i have mentioned on one or two occasions the iniquities of attempting to transport a bicycle to and from the island, always assuming there is some sort of event or ride at the other end. it's obviously not particularly hard if you've a car with a roofrack, but folks with high falutin' green credentials such as myself am bereft of motor car (and all the better for it, in my opinion), therefore confined in my transportational choices. granted, i could avail myself of a bike bag/box, and have the local carrier transport it to its ultimate destination, but that rather presupposes that i, or a third party, will be there to meet it when it arrives. to be perfectly possessive about the situation, i'd rather the machine went as my accompaniment.
getting a boxed/bagged bicycle from washingmachinepost cottage to the port or airport of departure is a relatively simple matter, but at this stage, one or two impracticalities start to rear their ugly head. flybe, who service islay with two daily flights, are willing to accept suitably packaged bicycles, but cannot guarantee their travel on the same aircraft as i, due to variations in passenger numbers or quantities of baggage and cargo to be transported on any given day. at the point of booking, this is an unknown quantity, and i'm not that keen on surprises.
taking it on the calmac ferry is no problem whatsoever. since both islay ferries are carrying up to 86 vehicles at a time, a bicycle is mere bagatelle. however, on arrival at kennacraig on the mainland, the next stage of transport is a citylink coach to glasgow, and here we hit the same conundrum as faced at islay airport. the new coaches operating the route are slightly larger than of old, and thus possessed of greater luggage space. citylink state quite categorically that they will also accept suitably packaged bicycles, but entirely at the driver's discretion. again, there is no way of booking a bicycle onto the bus at point of purchase (preferably around fourteen days in advance and online to ensure a suitably priced tariff). thus the spectre remains that it is perfectly possible to sail self and bicycle to scotland to be told "not on my coach, mate" or words of similar customer service speak.
always one to take into account any possible hindrances to forward motion, i'd rather the foregoing didn't happen to me. consequently, i am somewhat loathe to attend events that require me to bring my bicycle. i will happily accede to accusations of wimpishness, because that may well be all it amounts to, but i don't like hiccups in forward planning. generally speaking, if it can go wrong, it probably will.
the solution to my perceived problem, and indeed that of anyone else who encounters similar hurdles, would be the existence of a hire company close to any destination i or you may wish to consider (within reason). it works for motor cars; in these enlightened times, why should such not be the case for bicycles? yes, bicycle hire is often available in the most unexpected of locations, but the likelihood of finding something that is not a steel mountain bike that first saw action when tom ritchey and joe breeze were playing down mount tamalpais, seems mighty limited. those of us with tendencies towards asphalt would prefer something with a tad fewer gears, less weight and a degree of qualitative svelteness about it.
pie in the sky?
well, as far as most of mainland britain is concerned that may truly be the case, but for the odd exception, however, for joe bartoe, inhabiting more agreeable climes in southern california, the times they are a changing. joe is the proprietor of synaptic cycles a high-end road bike rental company completing its first year in business. having pointed out that hire bicycles in the uk are hardly team issue, is this more reguarly the case in california and beyond?
"The bikes for rent here in California really run the gamut. The most common bike rentals here, by far, are beach cruisers, city bikes, and lower end road and mountain bikes. These types of rentals are especially ubiquitous in the coastal and/or touristy areas. Given California's climate and it's great roads and trails, however, there is a growing demand for nicer bicycles when people travel to the area. You can find much higher end road and mountain bike rentals in certain areas of California. There are pockets where such rental business can be supported-coastal Southern California, parts of Northern California, Napa Valley, Sonoma, for example."
i wondered therefore whether the existence of synaptic and possibly others, is in response to a demand for such bicycles for hire or whether joe and his peers are effectively encouraging or creating a market of their own. "I like to think of my business as "enabling" the market. A lot of road riders want to continue to ride while on vacation and due to the cost or hassle of traveling with the bike, or the idea that a decent rental cannot be found, they simply decide to go without. My business enables them to ride a great bike while on vacation at a cost that is often less than flying their own, without any of the hassle.
