The Tougher the Hill, the Better the Ride

TRAVERSE CITY – Dennis Bean-Larson lives in possibility.

The avid entrepreneur and his wife, Katie, juggle four businesses: real estate, bike shop, a clothing and accessories line, and a bicycle frame-finishing service.

Although he says he's struggling like so many others in northwest Michigan, Bean-Larson leverages local resources, a niche audience and the Internet to stay afloat. He says his diverse ventures are key to providing income during the prolonged real estate slump.

"I've been in real estate, licensed, since 1983, and there's a lot of people around that are still doing it that started about when I did, and I don't know how anybody's staying alive," Bean-Larson says.

Bicycling – and the associated businesses he's built to serve those who ride – is what keeps Bean-Larson's blood pumping. His passion: the stripped down, fixed gear bikes he began riding for winter training in 1991 at the suggestion of riding buddy John Robert Williams. Without gears, the bikes are not only low-maintenance but also offer a pure riding experience.

One ride, and Bean-Larson was hooked.

"All the way through the 90s, I rode the Fuji, which Katie bought in 1972," he says.

His passion for the pure riding

style crept into a business venture with the launch of his website, www.fixedgeargallery.com, in 2001. Bean-Larson initially envisioned the site as a modest clearinghouse for proud owners to share tales about their no-frills, do-it-yourself bikes. He optimistically envisioned 25 postings max, but the idea took root and evolved into a beacon for fixed gear riders around the globe.

The front page of Fixed Gear Gallery's website now receives 7,000 hits daily. As of mid-January, the 12,444th photo and message was posted – by "Chris from Switzerland." Besides user photos, site content includes reviews, tips, tricks and other information about fixed gear biking.

Income for the site comes from 65 advertisers, although in this economy even Bean-Larson's modest rates have challenged some regulars.

"That's where the cash flow comes to generate other products," said Bean-Larson of the ad dollars.

The website was the catalyst for a Fixed Gear brick-and-mortar store, which Bean-Larson opened in November of 2008, inside the Mercato at the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, just downstairs from his Town & Country Real Estate offices. The cozy nook features cycling gear and accessories, bicycles and frames.

Bean-Larson's related Hell Yes clothing line, www.hell-yes-clothing.com, preceded the store by six months and helped stock the shelves. Merchandise, sold both in person and online, includes full array of T-shirts, arm and leg warmers, jackets, hats and other wearable biking accessories.

Partnering with local businesses has been key to Bean-Larson's operations.

Mary Bergmann of Suit Yourself Sewing in Kingsley provides production help for Hell Yes. Bergmann has created hundreds of cycling knickers that Bean-Larson dubbed ReKnicks in honor of their recycled pedigree: He harvests men's pants from Goodwill, and then Bergmann lops them off at the knee, hems and adds pleats.

"It's more personal, where, if you go to big mills, you kind of lose that hands-on thing," said Bergmann, whose enthusiasm for the ReKnicks concept spurred Bean-Larson to launch them.

In tandem with his other entrepreneurial undertakings of 2008, Bean-Larsen also founded Powdercoat Studio, a frame refinishing service subcontracts with TC's Wheelock & Sons Welding.

The complex origins of Powdercoat Studio (www.powdercoatstudio.com) also relies on connections with Alien Bikes in Oslo, Norway – whose initial large order of 200 sparked the company – and Jordan Lindberg of eFulfillment Service in Traverse City, who originally hooked up Bean-Larson with the overseas bike maker.

It happened like this: Alien Bikes uses eFulfillment Services for warehouse and shipping services, a connection discovered after Alien Bikes emailed Bean-Larson for his address in order to send him a bike for Fixed Gear's review. Bean-Larson's proximity to eFullfillment Services, coupled with his Powdercoat Studio concept, inspired the two to forge a working relationship.

"I was trying to decide if it would be profitable to do – have somebody ship a frame from Chicago for painting, for example, and then ship it back," says Bean-Larson, who estimates the service has refinished 400 frames for individuals as well as Alien Bikes.

Even combined, Bean-Larson says his Powdercoat Studio, Hell Yes clothing line and Fixed Gear Gallery website and store are not major income-generators – yet – but pieces of recession survival.

"I wish it made me more money," he says. "I haven't quite figured out how to make [myself] a millionaire instead of just balancing the checkbook."

It doesn't look like that'll stop him from turning his passions into business any time soon. After a decades-long hiatus, Bean-Larson recently revived his old in interest in pottery making and is selling his Parker Creek Pottery creations from a few shelves ticked inside his Fixed Gear Gallery store.

"One day," he says, "I'd just love to make pots." BN

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