Bike-rack innovator sees new opportunities
A Woodinville company that has produced 160,000 racks for buses takes aim at bicycle parking.
Seattle Times business reporter
Sportworks has long been a leading maker of bicycle racks for buses, but its latest products put it into competition with some even better-established bike holders: trees and lamp posts.
For the past year, the Woodinville company has been updating the design of permanent bike racks to make them modern and bike-friendly.
The company's "no-scratch" adaptation to the traditional rack uses a rubberlike bumper to protect the bike frame from contact with the stainless steel, ensuring the bike remains scuff-free.
Even as these bike-safe racks begin cropping up in Seattle, the 80-employee company is ramping up its next innovation.
Within several weeks, the company will begin testing its reinvention of mass parking for bikes -- a new design that uses angle-parking.
"The company is more focused on bike infrastructure," business-development manager Al Steiner said. "Our overall goal is to promote bicycle use in general, not just bike racks or bicycle components."
The new angle-park design is intended to keep bicycle handlebars away from each other. As riders know, intertwining handlebars are a common problem with racks.
The design will be tested on the University of Washington campus near Bagley Hall and Seattle Children's hospital, Sportworks management said.
The No Scratch racks, developed in October, are already installed in some Seattle-area locations, with more to come within several months.
Matthew Porteous, landscape architect with the Seattle firm Hewitt, chose to incorporate 30 of the No Scratch racks into a streetscape project for Seattle Department of Parks and Recreation on Bell Street between First and Fifth avenues.
He said they cost $400 apiece, $100 more than traditional alternatives. But as a biker himself, Porteous said, he likes the rubber-bumper addition and the clean and elegant design.
He tested out an installed No Scratch rack outside a new restaurant in Fremont before putting them into his plan.
"They seem to function very well and people seem to use them," Porteous said. "They're intuitive, which is nice."
The intuitive nature of its products goes back to Sportworks' beginnings.
Sportworks, which doesn't disclose its revenues, practically set the national standard for bike racks nearly two decades ago when President Mike Reeves spent a weekend sketching out a rack for a King County Metro proposal.
The transit organization received a grant in 1993 to put bike racks on the front of buses and held a competition to find the best design.
At the time, Reeves' 3-year-old business with 20 employees was fabricating metal parts for other companies, including bicycle handles and shocks as well as snowshoe frames.
Metro selected the Sportworks design out of 12 and the company began producing the two-bike racks for every bus in the King County fleet.
Metro was the nation's first bus system to have its entire fleet outfitted with bike racks, said Eileen Kadesh, market-development planner for King County Metro.
In part, the Sportworks rack was picked because of its simplicity, Kadesh said.
"A bike rack on a bus, you have to be able to walk up and intuitively use it," said Eric Rayl, Sportworks vice president of product. "There isn't a place for reading instructions, or the time."
Today, that design is on buses in more than 500 municipalities nationwide, according to the company.
Sportworks also developed a three-bicycle rack in 2002 for buses using a similar design, for transit systems concerned that their two-bike racks were full all the time.
"They have always taken a lot of pride in the quality of their product," Kadesh said. "They have always been willing to refine their product."
Sportworks also has racks that go inside subway cars, underneath Greyhound buses and on ferries.
In all, the company says it has sold about 160,000 bus racks since 1993.
The company built a consumer model of its bike racks, which it marketed through more than 1,000 distributors until selling that division in 2005 to rack manufacturer Thule. Adaptation ranged from roof-sitting racks to a behemoth 16-bike trailer.
"There's a theme to our products -- which are innovative, approachable, easy to use -- that we've carried throughout these two lines and through our other lines as well," said Scott Roth, Sportworks' director of bike-parking products.
Sportworks dipped its toe into the market for permanent bike racks in 2010. It began by making generic racks -- just bent metal piping -- and bidding for a dozen contracts.
The company discovered it was competing against large generic pipe-bending manufacturers that sold racks on the side.
The area where Sportworks had an advantage was specialization.
"What we found is that the ones where the specifications were a little more specific ... we win them all," Rayl said.
"As soon as it requires the slightest bit of customization outside the commodity market, our hit rate was extremely high."
The No Scratch racks are the continuation of that specialization, Sportworks said. They are made from 30 percent to 70 percent recycled material, much of it from the United States.
Customers can also ask for a colored powder coat or request a custom design in the centerpiece, anything from a "bike friendly" message to a city logo.
That's something trees, lamp posts and guardrails don't have.