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Local Bike Shop Owner Sees Bright Future for Rail Trail, Hellertown

Saucon Valley Bikes owner Steve LaBrake says his Hellertown business will be open Sundays this summer to serve visitors to the new trail.

Steve LaBrake is proud of the fact that his business cards identify him as "El Presidente" instead of simply the founder and owner of .

It's that kind of quirky individualism that sets both him and his business apart from the other bicycle and sporting good stores in the area.

During a recent visit to his Main Street store in Hellertown, LaBrake was enthusiastic about the upcoming opening of the Saucon Rail Trail, which is located just a couple blocks west of the bike shop.

When the trail officially opens next month, Hellertown's access points will become a serious draw for bicyclists and other recreational users from throughout the area and beyond, he predicted.

That's good news for both the borough and his business, but even if it does occur, Saucon Valley Bikes' history won't be reclassified as an overnight success story.

The business's current location at 824 Main Street is actually its third in Hellertown in a dozen years, and its success has been the result of hard work by a dedicated staff and incredibly loyal customers who return for the service and products they can't find elsewhere, LaBrake pointed out.

The first incarnation of Saucon Valley Bikes opened in the 600 block of Main Street, next to , in 1999, he said. 

After that space was outgrown the business moved to the 1200 block of Main Street, where it occupied a corner property for about a year, while the current location was being transformed into the impressive retail space that it is today.

Located at 824 Main Street, Saucon Valley Bikes boasts a lower level repair shop with outside access from the rear of the building, along with a high-ceilinged showroom in which a mind-boggling variety of bicycles are displayed. The front exterior of the historic brick building the business occupies was renovated with help from a facade grant from the Hellertown Borough Business Revitalization Program.

In restoring the building, LaBrake said a lot of thought was given to eco-friendly design and the reuse of existing materials, such as an old door that was salvaged and ultimately became the entrance to a changing room for customers.

As an example of the bike shop's commitment to being environmentally friendly, he pointed out that the store's wall-to-wall carpeting is actually made from recycled fibers and is "the greenest carpet you can buy."

"I was definitely psyched with the end result," he said of the extensive renovations. "It's got a real homey feel about it, but it's very functional," he said of the store itself.

Customers seem to agree, with many traveling upwards of an hour to visit.

"We get a lot of customers who drive a distance and part of it's because of what we carry," LaBrake explained.

Unlike many other independent bike shops, he said Saucon Valley Bikes is able to carry a wide variety of product lines. And although it does tend to specialize in sales of high-end mountain bikes, it's a business that prides itself on meeting the needs of a diverse clientele.

"That's one of the reasons we have customers coming from Stroudsburg and New Jersey and all over," he said.

When customers who are unfamiliar with the Saucon Valley area visit the store, LaBrake said they'll often ask him for downtown dining recommendations, which he's happy to offer.

A native of upstate New York, he observed that Hellertown has the welcoming feel of a community like Fairport, N.Y., which is located along the historic Erie Canal near Rochester.

Known as the "Crown Jewel of the Erie Canal" and named one of Money Magazine's "Best Places to Live" in 2005, Fairport has become a regional mecca for tourists, who flock to its outdoor restaurants and upscale shops, and promenade along its canal banks.

LaBrake said that with the opening of the Saucon Rail Trail in Hellertown, he sees the potential for the borough to attract visitors in search of a similar destination.

Hand-in-hand with an increase in visitors will be the opportunity for local businesses to capitalize on tourism to a degree that hasn't been possible before, he predicted.

"I think you're going to see a big influx of people," he said of the period after the rail trail officially opens in May.

An active member of the Saucon Rail Trail Advisory Committee, LaBrake said his vision for Hellertown is that of a small town that's welcoming to bicyclists, who by 2012 should be able to ride all the way to Coopersburg, and eventually north to the Southside Greenway in Bethlehem.

Some minor adjustments to Hellertown's downtown landscape--such as the placement of bike racks in public areas and in front of restaurants--could make it an even more appealing destination for riders, he noted.

"The restaurants have a huge opportunity to benefit from this," he emphasized.

For its part, Saucon Valley Bikes will be open Sundays to rent bikes to visitors--something LaBrake said the business has never done before, and something he hesitated a bit to do now.

"I've always been anti- (being) open on Sundays," he explained, adding that it's been his mission to provide his employees with a weekend day off to spend with their families. "But it's something that we're going to have to do."

The trail itself has been designed with bicycle safety in mind, and promises an education for riders, courtesy of signage that will placed at points of interest along the route, he said.

Although they're not in place yet, the signs, benches, and possibly a bird blind at the ecologically important Hellertown Marsh will add another layer to the total trail experience.

The Saucon Rail Trail does not yet have its own website, but the domain name SauconRailTrail.com has been secured, and LaBrake said the rail trail committee hopes to have a website live by the end of summer.

Until then, he recommended visiting the rail trail's Facebook page--which as of this week already had more than 200 likes--for information and updates.

"There are so many different facets of this trail that we want to eventually have in place," he said.

In the meantime, LaBrake added that he's particularly looking forward to seeing riders with baskets full of produce biking the trail to and from the , which opens for the season this Sunday in .

For more information about Saucon Valley Bikes, visit www.sauconvalleybikes.com.

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