"I came up with my concept when traveling to California from Rhode Island. Traveling with my wife, my kids, and everything else that one needs to bring when traveling with kids made bringing a bike impractical.Ê Instead, I found a rental at a local shop, but the service was crappy and I had to drive to the shop to pick up the bike and to drop it off. There are a lot of bike shops that rent decent bikes, but they don't always service their rental fleet regularly or give their customers much time. I'm committed to providing great service and I deliver and pick up, while keeping my rates as competitive as possible. If I'm doing my job appropriately, I show my customers that they can rent an outstanding bike, get it delivered, get a great fit, and find outstanding roads to ride on. The market's definitely there. I just try to make it a no-brainer to use my services rather than someone else's."
it's not a given that because anything works in america that it would do likewise in the uk. at the risk of stating the obvious, america is a much bigger country than britain, therefore any potential customer base can be multiplied several times over. is joe aware of there being a substantial market in the usa for bicycle rentals? "As I mentioned before, I think certain areas in the US are ripe for bicycle rental businesses, but you have to have a substantial customer base that comes with people traveling to the area and needing bikes. The better shops know who they will be renting to and what those people will be looking for in a bike. For example, you'll see businesses in downtown areas renting city bikes, cafe bikes, fixed gear bikes, etc., while beach community shops might offer beach cruisers. Areas with great single track will have more mountain bike rental shops. And places where there is great road riding to be found will have more road bike rental shop. My business serves Orange County and San Diego County in Southern California and these areas are business and vacation destinations with incredibly large numbers of hotels, resorts and vacation rentals. Our great weather here allows for year round riding and we have great roads to ride on. Altogether, this makes this area an even better road bicycle rental market than most. "
we've had all the stories of the day ostensibly pointing out that cycling is the new golf. rather than head out for eighteen holes that are merely a backdrop for corporate discussion and conversation, business executives are dressing in lycra and clipless pedals for a more energetic method of doing the same. woe betide the personal assistant who fails to lead out their ceo for the sprint. if such is indeed the case, has bartoe found healthy business or corporate demand for his services?
"It's funny you ask that. The third person to rent from me when I started the business was someone of high standing on the Chicago Board Options Exchange. When I delivered the bike, he mentioned that he and his colleagues rarely played golf anymore, and that most of them now ride. So, I guess that is true over here as well. I would say about 20% of my business comes from people who are here for business reasons. I have also been hired by companies to provide bike rental services at a conference, and to lead team-building rides for executives and sales people. Additionally, I had a guy hire three bikes for himself and two of his colleagues for their stay in the area while they were here on business. It's a small sample size given that I've only been in business for a year, but I would have to say that yes, there is a corporate and business demand. Time will tell how substantial it is, but the area where I live is home to a number of sports-related businesses, like Oakley and Muscle Milk, so I can envision a demand for businesses like mine when they are entertaining clients or putting together corporate retreats."
as one who spent several years attending to the mechanical needs of a relatively small and decidedly low-end cycle hire just round the corner, i'm aware of all the pernickity trials and trivialities involved in keeping a fleet of bicycles ship-shape and bristol fashion. it is rarely a one-man operation and there are a diverse number of little things that can get between efficiency and smooth running. how many attend to the customer's every need at synaptic?
Me, myself, and I, but I've been considering firing myself. He's a real pain in the ass! Okay, more seriously. Primarily, I am solo. I have two people who are sort of "contract" employees. One is a long-time bike mechanic who I rely on to do the hard stuff and to provide mechanical support when I'm doing events that require me to have someone like that on hand. Fortunately, he has a home-based business and doesn't rely on me to keep him fed. The other fellow is a retiree who knows the area and the roads around here really well. He serves as tour director/guide when I need someone for those corporate events. He's not a speed demon and he's a perfect fit for leading a ride for people of varied abilities. The rest, I pretty much do on my own. I'm the receptionist, order taker, bike cleaner, bike tuner, fitter, shipper/receiver, delivery guy, and accountant. I'm sure I left a few things off my list, but you get the idea."
the difficult part of any hire operation, whether it be bicycles, cars, power tools or whatever, is balancing peak demand with off-peak, and finding a happy balance between the number of offerings you'd like to have and the number the bank will happily lend you money to purloin. southern california holds an awful lot of people, so how many bicycles does joe have at any given time?
"I started this business with five bicycles last November. As spring came along and I was getting busier, I bought two more. These were all carbon road bikes with full Ultegra components. I've since added a couple of city bikes to the queue. I will keep re-investing to get more bikes as business allows. So to answer the question, I have as many as seven road bikes and two city bikes available at a given time. Starting in late spring through October, the bikes are out pretty regularly and last minute renters don't find it easy to get a bike. I recommend reserving a bike in advance. That way you know it'll be available (and I can get fit info from you in advance to set up your rental prior to delivery)."
observation on this side of the clyde revolves around noting that many of those who hire bicycles are not regular cyclists. in fact, for many it seems renting constitutes either their first time on a bicycle, or the first time since they were kids. holiday cyclists. has synaptic found that persons such us this make up a notable proportion of the customer base?
