I’ve been a customer of the Bicycle Doctor ever since I’ve ridden bikes. Nestled in a strip mall on US-1 just south of Royal Palms Parkway, the Bike Doctor has always been one of the most recognized and beloved business owners in the community. For the first time since owner Tony Libretti set up shop over a decade ago, the long-term prospects of the bike industry are uncertain. Palm Coast is still a popular town for cyclists, but since COVID-19 began, running any kind of business has gotten a whole lot harder.
I sat down with Tony to discuss biking in Palm Coast, and how he’s been navigating these turbulent times.
Chris Gollon: So how long now have you been running the Bicycle Doctor shop?
Tony Libretti: “Thirteen years. This is the second shop I’ve done, I had a shop for ten years in Connecticut that’s still there called Tony’s Bikes and Sports. Another guy, Mike has taken over the shop, we’re still in contact all the time. The website up there says I’m on vacation, which…that was a long time ago! [laughs]”
That’s a long vacation!
“Yeah, long vacation! So I was fortunate enough to come here and look around, and there was only PC Bike at the time, and I figured maybe there was room for another shop, and that’s what gave me the idea to start another shop. I’ve been very sad to see that PC Bike is no longer around, I was very good friends with those guys, it was great having an opposing shop that you got along with, and it’s too bad that they’re no longer around.”
CG: How has the cycling community evolved here in Flagler County since you set up?
TL: “With the population growing so much here in the last fourteen years, the trail growth and the town going in the direction of fitness – which I don’t think anybody thought it would, but naturally it’s evolving with so many running events, triathlons, there’s a lot of people involved with event-building here. We’ve even had a Spartan Race, and there’s some mud races, and it’s great. It’s really going in that direction so, to me, I never thought it would be that way, I never thought it would grow that well, I mean…you go to the [Flagler Beach] Bridge in the morning and see people walking at 5 am, people that you would never think could do that. And that just inspires me so much to see that, and having a bike shop in the community where people come in and say, ‘Wow, I’ve lost 50 lbs! I’m off my meds!’. Diabetic people say ‘Look, I don’t have to take my meds anymore, my blood pressure’s down!’. It’s inspiring to really see the difference, and it’s because the county built the trails, because there’s a trail system.
“People come from Volusia County and all over to come and ride our trails. We’re so fortunate to have this. Even the simple Lehigh Trail, and people live on it, and they commute on it! So it’s such an asset that the county has gone along with this, and continued making trails. I hope they continue to do more. It’s worth our tax dollars to see the fitness, good health means happy people. It all makes sense.”
CG: How have you had to adjust as a small business owner since the pandemic started earlier this year?
TL: “At first we were very scared that we wouldn’t be allowed to stay open. The first thought was ‘What if we close? How long could we handle not paying our bills?’. Then we found out we could be open. It was starting to get busy, then it got absolutely insanely busy. As all the other bike shops would say, all our inventory, was basically bought out. Repair parts were bought up mostly…it was so busy to the point that we didn’t like it. We couldn’t stand it.
“Because everybody was home, they didn’t have anything to do. In a way, we were kind of grumpy that we weren’t home. [laughs] We were still at work while everybody was out having fun. It’s not really fun sitting at home, but it sounded funner than sitting at work all day!
“And then we had to start thinking of how long this business was going to last, and what’s gonna happen after that. So that’s where we’re at now: things have calmed down somewhat but it’s still hard to get parts, and bikes are the next challenge. We’re hearing maybe we’ll get a couple bikes in October, maybe a couple bikes in November, some next year, and the bike companies don’t have any answers. They are telling us to order, order, order like crazy, and hopefully you’ll get bikes when you need them. It’s a very big uncertainty for the bike industry. There are bike shops going out of business. There are bike companies that I think will also go out of business from this. It’s hard for me to order bikes so I have them for next summer. I don’t know how to run a business that way. It’s kinda scary. So we’re just kind of taking it day by day, we’re still busy enough, we’re still paying all our bills.
“We’re very fortunate that we have such an amazing support from all the customers. You wouldn’t believe the tips that we’re getting! People are so much more generous through this, it’s such a shocking thing. And now that PC Bike has gone down, that customer base has come to us, and they’re so thankful that we’re here! I have a huge thanks to Jake and James at PC Bike because they told the customers to come to us. So we really have a great thanks that they’ve done that for us. But we’re kind of going into the unknown, we don’t know what the future’s gonna bring. We hope we can stick it out, as of right now it’s great, we’re doing well, but if we don’t have bikes to sell, then we can’t really run a business.
