It's raining bikes! The Rain City Interview
Posted on 17 July 2009
Editors note. Perhaps the first rule of starting a wholesale business is never provide credit. Rain City Bikes had all the right ideas, was certainly successful, but was poorly run - leaving others with the fallout. Since the rise of the city bike in 2008 there have been a ton of bike stores and bike companies who have either made it or failed. And, in truth, it's not all that different today. While the ideas are often most right, the execution is the most important. This is especially true now that the city bike market has moved further and further away from brick-and-mortar stores and more and more online.
Victor Cuevas Jr, owner of Rain City Bikes is almost certainly Vancouver's 'new man'. Not only does he own Vancouver's nicest city bikes, he also sports Vancouver's nicest hairstyle. It helps that he owns Rain City Salon and Rain City Bikes - a strange, but prescient combination. Victor is a familar face riding around Vancouver, tie and hair in the wind on his luxurious Dutch bike. As a hair stylist, Victor has the advantage of seeing things from outside of the box. In fact, what was missing in his eyes was nothing more than a box, in this case, the popular Bakfiets (literally: box-bike) bike which he imports into Canada. Today Victor sells a ton of Euro bikes to regular folks who just want a comfortable, safe, and durable bike that they can wear their regular clothes with. He's making Vancouver more beautiful one bike - and one hair-style - at a time. Eric Kamphof, editor of bespoke (and a former Vancouverite) conducts the interview.
BESPOKE: Victor, you are clearly an entrepreneur. It's not too often that you hear of a hair stylist opening a bike store, can you tell us a little about the history of Rain City Bikes and Rain Salon? What advantages do you have as a stylist entering the bike world? What do you see that others don't?
VICTOR: I think first and foremost I like pushing boundaries and seeing where they take me. I first opened my salon after only living in Vancouver for one year. I simply didn't find the perfect salon to work in so my friends and family pressured me into opening my own. After one year my wife Julia (then girlfriend) joined me and we opened Vancouver's first Salon and Boutique all in one space. We have had the salon for 8 years now. My wife's background is in Art History and Fashion Design. If you ask my friends my two main interests are Hair styling and biking.
Julia and I ended up going to Europe on a research trip for her fashion line and I couldn't get over all the stylish people in Amsterdam riding bikes and conducting regular life without any spandex in sight. It just blew my mind. And since Julia and I had a child I was particularly drawn to all the parents I saw riding bikes with one or two children on their bikes. Also the Bakfiets bike gave me one of those "Ah ha!" moments. I simply thought why don't we have all these bikes in our city? Our bike shop started out because I thought it was important for someone to import Bakfiets and Dutch bikes. We have since grown from there into a full fledged shop that carries bikes from multiple countries...
I think that as a Hair Stylist I notice that no man looks good in spandex... I don't care who you are. Unless you are competing please dont wear spandex!! Wear some bloody shorts over your junk. But seriously I have noticed over the last three years since I begun my crusade to bring practical bikes to vancouver more and more people are riding bikes that are not sport specific and are just wearing their regular duds. Vancouver has never looked better. I believe that the advantage I have as a stylist in the bike world is that I value customer service above all and I love finding out exactly what people are trying to get out of their bike. Making sure that the customer loves their new bike is a priority of mine and I love that European style bikes fit most peoples needs. Whether its riding to school, work, shopping for groceries or riding the kids to the park I want to make sure they do it comfortably and in style.
BESPOKE: Most people imagine Vancouver to be a cycling utopia since it embodies all the green politics and liberalism of the west coast? True, false? What are the challenges in Vancouver as a bike store that prefers to think outside of the box?
VICTOR: I personally feel that Vancouver has a long way to go to be a true cycling utopia. After having visited Amsterdam, Berlin and even Seattle I now know that Vancouver truly lags behind other cities in how it could find simple ways to encourage cycling. There are still too many conservative people out here who fear change. Take the latest chance to show the world that we are moving forward. The local government run by Gregor Robertson as Mayor closed one of six lanes on a popular bridge so that cyclists and pedestrians could be safer. The media instantly jumped on the band wagon saying that it would fail miserably. Why? Because people all over the city (even people I consider to be reasonable and educated) were up in arms and dead set against the change. The general attitude was so angry you would have thought that the entire bridge was taken away instead of just one bridge. Julia and I decided to take the day off and ride across it with the kids to find out for ourselves if the city had made a mistake. Indeed it had not. Traffic flowed freely for cars, cyclists and pedestrians. No traffic jams and no fighting between any commuters broke out. I applaud the city for making the change but they have a long way to go to catch up to such cities as London that helps its citizens purchase bikes at cost for commuting or Portland where they build bike corrals protected from the rain or Paris with its bike rent/share program. Something that Vancouver can emulate from Toronto (sorry fellow Vancouverites) is to simply put up more bike racks. I was shocked and jealous that Toronto seems to have bike racks every 10-20 feet in high traffic shopping areas. In Vancouver once a bike rack has 3 bikes in it thats it.... you will have to find a tree or free parking meter to lock your bike up. Not encouraging or convenient.
