Though many of us enjoy cycling, sometimes we lose sight of the resources and commitment that go into maintaining this sport. We’re not just referring to the retail side—those sales and upgrades and maintenance work to our advantage. We’re also referring to the trails, their development and maintenance, the hours of upkeep and thousands of dollars that go into making riding possible.
Those trails can have a surprisingly tangible impact on local specialty retailers. If local trails aren’t managed and preserved, regular riders won’t visit them, and they won’t need to visit local retailers if they aren’t riding. Similarly, if new trails aren’t developed, fewer new riders will find interest in the sport, driving less traffic into stores.
It’s this integral tie to the trails that inspired Dan Thornton of Free-Flite Bicycles to unite his community, local biking organizations and even his competitors.
Thornton’s been engaged in innovative adaptation since the earliest days of Free-Flite. After high school, he decided to forego the traditional college route and instead pursued an entrepreneurial path. He opened Free-Flite Skateboards with his father in 1977. “I was a pretty hardcore skater,” he says with a laugh. But as quickly as skateboards and their contingent retail came into fashion, they went out, burdened by insurance issues and impracticalities.
In a move of swift adaptation that would become indicative of the brand, Free-Flite Skateboards became Free-Flite Bicycles. Even as a bicycle shop they’ve remained on their toes and skillfully adaptive, willing to shift their focus based on the whims of society, offering everything from mountain bikes to road bikes to race gear (today, you’ll find everything on their shelves).
Thornton clearly knows how to stay relevant and engaged with his community. It’s also a community about which he cares deeply. That’s why Thornton has always been involved in local chapters of SORBA (Southern Off Road Bicycle Association), a subset of IMBA (International Mountain Bike Association). When a local SORBA group began meeting about starting a new trail just seven miles from the Free-Flite store, Thornton rallied to offer everything he could, from funds to lunch for the workers.
Last year, his contributions to local trails went to the next level with the Free-Flite Challenge. It began with a note to two local SORBA chapters challenging them to raise funds, which Free-Flite would match with a $3,000 donation. One of the groups dove into the challenge, trademarking the name and spearheading the campaign through emails, social media, posters on trailheads and more. At the end of the Challenge, they’d raised over $10,000.
What makes the Free-Flite Challenge so uniquely engaging is that Thornton and his community could immediately see the payoffs locally. Though he’s still an avid supporter of organizations like IMBA, Thornton points out, “If I send them money it could go anywhere, but I like to keep the money local.” Funds raised by the first Challenge were funneled directly into local projects: finishing bridges, enhancing railings, and making the trails navigable.
“You get to see the completion, it’s actionable, and it inspired people,” says Thornton. Donations ranged from a few dollars to $1,500—which was donated by one of Thornton’s main competitors. “It’s a bit of a challenge to other shops to step up, and that’s the idea,” says Thornton. “There’s times when I say, ‘Why am I doing all this,’ but it’s the right thing and it comes back to you. I’m going to do this either way, whether we parlay it into more money or not, because it’s the right thing to do.”
But chances are it will parlay into money. Thornton and Free-Flite are inspiring the local bike community to come together and support their passion. With more folks out on the trail, new and old alike, more folks will also be in local specialty retailers like Thornton’s.
Thornton points out as a final note that sometimes these profits can come in the least likely packages. “A lot of shops tend to look at these nonprofit groups when they come in the door, its with hands out, and they’re tired of them knocking,” he says. But it’s through these partnerships, he notes, that we all profit. “We should partner with them and find commonality so that everyone wins.” That’s exactly what he’s done with local organizations like SORBA and the Free-Flite Challenge.