A glass table sat against a wall in the reception room of . Upon it were placed several trophies of various sizes and shapes; awards and recognitions for achievements such as “Outstanding Supplier,” and “VIP Exhibitor.” The dates of awards: 2004, 2005, and through to the present… it didn’t seem as though they had missed a year. Above the trophies, hanging proudly from a wall painted in their trademark orange color, was a frame housing a photo of the construction of their Main Street store. But these icons of triumph weren’t the first things to greet me as I passed through the door and into the entryway of Chris Zane’s office; the first things I saw there were bikes.
“I’m not a cyclist,” he confessed to me, which may sound disconcerting, coming from the authority on bikes. He put that worry to rest, however, when he stated: “I am a ‘pit-guy.’” In Zane’s world there are those who are experts in riding bikes, and those who are experts in furnishing and servicing them. He is the latter. Chris started fixing bikes out of his garage in 1981. His entrepreneurial spirit, combined with an aptitude in fixing bikes, were the pedals that got the wheels turning.
But he doesn’t just service bikes; he services you. Bikes are merely the vehicle by which he does this. A brief glimpse at his business model should be more than enough to convince you that he’s the guy you want to get your gear from this spring. Events and offers such as his lifetime service guarantee, 90-day price protection; his yearly, spring sale, and his bike trade-in program for kids, are just a few ways by which he builds interactions with his clientele, rather than transactions.
When he first broke ground in the industry there were 17 bicycle shops in the New Haven area. Being small, he was unable to compete in terms of pricing, and the truth is, with so many shops, (some of them department stores) a guy can buy a bike anywhere.
“I realized that the only difference between [me and the competition] was in how I handled the customer. You can kill the competition with the service you provide.” I learned that one of the ways Chris Zane does this is by not sweating his customers over pennies. Pick up a copy of his book, Reinventing the Wheel, and he’ll break it down for you. His profit margin is not what you might expect for someone who’s experienced the growth that he has. Where he wins the race is in loyalty to his customer, which is rewarded by loyalty of his customer.
“Bad business snowballs,” he explains, when I ask him about the generous way he treats those who walk through his doors. “I’m not selling rubber, spokes, carbon-fiber, or steel. I’m selling recreation, weight-loss, and freedom. Everything about a bike should be fun, including the experience of buying it. If you’re not having fun buying a bike, why are you doing it?”
I had the luxury of seeing his words in action two weeks prior, when I showed up at the to get my biking situation taken care of. If you passed through East Main Street that weekend, it is unlikely that you missed the cluster-bunch that was Zane’s Cycles parking lot. When I walked in to find twice as many people in the store as there were cars outside, I almost turned and left, but the gravity of such a mass of docile customers held me in place. No one seemed irritated! Nonetheless, I prepared myself for the frustration of waiting on the backburner. I needn’t have bothered; a customer service representative engaged me almost immediately, even though she was assisting another customer. Since I was in for service and parts, she directed me to the service department where the representative there listened to what I had to say, took my bike in for tuning, and made suggestions- tailoring the experience of getting the bike fixed to my personal needs. I received red-carpet treatment on a bike that had been purchased years ago, and was being serviced for free.
Afterwards, instead of elbowing my way to the cash register, I felt inspired to walk around the store like several others who, rather than waiting impatiently in line, were contentedly absorbed in the world of bikes: checking out helmets, footwear, attire, and all manner of peripherals. I even enjoyed a complimentary coffee from their coffee bar (yes, the bike shop has a coffee bar).
By the time I had left a half-hour later, I had happily shelled out the cash needed to buy a new pair of biking shoes and a fresh set of pedals. More importantly, I was dying to get on my bike.
“We’ve built a great team,” Chris Zane says, crediting those who make experiences like mine the standard beneath his roof. He gives each department head the autonomy to build their own team, so they work well with the people they supervise. A great team, a great attitude, and great service might still falter without a great town. Zane is also grateful to the community that helped him shed his training wheels.
“For 30 years the community [of Branford] has embraced us as a citizen, allowing us to do what we do.” So, maybe it’s best that your bike-guy is a pit-guy, because it makes for a better experience when you do what you do.
The cycle for Zane’s shows no signs of slowing down. As a supplier for incentive programs, the number of bikes they provide has grown exponentially over the years and with that: their experience in doing it right.
Now, I also have a confession… I am not a cyclist, either. Sure, I exercise regularly (I’m that sweaty guy at the gym who you stay two machines away from), but I haven’t spent much time on a bike since I got my driver’s license ages ago, nor had I intended to. That’s been changing after my visit to Zane’s.
As I’m approaching my late twenties I’m finding that my knees don’t spring back as quickly from an hour on the treadmill, and, quite frankly, the treadmill often bores me to tears. When the weather is nice outside, hitting the gym for a cardiovascular exercise can be akin to pulling teeth. Finding excuses to nix entire minutes off that critical cardio becomes way too easy, and I am finding that having my bike inspires me to add miles to my workout. In fact, I’m usually having so much fun being outdoors that sometimes I even forget that I am working out.
Here are a few reasons why it might behoove you to ride a bike:
- Dispersed over time, owning and riding a bike is a less costly mode of fitness than most others out there; even if you’re only paying $10 a month for a gym membership. A bike can easily last you ten years (especially if your tune ups are free). Ten years of a $10/ month gym membership will cost you $1,200 not even considering factors such as inflation and the gas you use to drive there.
- And speaking of gas… Who else is paying Four-dollars per gallon? Hold your breath for that number to go down, or breathe freely while staying fit on your bike. Perhaps you live moderately close (five to 10 miles) to where you work. Maybe you need a reason to bike to those places you probably shouldn’t rely on a car to get you to, anyways. How about banking the money you’d otherwise be spending on gas a few times each week while the weather is nice? It’ll trim your belly and fatten your savings account.
- Biking is a less traumatic form of cardiovascular exercise. A fluid, pedaling motion works those legs just as efficiently as a run will. The difference is the ache you spare your joints. Biking isn’t as harsh on the knees or ankles as a jog on the pavement is. Also, you’ll burn calories while going farther.
- You’ll never pay to park your bike, you’ll never be stuck in traffic, and you don’t have to insure the darn thing. It might change your life.
The reason I set out to write this piece was so that I could get you pumped about getting on your 18 speed, but, again, I’m going to have to defer you to Zane’s… they’re way better at it than I am. And because he wants you to enjoy the ride, Chris mentioned the following as great local places to enjoy your Trek, Specialized, or Huffy. Yeah, I said Huffy.
Route 146 (From Branford center to Guilford center and back)
This trip is one of the top ten bike-rides in the country. We happen to be spoiled because it’s in our backyard, but don’t miss it for that reason. Stop in Stony Creek for lunch, check out the islands and enjoy yourself.
No cars, no liability; just pure, unhindered pavement for breezy riding. If you’re new to cycling it’s the place for you.
Route 79 in Madison
This is for more advanced cyclist, but it’s got some great hills and you can generate a lot of speed. Pick up 80 or 81 at the circle for some harder rides.
, Westwoods, Timberlands
These rides are nature-heavy. You get a single-track ride which you can’t really get in other parts of the country. Bring a mountain bike.