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Traveling cyclists rejoice over road bike rentals

A road bike dropped off by Livelo at a customer’s hotel in Sydney.
A road bike dropped off by Livelo at a customer’s hotel in Sydney.Livelo

SYDNEY — When he travels — which he does often as a Boston-based employee of a San Francisco software company — there’s one thing David Sudbey really, really misses: his road bike.

He’s had it since it was new in the box, a 56-centimeter Merlin titanium frame made in Cambridge, to which he added Shimano wheels, brakes, and pedals.

They’ve been together 13 years now, and shared thousands of miles, Sudbey and the bike, which he calls Merlin. He keeps it in his bedroom. His wife understands.

So the fact that he couldn’t rent a road bike on his business trips was “frustrating beyond realization,” Sudbey said.

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Not that Merlin was replaceable. But bringing it along was complicated and expensive, and Sudbey was forgoing valuable training time when he was out of town for the couple of 100-mile “centuries” he rides each year, an occasional Cohasset Triathlon, and the Pan Mass and Best Buddies challenge fund-raisers.

Then, in Sydney on a work visit, Sudbey discovered something rare: Livelo — “Live Velo” — a new company started by a cyclist that not only rents high-end, carbon-frame Colnago road bikes, but would deliver one to his hotel.

“There’s a real demand for this among business travelers,” said Sudbey. “It drives them nuts when they don’t have the opportunity to ride.”

A good way to get around not only on business trips, but on vacations, road bikes are slowly but surely becoming available to rent, propelled by the addition almost everywhere of bike lanes and bike routes and by the increasing popularity of cycling in general.

The number of trips made by bike in the United States has more than doubled, to 4 billion annually, according to the US Department of Transportation. And while many people have watched the advent of city bikes, it’s road bikes that have been quietly growing in popularity, up in the last 10 years from 16 percent to 20 percent of all bikes sold. The National Sporting Goods Association reports that more Americans now ride bicycles than ski, golf, and play tennis, combined.

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Yet while skis and golf bags usually count as checked baggage, airlines charge extra to ship road bikes. The lowest price, on JetBlue, is $50 each way; Delta and American charge $150 each way, and bringing your bike with you on United costs $150 each way on domestic flights and $200 on international ones. That’s assuming you’re willing to disassemble it and pack it in a container of no more than 62 linear inches, weighing 50 pounds or less (115 linear inches and 70 pounds on Delta). A travel case to keep it safe from baggage handlers adds another $130 to $600.

A Livelo customer with his rental road bike at the overlook known as the Gap in Sydney.
A Livelo customer with his rental road bike at the overlook known as the Gap in Sydney.Livelo

Avoiding this by renting road bikes still isn’t easy. That’s primarily because they’re much, much more expensive than more readily available mountain bikes and hybrids. Decent models, like some of the ones Livelo rents, sell for as much as $6,000, and require a lot of care. And while it still can cost less to rent one than paying all those baggage fees, it’s often pricier than renting a car.

So while bike-share programs have made city bikes ubiquitous, obsessive Spandex-wearing cyclists who like to go fast have long watched from the sidewalk, missing their Merlins, and out of luck.

For changing that, they can thank a peloton of fellow frustrated but entrepreneurial cyclists who have recognized the potential demand and rolled out road bike rental companies themselves.

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Cyclists like Peter Barnes, the founder of Livelo. Well before he started the business, he decided once to drive instead of flying from Sydney to a conference in Canberra, the Australian capital, just so he could bring his bike.

“It was a spring morning in Canberra and I was cycling around thinking, ‘How many opportunities like this have I missed over my life,’ ” Barnes recounted, rattling through rush-hour morning traffic in Sydney in a van filled with Colnagos on his way to meet a client. “I thought, why is no one doing this?”

