Eight years ago, Robin Bylenga was a single mother in the unemployment line amid the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.
She might have decided it wasn’t a good time to spend her dwindling savings on fulfilling a longtime dream of opening a bicycle shop geared for women.
But that’s exactly what she did.
She’s operated the shop, Pedal Chic, for seven years along Main Street in downtown Greenville. Pedal Chic is one of the first — if not the first — shops in North America devoted to female cyclists.
Now Bylenga is poised to fulfill another longtime dream — launching her own line of bicycles.
By October, she’s scheduled to start selling six models of Pedal Chic bicycles out of a new location for her store — along the riverwalk at RiverPlace in downtown Greenville, beside a new Embassy Suites hotel.
The bicycles are being supplied by Kent International, a New Jersey-based company that makes three million bicycles a year and operates factories in China and South Carolina.
Kent has licensed Bylenga’s trademark, Pedal Chic, and is talking with her about selling Pedal Chic-branded bicycles into its retail channels, which are some of the biggest in the world.
Retailers that buy bicycles from Kent include Walmart, Target, Toys ‘R’ Us, Academy Sports + Outdoors, and Amazon.com.
Bylenga would be paid a royalty for each bicycle that Kent sells under the Pedal Chic brand.
Scott Kamler, Kent president, confirmed the licensing deal in an interview with UBJ.
The Pedal Chic brand is “very on trend,” he said. “Everyone is saying they want women-specific bikes. And not just men’s bikes with some teal or purple on it.”
Female cyclists are “a big demographic and they’re kind of getting ignored,” Kamler said. “So I’m on the Robin train.”
It’s a welcome turn of events for someone who’s spent so many weekends working in the store while others socialized.
“I’ve never been this happy,” Bylenga said. “Everything has come together bigger than I’ve ever dreamed.”
CYCLING AS HEALING
Bylenga, 52, grew up in various places around the country as her father pursued a career in higher education.
A self-confessed workaholic, Bylenga attended colleges in three different states and earned a pre-law degree before working as a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines in Texas.
She moved to Greenville in 1989 to attend graduate school at Clemson University, where her late father, Max Lennon, was president at the time.
Bylenga worked in marketing at Greenville Tech during the day and attended classes in Clemson at night.
She recalls riding bicycles with friends frequently in those days, socializing and exercising on the picturesque highways of northern Greenville and Pickens counties.
After getting her master’s degree in human resources development, Bylenga sold chemicals to textile companies and other manufacturers.
Later, she worked as a commercial real estate agent and made her own handbag designs, selling them through boutiques in Greenville, Columbia, and Charleston.
Her cycling activity ebbed for a while, but she resumed regular riding after getting divorced in 2003. It happened after she bumped into a friend at Cleveland Park whose husband had recently died.
“We started talking and riding together, and that became our therapy,” Bylenga recalled. “I was healing, and she was healing. We just started riding more and more and more.”
At the time, Bylenga had already begun thinking about marketing cycling-related products to women. She remembers pitching a woman’s jersey but not finding any interest.
Bylenga sold pumps, valves, and plate heat exchangers to manufacturers before working as a sales clerk at a Greenville bicycle shop.
At the shop, “Women started gravitating to me,” she recalled. “I would lead group rides, and I would hear what women were saying about the intimidation factor, and I was disappointed in the apparel and how the store was set up.”
That’s when she started thinking about creating an outlet especially for female cyclists.
Later, she sold L’Oreal hair care products to salons. A merger, however, left her jobless at the onset of the Great Recession.
Bylenga found herself standing in line at the downtown office of the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce.
“It was awful, very humbling,” she said. “I was standing next to a guy that used to ring my doorbell and beg for work cleaning my gutters.”
After some soul-searching, Bylenga decided to launch the shop she had dreamed about for years.
“I had a little bit of money left,” she said. “I could either spend it living or give this a shot.”
In the past, she had always been reticent to take the leap.
“It didn’t make sense as a single mother to risk that much,” she said. “When I didn’t have anything to lose, it was easier to take the risk, and I’m so glad I did.”
Bylenga began the venture on Labor Day weekend, 2010, selling about $1,500 worth of accessories — such as T-shirts and arm warmers — from a booth during a pro cycling race in downtown Greenville.
People had come from around the United States and Canada to see the race, and beginning that day Bylenga began building a customer base beyond Greenville.
Bylenga remembered telling her business lawyer at their first meeting that she wanted to get a trademark for the Pedal Chic name.
She opened the store on Dec. 9, 2010, with the help of a $40,000 loan from Michelin Development, a subsidiary of Greenville-based Michelin North America that helps finance small businesses and startups in communities where the tire maker has operations.
A DIFFERENT KIND OF BICYCLE SHOP
At the time she launched Pedal Chic, Bylenga said most bicycle shops resembled auto parts stores, with lots of rubber and metal hanging from grooved panels on the walls. There was little apparel designed for women, she said, and often no dressing rooms.
Bylenga made her shop more like a fashion boutique, with crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and a bright, teal-and-red logo that blends images of a flower and bicycle wheel.
She sees her mission at Pedal Chic as more than profit.
“We believe that the lives of women and their families can be transformed by the bike,” Bylenga said. The shop is “our tool to try to reach out to people and change lives.”
BECOMING AN INDUSTRY PERSONALITY
Bylenga’s concentration on female cyclists, combined with her personal story, have proven to be a potent narrative for marketing her business.
She’s gotten lots of press over the years, as well as awards and invitations to speak, and has become known as an industry pioneer and expert on selling bicycles to women.
She began drawing attention just one month after opening Pedal Chic when a distributor she’d established an account with asked her to speak at a conference in Minnesota.
She’s been a fixture at Interbike, an annual trade show for the industry in North America, appearing on panels and giving seminars such as the Art and Science of Selling Bikes to Women. Bylenga also organized an annual happy hour for women at Interbike.
Over the years, Pedal Chic has won awards from Interbike eight times, starting with “Best Women-Friendly Bike Shop” in 2012.
Bylenga has also spoken at the National Bike Summit, an annual gathering of bicycle enthusiasts in Washington, D.C., and at “diva nights” organized by bicycle shops in Indiana and Tennessee.
Major magazines that have written about Bylenga and her business include Money, Southern Living, and Better Homes and Gardens. She has also been featured in trade publications such as Cycling Industry News, Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, and Total Women’s Cycling.
All of the exposure has been good for Bylenga’s business.
“I have customers all over Canada, all over the United States,” she said. “I’m starting to get requests from overseas because this market was basically untapped.”
She faces a limitation, however, in capitalizing on her big network.
She’s contractually barred from shipping bicycles outside of the sales territories assigned to her by the four brands of bicycle she sells.
She will not face that restriction when she starts selling her own line.
NEW PRODUCT, NEW STORE
Kent opened an assembly operation in Manning, S.C., in 2014 to supply bicycles to Walmart after the retailer pledged to buy $2.5 billion worth of U.S.-made goods over a decade.
Bylenga said she first met Kamler, the Kent president, at Interbike last September. She had struck the licensing deal by the time her father passed away in November.
Bylenga designed the six models of Pedal Chic bicycles herself, employing lessons learned during many years of helping women find the best fit in seats and handlebars.
Each model will sell for less than $500 and has its own carefully thought out name. There’s Radiate, Transform, Refine, Allure, and Invigorate. Bylenga is calling her beach cruiser Coral Crush.
Her RiverPlace store will be located right on the Swamp Rabbit Trail. It will have a 25-foot ceiling and overhead bicycle racks that will move up or down with the touch of a button.
Best of all, Bylenga said, customers will be able to park free for an hour and a half in the RiverPlace garage.