"I haven't noticed this much. Most of my clients are fairly avid cyclists. I think that billing the company as a "high-end road bike rental company" dissuades the holiday cyclist. That, and the prices. There are definitely cheaper ways to go if you don't care what level of road bike you'd like to rent. I've also gotten good at recognizing the casual cyclist during our phone conversations. I have a good relationship with a few shops that serve that segment much better than I do so I refer those people to them and I get referrals in return. "
for a few years after leaving college, i spent time working for hertz car rental at the workface; cleaning, oiling re-fueling, fixing and transporting. it's no secret that rental cars, particularly those for business customers, tend not to be treated very kindly. hertz used to keep their vehicles on the fleet for eighteen months before they were replaced, and many of those were, to put not too fine a point on it, pretty well trashed by the time they were driven down to manchester airport to be prepared for sale. has joe had any similar problems affecting his high-end road bikes?
"I have been lucky on this front. There has been some damage-a scratched shifter, a broken spoke or two. I just picked up a bike from a guy who managed to shift over the big chainring, and he put some scratches into the face of the crankset. We're not sure how this happened. I wasn't able to replicate it and neither has my mechanic. In general, the things that have happened are all things that happen to all of us occasionally, and so far, everything that has happened is more cosmetic damage than anything else.
"We do require a deposit in the form of an authorization on our clients credit cards. This is to cover potential damage and loss. Our rental agreement also states that customers are responsible should anything happen. I think it helps to protect the company that we do this. It keeps them aware of treating the bike as it was their own."
on reading through the services offered by synaptic cycles, it is impressive to note that joe offers roadside assistance in the case of repairable or irreparable breakdown. is this something that is invoked regularly? "Not regularly, but it's a perk of using my company. It doesn't do me any good to have my customers or my bikes sitting on the side of the road. How would that reflect upon me when they told their friends about what happened? "The other time, the customer was 40 minutes by car from me. I directed him to a coffee shop near where he broke down, and I took a set of wheels down. When I arrived, he was outside the cafe talking to another cyclist. While he finished his coffee, I quickly switched out the wheels and adjusted the rear derailleur and brakes. When I looked up, the guy my customer was talking to was just staring at me in disbelief. Then he says: 'Now, that's service!' That's what I'm trying to do with each and every customer-provide the best possible service."
"I've had two instances where customers have called. Both for broken spokes (same wheel both times-don't worry, I had that wheel replaced!). The first time, it happened close to my shop so I picked him up and brought him to the shop and switched out the wheels and then sent him on his way to complete the ride.
"The other time, the customer was 40 minutes by car from me. I directed him to a coffee shop near where he broke down, and I took a set of wheels down. When I arrived, he was outside the cafe talking to another cyclist. While he finished his coffee, I quickly switched out the wheels and adjusted the rear derailleur and brakes. When I looked up, the guy my customer was talking to was just staring at me in disbelief. Then he says: 'Now, that's service!' That's what I'm trying to do with each and every customer-provide the best possible service."
synaptic cycles offer calfee carbon framed bicycles equipped with shimano ultegra groupsets, and do offer to sell these to any customer who finds their ride to be so impressive they just have to have one of their own. does this happen often? "I haven't had anyone purchase one of the bikes yet, but I have had several inquire. People are looking for a great deal and most of my bikes are still less a year old and have relatively low mileage on them so the bikes are discounted a great deal, but they're not rock bottom.
"Most of my bikes come with their frame warranties intact. I'm a Calfee dealer and they are the main brand that I rent. Because I'm a dealer, I can offer these bikes with their full frame warranties. You get an incredible bike at a discount and you still get the full frame warranty (25 years for the Tetra Pro). The discount, unfortunately, just isn't always what people had hoped for."
aside from my adopting the mantra 'the customer is always wrong' as a means of remaining steadfast in the face of adversity, many a consumer is wont to resort to awkward or downright impossible requests when it comes to the point of sale, so to speak. have synaptic been inundated with bizarre or demanding requests?
"Nothing majorly weird. I wish I had some stories. It would make this a lot more interesting. I did have one customer who was fairly regular for a while, and he wanted Michelin Pro Race tires on his rentals. Fortunately, I had a wheelset with those on it so when he called, I'd prep his bike and throw those wheels on. I also had a triathlete client who needed a forward position on the bike. I ended up buying a seatpost that allowed me to get him in the right position. Now, I have that at my disposal if another client needs a similar position.