BESPOKE: What does a 'city cyclist' mean in Vancouver? As a former Vancouverite, the bike culture I remember was that of yellow jackets, spandex, and performance hybrid bikes. Vancouver is also known as the city where polar fleece is acceptable office attire. (True?). Do people wear suits in Vancouver? Have urban Vancouverites embraced the bike as a lifestyle object that can not only take them to work, shopping, and nightclubs, but do so comfortably in the comfort of their regular wardrobe?
VICTOR: Well most of the cities polar fleece has disappeared in recent years. In bad weather fleece has been replace by stylish wool overcoats or snowboarding jackets.... and if you live in a hip area a recycled leather jacket. There are still a lot of people who ride converted (and shockingly non-converted) mountain bikes, performance hybrids and road bikes. These are generally the people who wear the "sport wear" you speak of. I do hope that since you were here last that they aren't wearing flourescent pink, yellow or blue.... And yes we wear suits.... but its usually reserved for funerals, weddings and lawyers. I sometimes wear suits at the salon but never at the bike shop. I will however wear ties and vests to the bike shop sometimes and I find that customers treat me very nice and seem to like it. I guess it beat what they are used to seeing in a bike shop. And if you live in a few of Vancouver's funkier, edgier neighborhoods people conduct all kinds of regular life by bicycle. Work, shopping (for beer), nightclubs and all kinds of activities are conducted by bicycle. I am proud to say that I live in one of those neighborhoods. In other parts of town this is not the norm but this could be because those neighborhoods are all self contained and everything is within walking distance for those people. Or it could be because they spent a lot of money on that expensive SUV and they are going to use it even to go pick up a DVD. You choose which theory you like.
BESPOKE: What are the European brands you carry? What sells the best? Who is buying these bikes, and why? Is it the 'typical' bike store customer, or is it someone different? What is important to them when they are buying a real city bike?
VICTOR: We sell Batavus, Azor/Workcycles, Pashley, Biomega, and Brompton. We find that our best sellers (in no particular order) would be Batavus, Pashley and Brompton. Mostly women purchase Batavus and Pashley bikes. Bromptons sell equally amongst the sexes. I would not say that our customers are typical bike shop customers. But I do believe that our customers make up a better range of what would be considered average Vancouverites. Vancouver is an interesting market due to the high amount of Mountain bikes found here. Vancouver of all the large cities in North America may be one of the slowest in fully embracing the "city bike" concept over a bike that either is a mountain bike or resembles a mountain bike. But it the 3 years we have been in business we have noticed quite the change. In our first year people thought we were nuts. Now we get people daily coming into our shop and telling us that we are the best shop in town. I can think of two reasons people would say this. One is my incredible staff. They bend over backwards for our customers. And two, its our incredible selection of quality bikes from Europe. These bikes are just so damn sexy and practical. The people that get it really get it. We have one customer who has bought 2 bikes from us and has brought all his friends in to buy bikes... he does all the talking. Every time he brings someone in he sells a bike. We would offer him a job but he has a great job as a police officer and in his off time all he does is ride his Pashley Guv'nor around town.
BESPOKE: If we were to say that the North American bike industry has often sided with the suburban rider than the urban rider, do you think this is true? Why do you think it has taken so long for the industry to recognize city cyclists? What do you think of the current efforts to produce city bikes by North American companies? How do they compare to your existing product lines?
