Along the way, they are treated to majestic views of the Palisades from the George Washington Bridge, the quaint shops of Nyack, the stopping point for many cyclists, or, for diehard bikers, the rugged hills of Bear Mountain, another 40 grueling miles up 9W.
The real highlight for many cyclists, however, might be in Fort Lee, New Jersey, just over the bridge, where a shop called Strictly Bicycles—and its genial owners, Nelson and Joanna Gutierrez—has been welcoming cyclists for two decades.
Part bike store, part museum and part clubhouse, Strictly Bicycles has carved out a unique role in the greater New York area cycling world, drawing riders from the five boroughs as well as New Jersey.
Two-thirds of its sales come from New Yorkers. The shop carries some of the most sought-after bikes in the world, with some custom models running up to $20,000 or more. The latest high-tech models from exclusive bike brands are also on display—catnip for status-conscious riders.
[image-with-info source="Eric Ryan Anderson" alignment="left" imageurl="https://d8a8a12b527478184df8-1fd282026c3ff4ae711d11ecc95a1d47.ssl.cf1.rackcdn.com//us/small-business/openforum/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/LBS_STRICTLY_004.jpg"]Part bike shop, part museum and part clubhouse, Strictly Bicycles has carved out a unique role.[/image-with-info]
The shop, however, is anything but elite. A sun-drenched coffee bar and an outdoor patio invite riders to linger. There’s no pressure to buy, and customers are encouraged to take the merchandise out for a spin. The shiny mass of bikes crammed onto the second-floor retail space includes kids’ bikes and adult models with more affordable price tags.
[image-with-info source="Eric Ryan Anderson" alignment="full-width" imageurl="https://d8a8a12b527478184df8-1fd282026c3ff4ae711d11ecc95a1d47.ssl.cf1.rackcdn.com//us/small-business/openforum/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/LBS_STRICTLY_005.jpg"]The result is a place where everyone from recreational riders to racing pros feel right at home.[/image-with-info]
“We’re like Cheers,” says Nelson Gutierrez. “Everybody knows your name.”
In an age when shoppers can compare prices on the Internet and place an order without leaving the couch, that sense of community sets Strictly Bicycles apart from the competition and has allowed it to thrive. It’s also earned Strictly Bicycles its revered standing among the tight-knit biking set, and its hometown of Fort Lee. “There’s not a day that we go on 9W that we don’t stop in,” says Mel Corbett, founder of the Major Taylor Iron Riders, a Brooklyn-based cycling club named after the first African-American cycling champion. “Nelson has given us a community.”
For Cyclists, By Cyclists
For Gutierrez, fostering community has been the plan from Day 1.
The son of Cuban immigrants, Gutierrez caught the cycling bug as a young teenager growing up in New Jersey’s Hudson County. From the time he was 13, he would sneak off to Central Park to race or for rides up 9W to Bear Mountain with other cycling fanatics, among them George Hincapie, a kid from Queens who would go on to become one of the world’s great racers, riding in the Tour de France.
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Gutierrez landed a job at a bike store in Hoboken, working his way up to manager. An entrepreneur at heart, he knew he wanted to own his own store. At 19, with a $20,000 bank loan secured by his grandfather, he opened Strictly Bicycles. The store’s first location was a cramped storefront on Fort Lee’s Main Street, off the beaten path for cyclists. Gutierrez had no money to advertise. Still, he managed to build a name and loyal clientele through word of mouth.
Cycling hadn’t yet exploded in the United States. Gutierrez saw a steady increase in riders on 9W as more discovered its undulating charms. He saved money until, in 2008, the perfect location became available—a former Japanese restaurant on Hudson Terrace, on the route from the George Washington Bridge to 9W.
[ugc slug="the-way-my-small-business-and-yours-could-compete-with-the-web-and-big-box-stores-create-a-community-around-your-business" alignment="right"]“A way my small business and yours could compete with the web and big box stores? Create a community around your business...”[/ugc]
He took out an SBA-backed loan of $2 million—a huge sum for the small businessman—to buy the 34,000-square foot building and the property it sits on. After working a full day at his Main Street shop, he would head to Hudson Terrace to remodel his dream store. He replaced tinted glass windows facing the street with soaring glass panes to let in the light and views of the road, and created a counter space.
“I knew we needed a sunny front counter with a coffee bar,” Gutierrez recalls. “That way cyclists can see their friends riding by and run out and greet them.”
He put in sidewalks, landscaping and an outdoor patio with café seating. The bike shop could be confused for a restaurant from the street, if it weren’t for the giant banners showcasing a Gran Fondo long-distance bike ride waving in the breeze. An airy stairway leading to the second floor became a makeshift gallery displaying signed jerseys of famous racers, from Hincapie to legendary Belgian racer Eddy Merckx. “You have to give people a home so that they feel like they’re buying from their family,” Gutierrez says.
A Mainstay of the 9W Community
Gutierrez’s gamble on a new location paid off. 9W has become one of the most heavily trafficked cycling routes in the country, surpassing California’s Pacific Coast Highway. On a typical weekend day, more than 1,000 people walk through Strictly Bicycles’ doors to hang out, refuel, ogle the merchandise or simply use the restroom. Sales have grown four-fold since moving to the new location, to more than $4 million. And the store employs up to 15 during the busy season, from May through October, and maintains a staff of 12 year-round. “There’s always something to do,” Joanna Gutierrez says. “In the winter, we have snowball fights in the parking lot.” On busy summer weekends, the Gutierrez’s two sons can be found at the store helping out.
