Lee's Bicycles pedals into its 100th year
BY ROD WALTON World Staff Writer
Thursday, March 21, 2013
3/21/13 at 8:19 AM
Bicycling is geared up for a return to its utilitarian roots.
Lee's Bicycles owner Adam Vanderburg thinks so, noting that his business at 420 E. Second St. is kicking off its 100th year just as a new era is dawning. Adults are riding bikes simply to get places or improve circulation as much as for racing or recreation anymore.
"The bike industry is a little more urban and utility driven, and there's more practical riding" such as getting to work, Vanderburg said Wednesday. "A lot of regular folks want to use cycling as a way to stay healthy."
Lee's, which has been in the Blue Dome district since early 2010, starts its centennial with a Thursday evening celebration. The store is holding drawings for $100 gift certificates, exhibiting bike art and showing off Vanderburg's collection of antique two-wheelers.
"I've got an 1899 Crescent No. 4 that was built in Chicago," he said. "So I've got a bicycle that predates our own history."
The history of Lee's Bicycles is well traveled in its own right. Lee Aldridge started the store in 1914 in a downtown Tulsa alley, catering to a generation that used the bicycle as an everyday means of transportation right up there with horses.
Aldridge died in 1939, so ownership of Lee's passed on to heirs and then an employee named Earl Shelton. The store moved to various locations, including a spot in the Bellaire Shopping Center along Skelly Drive and later near Quaker Avenue, according to the Lee's historical account.
Lee's Bicycles struggled but survived various economic headwinds up to when Vance Vanderburg, Adam's father, bought it from Shelton in 1972. The elder Vanderburg, who previously was an auditor for Williams Pipeline in Nigeria, was hardly a cycling aficionado but wanted to own a distinctive business and loved its potential during the fitness boom of the 1970s and '80s.
"There was a lot of history that came with Lee's, and he was looking for business opportunities," Adam Vanderburg said. "I began working for my father as soon as I got out of college in 1984."
The younger Vanderburg said he did it all from sweeping and moping to sales and service. He took over Lee's Bicycles in 2000 and guided it through locations in south Tulsa and the Brookside neighborhood, developing a devoted customer base that spanned generations and distances.
"My family has purchased bicycles from Lee's for many years," said Jenny Kucera, a member of the Tulsa Bicycling Club.
"I can remember the shop at some of its previous locations in midtown, south Tulsa and Brookside, and I have fond memories of when my brother worked there as service manager," Kucera added. "Lee's was an early sponsor of FreeWheel (the annual statewide cycling rally) and provided mechanical support for the weeklong tour with its 1980s-model van that also served as a fruit stop."
Vanderburg wanted to accelerate his business' impact by moving it into a 14,000-square-foot space he bought and remodeled at the corner of Second Street and Frankfort Avenue. He is excited to see all the new development in the Blue Dome and Brady districts.
"We've stepped out of the box" by selling the Brookside site and moving downtown, he said. "Everything's really taken off there."
Lee's and other speciality bike shops also face the competitive pressure from big-store retailers that sell bicycles for as low as $100. The entry-level bikes at Lee's cost close to $400, but its owner believes you get what you pay for.
"You only buy good bikes at bike shops," Vanderburg said. "Getting the right style for that person and getting that person properly fitted - that's what separates us."
History of Lee's Bicycles
1914: Lee Aldridge starts business in downtown Tulsa.
1939: Aldridge dies and leaves store to his family.
Late 1940s: Family sells Lee's to employee Earl Shelton.
1972: Oilfield accountant Vance Vanderburg buys the store from Shelton.
2000: Adam Vanderburg takes over Lee's from his father.
2010: Vanderburg moves store from Brookside to Blue Dome District downtown.
Thursday: Lee's Bicycles celebrating start of its 100th year.
Original Print Headline: Century-long ride
Rod Walton 918-581-8457
Davin Hallford works on a 1970's-era Schwinn Sting-ray at Lee's Bicycles on Wednesday. The shop is celebrating its 100th year in business. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World
Lee's Bicycles moved to the Blue Dome District in 2010. MATT BARNARD / Tulsa World