VICTOR: I think for me personally that the North American bike industry has gotten away from its roots. What started out as companies making great bikes for families to enjoy together or to get to school or work has evolved into companies competing to make the lightest, fastest most gidget-gadget bike out there. Along the way they forgot about all the things people are now rediscovering as important. Bikes that last a long time, Bikes that are practical, Bikes that are stylish, bikes that can deliver the newspaper, deliver pizza, pick up the kids from school, go the gym (or yoga if you live in Kits). That is why our motto is "Bikes for Life, Life in the city"
The industry got so caught up in road racing (a la Lance Armstrong) and mountain biking (thank you North Shore Mountains) that they completely forgot about regular people. I personally didn't even think about these types of bikes until I went travelling and then started having children. It was then I noticed that perhaps lugging my kids on a dual-suspension mountain bike was not that convenient or easy. I think only a few companies get it. There are few models that Trek and Gary Fisher are marketing that come close but are still light years away in terms of offering bikes with built in locks, racks, jacket protectors and fully enclosed chaincases. Sure they make bikes that look cool.... but are they the real deal? In my opinion not yet. I don't see anything out there yet that compares to the hand made quality, stylish looks, and comfort that our bikes offer.
BESPOKE: What do you ride, and why? What is the ideal bike for an urban professional who lives most of their lives within 10km of home and has some Vancouver hills to contend with? What is the best bike for those who may travel to work longer than 10km or want a bike that can multitask as a recreational bike and city bike? Which bike is your best seller?
VICTOR: [laughs]... what do I ride?.... anything I can get my hands on! As mentioned earlier I ride mountain bikes a lot.... but I save those for the trails. In the city I have a Brompton for personal commuting and meeting my friends for drinks. When I ride with my children I use a Surly Big Dummy because my son and I take his little push bike, and a bunch of his toys wherever we go. My wife has an Oma bike from Belgium that Mark in the shop custom built. He did a great job and Julia uses the Bobike Mini with windscreen. She gets comments everywhere we go. People love coming over and chatting with her about her experience with it. Moms always want to know where to get the kids seat. I have a Bobike Maxi on the back of my bike for my son. I test ride every type of bike that we sell so you will also find me all over town riding all kinds of bikes....its partly why I opened a store of my own. I think that any bike is great for 10k or under rides of any kind. Single speeds, old ten speeds, Euro bikes with 3 gears.... they all work. If you work or ride longer than 10k then I would recommend a bike with multiple gears to help you out as you begin to tire from your ride. Especially if you ride with lots of gear. The Pashley bike are surprisingly sporty in their ride-feel. A 3spd Pashley is perfectly adequate for most people but the 5spd is pure luxury. You can handle most distances, hills, and loads with that. The Biomega's with their 8spd Shimano hubs are great as well. Our best sellers would have to be the Pashley, Batavus and Brompton brands.
BESPOKE: You've traveled to Amsterdam on several occasions. What is it that inspired you the most? The bikes? The food? Is Amsterdam a bike utopia or can we create little Amsterdams all over North America? What are the possibilities and impossibilities of establishing a bike culture in Vancouver?
VICTOR: I think what inspired me the most about Amsterdam was the casualness given to all activities. Long breakfasts, long lunches, lots of culture, and bikes bloody everywhere ridden by everyone.... rich, poor, young, old, well dressed and the even better dressed. I know a lot of people like the beer there but I personally love jong-jenever so yummy [editor: gin without botanicals? blech!]. And I also love how people shop for the ingredients for dinner everyday. I can't recall seeing a Costco or Walmart anywhere thank god.... and no Starbucks that I can remember. But many great cafes. Amsterdam is not a bike utopia but they address so many of the needs of a cyclist: dedicated bike lanes, bike parkades, rules that protect cyclists, and many other things that make Vancouver and other cities seem antiquated. I believe that one of our best chances to fully establish a strong bike culture is now. With all the talk about being green, and high gas prices and the economy bottoming out can introduce the bicycle as a savior. The impossibilities here are the same as in any city. People who fear change, car-culture, short sighted politicians, and negative media can help kill any sort of momentum that has been building.
BESPOKE: Vancouver is known for rain, rain and more rain. How do people deal with the rain, do they stop riding or do they continue riding? What do they do to stay dry?
