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Here's how Detroit Bikes is transforming America’s car capital into a bike town

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Cycling is seeing a renaissance in the U.S. There are 60 million recreational cyclists in the country who have helped lift the bike industry to be worth $6.2 billion, according the National Bicycle Dealers Association (NBDA). With more people purchasing bikes and ridership seeing an increase, American bicycle brands are also beginning to see a resurgence after decades of offshoring.

Zak Pashak’s bicycle manufacturing startup, Detroit Bikes, is one of those brands. The four-year-old company is not only helping give the Motor City a new identity, it aims to make the car capital easier to navigate.

"We're trying to help develop an alternative form of transport."
Zakary Pashak, President, Detroit Bikes

"We make our bikes for city use primarily, so we're trying to help develop an alternative form of transport," Pashak, who is president of Detroit Bikes and invested $2.5 million to get the project off the ground, told Circa.

Bringing back bike manufacturing

Currently, the majority (nearly 99 percent) of bikes sold in the U.S. are imported from China and Taiwan, according the U.S. Department of Commerce. In 1990, the U.S. was producing 5.6 million units, according to data from the International Bicycle Fund. Fast forward 25 years and that number had sunk to 200,000, but the American-made bike market is staging a comeback.

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Detroit is the largest bike frame manufacturer in the U.S. (Circa)

According to NBDA, "There are dozens of smaller U.S. bike makers — over 100 brands in all, so there is domestic manufacturing at some level."

Detroit Bikes locally sources many of the materials it uses to cut, weld, paint and assemble its bikes, such as American chromoly steel (the kind used in race cars, which is durable and super light weight). The company hand builds its line of bikes out of a refurbished 50,000 square foot space in the city.

Since it launched in 2013, the manufacturing startup has sold 10,000 bikes, with bulk orders making up a good chunk of their sales. The company's goal is to produce 50,000 bikes a year, which would double the country's output of bikes.

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From Motor City to Bike City

Pashak's interest in bikes really started when he ran for city council in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. After getting involved in transportation policy, he decided he wanted to help give urban dwellers across North America a viable and more affordable alternative to cars for getting around.

He packed up and moved to the Motor City.

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Detroit Bikes President Zak Pashak packed up and moved to the Motor City to launch the bike frame factory in 2013. (Circa)

"I had a sense that customers were becoming more and more interested in where their products were coming from," he said. "I thought maybe there was a chance that we could get especially American customers interested in cycling again by giving them a product that they really identified with."

To talk about Detroit Bikes, you have to talk about Detroit's history as a manufacturing heavy weight. The city is home to car makers Ford and GM. In it's heyday, the city had 1.8 million residents – today that figure sits just under a modest 700,000, per the U.S. Census Bureau.

Automaker bankruptcies dealt the Motor City a hard blow that led to layoffs and economic hardships. But out of the rubble, entrepreneurs have found vacant spaces and skilled workers looking for a second chance.

Locals will tell you the Midwest city is having a moment – Detroit Bikes is part of that.

"Detroit is a manufacturing place. If these are going to be Detroit bikes, I think a really important part of that is that they're made here by people here," Pashak said.

Henry Ford II is the head of assembly at Detroit Bikes. He has deep roots in the Motor City and his family is known around town as the "other Ford family" because at one point, at least 10 members of his family worked for the iconic car maker, he told to Circa.

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"Long story short, my grandfather from Mississippi came up to Detroit in the ‘20s when Ford Motors did the $5 day promotion," he explained. "To be part of the revival of what put Detroit on the map is really something that I’m proud of."

What Detroit's revival mean to Detroit Bikes' Henry Ford

A former banking professional, he lost his job after the 2008 Recession. For years after that, he gave bike tours to tourists and locals, which is how Ford found his way to Detroit Bikes.

"If you wanted to and you had the time and energy, you could ride a group ride on your bike every day of the week," Ford said.

Although bike commuting has grown in popularity in the U.S., compared to other developed countries, it still lags behind. The biggest reason for this discrepancy is the lack of bike lanes. Detroit may not fall in the top 10 American cities with bike lines, in the last decade it has paved over 100 miles of cycling infrastructure.

"For years, we were known as the Motor City," Ford said. "With the resurgence of biking that's really exploded around Detroit, that name is transitioning to Bike City."

American made products

Surveys say American shoppers want products made in the U.S., but when it comes down to it, consumers really want a good deal. A recent Reuters-Ipsos poll cited by the Washington Post found that 69 percent of people indicated price was "very important" when making a purchase, compared to half that number (32 percent) who said it was "very important" for a product to be made in America.

The same Washington Post article cites a separate Associated Press-GFK survey that revealed another problem for the Made in America movement is that Americans might say they prefer to buy domestic products, but a scant 30 percent are actually willing to pay more for them. Pashak argues that lack of understanding around what it really takes to make something, in this case bikes, from start to finish, is part of the issue.

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"There's some confusion out there about what manufacturing is," he said. "But the most concise way I know how to do it is that you need to take a raw material and you need to transform that into a finished commercial product." Detroit Bikes manufactures its bike frames in house, but other parts like tires and baskets they assemble.

He also believes that just because a product is made in China, or the U.S. for the sake of argument, makes it inherently better. "It's one thing to buy [something] just because it's made in the U.S. Then there's the next level of what about being made in the U.S. makes it a product you want?" he said.

This situation, however, does present a pricing problem for specialty bike makers such as Detroit Bikes that retail their products at $750 on average. For comparison, big box sellers offer bikes from overseas that average $90 a pop, according to research from NBDA.

So how do you justify the specialty price point to riders?

"For us, the manufacturing side is really important as part of our story. We're in Detroit. We're selling Detroit Bikes. That's our challenge – to find that connection for the different customers," Pashak said.

See more related Circa stories:
Here's how startups are helping mega-brand Coca-Cola take on the future
Creative entrepreneurs could be the key to revitalizing this city and others
This Detroit non-profit looks to break the cycle of homelessness with multi-purpose coats

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