Monday, October 21, 2019

Nashbar and Performance - The Changing Face of Bicycle Retail

If you've visited either the Bike Nashbar or the Performance websites lately, you've probably noticed that they've gone through some changes. You might even notice that, apart from the names, they're virtually the same site. Well, it turns out that basically they are. The last year or so has brought pretty big transformations to the two famous mail/internet bicycle shops - including Chapter 11 bankruptcy, closed stores and warehouses, and a complete consolidation of brands.

It's all an interesting twist in a story about the rapidly changing nature of retail shopping. Both Nashbar and Performance have been such a fixture for me since I first got interested in cycling - and I'll bet many people can say the same.

A look back:

An early ¼-page ad from Bicycling!
magazine, January 1975. It's the earliest
one I could find.
Bike Nashbar got started in 1974, though at the time it was known as Bike Warehouse. Arni Nashbar, an advertising man from New Middletown, Ohio (near Youngstown) started up the mail order bike shop out of his home with about $1000 of his savings. His idea was to keep the costs of doing business as low as possible, and thereby keep the prices of goods lower than the competition. One way to keep the costs down was with his catalog. Cyclists of my generation probably remember well the old Bike Warehouse/Nashbar ads and catalogs with their simple black and white hand-drawn pictures. They were decidedly a low-budget affair. As I understand it, Arni either didn't want to pay extra for reproducing actual photographs of the products for his catalog, or didn't have a good means to do so (perhaps both) so he put the manufacturers' own product photos on a light table and traced them by hand. Combined with the pulpy newsprint type of paper they were printed on, the overall look and feel lent the catalogs an old-fashioned "homey" or "folksy" charm. He continued to produce the catalogs that way at least through the 1980s. Eventually he had to give in to marketing pressure and "slicker" competition and start running full-color catalogs (I think it was in the '90s) but part of me missed the old style.

I couldn't pin down exactly when it happened, but somewhere around 1981 - 1982, Bike Warehouse became Bike Nashbar. For the first year or two afterwards, they were putting "Formerly Bike Warehouse" under the Bike Nashbar name.

A double-spread-page ad from 1980 - Still going by the name Bike Warehouse. Look at some of those prices! Cinelli stem, $19.80; Campagnolo Nuovo Record derailleur, $39.80. SunTour Superbe derailleur, $24.40. Oh, to have a time machine.
Now Bike Nashbar: this was from early in1982. 
Arni Nashbar also specialized in buying up overstocks, discontinued items, closeouts, etc., and passing the savings on to the customer. Another element in making his catalog shop a price leader was to make deals directly with manufacturers, mostly in Asia (first Japan, later Taiwan and China) to produce goods with the Nashbar name, eliminating middlemen. The same factories that were producing bikes, components, clothing, and accessories for big well-known brands were producing items with the Nashbar name for a fraction of the price. Nashbar-branded items typically didn't have a lot of drool-factor, and I suppose image-obsessed cyclists turned their noses up - but in my experience, many of the products were as well-made as the more popular branded items but a little more "basic" and were a great value. I had several pairs of Nashbar's best-quality bib shorts that were easily my favorites - the lycra blend was thick and durable, the chamois was a good fit and feel (and machine washable) and they lasted for many many years, miles, and wash cycles. I would often reach for them before some popular-brand shorts that cost much more.
Nashbar offered some really nice bikes for the money. This one from about 1986 or '87 had a Japanese-built Tange #2 frame, full Shimano 600 SIS group (including the brakes), tubular wheelset, and Selle Italia Turbo saddle. The bike listed for $479 - anywhere from $50 - $100 less than comparable bikes from more popular brands - and made in the same factory as some of them.

Many cyclists in Northeast Ohio and Western Pennsylvania probably share memories of an advantage to being nearby the company's Youngstown-area headquarters: the Bike Nashbar warehouse outlet store. It was a no-frills shopping experience, with tables and bins full of the things Nashbar was famous for: closeouts and overstocks - marked down to practically give-away prices. Also, the company had a very liberal return policy, so one could also get great deals on opened-box and returned goods (you had to check carefully that everything was in there!). When I was at Kent State University in the mid/late '80s, at least once or twice a year our bike club would rent a couple of 9-passenger vans and make the roughly hour-long pilgrimage to the Nashbar outlet to do some bargain hunting.

The origins of Performance Bicycle Shop are somewhat similar to the Nashbar story. In 1981, Gary Snook and his wife Sharon, from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, invested their savings into a catalog mail-order bike shop. The focus of Performance was to offer a wide selection of high quality bikes, parts, and accessories at low prices. The glossy, full-color catalog gave it more of an up-market look and feel as compared to Nashbar. I remember how getting those catalogs every few months was like getting a glitzy "wish book" - the feeling was not unlike being a little kid and getting the big Sears and JCPenney catalogs at Christmas time. "I want this, and that, and those, and . . ."
This is the earliest Performance catalog I could find - from 1983, when the company was only about 2 years old. Compared to Nashbar, it was a much glossier, "slicker" presentation.

