1977, when Alex Obriecht opened his first, tiny Race Pace bike shop in Woodlawn, the world of bicycling was substantially different than it is today.

Mountain bikes wouldn't be invented for another four years. And back then, people didn't ride for fitness as much as they do today. And they certainly couldn't use the Internet to comparison-shop or make purchases.

Over the years, Obriecht, 49, has seen plenty of bicycle shops go out of business. But his business has survived, and he now has Race Pace Bicycles stores in Columbia, Owings Mills, Westminster and Ellicott City.

The Columbia store, which opened in May, is 14,000 square feet, twice the size of his Ellicott City location, he said.

The key to staying in business, he said, is providing excellent customer service. "That's how we built the business," he said.

These days, people can buy bikes and equipment online, often at a lower price than Race Pace charges. But Obriecht's experienced staff takes as much time as needed helping customers find the bicycle and other equipment that is right for them, he said.

"You've got to find out what the needs are, and match the products with the needs," he said.

That can be complicated. Mountain bikes led to hybrids (combinations of mountain and riding bikes), and now it seems as though there are bicycles for every conceivable category of rider. Someone who wants to ride on the Northern Central Rail Trail might want a different bike than a rider planning to tackle the path along the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal, Obriecht said, because the surfaces on the two trails are different.

But there are bikes for generalists, too. Race Pace stocks everything from high-end super-light road bikes that can cost as much as $10,000 to tricycles. Road bikes typically start at about $600 and mountain bikes at $300, he said.

The store also sells bike racks, bicycling clothes, helmets, hydration systems, power bars, panniers and other biking gear. "The idea would be that if you need it for cycling, we have it," he said.

Spring is the busiest time for Race Pace stores. A recent weekday saw a steady flow of customers. Obriecht greeted many by name, asking some about their biking adventures.

Marty Dwyer of Baltimore, who was browsing among the road bikes at Race Pace in Ellicott City, said he has four bicycles, but that won't stop him from buying another. "You can't have too many bikes," Dwyer said. "I did have six at one time."

Dwyer had dressed to go for a ride, but when it started to rain, he decided to go bike-shopping. As he looked at road bikes, Obriecht pointed out the pros and cons of each model. Dwyer didn't buy anything, but he said he probably would get a new bike soon. He likes that Race Pace lets him trade in his older bikes for newer models, he said.

"Race Pace is one of the better bike shops," said Dwyer, who typically rides 20 to 40 miles four or five days a week, he said. "They have a lot of selection," he said.

Twice a year, Race Pace hosts "demo days," so people can test a range of bicycles. But customers can take the fleets of demo bikes for a spin any time, Obriecht said. He said he doesn't care if they go for a 30-mile ride as long as they return the bikes at the end of the day.

Obriecht opened Race Pace in his home community of Woodlawn when he was 21, shortly after graduating from then-Towson State College with a business degree. "It's all I've ever done," he said of running his bike shops.

He acknowledged that there have been "a lot of ups and downs over the years, just like any small business." His wife, Pam, is a nurse, so she has given the family financial security with her steady paycheck, he said. His older son, Nik, 24, works at Race Pace, and his other children, Christa, 22, and Ben, 19, are in college. All love to cycle.

His employees are divided into two categories: floor staff, who know the pros and cons of every item; and mechanics, who repair bikes. All the employees are enthusiastic bicyclists.

"You wouldn't want to buy a camera from a guy who doesn't take pictures," Obriecht said.

And Obriecht is no exception. He owns six bikes - three mountain, two road and a fixed-gear -and tries to ride five or six days a week, he said.

Employee Ben Reisse, who has been at Race Pace for 2 1/2 years, works the floor. He applied for the job because he loves to ride.

"I figured working in a bike shop would be fun," he said. "Turns out it is."

He said most of his sales are the from the relationship forged with customers. He takes the time to learn what they want from a bicycle, then helps find the right one.

Obriecht has worked to build a reliable staff, and now he reaps the reward: the freedom to take long bike trips on occasion.

Last year, he rode with Nik for 35 days from Oregon to Michigan, and this past summer he traveled for two weeks with his wife and a couple of employees down the coast of California, starting in San Francisco and ending in Tijuana, Mexico.

Obriecht gets almost poetic when he talks about the pleasures of long-distance riding. Traveling 10 to 15 mph, he said, you can see things that you would miss in a car. "It's a fascinating way to travel," he said.

He also finds that he meets interesting people when traveling by bike. "It pre-introduces you," he said, because when you're on a bike you automatically have something to talk about.

"Every mile is an experience."

Race Pace Bicycles is in Ellicott City at 8450 Baltimore National Pike, 410-461-7878, and in Columbia at 6925 Oakland Mills Road, 410-290-6880.

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