[image-with-info source="Eric Ryan Anderson" alignment="full-width" imageurl="https://d8a8a12b527478184df8-1fd282026c3ff4ae711d11ecc95a1d47.ssl.cf1.rackcdn.com//us/small-business/openforum/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/LBS_STRICTLY_SS_0021.jpg"]Most of all, Strictly, as it is fondly known, has become a mainstay of the community. “He's become essential to cyclists on 9W,” says Corbett of the Major Taylor cycling club.[/image-with-info]
The shop has become the de facto meeting spot for 9W cyclists starting and finishing rides, and Gutierrez the route’s patron saint. He still rides every morning before the store opens, and has the kind of street cred only a longtime cyclist can earn. He’s well known for sending staff out to pick up riders who have broken down.
Strictly has earned a reputation in Fort Lee and surrounding areas as a small business that is there to help, whether it’s donating bikes to charity raffles or outfitting the local police with two-wheeled transportation.
[pullquote username="Nelson_gutierrez" alignment="right"]Building a community around a small retail store is key. It’s the only way to separate yourself from the competition.[/pullquote]
“Nelson and Joanna are great people,” says Harvey Sohmer, a city councilman and president of the Fort Lee Education Foundation. “Anything you need, they are there for you. They’re a real asset to our community.”
He cites the Tour de Fort Lee as just one example. The Education Foundation has run the local bike race for several years to raise scholarship money for high school seniors heading to college.The race, Sohmer says, “was getting old and stale.” Strictly, a long-time sponsor, turned it into an official event on the cycling calendar and promoted it to the cycling community.
Today, it draws some 300 riders—more than three times the number it used to attract—and raises twice the amount of money. “It’s a really big thing now in Fort Lee,” Sohmer says.
That kind of relationship and trust and central role within the community cannot be understated. “It’s make or break for a shop now,” says Hincapie, who’s retired from racing and owns a company that makes cycling apparel, some of which is sold at Strictly Bicycles. “People are going to go to Nelson’s shop rather than save a few bucks online, because of the kind of person he is and the kind of shop he’s created.”
[image-with-info source="Eric Ryan Anderson" alignment="full-width" imageurl="https://d8a8a12b527478184df8-1fd282026c3ff4ae711d11ecc95a1d47.ssl.cf1.rackcdn.com//us/small-business/openforum/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/LBS_STRICTLY_003.jpg"]“People are going to go to Nelson’s shop rather than save a few bucks online, because of the kind of person he is and the kind of shop he’s created.”[/image-with-info]
Gutierrez agrees. “That’s the future of small business, for bike shops especially.”
Cappuccinos and Celebrities
On a Friday afternoon in October, a steady stream of customers and riders ambled into Strictly Bicycles. The crowd included Tommy, a local who has visited nearly every day for 20 years. Ektor Silva, a cameraman who lives in Fort Lee and rides five days a week, sat at the coffee bar. “I always stop here,” Silva explained, adding that it’s a great way to find riding companions for the 80-mile round-trip trek to Bear Mountain.
[image-with-info source="Eric Ryan Anderson" alignment="right" imageurl="https://d8a8a12b527478184df8-1fd282026c3ff4ae711d11ecc95a1d47.ssl.cf1.rackcdn.com//us/small-business/openforum/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/LBS_STRICTLY_002.jpg"][/image-with-info]
Behind the counter, Nelson Gutierrez served up perfectly steamed cappuccinos, while Joanna Gutierrez unpacked and priced a box of cycling caps, all the while keeping up a friendly banter with customers.
Customers are encouraged to take the merchandise out for a spin. Eyeing a sleek, expensive model that just arrived, one customer joked, “I’m afraid to take it out—I might have to buy it.”
Strictly Bicycles attracts a fair share of celebrities: Gutierrez says Joe Johnson from the Brooklyn Nets picked up a bike and comedian Chris Rock has purchased two-wheelers for his children. Natalie Morales, Matthew Broderick and Alicia Keys also have stopped in, he adds.
The regulars—many a high-powered Wall Street banker among them—don’t bat an eye at such sightings. When a famous cyclist makes an appearance, though, all hints of coolness and reserve melt away. When racer Eddy Merckx showed up to sign jerseys at Strictly’s grand opening, the line was two blocks long.
As one of just a dozen or so independent stores in the country known for its top-of-the-line inventory, Strictly has developed a bit of a following that extends beyond U.S. borders. Cyclists from around the world stop in when they ride 9W, sometimes on the exotic model bikes that Gutierrez has begun renting out for $100 to $200 a day.
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Ultimately, though, it’s the local 9W community that sustains the store. The two have grown and prospered in lockstep. As the weekend throngs descending on Nyack and other points along 9W have grown, the store has played an important role in managing the sometimes uneasy balance between riders and the others they share the road and town centers with. “It was almost lawless up there before,” Corbett says of the 9W route. With Strictly Bicycles, “Now there’s a place to sit and discuss issues and hash things out. It’s almost like a forum for the 9W community.”
That bodes well for the future of cycling—and for Strictly Bicycles.
Strictly Bicycles transformed their bike shop into a community space. Learn more about using customer engagement to help grow your business on OPEN Forum →