Since its founding in 2007, Bentonville, Ark.-based Phat Tire Bike Shop successfully expanded into Tulsa, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma City and Edmond before opening their newest and sixth Oklahoma location in Norman earlier this month.
Kevin Caldwell, regional manager for the central Oklahoma locations, hoped to get the store located at 2264 W Main St. in the Normandy Creek Shopping Center open in the summer, but unforeseen circumstances set them further back than initially anticipated.
Caldwell said factories operating at half-capacity, spotty access to raw materials to produce bicycles and a surge in demand due to COVID-19 created a perfect storm of challenges that delayed the opening of the shop’s newest location.
But he also said recent brand expansion into Norman and Edmond areas comes at a time of heightened enthusiasm toward cycling and outdoor recreation activities due to the pandemic. And with increased interest comes a greater need for shops to fill the demand, he said.
“Everyone wants to get outdoors, and they want to get a bike, and that has created a huge influx of new cyclists out there, whether it’s leisure or [for sport],” he said.
U.S. consumers spent $6.9 billion on bicycles and accessories in 2020, an $800 million increase from 2019, with the most significant increase seen in Q2-Q4, when COVID-related restrictions limited indoor activities in many places, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis data. The spike in cycling intrigue over the last year has resulted in a warm welcome from the Norman community, Caldwell said.
Although the name ‘Phat Tire’ may create the imagery of a mountain bike, they are well-rounded and ready to assist Normanites with any type of bicycle, Caldwell said.
“We have leisure bikes, E-bikes, road bikes, gravel bikes and kids bikes, too, so we are a full service bike shop,” Caldwell said.
According to the shop’s website, when the owners expand into a community, they hope to influence and advocate for infrastructure and culture progress within their respective cycling scene.
In Northwest Arkansas, Caldwell said the cycling scene has developed over the last 15 years in a phenomenal way.
“They have a really cycling friendly community that is unprecedented — the way they’re developing the area to be bike friendly and the Walton Family Foundation has gotten involved in cycling advocacy in that area,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell said Northwest Arkansas has become an example showing that smaller markets can have a strong cycling culture. And while the Waltons might not be pumping money into the Norman biking scene, residents can expect to see Phat Tire employees and ownership in an advocacy role, he said.
“Our role here as a company is understanding that we need to educate the community and be involved in it,” Caldwell said. He said he hopes to be involved in bicycle advocacy in Norman as he has been in Edmond.
Caldwell said it can be frustrating that bicycling does not receive the amount of respect that a form of transportation should. He compared the U.S. to Europe, where cycling is more prevalent.
People don’t see that kind of transportation in the U.S. “unless you’re in a major metro area,” Caldwell said.
“We would love to see more of that, and that’s what we’ll be involved in here,” he said.
One way Phat Tire Bike Shop gets involved with the communities they operate in is through group rides. In Edmond, they organize weekly Tuesday night road rides which start and end at the shop at 6 p.m. Caldwell said daylight saving time will soon bring the end of those night rides, however.
He said the Norman Bicycle League is highly active, and he has looked at getting a ride going with them and potentially starting their own weekly ride on Saturday mornings.
“That's something for us that we're going to be in the brainstorming process, but we will be active in a group ride capacity, absolutely,” Caldwell said.
While Caldwell is excited about opening the new shop in Norman, not everyone shares his enthusiasm. Team Warmup Cycling Team, a local bicycling team, has expressed concern about Phat Tire Bike Shop coming into communities like Norman and taking businesses away from smaller shops in the area.
The Team Warmup statement argues staffing a business like Phat Tire with local residents “does not hide the underlying perception of malicious intent to take over the hard work of the smaller shops.”
“We have the freedom to choose where our cycling money goes in Norman, and although some may welcome this intrusion, we do not,” the statement reads.
Caldwell said the decision to enter the Norman market was based on a need for service that they identify before committing to a store in the area. He said they want to be a store where riders with no prior knowledge about riding can come and receive hospitable service, a style of customer service he felt was absent from other stores.
“We won't have an uppity attitude, because we know that everyone starts at that level,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell said Phat Tire intends to “walk the walk” in Norman and encourages the community to contact them with events and happenings in Norman, cycling related or not.
Dan Schemm, director of VisitNorman, said he visited Northwest Arkansas over the summer, where he saw multiple hotel guests with bikes heading to trails in the area. He hopes the additions of Legacy Trail and further connecting trails within city limits will mean increased bicycle tourism. He also mentioned how the city is partnering with the Oklahoma Department of Transportation to do a trail on Highway 9, and the existing trails at Lake Thunderbird.
Schemm said while there are four bicycle shops in Norman, having another option on Main Street will be great.
“You can buy bikes online, but it’s not the same as getting one at your local dealer, where they’ll fit it for you and make sure the bike is performing the way it needs to for the activities you’re wanting to do,” Schemm said. “As a college town, not only do we have the leisure cyclist and athletic cyclists, but students are always looking for bikes and accessories as well, so it’s going to be a great addition to Norman.”