Karl Ullrich was 28 when he took over the Oak Bay Bikes store and for the first 10 years, admittedly, he took a cold shower on the business front.
Through it all, Ullrich (now 57) steadied the ship and this weekend the store celebrates its 85th anniversary. To mark the occasion the store is throwing some heavy deals from Friday to Sunday on bikes (road bikes in particular) and also hosting a free barbecue on Saturday, starting at noon in the back parking lot.
Ullrich bought the store from Fred de Jong in its previous location, two doors over on Oak Bay Avenue. De Jong had the store from the early 1970s until 1988.
Insulation in the old store was lacking. The store toilet froze more than once.
“As far as comforts in the old building, it was a small step up on tent camping,” Ullrich recalled.
When he took it over road bikes were already a big part of the store’s culture and mountain bikes were a thing.
Within a few years, everything accelerated.
“All these other things [touring, commuter, downhill, cross-country, cyclocross, track rebirth, E-bikes, and more] were being birthed.”
In the last 20 years, Ullrich has anticipated and been at the forefront of selling E-bikes and cargo bikes as they evolved from a recreational toy to becoming a critical part of people’s daily lives.
“To see E-bikes and cargo bikes now, it’s a necessity kind of thing, it has been an incredible ride,” he said. “Ten years ago we were still getting pretty excited about E-bike and now for all intensive purposes, it’s the bread and butter of the bike industry.”
But it wasn’t always rosy. Ullrich only moved the store into its current two-storey building (at Oak Bay Avenue and Foul Bay Road) 15 years ago.
When he started in 88, neighbourhood bike stores weren’t a lucrative business. In retrospect, there’s a lot of things Ullrich would do differently. Even then, the options were limited. Road bikes were the mainstay of Oak Bay Bikes and the store’s association with the Victoria Wheelers was what drew the young bike-racing Ullrich to the store in the first place.
“I was just a bike racer who hung around the store, probably wasting [the employees’] time,” he said. “When I took over there was two of us, and it was an adventurous [endeavour]. A year later I was on my own. It took me a little while to grasp how the industry was evolving. Instead of playing catch up it became a case of looking forward and getting ahead of it.”
The year 2019 is an even bigger anniversary for the Victoria Wheelers, the local road cycling club that has been associated with Oak Bay Bikes since the start and who still meet for their Saturday morning rides in Oak Bay Bikes’ parking lot.
It’s also the 25th anniversary of the Greater Victoria Bike to Work Week, which Ullrich and the store support with free tune-ups at the celebration stations.
“As retail evolved, because of the competition of the internet and big box retailers, the success of bricks and mortar shops [like Oak Bay Bikes] comes down to hospitality and showing people a good time, so we bring back that love,” Ullrich said.
“Early on business was complicated. There’s pitfalls along the way. When you’re young and doing something you love, you easily sidestep the business common sense. In that education, learning about being a bike retailer, it’s paramount you get the business side of it right. Inventory very expensive, competition is severe, and if the profit margins get pushed a couple of per cent this way, or that, you go from the black into the red.”