“I did find out recently that the reason why there are no bikes, is because the bike companies cancelled their orders when COVID started, in fear that this could last too long, that the bike shops would have to close…so when you order a bike from overseas, it takes six to eight months to get a bike from start to finish. So they, just now, are reordering. So that’s the problem and I think that’s overflowed into every industry that has missing product. They say the fishing industry is short, paddle boards are hard to come by, and all kinds of other things. I think everybody panicked and kinda held back.”
They all just gave their best guess?
“They did, and we’re still guessing. It’s a scary time but the best thing about this is we’re all in it together. You can’t point and say ‘those people are doing better than we are’, or ‘that country is doing so much better than we are’, everybody’s dealing with this. Everybody’s just trying to get their own piece of normalcy.”
CG: Our city and county governments have always emphasized their biking trails as one of the crown jewels of life here in Flagler. In what ways do you think that’s shaped or elevated your business’s place in the community?
TL: “When I started the business, my first intention was just to have a small bike shop. Because I knew the bike business, I figured it was the easiest way to have something to do when I came here…”
Did you think that was going to become your primary source of income?
“I did, because I was fortunate enough to sell well [enough] up north that I didn’t need a lot of money. Not to say I could retire, but I didn’t need a ton. We own our home here, so we’re fortunate. But I didn’t really think it was ever gonna get [to be] this big of a shop. So then the trails grew, because myself and PC Bike were at all these meetings. I helped design the map we have for all the trails with the tourism division. So as that stuff started to evolve, and then eventually Mala Compra, we really realized, ‘wow, this is becoming this great town with great trails and great fitness, and just so many things to do here’.
“And then that made me realize that it was worth moving from a smaller unit to a bigger unit, and now we’re already too big for this unit. So originally when I put the shop here, there was no Lehigh Trail, so that’s enormously helped my business that they can ride their bikes right to the store. At first I thought it was just gonna be a fun little business that I can close for weekends if I needed to do things and have fun, and now it’s become a real business, and a staple in the community, and it’s great. I know so many great people in this county, which is really awesome. So yeah, we evolved as the county supported us with trails, and as we supported them also.”
CG: You’ve been involved in the creation and upkeep of several great trails around Flagler County, such as Mala Compra and Waterfront Park. Do you have a personal favorite to ride on?
TL “Depends what kind of riding! If I had a favorite trail in town it would be Waterfront Park. I like the water, the boats, all that. I also run a lot, and I like that trail for running. But to have two offroad trails in town that are completely different is such the jewel. People come here and we say we have two offroad trails and they’re like, ‘No way!’. And for one to be on the beach? [laughs] It’s absurd! To think about it is amazing. You go to [Graham] Swamp, you go to Mala Compra, you’re gonna get completely different rides, completely different terrain…we’re hugely spoiled here to have that.
“And I never thought, moving to Florida, that I would ever offroad bike again. I didn’t even bring any bikes with me when I moved, I came down with kayaks, surf kayaks. That’s about all I brought. And I thought biking might’ve been behind me when I moved here, except for maybe some road biking and beach cruisers and stuff like that. I didn’t realize there was so much biking here. So it’s earned my wife and I many friends, because we got into the bike community, and the running community, and they’re all the same kind of people. It’s great, the fitness has really brought us friends, and we’ve gotten to know so many people, it really is a blessing.”
CG: Citizens of Palm Coast have long rallied for more sidewalks and streetlights around town. As a member of the cycling community, what’s your stance on that issue? Are there any specific parts of town you’d like to see better accessibility for cyclists?
TL: “Old Kings Road, north.”
Between SR-100 and Palm Coast Parkway?
“Yeah. We need a sidewalk, we need more bike lane. That’s an extremely dangerous road for anybody walking or biking, or anything. That road scares me. I think that we have to work on connecting our sidewalks better. We have a lot of trails but they don’t all connect. When I describe to people that are new in town where to ride, it’s tricky. I say, ‘take Lehigh Trail all the way to Colbert Lane, and take a left on the sidewalk, and then look for a sign for Waterfront Park’…I think the connectivity could be done better.
“But my biggest complaint in town is crossing the streets. When you get a walk signal, a turn signal is also happening for the cars. It just seems to me you’re set up for an accident. I don’t understand it. I think that as a driver, you don’t know that they have the walk signal, so I don’t blame the drivers. I just say that, I think there should be a light on top of a red light or something that blinks so you know there’s somebody with the walk signal so that the driver will know. I really think they need to look at that, because so many people come in here that get hit in the crosswalk, and they’re supposed to be walking there. The signal says to walk, and they get hit. It happens once a month, we have somebody come in here that was hit.”
