Mountain bikers have always enjoyed straying from beaten paths. Single track. Rock. Dirt. Suffering.
So maybe it’s not surprising that an innovative little mountain bike company in Sandpoint is gaining a foothold in an industry dominated by giant manufacturers.
Financed by his father, Toby Feuling launched Alpine Designs in 1991 with just $15,000 in start-up capital and a dream.
Today, the company has eight employees and the shop produces 100 to 150 bicycles a month. The expanding operation now includes a clothing and component line called Fly, and is poised to relocate to a new 6,000-square-foot location here next month. One drawback: With the hectic schedule, Feuling doesn’t get to ride as much as he once did.
“You get caught between a rock and a hard place,” said Feuling, 27, dressed in a tie-dye riding jersey with the Alpine Designs logo. “Wanting to move fast, but wanting to do it right.”
Feuling knows brand name bikes like Trek, Cannondale and GT aren’t going away. And he’s aware of the risks he’s taking - in recent years, other start-up mountain bike (MTB) producers too often have shared a common fate - “here today, gone tommorrow.”
But Fueling, a 13-year Sandpoint resident who studied communications at the University of Idaho, is betting there is strong regional, and eventually national, potential for someone big enough to produce a full-line of competitively priced bikes, yet still small enough to pay attention to every detail.
“It goes back to whether you want a mass-produced bike, or more of a custom bike, whether or not you want one or two people working on your bike, or 40,” Fueling said. “We’re banking on the idea that when people jump on both kinds of bikes, they’re going to like Alpine Designs better.”
Unlike other small independents who may offer just a few models, Feuling boasts frame sets ranging from $299 to more than $1,000, and a complete MTB lineup which covers everything from kids bikes to a $3,000 titanium model called the Fly-Ti. A new Fly Bicycle Components line includes some 200 products.
Here’s the process: Once an unfinished frame arrives in Sandpoint from a manufacturer in Taiwan or the U.S., the staff applies the finishing powder coat or paint job, then equips the bike in a combination of its Fly and name-brand components, like Shimano derailleurs and Answer Manitou suspension forks.
Feuling said one way to survive in the world of established MTB names is by paying attention to the “little things.” Here, mechanics assembling the bikes make sure each is put together properly before it makes the journey to one of the 30 bike stores in Idaho, Washington, Oregon, California and Canada currently carrying Alpine Designs and Fly products.
Because Alpine Designs is small, sales manager Ken Barrett said choosing the right dealers to carry their products is important.
“We’ve got to pick our shops very carefully,” Barrett said. “We want bike shops that will take the time to meet the needs of the customer, not somebody who just wants to sell bikes.”
If dealers will take time to educate customers about the bikes, Barrett said he believes many will choose Alpine Designs over a name-brand product.
Mark Beattie, owner of Vertical Earth in Coeur d’Alene, currently carries four Alpine Designs models, from a “bomb-proof” $259 kids bike to a mid-range, $700 MTB model. Beattie said that while 40 percent of customers who visit his shop feel more comfortable with buying a name-brand bike, many others are willing to try Alpine Designs.
“You actually get a little more bike than you might get with the big guys,” he said. “And any warranty issues are dealt with immediately. That’s an appeal of working with a local company. And the bikes handle really well.”
Exposure garnered by its one-member racing team is also getting the Alpine Designs name out. Local rider Caleb Stollte currently is ranked at the top of the Northwest region. Right now, he’s in the East for a series of World Cup races.
“Around the region, Caleb has a great deal to do with their recogntion,” Beattie said. “Especially with customers buying upper-end bikes.”
No Spokane dealer currently carries the Alpine Designs brand. Steve Loveland, who owns Two Wheel Transit, said Feuling approached him too late this spring for the shop to pick up the line.
But Loveland said it’s also tough to introduce a smaller name to a market already saturated with recognized, well-respected products.
“Name recognition adds credibility,” he said. “It adds a comfort zone.”
Loveland said that while many consumers believe in supporting local products, that type of marketing is effective typically in the higher priced “image” bikes.
In the end, choosing whether to carry a smaller brand boils down to just how it would fit in a business sense.
“Their numbers are good,” Loveland said. “But they are going to be smaller numbers when you are competing with the big boys. For every one of their bikes, I’d probably sell 20 (of a name brand).”
In their focus on independent bike makers, industry publications are taking notice of Alpine Designs.
Los Angeles-based Mountain Biker magazine gave a qualified “thumbs-up” in its June issue to Alpine Designs’ titanium model, the Fly-Ti.
While many independents have recently disappeared or been bought out by larger companies the magazine’s associate editor, Joel Smith, believes the market remains positive for companies like Alpine Designs.
“I think the industry is changing, so the independents aren’t as strong as they once were,” Smith said. “But the biggest advantage is you’re not trying to build a bike that suits everybody’s needs. You can be more specific to the locale around you, rather than just try to mass market a bike.”
Smith adds: “It’s just like when you buy a car - you’re obviously going to go with a car that has a reputation. But there are a lot of independents who have established themselves in the biking industry. Even though they aren’t big, they still have a lot of power.”
Standing inside the company’s small shop at 503 Cedar Street, Feuling recalls when he founded the company here in 1991, converting a former motorcycle repair shop which he cleaned out over a winter to make room for the bicycles.
Fueling has a lot on his mind - next month’s move to the former International Harvester dealership building at 312 Fifth, second-year production on a BMX freestyle bike called the “Habit,” and hiring new employees to help with the expansion. Still, he takes time to ponder the challenges of building bikes in Sandpoint, and why he’s certain Alpine Designs will succeed.
“There are a lot of tiny details that go into building a bike that works as a system,” Feuling said. “That’s the thing about our bikes. I think the details on Alpine Designs are dead on.”
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