Performance offered top-tier frames - and complete build kits. If you bought a frame, you could choose between different component packages and have the complete bike assembled and shipped directly to your home.
I used to drool over the frame pages in the Performance catalog. Here's an interesting thing to point out in this '83 catalog: Among these beautiful Italian and British frames, there is a McLean, from North Carolina-based framebuilder McLean Fonvielle. His fully custom-built frames were offered under the Silk Hope name, while his more "production-oriented" bikes were sold under the McLean brand. The quality between the two was said to be nearly identical because Fonvielle couldn't bear to skimp even on the lower-priced frames. He built approximately 300 frames before he died at the age of 30 in 1983.
My friends and I always loved seeing all this high-end gear pictured together in one place.
Performance, like Nashbar, also contracted with manufacturers in Italy and in Asia to produce bikes, components, and accessories with their own name on them. In the mid '80s, they offered some really lovely Italian frames, built of Columbus SL tubing, and made in the same shop that also contract-built for more famous brands. Again, the quality of their products was very good, but typically cheaper than the better-known brands. Performance also opened a nationwide chain of full-service storefronts, so they had not only the mail-order business, but also a presence on the street. That was an interesting twist, considering that many brick-and-mortar shops were probably driven under by the company to the point where there were probably a lot of places where Performance was the only physical bike shop in town.

Both Performance and Nashbar, along with the other mail-order shops, took a lot of criticism for undercutting brick-and-mortar bike shops. It was a fair criticism. With low overhead, volume buying, and eliminating some of the distribution layers, they were often able to sell goods for less than the traditional shops could buy them. Another source of irritation was that some shoppers would engage in "showrooming" - essentially using the bike shop as a place to try on shoes, helmets, etc., only to buy them for less from the catalog shops. Both of these issues have only gotten worse in the internet age - and in fact, those same changing trends, and an increase in internet shopping choices, eventually worked against Performance and Nashbar, as internet competition has re-shuffled the industry even further.

In 2000, Performance bought Nashbar (and another competitor, Supergo, if I recall correctly), but the two companies were still run as more-or-less independent entities. Both brands continued offering bicycles, components, clothing, and accessories with their own names on them, but Nashbar continued to put more of a focus on value pricing, deep discounts, closeouts, etc., while the Performance brand focused more on having a range of leading brands, and continued to have a more upscale image.

The current state of affairs started in 2016. Performance had accumulated a lot of debt to Advanced Sports International (ASI) which owned and distributed several popular bike brands, including Fuji, SE, Breezer, and Kestrel. The result was that ASI ended up buying Performance. A new company - Advanced Sports Enterprises (ASE) - was formed to manage both the internet shopping brands and the bicycle brands, and that takes us back to the beginning of this story.

Unfortunately, the purchase of Performance didn't stop the losses or solve the debt issues. ASE, the parent company that controlled both Nashbar and Performance, along with those aforementioned bicycle brands, filed for bankruptcy last year, and different parts of the company were divided up between different investors. One investment group, Tiger Capital, took over the bicycle brands, while another, AMain Cycling, became the new owners of the popular online retailers. AMain consolidated the Nashbar and Performance retail operations, and as a result, Nashbar's Ohio warehouse was shut down, and all the Performance brick-and-mortar storefronts were closed, offices shuttered, and most if not all employees let go. Both websites became little more than mirror images of one another, offering the same products, which now all ship from the same warehouse facility. (I'm hearing from good sources that some of the bike brands may be totally gone. Whatever future they have is uncertain.)

The store closings probably mean that there may be some towns that have lost their only full-service bike shop, and it goes without saying that a lot of folks are out of jobs. And as often happens with bankruptcy, creditors and suppliers are left holding an empty bag. It's a little ironic that many people pointed to the mail order bike shops as contributing to the failure of full-service brick-and-mortar bike shops a decade or more ago - and then further shifts in shopping trends ended up killing Performance and Nashbar in return. There's so much competition on the internet - and nowadays the competition is global. Sometimes one can find products sold from Europe or the UK shipping directly to customers in the US at prices (including shipping) that can't be beaten even by American-based discounters.

All in all, it's kind of a sad twist that demonstrates the volatile nature of retail. It makes me wonder what changes we'll see in the future, and what it will take for bicycle retailers to survive.


  1. i remember customers coming into our shop with a Nashbar flyer rolled up in their back pocket and wanting us to match prices in the catalogue. It was disheartening. Nashbar and later, Performance, clobbered the LBSs.