I know exactly what you’re talking about. I used to ride my bike to Flagler Palm Coast High School every day till I graduated, and that intersection at Belle Terre and SR-100…
“Yes. It’s a bad one.”
It was scary. It was legitimately scary.
“If you have the walk signal, you should be able to go through without fear. And it’s not that way.”
Yeah, we’re not the Bronx.
[laughs] “Yeah, I know. It is crazy, that’s for sure.”
CG: So I know you touched on this earlier, but the elephant in the room is the recent closure of PC Bike, another shop in Palm Coast you’ve been known to collaborate with on trail projects. What does their closure mean for your shop? Do you think it reflects the state of the bike industry around here?
TL: “I think that…I worry that we may not be able to handle the customer load from that shop. I don’t think that it reflects so much the bike industry; it might more reflect the fear of the disease. In that aspect, PC Bike could’ve stayed open, but I think they were worried more of the unknown, and maybe they thought it was time to move on. And everybody’s gonna handle this disease differently, and I think they looked at it as, maybe it wasn’t worth waiting until January for bikes. And that’s what they were told. So I think it was maybe more of a personal thing that they chose to do, rather than saying that it was how the bike industry was going. Yes, we’re hearing that shops are closing, but some shops maybe were waiting for a reason to close, maybe. A reason to get out. And that could be the case [with PC Bike]. I don’t want to say anything negative about them, I just think that maybe they felt it was time, and I understand that. That’s why I sold my store in Connecticut, it was time. I wanted to try something new, something different.”
Those concerns that they had about the future of the virus, do you have those same concerns?
“I do. I worry that if we don’t get bikes on a normal [schedule] of getting bikes, that it’s gonna be hard to maintain paying bills…I really worry about the cost of product, because shipping logistics are gonna go up. I’m already hearing things from my bike company, saying there’s gonna be fees tacked on to bike orders. Fees that, I don’t know what they mean, but they’re gonna add on to our shipment. We used to get a lot of deals like, you order 20 bikes, you get three free, that kind of thing. If you order one bike you might pay $40 freight…they’re saying these numbers are gonna double. So we make a lot of profit on buying smart, on buying a lot of bikes and saving on freight. If we’re gonna pay more freight, that comes right off the top of the profit, that means the price of the bike will go up. And inflation I worry is gonna kick in. Because I’m already seeing prices go up on everything. So some people are gonna take advantage of it, unfortunately I think we’re already seeing that in things we buy every day. So I am in fear of that. I’m in fear of things becoming too expensive, and I’m in fear of maybe not enough jobs for people to afford to pay for these new costs. So that could destroy the bike industry. If people don’t have the money to pay for bikes, and bikes are too expensive, I think together that could really crush the bike industry and other industries.
“If you came in here and our average bike used to be $400-$500, now you’re coming in at $650. That’s a big difference. So I worry on what’s gonna happen with that, that’s probably my greatest fear: availability and cost. Those two are gonna be a real problem.”
CG: Lastly, tell us what’s going on in your shop! What new products and/or services are you excited to offer to the community?
TL: “Let’s get into a little bit about electric bikes! We have a bike from Cannondale that’s a 34-lb electric bike, where most electric bikes on the market are 50 lbs. And it’s a pedal-assist, meaning that it only gives you power as you pedal. There’s no throttle. Once you have a throttle on an electric bike it becomes a motor vehicle, which is illegal on our trails. Even though people are still doing that. It’s not safe. So we’re very excited, we’ve been selling a lot of them and we’ve been able to get them through this COVID problem, and that’s a bike we’re excited about. If people are interested in electric bikes, and a quality electric bike, we’d like to have them come down and try one of those out!
“And, if I wanted to boost something about the shop, we’re trying to keep people informed that if they go on our website, if you sign up you’ll get a 10% coupon, and we tell people monthly the availability of the store. So you’ll know you’ll have the first chance to buy bikes as they come in. Because everybody’s saying ‘Call me when this bike comes in or that comes in’, so we’re constantly sending out an email saying ‘This is how many bikes are in the store’, and we take pictures of them all, we put them on Facebook, we put the used bikes in there, so everybody will know when the bikes are here. Because they’re going to sell out very quickly. Like, we have 50 beach cruisers coming in on the 20th of next month and they’re not gonna last. So we’re gonna let everybody know that’s on the mailer, and there’s a couple thousand people on there now. So if you wanna know, do that rather than having to call and wonder who’s gonna have bikes. Get on the mailing list, you’ll be aware of what’s happening!”
Our thanks to Tony Libretti, owner and founder of Bicycle Doctor, for having us and providing an interview!