R+E Cycles Turns 40 and Brings Back the E
By Christine Soja
Angel Rodriguez and Glenn Erickson weren’t trying to establish a long-run custom bike shop when they banded together in 1973 — they were merely two broke guys with an abundance of hair, trying to make a living doing what they loved and knew how to do — fix bikes. At the time, Erickson was studying oceanography, and Rodriguez zoology, degrees they didn’t complete as they quit school to open their own repair shop, each putting in a $400 investment. Initially the shop was home to do-it-yourself bike stands that rented out tools for $2/hour and the duo hosted repair clinics. This was not a major moneymaker, but brought people in and helped create the community necessary for a small bike shop to survive. One day, a customer needed a frame repair, so they brought the welding torch out and fixed it. Shortly after, Rodriguez went to Europe to study the art of frame building. By the end of that year they had built their first frame.
Rodriguez and Erickson parted ways in the early 1980’s, R+E sold only the Rodriguez line — which includes sport, touring and tandems — from that point on, while the Erickson line (built by Glenn) catered to people that preferred more elaborately decorated frames designed by Glenn Erickson himself.
The shop on University Way — you can’t miss it with its huge bike parking space in front.
Current owner, Dan Towle, had no idea he would one day own and run R+E Cycles when he first came to work there in 1987, but it’s easy to see how it happened. On the day he arrived, Rodriguez was sweeping the shop floor. Towle said he didn’t even realize who he was until after he was hired. Starting as a bicycle fitter he soon found himself managing the repair and assembly department. That is until 1991 when he left, not agreeing with the direction the new owner was taking the shop in. Within two years R+E was a far cry from its glory days and filed for bankruptcy, but Rodriguez got it back and sold it to Towle.
Towle knew the place had potential and offered things nobody else could. He kept things simple and focused on what was and still is important — the quality of the custom bike frames, designed and fabricated on site.
Today, R+E Cycles spreads between two small store fronts on the north end of University Way in Seattle, noticeable from the gigantic street bike parking area — the city’s first and Rodriguez’s idea back in the ‘80s. On the surface the shop seems like any other, but what you can’t see is the magic that happens underneath the repair shop and sales floor, in the belly of the beast.
Everything is done on-site, from custom fitting and frame design, to custom frame and component fabrication, to choosing components and paint, and decal design.
It takes about six weeks from order to delivery and they sell more than 400 bikes per year. Tandems are a big part of their business — they are the oldest builder of tandems in the U.S.
In March of 2012, Erickson bikes were once again offered at the shop where it all started, putting the “E” back in R+E Cycles.
Although they build Rodriguez and Erickson bikes, Rodriguez himself is no longer involved. However, he is “monstrously proud of Dan and his crew.” He is also very proud that he did everything possible so that the price of the bikes and services was not the main driver for the shop. “It was fine with me that you could get things cheaper somewhere else,” he says. This has remained true and so has “everyone that worked at R+E was passionate about bikes.”
Erickson adds, “It was not about competition, it was to find your own niche and be the best at it.”
After 40 years, R+E Cycles knows how to get the job done. Home to the NEXTfit system that adjusts while the rider is in the saddle, anybody can get a bike that truly fits. This is especially important because cyclists with a physical handicap or chronic pain can again ride in comfort.
Dan Towle, Angel Rodriguez and Glenn Erickson pose together at R+E Cycles on March 2, 2013.
The majority of the bikes sold are custom orders made possible by their streamlined order process and pre-drawn plans that can be tailored to fit individuals. Because of their unique fit-to-finish philosophy, as well as custom tooling, every bicycle can be hand-built, one at a time but with greater efficiency than other custom brands. By removing inefficiencies, they can keep costs to customers down and keep quality higher as well.
Towle estimates a quarter of their clients are new to cycling or getting back into the sport and want a bike that can help them accomplish their goals. Friends bring in friends and they get “spoiled” by the attention and experience. In fact, the staff even recommends that customers shop around, confident they’ll be back, as R+E Cycles can offer them what no one else can. Many of their current customers were the ones originally working on the bike stands, borrowing tools, sharing their expertise and creating a scene around the love of cycling.
In order to keep costs down, Towle and his crew have shaved off all of the extras in terms of high-tech computer systems or flashy machine tools. In truth, the shop tools are all made on-site by their capable and creative staff. Towle says, “If you have good people you don’t need expensive machines.” Their newest computer is from 2005, and he says the main monitor on the sales floor was donated by a friend.
R+E has a unique software system that allows their customers to receive a quality shop experience remotely — a little over half of them are from outside of the area. For a business that prides itself on knowing the customer and the community, this has been a huge shift. The virtual shop at rodcycle.com offers a complete experience with video instructions, demonstrations and a gallery of “bike porn.”
When the market dropped in 2008, they were able to be flexible and didn’t lose money like many other shops did because they don’t accumulate any stock other than accessories. Because Towle keeps the company out of debt, R+E Cycles is nimble and able to adapt quickly to a changing or volatile market, without having to get rid of key staff.
Smiley, the current sales and fitting specialist, has been working the sales floor for 14 years and says the shop is “big enough to make an incredible bike but small enough to make the bike you want.” And he adds, “It’s small enough to listen to customers.”
Ironically, Smiley, also reported to not knowing Towle was the owner until he had already been working there for months. “He just doesn’t act like a shop owner,” Smiley says, “because Dan is so involved in every aspect of the business from computer programming, machining, to building parts.”
After four decades in the custom bike business, R+E Cycles is now a streamlined, one-stop custom shop. Experience is invaluable and they have learned to cut away excesses, focusing on what is important: creating bikes that customers love. This level of knowledge translates directly to the consumers because they know how to get things done. They can deliver a complete custom bike starting under $2,000. This puts them in direct competition with larger companies that build their bikes overseas and are commonly sold in bigger stores. Owning a custom made bike is no longer a privilege of only the wealthy or extreme cycling fanatic, R+E Cycles can deliver this dream to almost anyone. The only reason not to go to R+E is if you’re looking for a job; employees don’t leave.
Where are they now?
Angel Rodriguez now lives in Volcan, Panama, and runs OSOP, a company that manufactures seismographic equipment and software.
Glenn Erickson resides in the Seattle area and runs Erickson Cycle Tours. He is also involved in raising money for Parkinson’s disease research.
R+E Cycles is located at 5627 University Way NE, Seattle, WA 98105. Dan and his staff can be reached at 206-527-4822 and their website is accessible at rodcycle.com.