Apr 03, 2017 05:10PM
By Makayla Gay
By Emily Stevenson
Photography By Amy Randall Photography
Robin Bylenga understands the value of the (bike) path less traveled. In 2010, she opened Pedal Chic, the first women-centric bicycle shop in the nation, on Greenville’s ever-popular Main Street. Now, she’s taking it a step further with her own custom line of bicycles specifically designed for women.
A League of their Own
Female-oriented cycling gear is a niche that, just like her shop, is often neglected in such a male-dominated sport.
“If you think about it, approximately 85 percent of bike shops are owned by white males over the age of 55,” Bylenga says. “They are not looking at athletic wear for women, or bras or skorts or good-looking colorful ensembles. They’re just not.”
Bylenga is. One step into her West End store, and you’re immediately enveloped into a vibrant, colorful space. Even her logo, an Art Deco-style red-and-teal bicycle wheel/flower graphic, is meant to appeal to women.
“I sell bikes to men as well, but when you walk in, the décor, the setup, the ambiance, the music, the apparel are all geared toward women,” Bylenga says.
While her store is designed differently than most bicycle shops, she doesn’t intend to ostracize or disrespect anyone. Still, she says people often joke that she’s discounting 50 percent of the population by only marketing to women.
Her standard retort? “No. I’m offering 50 percent of the population something that they’ve never had before.”
And that 50 percent has responded well. Although the women’s bicycle market has sprinted to new records in recent years, most of the marketing has been geared toward the sport of bicycle racing, versus the activity of simply riding a bike. Bylenga believes that’s an important distinction, and she strives to serve both types of customers.
“Whatever kind of biking you see yourself doing, we want to help you create your vision,” she says. “That’s been the cool thing about not becoming so race-focused as we were several years ago. It’s opened the door for so many people.”
When that door opens, Bylenga’s staff is trained to know that everyone who crosses the threshold is a customer, no matter the type of bike or accessory they’re seeking.
Soon, those customers will have Bylenga’s own custom-designed line of bicycles to choose from. It’s a major addition to an industry in which only a small number of manufacturers make bicycles specifically for women – and those differences are critical.
“You have to keep the comfort points and take into consideration women’s size differences,” she says. “An ill-fitting bike can be problematic, like a bad sports bra or a too-small pair of shoes.”
Bylenga’s bicycles, in addition to being sized properly for female bodies, will also be more fun. She plans to design six bicycles, each available in two colors, for a total of 12 options. The colors used will be inspired by the fashion world, including Pantone colors of the year. Each bike will feature the Pedal Chic logo, most likely in silver.
But while Bylenga admits that choosing the colors and naming the bicycles has been fun, comfort is her ultimate priority when specing out the bikes.
“It’s so fulfilling to hear someone say, ‘Oh, I’m so much more comfortable now,’ and provide an environment where she can talk safely if there is any discomfort, especially in the saddle,” she says.
Currently, the bikes are slated for a summer launch, with a line of similarly branded accessories and apparel to follow.
Potholes in the Road
Despite her success, Bylenga, who was born in North Carolina and grew up in Texas, says that business ownership hasn’t always been a stroll in the park. Her foray into entrepreneurship came after personal hardships and a variety of careers, including flight attendant, pump valves and heat exchanger sales, chemical sales, and commercial real estate. When a corporate job ended with the 2008-09 market crash, Bylenga took the plunge.
“I always had a dream of owning a little place downtown,” she says. “When the economy fell apart and I couldn’t find work, I decided to open a bike shop. That’s when a lot of people go outside of their comfort zone and do thing you’ve never dreamed possible.”
Spurred on by the opening of the Greenville Health System’s Swamp Rabbit Trail in 2009, Pedal Chic took off the training wheels and went for its first real spin. So far, it’s never looked back. The shop has benefitted from its proximity to the Swamp Rabbit Trail, as well as its prime location on Main Street, near the intersection of Augusta Street.
However, being a small business owner can be an uphill climb. Bylenga notes that her prime location comes at a price. A growing downtown means construction, which often means road closures, sewer expansions, and other disruptions to traffic flow and accessibility to her store.
Bylenga recalls her first year of business, in which construction issues downtown caused flooding in her store. Pedal Chic was closed for six months for repairs. Her insurance company said she hadn’t been open long enough and only provided a meager amount per day. The money she’d previously been putting toward cash flow had to be directed to repair efforts, and she had to sell stock to keep her employees on board.
And downtown growth isn’t the only challenge she faces.
“The other challenge is weather,” she says. “We have a very, very harsh summer, and when you’re in an industry that’s based on outdoor activities, that’s hard.”
The nature of a retail business, particularly one that’s outdoor-based, also keeps her busy.
“I’m a seasonal recreational business, so I’m working when everyone else is recreating,” she says. “Bike shop owners have to be hands-on owners.”
A New Direction
In addition to her new line of bicycles, Bylenga is also using her expertise as a women’s bicycle shop owner to bring inspiration to other women around the country and the globe. She has forayed into public speaking at cycling conferences, such as the National Bike Summit and the InterBike show. Her presentations focus on how to sell to women, why women buy, and how women are different than men in what they notice.
“You go into Macy’s, and the men’s department looks different than the women’s,” she says. “It’s sensual, like your senses, the elements and the science behind it. That’s where we start, the exterior, the face you put out. It’s not about sweating the small stuff, but nurturing the smaller things your customers will notice.”
She also speaks to potential business owners about the hills and valleys of her bike-shop journey.
“When I speak to new entrepreneurs, I tell them, ‘Don’t chintz on your attorney or your CPA,’” she says. “They’re the two most critical relationships. Don’t sign an agreement on a napkin.”
As she continues to take on speaking engagements, she’s helped grow a following of individuals who, having previously never heard of Greenville, decide to come visit solely to do rides with Bylenga and her team. In short, the flower that was planted on Main Street has started to bloom country-wide.
“I never knew we could be as big as we are,” she says. “It’s a different kind of feeling.”