Yankee Pedaler

Roger Frey, owner of Earl's Cyclery & Fitness in South Burlington, stands with a Trek Madone 5.9, the bicycle Lance Armstrong rode to his fifth Tour de France victory.

Roger Frey is dedicated to keeping the world friendly to cyclists.

by Bill Simmon

Roger Frey's office is completely non- descript. Wedged into the back cor-ner of Earl's Cyclery & Fitness onWilliston Road in South Burlington, the office could be occupied by almost any type of business person. A desk, cluttered with the ephemeral detritus of day-to-day use, takes up most of the space. A computer, seemingly brought in as an afterthought, sits in the corner with a half-completed email displayed on its screen. The artwork in the office is equally ambiguous: a portrait of Albert Einstein with a famous quote ("Imagination is more important than knowledge"); a framed print of a racing yacht above the large, encouraging words, "Make it happen." Only Frey's overalls, embroidered with his first name, hint at the content of his job.

When this entrepreneur goes to work in the morning, it's to a hands-on job. "I enjoy the process of being a shopkeeper," he says. "It sounds like a strange word to many people today, but that's what I do."

Since 1992, Frey has owned and managed Earl's, which specializes in bicycle sales and service, but which also does a booming fitness equipment trade.

Earl's is something of an icon in the Burlington area. Earl Foley opened the shop in 1953 in Burlington's Old North End as a lawnmower and bicycle repair shop. Soon the post-war bicycle business took off, and Foley decided to drop the lawnmower part of the business and throw in with the popular bicycle name brand Schwinn. In 1972, Earl's Schwinn moved to Dorset Street in South Burlington, where it stayed until 1988, when Foley sold the shop to Bill Butler. Butler dropped the Schwinn moniker and moved it to its current Williston Road location.

Frey entered the story in 1992, when he bought the bicycle and fitness shop from Butler. Prior to the purchase, Frey had no experience in the bicycle business. "I was an executive in New York City," he says. Although Frey had lived in Vermont since 1981, his job in men's apparel merchandising was in New York. "I literally flew down on Monday and back on Thursday," he says. "Working in New York City sounds exciting, but it can wear on you."

Frey's interest in cycling began in the early '70s after getting out of the Army. "The first thing I did was buy a bicycle," he says, "I've been riding for 33 years now."

Frey's interest in the hobby pre-dated that of most Americans, however. "There weren't a lot of people riding bikes in the early '70s," he says. "It wasn't popular then not like it is today." According to Frey, Greg LaMonde's success in the Tour de France in the late '80s got a lot of people interested in cycling, but the really important catalyst for the hobby was the creation of the mountain bike. "We owe a lot to mountain bikes," says Frey. "There wouldn't be as many people on bicycles if mountain bikes had never been created." The bikes are so popular because of their versatility, he says. Mountain bikes can go from recreational riding on bike paths and streets to off-road trails through the woods.

Frey's attraction to cycling goes far beyond simply riding for the fun of it. He is also avidly engaged in bicycle advocacy in Vermont. He sits on the board of Local Motion, a nonprofit organization promoting Burlington's bike path, which plans to extend the path all the way from Charlotte to the Canadian border.

The repair shop is very visible from the back of the store. From left are: Rich Angelillo, mechanic and "wheel god"; Jason Lavigne, parts buyer; Jerry Forbes, senior mechanic; Charles Ouellette, service; Chris White, sales; and Jarrod Ogden, service manager.

"This shop is the hub of everything," says Frey, who mentions his 12 years working with the annual MS bike tour and his activities toward helping to expand Vermont's mountain bike trails.

Frey would like to see Burlington become a more bike-friendly city. "The United States is finally starting to pay attention to creating bicycle paths and networks throughout some communities," he says. He lists several American cities that have already adopted advanced bicycling networks: Portland, Ore., San Diego, and Denver. "They really have quite a lot to offer for their local citizens to ride around."

Frey makes sure that Earl's is at the center of the bicycle advocacy movement. A portion of the store is devoted to the Fellowship of the Wheel (FOTW), a group of 300 volunteers dedicated to building bike trails throughout Vermont. According to Hans Jenny, the organization's president, last year FOTW devoted 1,375 hours of volunteer labor to build more than 15 miles of mountain bike trails. Jenny says Earl's is the only bike shop that donates to the cause.

Jenny has been involved with Frey and Earl's for more than 11 years. He says Frey's approach to business has more to do with his affection for cycling than dollars and cents. "Roger walks the walk, he doesn't just talk the talk," he says. "He sees the big picture; he's built a wonderful business."

According to Frey, his success with Earl's comes in large part from his experience in retail and sales. Following his stint in the Army, he developed a five-store chain of men's clothing stores called J&R Ranch. "It was similar to the Gap," he says.

In 1982, Frey moved his wife, Traudl, whom he met while stationed in Germany, and their two sons, Derek and Stefan, to Vermont. Frey had gone to college at Norwich University and was fond of the state particularly for the opportunities it presented in the area of outdoor activities.

In 1991, when Frey was ready to get out of his New York City merchandising job, going back into retail made sense. His love of cycling made purchasing Earl's an obvious choice.

For Frey, managing a retail store is more than just administration and bookkeeping. He enjoys helping customers and spending time with his staff. Frey is very quick to throw praise at his staff, and giving them a livable wage and benefits was important to him from the start. "I think a good manager in the sporting goods industry is a little bit of an entertainer," he says. "We go bowling together, we ride bikes together we shut the store down for an annual picnic." He says the younger generation wants the time to indulge other interests. "They don't mind working 40 hours a week," he says, "but they don't want to work 50, period."

Frey is proud of his staff and of the environment he's created for them. "There aren't many bike shops in America where the owner can stand and say, 'I'm paying mechanics X dollars and 100 percent health insurance and an IRA,'" he says. "It just doesn't exist."

Jim Wood, assistant retail store manager, and Tom LaBarge, salesman, check out treadmills with the help of Bandit, the shop's border collie.

According to Frey, bike shops in general are dwindling. "In the U.S. there are 4,000 bike shops," he says. "Ten years ago we had 6,000."

The decline in bike shops is not indicative of a decline in business, however, Frey says. The industry is growing substantially. There are fewer bike shops because it's a difficult business to start. The styles of bicycles are so diverse, it's necessary to maintain a very large inventory of bikes and parts. Also, Frey says, the few people who are interested in opening bike shops tend to be bike enthusiasts or mechanics who know a lot about bicycling, but not as much about business management. The 4,000 bike shops that exist are pretty busy. "The big box stores can't do service," he says; "they sell the bikes, and we end up servicing them."

About two-thirds of Earl's business is bicycle-related; the other third comes from sales of fitness equipment. "We sell more treadmills than anyone in Vermont," says Frey. "We have thousands of treadmills out there now." He says the reason for the fitness equipment's success is that Vermont is more fitness-minded than other parts of the country. "Years ago people used to have ping pong tables in their basement. Now they have treadmills."

Earl's outfits many businesses with fitness equipment and services the equipment. Clients include Best Western, National Life of Vermont and Okemo Mountain Resort. "We have 125 fitness repair clients," says Frey.

Cycling, though, remains Frey's passion. "When you ride a bike, you feel euphoric from it," he says, "whereas when you go running you can hurt yourself. When you ride a bike, it's relatively easy and you feel good afterwards you go on a two-hour bike ride and you go, 'Boy, that was great!'"

Originally published in April 2004 Business People-Vermont