Paul Kitagaki Jr. / pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Marty Schlesinger's brother Chris rides a vintage-style electric bike made by their company, Voltage Cycles of Grass Valley.

Cathie Anderson: BMX veteran peddles electric bicycles

Published: Saturday, Sep. 1, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Saturday, Sep. 1, 2012 - 12:14 am

Former BMX professional freestyle rider Marty Schlesinger toured the nation on a Mongoose bicycle in the 1980s, performing backflips, tire grabs and Superman moves.

You can occasionally find him in a skatepark today, but start your search at an industrial park in Grass Valley. There, he's forging a new path with his company, Voltage Cycles.

The man who once was a living billboard for Mongoose is trying to change the image of electric bicycles. Of the 11 million bikes sold nationwide last year, less than 1 percent were electric.

The bikes offer a viable, reliable source of transportation, but most come with a battery pack slapped over the rear wheel. They lack the "wow factor" that people want in lifestyle products, Schlesinger said.

"I try to … pay respect to that pre-war era of motorcycle: the boardtracker, that light motorcycle genre," he said. "… A lot of our designs, moving forward, will offer vintage styling with electronic motor systems."

The top bar on Schlesinger's bike looks like a slender motorcycle tank. It houses a 48-volt, 13-amp battery that shoots the bike up Grass Valley's hills at 20 mph. If it were any faster, it couldn't be sold as a bike.

A Dutch company wanted to buy his ideas and designs, but he turned them down. He has since secured funding from angel investor Gary Law, who made his fortune in Silicon Valley. They plan to take a standard production bike, expected to sell for around $3,500, to the massive Interbike trade show later this month.

Roughly a dozen retailers now sell Schlesinger's custom bikes, but the duo are after a mass market.

They expect the bike to sell well with women and with young people who don't have the car-culture mentality of past generations, especially those with a one-way commute of five to 10 miles.

"This is a bicycle," Law said. "… You don't have to pay registration. You don't have to pay insurance. You don't even have to have a driver's license. If you're the average American family with two adults and 2.3 kids, if you put one of these things in your garage, now everyone in the family has an option for short trips."

Ups and downs in cycling

Bicycle retailers must start with a solid strategy but also make adjustments to fend off competition. Move too late, and they taste defeat.

Mad Cat Bicycles owner Mike Upchurch closed up shop in July after nearly eight years in business. When Mad Cat opened, Upchurch said, he formed a shop racing team that focused on fun rather than podium finishes. He also offered customers an intense class in bicycle repair held over three evenings.

Such offerings are common now, Upchurch said, but not when he started. The number of bike retailers grew, he said, and many adopted similar ideas. Mad Cat no longer stood out, and then came the recession.

It was during that tough period that Wilson and Erin Gorrell launched Folsom Bike. Some people scoffed at their chances, Erin Gorrell said, but sales have grown annually and a second store, El Dorado Bike & Tri, opened in June.

"We want to be the Nordstrom of bike shops, so my goal is always to not have it smell like rubber or tires," Erin Gorrell said. "People like to come into nice places and hang out."

The Gorrells put a coffee shop, run by four full-time baristas, in their Folsom store, and the El Dorado location has a lounge. Their 36 staffers get regular customer service training, Gorrell said, and they look for ways to improve.

June also saw Jesse Scatton, the owner of East Sac Bike Shop, make his move into the Greenhaven/Pocket area with Greenhaven Bike Shop.

"There's a definite need in the community for (a bike shop)," Scatton said. "They have to drive six miles south to get service."

Scatton put his new store in a center where the American River Bike Shop was located years ago. He's positioned both his outlets as neighborhood shops offering a relaxed buying experience and focusing on finding the right product for each customer.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Cathie Anderson



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