    Last spring i found a Nashbar Road Mk II frameset on the Really Big Auction Site. i built it up with SunTour & Shimano parts i had in the spares box. It was in good condition, rides very nicely, and compares favourably to my now departed Specialized Allez SE. My only real complaint is its lack of eyelets & fender clearance. i have to admit Arnie did have some nice product lines at decent prices.

    i have mixed feelings about Performance's demise. They were a victim of their own success & of corporate hubris. Fortunately there are some surviving shops in my area, and the loss of that particular competitor went unmourned by them.

  2. I have a mid-70s Nashbar catalog. At one point they had quite a selection of frames, from a lugged Reynolds 531 budget model for $100 all the way up to Exxon's exotic carbon fiber Graftek frames. (Yup, that Exxon.) Most remarkably, they sold Richard Sachs frames. Must have been before he got famous. Jon Blum

  3. Too late I discovered the major changes with both bicycle companies. I particularly liked their house brand items: Performance for their winter weight Triflex tights, and Nashbar for their toolkits and bike sandals.

  4. It used to be great fun to get those catalogs in the mail. That was sort of how you knew what was going on in the industry and the sport. You could see fads come and go with what was on offer. Nowadays, obviously. you can go to the websites but it’s just not the same. And, yeah, I too can remember Nashbar bibs being my “go to” for long days instead of some of the more expensive “name brand” ones. If you weren’t afflicted with Brand Snobbery you could get some really decent stuff without breaking the bank. Good luck finding that these days.

  5. I spent my Twenties with 2 catalogs:
    Bike Warehouse - for all my bike needs
    JC Whitney - for my 1968 MGB-GT

  6. I was a cross-country skier before becoming a cyclist. I used to order from Nashbar's "Ski Warehouse" catalog in the late 1970s. It doubled as a "Bike Warehouse" catalog. If you were looking at the cover of the ski part, the back of the last page was the cover of the bike part. Nashbar likely realized some economy by combining and mailing the two catalogs as one. Browsing the bike section was one factor that helped raise my interest in cycling and I am still using some of the components I ordered back then. When I worked summers in a bike shop in the early 1980s, I can remember the shop owner being dismayed that Nashbar sold some items at a lower retail price than he could get it wholesale.
    David C.

  7. I recall another mail order business. It was called something like Pedal Pushers. I think they were located somewhere in the southeast USA. Amazingly, I still use, for daily shopping, the front and rear panniers I bought from them in 1986! Tough gear.

  8. When Bike Nashbar was Bike Warehouse (You just had to love their catalogues!), Supergo was Bikecology. While. BW was bare-bones, as you point out, Bikecology spanned the spectrum, from basic Normandy and Sunshine hubs to Nuovo and Super Record stuff. Bikecology also sold, as I recall. Mercian, Bob Jackson and other high-end frames. Bikecology also did much to champion SunTour and other Japanese manufacturers just when their products were starting to prove themselves equal, or even superior, to their European counterparts.

    The really fun catalogue from that time, though, came from Pali Alto Bicycles. While their graphic design and copy were more low-key, they offered more “bling”, if you will. PAB sold all of the exotic stuff (Remember OMAS and ALAS titanium fittings? Drilled-out Stronglight 107 cranks and rings with sealed-bearing titanium bottom brackets?) that, as a college student, I couldn’t nearly afford.

    In contrast to all of those catalogues was Gene Porteusi’s resolutely old-school Cyclopedia. During what Sheldon Brown has called The Dark Ages of Cycling in the US, Cyclopedia was one of the few sources of high-quality cycling equipment. But while Bikecology was touting the quality and design of SunTour and Shimano derailleurs, and Sugino and SR cranks, Cyclopedia didn’t list so much as a washer or inner tube from the Land of the Rising Sun.

    1. I well-remember the Bikecology ads - and the Palo Alto catalogs and their exotic offerings. I don't remember as much about Cyclopedia (never had one of their catalogs) but I can find some of their old ads in my old Bicycling! magazines. All of them were like a wonder land for my burgeoning bike obsession.

  9. "Sometimes one can find products sold from Europe or the UK shipping directly to customers in the US at prices (including shipping) that can't be beaten even by American-based discounters."

    Well, I'm old enough to remember when retail price fixing was both illegal in the USA and the law was enforced. Depsite claiming to be capitalistic, American distributors (who are up the chain from retailers) have complained for decades about "gray market" goods being sold into the USA.

    Originally this was high-end stuff, like camera equipment, but it eventually filtered down. This made it difficult for manufacturers to price the same goods differently for different markets, and the internet has made it pretty much impossible. Unless it is huge or heavy, you can order it from anywhere and have it in a week.