VICTOR: Oddly enough Vancouver is seeing more periods without rain. Some say this is due to global climate change. Our rainy period seems to be more concentrated in our spring and fall. In winter we actually get snow now. A lot of people do stop riding when it rains but the hardcore commuters are dedicated all year round. During our rainy season we sell a lot of fenders.... we have fenders in all shapes in sizes for all types of bikes. Of course if you by a Euro bike you are well protected. If its only drizzling or misty then light wool scarves and the like are more than sufficient. For a heavy downpour rain jackets come in super handy of course. I personally like wearing shorts as my legs dry faster than any pants I have found. And I get so warm riding that waterproof pants are just too much for me. If its snowing jeans suit me just fine. My light wool long underwear that I use for snowboarding works really well under my clothes when its super cold. I've seen people wear all kinds of outfits to stay dry in our weather. I have always been curious about a bike poncho. I think for the most part if you live in Vancouver you know you are going to get wet.... so just suck it up and bring extra clothes.
BESPOKE: Chicken and egg question: how do you get more people on bikes? Better bikes, or better bike lanes? Which comes first in a city like Vancouver?
VICTOR: I think you get more people on bikes by seeing our politicians and celebrities riding bikes for one. If the local government helped subsidize bikes for people in need then that would also help. Better bikes don't matter so much. As long as people feel that bikes are safe and comfortable they will buy them. Bike lanes will help too. People's perception is that its unsafe to ride your bike in the city. If we can make it safer then more people will ride. If the government wanted to re-introduce bike handling skills classes in all elementary schools in the Metro Vancouver area over time you will notice that more and more of the population will feel comfortable turning to bicycles as a tool to solve some of their life issues. It could help our society be healthier, pollute less, save money and generally slow down.... I mean, why be in such a rush?
BESPOKE: What demographic in Vancouver is not riding bikes but should be? If they aren't riding, why aren't they? What do you do to romance the wide potential cycling demographic into your store and onto the right bike? What are the barriers to creating new city cyclists?
VICTOR: The super-duper rich people are not riding bikes to their tennis lessons.... and the super-duper poor are not riding bikes to work.... they're taking the bus. Weird, right? Wealthy people can afford any bike available but hey, why ride a bike when you have a Mercedes or Land Rover? And the poor.... I am not sure they have the funds to buy a bike, maintain it and keep it from getting stolen depending on the neighborhood they live in. This is where government programs could help. Subsidize a bike, teach a skill, change a life. We spend a fair deal of time advertising to the general public in Vancouver. And we are starting to find people from all neighborhoods and even from some far away suburbs coming in to check out our bikes. I believe in the "try it and buy it" philosophy. If the city wanted more cyclists then why not institute a bike share/rental program like Paris? After the public tries it out for a day or two they will perhaps want to purchase their own bike so that they have it available at any time they want. And what a great way for tourists to get around such a beautiful city as Vancouver.
BESPOKE: What does the future hold for Vancouver in terms of its emerging bike culture? What are the challenges and what are the strengths already there?
VICTOR: I think we are seeing all kinds of sub cultures grow.... tall bikes, chopped bikes, cruiser clubs, bicycle polo, midnight rides, critical mass, naked rides, its all there....
All we have to do now is make it normal for regular people ride their bikes to meet friends at Starbucks. The city needs to make the bike routes line up with transit hubs, encourage folding bikes for commuters so that commuting isnt so crowded. etc.. Things like this.
BESPOKE: If you could design the perfect city for biking, what would it look like? What does the perfect city cyclist look like? What is he or she wearing?
VICTOR: I think the perfect bike city would have bicycle routes that matched up with major transit hubs. Bikes would be allowed on the trains like in NYC at anytime. I would take all the good things about Amsterdam, Berlin, Portland, Copenhagen and Montreal in how they work with cyclists and put it all in one city. I like that in Amsterdam car drivers always give the right of way to cyclists. Why? Because its the law and also because most drivers are also cyclists as well. The perfect city cyclist is always wearing a smile!
BESPOKE: So, why after owning a hair salon did you feel the need to open a bike shop?
VICTOR: Well, first of all I didn't think Vancouver had a bike shop like the ones I had seen in Europe, Toronto, and even in Victoria. So my first idea was just to import special bikes and sell them over the internet. But we quickly picked up momentum. We have such a passionate staff and enough customers that request what can't be found in Vancouver that we quickly grew from a warehouse space to a retail space with a full repair bay. We are now one of the only places in town that will service European style bikes. Most shops are afraid to work on these bikes simply because they are different. So in short we felt that there was a need to have a shop like ours in Vancouver. Something that was more of a boutique and non-intimidating to people. An environment where people felt comfortable asking questions. A place that the whole family was welcome.