With so many flashy, art-inspired bike racks popping up in and around Sacramento these days, there's a good chance you've overlooked the racks poised to become a force in the industry.
They're low-key and will never be mistaken for public art, but Sacramento-based Park a Bike's Varsity model racks are considered one of the best of their kind. The solid steel racks, which hold two bikes and sell for $250, have begun attracting attention from college campuses and major municipalities.
"It's actually not a bike rack. It's a dock. It's more than a bent piece of metal that you lean your bike against," said Christopher Luyet, president of Park a Bike.
The company has nine employees, a headquarters in Sacramento, a 20,000-square-foot warehouse and office space in Olivehurst and a distribution center in Oroville. The racks – or docks, if you will – are made in California of case-hardened steel, meaning they are nearly impossible to cut or break.
The units are also deceptively complex. The troughs where the front wheel is parked are precisely angled and spaced 14 inches apart so two bikes can be locked side by side without any clanging or interlocking of handlebars.
In the world of bike rack design, it turns out, that's key – it makes these racks functional and easy to install in high-traffic areas.
The Varsity bike dock has been making news in recent days in Sacramento as part of a pilot program at three locations, where one on-street parking spot is temporarily replaced with enough racks to park and lock 10 bikes.
Park a Bike and local bike advocates like Rick Houston see these "bike corrals" as an exciting component of the urban landscape in the not-so-distant future, making more room for bikes without blocking sidewalks and running afoul of handicap accessibility regulations.
Houston, a registered nurse and longtime bike advocate known for leading the popular "tweed rides" in the city, pushed for the corral idea in Sacramento after seeing it work well in several other cities. He's a fan of Park a Bike.
"They're a cool group of guys. I first encountered their product outside Old Soul (the midtown coffee shop and roaster)," Houston said. "It's my favorite rack. It protects the bike. It locks it securely and it's easy to get the bike in and out."
Rob Archie, owner of Pangaea Two Brews, a popular beer and coffee spot in Curtis Park, had one of the on-street corrals installed for a day outside his business. Such corrals could become semipermanent fixtures throughout the city if all goes well. Archie, who played pro basketball in Europe, is a big supporter of making bike riding and walking more prominent.
"It's really exciting," Archie said of the corrals. "I love the statement. It's just practical. We have a lot of groups that come and ride their bikes here. One of the things you can learn in Europe is that we can do with less. It's a simple thing like this. It's rethinking. I've gotten so much response about this on Facebook."
Ease of use, without the clumsy collision of bikes or tripping over wheels or pedals on bikes locked haphazardly, is one of the keys to Park a Bike's early success on college campuses. Installed in large numbers, the racks can be laid out to create 24-inch aisles for the bikes to be rolled in and out of parking areas.
The University of Southern California recently bought 650 units, creating parking for 1,300 bikes, and Luyet said the school plans to order 300 more. Several other colleges have purchased the Varsity in large numbers, too.
The soft polymer bumper pads, or "smart guards," that cushion the bike frame from the steel rack can be custom-printed with the customer's name and logo. A cap on the top of the center tube can hold what's known as a QR label, which can be scanned with a smartphone, directing users to an online site that could be customized with anything from an instructional video to tourist information or advertising.
"Education is everything," said Park a Bike's Luyet as he pulled up an instructional video on his phone. "If you don't educate customers, there will be a loss of traction."
Though Park a Bike began selling its bike racks in 2011, the company's roots date to 1991, when Greg Bauer designed a hitch rack that could hold four bikes on the back of a BMW or Land Rover, Luyet said. That early success grew into Rack N Road, the popular bike rack retailer with six stores on the West Coast, including one in Sacramento. Along with Bauer and Luyet, Park a Bike's main players include designer and chief engineer Donn Van Dusen and Mike Kilmartin, who oversees national sales.
Ed Cox, who coordinates bike issues for the city of Sacramento, said Park a Bike has an impressive product and notes that the city has purchased the Varsity in small numbers. But he said Sacramento, which recently converted unused parking meter poles into bike racks, will likely use various kinds of racks in the years ahead. Park a Bike's model, Cox said, works especially well in high-capacity locations.
Luyet sees big things ahead for the company as cities and colleges throughout the United States strive to become more bike-friendly. The Sacramento-based company, he said, is gearing up to be a force in the bike rack – or bike dock – market.