    So the distributors took another approach - squeezing the existing retailers and tying them up so they were basically "company stores" (Exhibit A - Giant. Exhibit B - Specialized). States Attorneys general should be busy swatting these arrangements down, but they are too busy with more important stuff and the feds no longer care. SCOTUS loosed the rules on this arrangement - making the US more like North Korea than the EU - where such relationships are illegal (and the laws are enforced).

    So EU free-market capitalists win and US consumers lose. It doesn't seem to have helped the middle distributors at all (the indies have been strangled) and the manufacturer-owned ones make their profits here and take them offshore. Lose-lose.

    I ordered a Campy Super Record groupset at a great price from Chain Reaction, had it shipped free to the USA (no duty), then took it back to the UK (avoiding the 20% VAT) and built it into an Italian bike (that has since come to the US as well). That's reality.

    You can also buy "build kit" groupsets (non-retail packaging) quite easily in the UK at substantial savings. I have never even seen such a thing offered in the US - the retailers are all scared to death of their distributors.

    The consumer is the ultimate winner or loser in all this. We can talk another time about the value of the LBS in today's' market (I am ambivalent) but no one ever lost a bet that went with American consumers making the cheap choice (hello WallyMart).

    Sometimes I think the defense of LBSes is like the people who admire Delta brakes. It's an irrational heart over head thing. Yes, they can both be beautiful, but what if they just don't work?

  10. Thanks for the walk down memory lane. I just discovered your site and am happy to have such well written stories for old dudes.

  11. Hello, I worked for Arni Nashbar before Bike Warehouse. It started in his annex building adjacent to his home. I was his paperboy. I remember that he started with selling cannondale bags which were delivered to him by the UPS truck and then sent out later to customers by the same. It was on West Boulevard in Boardman, Ohio. New Middletown was the third location and was followed by a move back to a larger and more modern facility in Boardman. Arni sold off the business for two reasons, first his health was bad and getting worse and second his children were not interested in it.

  12. I never met Arni, but knew many of the Ohio folks; same goes for the Snooks. I worked for Performance/Nashbar in myriad forms. Although the model was greatly contested by the LBs crowd, the brand offered a great service introducing many to the sport without the attitudes of many LBs. The financial downhill slide came with the expansion of the brick an mortar... too bad really.

    My question now... where does one go to find reliable off brand or fair priced branded cycling goods? The current Perf/NB website is a joke.

    1. They say competition improves the market, but capitalists these days prefer monopolies. I had the good fortune to live in the UK until recently, and the competition in the bike market was great - plus EU laws prevented brands (Like Lawyerized) from restructuring retail prices and distribution.

      You could still buy a particular bike cheaper in the US (due to 20% VAT) but parts were much less - often less retail in the UK than a distributor paid in the US. You could buy an entire 10-speed Shimano 105 groupset for $100. And trust me - Shimano still made money on that (non-retail packaging - basically build kits in plastic bags). I bought a brand-new, previous year, boxed Campagnolo Super Record carbon groupset (for a very special frame made for me) on sale from Chain Reaction for $800 - avoiding UK VAT by having it shipped (free) to my US address. It arrived in three days with no duty or taxes.

      But then Chain Reaction was bought by the owners of Wiggle, Evans stumbled and Halfords pulled back on competition. They essentially went into stovepipes, avoiding direct competition. That leaves Decathlon as true value-for-money supplier, and parts prices have climbed for those of us who build their own. Thank heavens I filled a container before I moved back to the USA :-)

      I know LBSes always moan about competition. They seem to want some fantasy world where even the worst service and jek owners (they're out there) get a pass and a guaranteed market. That's not how it should work. I'm happy to support my favorite LBS, but there are some I would not buy from if they were the only option. Plenty of attitude there. Sources like Nashbar were an option, but TBH they were more a source of cheap stuff that didn't have to last (like the few lights I bought from them). They had some value bike clothing - bike clothing is wildly overpriced in the US, IMO. But then there's Rapha... "Look! I'm a Fred!"

  13. Both Nashbar and Perfomance had the absolutely best deals on sunglasses! They were my go-to source for many years. I have a drawer with nose-pieces, 3-different shades of color lenses, miscellaneous frames and so on.Over the years I split my expenditures between the two sources. Currently my two bikes are Fuji; Absolut 1.4 and Nevada 1.5. They both are sturdy, comfortable to ride for any distance, good bikes under $1000 new. Previously I had a Bianchi road bike that I loved, but it was stolen. When I returned to Bianchi for a replacement, they wouldn't modify it for me (twist-shifters because of hand problems). I went to Performance and rode the Absolut which sold the deal and they said....Sure, what mods do you want?

    Still riding at 67.