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On The Scene: Portland pedals forward

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On the Scene
Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Like craft beer, rich coffee and innovative public transportation, bicycling stands out as quintessentially Portland. An ironic trait given where Portlanders actually live, yet the bike business has managed to boom over the past few years. “It’s not like this town is made for cycling,” says Chris Di Stefano, director of marketing for Chris King Precision Components. “It’s not flat here and the weather is not kind. It really is the spirit of the people, and in this case, the spirit of businesspeople.”

Di Stefano was one of six local industry panelists at an American Marketing Association luncheon this week in Northeast Portland. The discussion was centered on the city’s increasingly popular bike culture, what makes Portland a major hub and how all kinds of businesses can capitalize on the ever-growing market.

There’s no question Portland has established itself as a national leader in bike-friendliness, but the world is taking notice, too. “I moved here six years ago [for] the promise of what Portland was becoming, and the more I travel around the country and around the world for cycling, everyone wants to talk about Portland,” Di Stefano says. And he says the local industry’s extraordinary growth over the past five years has as much to do with straight-up biking businesses (manufacturers, parts retailers, etc.) as with bike-related services, such as panelist Charlie Wicker’s Trailhead Coffee Roasters, which delivers coffee throughout the Portland area on bike.

But what makes Portland stand out? Ira Ryan, founder of Ira Ryan Cycles, points out that the local biking community is insular and tight-knit, with businesses and consumers alike making an effort to benefit each other. “So it feels very much like a cottage industry, but the one thread that ties everything together is the amount of passion that connects [everyone],” Ryan says. In addition, Portland’s worldwide recognition for its bike culture has given the city a unique brand cache of its own, similar to what happened with Oregon when its microbrews gained international acclaim. “From a marketing perspective, there’s definitely value in the creation of Portland as a brand when it comes to cycling,” says David Lowe-Rogstad, president and co-founder of Portland agency Substance.

But there are certainly some challenges to marketing bike businesses in Portland. For one thing, many of them are small startups and don’t have the resources for traditional advertising. Which is, of course, where grassroots methods like getting involved with the community come in. And panelists Daniel Powell of Portland Design Works and Tom Rousculp of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance both agreed that using the Internet and social media sites have been highly effective (and free) ways of spreading the word about their offerings.

Yet there’s an idea of exclusivity and extremity that’s often associated with biking in the mainstream media. “Bicycling has become much like competitive eating,” Di Stefano says. “It has to be about the extremes for it to gain any favor with anyone who doesn’t consider themselves cyclists.” Those people assume they have to sell their cars, ride in the freezing rain, buy the best bike possible and ride as far as they can in order to be a true cyclist. “And that’s something I’d love to see go away,” Di Stefano says. “Anyone can ride a bike.”

Portlanders are also particularly careful about keeping their bike culture authentic. Di Stefano cited the rise and fall of the mountain biking business as an example, which he says followed the money until it lost its heat. “And now we have this great scene in Portland that we’re all going to be very protective of, because we don’t want that to happen here,” Di Stefano says. “We want it to stay core and cultural, but we still want everybody to come in. This is what’s made Portland. None of us made Portland, we’re just its inhabitants.”

Kevin Manahan is the online editor for Oregon Business.

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