"I've also had a few customers who were doing point to point rides and wanted the bikes delivered one place and picked up in another. Since I deliver and pick up as part of my service, this hasn't been a problem. I've also been asked to carry luggage from point to point. I'll usually do this for free if it involves picking up and delivering at the same place and time as the bike delivery and pick-up, but if there's multi-day baggage transport involved, I'll charge extra for that service."
aside from relating the possibility of cycle hire to my own modest demands, in that i'd be most grateful if i could count on a service such as synaptic at journey's end, there is more than one reason to rent a bike. it only takes the odd cursory glance across the postings on twitter to find impassioned pleas for the loan of a suitable steed on which to partake of some weekend racing. there's no way that's going to take place on a ten year-old mountain bike. is synaptic willing to rent to those who wish to race?
"Yes. I've had a few roadies come into town who wanted to do a local race. I make sure they understand that the bike is their responsibility and that the waiver and rental agreement that they signed binds them to that. I've also had several triathletes race on my bikes. The first time someone really messes up a bike in a race, I might need to re-think that, but so far, it hasn't been an issue. "
as joe mentioned in his opening paragraphs, california is home to an impressive number of off-road trails, and that there is a demand for high-end mountain bikes as well as those suited for the road. has he any plans to branch out into this parallel yet different market? "I don't yet. I'm not a big mountain biker, and I don't feel like I have as good a feel for what my clients would need and want if I went that route. I have been a roadie for about 25 years now and I feel like I know that market so much better. If I went to mountain bikes as well, I wouldn't be able to serve my road clients at the same level.Ê We'll see. As the business grows, maybe I'll branch out in that area, but only if I feel I can do it well."
also related above, synaptic currently stables calfee bicycle exclusively, though there is mention on the website of cervelo also being available. dig a little deeper, however, and the synaptic blog teasingly mentions the possibility of another brand joining the operation in the future. is joe willing to let the cat out of the bikeshed as to which brand that might be?
"Oh, that is a tough question. I have been having some difficulty in that arena. I don't know about the UK, but here, bike companies are always trying to protect their dealers. One way they do that is by not selling to shops that don't have a retail space. Since I operate out of storage and a home office, I don't qualify. I got lucky with Calfee Design. They gave me a great deal on the bikes and allow me to be a dealer. In exchange, they get free press on my site, my blog, my Twitter page, my FB page, and my jerseys. Additionally, well over 100 people this past year have enjoyed riding their bikes. My customers have tweeted and facebooked and blogged about their time on the Calfees, as well. This is the kind of advertising that money can't buy! When your friends and riding partners are raving about their bikes, that gets your attention.
"Some brands will sell me bikes at a discounted (but not great) price, but they won't let me be a dealer. This means, I can't sell the bikes new and most require me to wait several months before I can sell one. Additionally, none have indicated a willingness to transfer the warranty if I do sell one. That makes the bike essentially a used bike before I even get it.
"I feel that Synaptic Cycles offers a great opportunity for a bike company to get their bikes out on the road and get people talking about them. If you or any of your readers know of a connection I can explore, I'm all ears.
"For now, it's just Calfee. Calfee, Calfee, Calfee, Calfee, Calfee! Have I mentioned Calfee yet?
having taken care of business now for his first year, it's hard to run any sort of business without some sort of a plan for the future (unless you're me and just fall from one day into the next). what's next for synaptic? "The company's just a year old as of October 31st. I've been profitable this year. Not by much, but profitable. I am starting to advertise a bit more and I am trying to get my web presence more established. Within a few days, I should have a re-vamped website up and running as well. My customers have been universally happy with my service and I feel that the more people find out about the business, the better things will get. A bigger web presence should help with that.
"For the next year, I want to continue to grow the business and add some new bikes to the queue. My goal is to get up to about 15 bikes by the end of the next year, with at least a few bikes that are more appropriate for my female clients. I will probably be adding race wheel rentals to my menu in the near future, as well as continue to add to my online store.
"As the year commences, I will also be making stronger efforts at setting up some corporate events. We've already done some short single day tours, but I can definitely see us planning and doing some all day or multi-day team building rides, providing mechanical and sag support along the way."
posted sunday 6 november 2011..........................................................................................................................................................................................................