ENCINITAS — Eric Contreras’ home overflowed with Schwinn bikes four years ago. An avid collector, his wife asked him to either get rid of the excess bicycles or open a shop.
He felt confident choosing the latter, in part, due to transportation trends.
“Data showed more people are biking, with a lot of the increase focused in coastal areas,” Contreras said. “I knew more people would need bike tune-ups and improvements.”
The reasoning proved to be sound. The number of customers at Contreras’ Cardiff Bike Shop has steadily grown since the doors opened three years ago thanks largely to a steady market of bicyclists seeking his mechanic services, allowing Contreras to parlay his hobby into a successful part-time career.
Across Encinitas, cycling shops reported a jump in demand for repairs. And economic figures support the observed activity levels. Although bike mechanics don’t represent a lot of jobs, it’s the fifth fastest growing career in the county in terms of percent increase, according to the California Employment Development Department. In 2010, there were 160 full-time bike mechanics in the county, and by 2020, it’s estimated there will be more than 250.
From changes in technology to cycling infrastructure, bike shop owners offered a variety of reasons for why bike repairs are on the rise.
Contreras said that gas prices made biking more attractive for many, feeding the repair industry a crop of new customers. But perhaps less obvious, he said cyclists are more likely to fix up their rides than buy new with the economy still limping along.
“It’s easier to justify repairing your bike than continuously putting money toward new ones,” Contreras said.
Not only is this good for his business, but making what’s old new again sits well with Contreras, who specializes in repurposing old bikes.
“The philosophy of Schwinn used to be that you would give a bike to your oldest kid and it would eventually make its way to your youngest,” Contreras said.
“I like that more people are supporting that idea these days,” he added.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Skip McDowell, the owner of the high-end Nytro Multisport, said that he went from one full-time mechanic and one part-timer three years ago to three full-time mechanics. McDowell attributes the spike in demand to bike shops becoming more like car dealerships. To retain customers, those who purchase a bike are encouraged to come in regularly for tune-ups and other services.
“They want to protect their investment,” McDowell said.
McDowell noted that cycling repair is becoming more science than art at upscale shops with the proliferation of high-tech bikes that feature carbon fiber frames and electronic shifting.
“It used to be you learned everything from ‘tribal knowledge’ — those around you in your shop,” McDowell said. “But now, you have complicated diagnostic and computer tools that take special training to operate.”
“We’re not just talking about fixing gears with a simple wrench,” McDowell added. “Everything has to be fine tuned just so.”
Consequently, more people are obtaining bike repair certifications in order to land jobs in the field. And McDowell said he regularly sends his mechanics to classes so they stay on top of technology developments.
Jon Baxter, an administrator at the United Cycle Institute in Oregon, one of the three mechanic schools in the country, concurred that more shops are requiring mechanic certifications. Typically, in May, he said the institute’s job board consistently has around 50 or 60 postings from bike shops throughout the nation. But this year, he said the number is more than 100.
Although there’s more demand for mechanics, what’s interesting is that bike sales are relatively flat throughout the country, Baxter said.
“Young people aren’t as crazy about driving, so they’re picking up cycling,” Baxter said. “Rather than buy new bikes, they’re dusting off bikes that are already out there and taking them in for repair.”
Baxter noted that obtaining certification involves a month of intensive classes. Currently, there aren’t universal requirements for what’s covered in bike schools’ curriculum. But shops accept certifications from the three major repair schools, which are outside California, as the industry standard.
Fred Breidenthal, owner of Leucadia Cyclery, said that Internet sales have provided a shot in the arm to repair work. He noted that some customers buy high-tech suspension kits online, only later to realize they need help installing them. Still, most of his repair work comes from bicyclists running over thorns.
And while bike repairs are on the upswing, Breidenthal said the wages for the profession — ranging from $10 to $16 an hour — have been stagnant the past few years. Pay could jump if a bike mechanic shortage develops in the county, he said.
Breidenthal said that there’s been a slight uptick in cyclist traffic on Coast Highway 101 due to bike-friendly infrastructure projects. Two months ago, the city painted a new bike lane and “sharrows” — markings that remind cyclists and motorists to share the road — on the highway. For Breidenthal, whose shop is a street east of Coast Highway 101, more bicyclists frequenting the area “has provided a nice little boost of customers.”
Andy Hanshaw, executive director of the San Diego County Bicycle Coalition said that more people are recognizing the growing economic impact of cycling — and bike mechanics play an important part in that.
In the state’s 50th Congressional District, which includes much of North County, bike retailers brought in an estimated $11.8 million in gross income in 2011, according to the League of American Bicyclists.
“It’s green living that’s good for the economy,” Hanshaw said, adding that bike mechanics are “vital” to the health of the cycling industry.