After conducting some preliminary research, Barnes learned, “You could find a service like this if you’re traveling to a cycling destination — the Pyrenees, the Alps, the places where there’s a tradition of cycling tourism — but I couldn’t find one in a city. So my assumption was that I was not the only idiot traveling to a noncycling-tourism destination who wanted to ride a road bike.”

Livelo has already expanded to Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, and Perth, and charges from $63 to $140 a day, per bike. Most of his customers, Barnes said, are visiting businesspeople like Sudbey, who own high-end bicycles and who, when they’re not traveling, ride three or more times per week.

“I know I wasn’t going to have enough time to ride to justify bringing my bike from home,” said the client Barnes finally caught up with, Noah Leavitt, still in his Spandex, over coffee and croissants at a table outside a Sydney corner café after an early-morning ride in the Southern Hemisphere summer.

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A rabbi and triathlete from the Upper East Side of New York City, who had been invited as a guest speaker by a Sydney synagogue, Leavitt also did some running on his trip. “What I love about running is that you just pack a pair of shoes,” he said. “What I like about this” — Leavitt gestured toward the van, where Barnes was packing up the bike he’d rented — “was it made biking just as easy.”

Alfonso Perez-Palma, who provides a similar service in Miami called Racebikerental.com, also was a triathlete, and got tired of paying airlines to carry along his bike. The last straw was a flight to California for a charity bike ride. “The trip for me was $472, and for the bike it cost me $300 round trip. And the bike didn’t get a seat,” Perez-Palma said.

When he landed in San Francisco, Perez-Palma lugged his bike case onto the rental car van, into the car, and to the hotel. “When I got there I saw a guy who had 40 bikes. And I said, ‘What are you doing?’ And he said, ‘I’m the rental guy.’ I started thinking, ‘I can do this.’ ”

And now he does, renting carbon-frame Specialized road bikes in South Florida for $85 a day, often to repeat customers selective about the exact fit of the handlebars and saddles — another part of the service that makes road bike rentals more expensive than other kinds.

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“To rent a road bike, you need to know what you’re talking about,” Perez-Palma said. “You rent a cruiser and it’s adjust the seat and, ‘Have a nice day.’ ” As someone who rents only road bikes, he said, “You wouldn’t believe how many fitting charts I have. People go and have their bikes fitted and send the chart to me.”

Bruno Wanderley, the general manager of Blazing Saddles, one of the companies that Perez-Palma saw renting road bikes in San Francisco, said he’s seeing the industry grow as traveling cyclists seek ways to get away from traffic and appreciate the sights while working up a sweat.

“This is paradise for road-biking,” Wanderley said.

So are places like Sydney, where Barnes sends customers to such off-the-beaten-path locations as the Gap, an ocean cliff with spectacular views of the city and its harbor.

“You get a deeper understanding of the local culture and geography of where you are,” Barnes said. “In Sydney you can go to places even locals don’t know about.”

It’s also easy to join up on the road with local cycling groups, part of what Barnes called the international community of cyclists.

Bicycle stores are getting into the road-bike-rental business, too, looking for new sources of revenue as they’re squeezed by online sales, big box stores, and other threats. The number of independent bicycle stores is down from more than 6,000 in 2000 to fewer than 3,800, and they make less than half their profit from selling bikes, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association.

A new national network, called Rentabikenow.com, matches travelers with hundreds of bicycle shops in the United States and Canada willing to rent them road bikes at prices of up to $125 a day. It was started by cyclist George Gill, who — yup — came up with the idea on an airplane napkin on a business trip to Dallas, after being frustrated by his inability to find a road bike to rent.

“The bike shops are looking for revenue streams, and the road bike is a high-end item passionate cyclists are willing to pay to rent,” Gill said.

“If you’re a passionate cyclist and you are riding a road bike, there’s kind of a nirvana that you get,” he said. “It’s the equivalent of a runner’s high. And if you’re on vacation or somewhere that’s new and different and you’re riding, now you get to multiply that. You take two joys and put them together.”


Jon Marcus can be reached at jon@mysecretboston.com.