From a Backyard Bus to Bustling Business
by Marty Caivano
Rare Colnago La Carrera Futura Master Pista Frame 54cm. Only 33 ever made for Colnago by world-famous graffiti artist Futura 2000.
Jeremy Horgan-Kobelski’s Subaru/Gary Fisher skinsuit, National Champion stars-and-stripes graphic, brand new, size large.
1992 Schwinn Paramount Buell edition SASS mountain bike, 21", purple paint with many purple components. Very light wear.
This collection of items reads like products you’d find at the world’s most unique bike shop. But in this case, it’s a random selection from the 3500 items posted every day on eBay by The Pro’s Closet, a Boulder, Colo.-based outdoor gear auction house.
“It’s a unique buying experience,” founder Nick Martin said. “By bidding, customers are have the sensation of winning an item at a price they determine. Plus, it’s a marketplace to the world. You can find anything if you’re patient and look for it.”
As he speaks, one of his 20 full-time employees takes size measurements of European down jackets with logos for the Garmin-Transitions road team. Hanging alongside, a handful of team jerseys, bibs and tights wait their turn at auction.
Reselling pro gear has been a cornerstone of Martin’s success. His first clients, such as pro roadie Pete Lopinto (who also became Martin’s first employee), were all professional riders trying to liquidate their old clothing and equipment. As Lopinto tapped into his friends on the road racing circuit and Martin into his on the mountain bike scene, the company grew.
Today, Martin buys directly from teams, helping teams maintain a clean and efficient service course.
“Honoring those relationships is very important,” Martin said. “We’ve gotten where we are by respecting those connections.”
Beyond the professional circle, it didn’t take long for word of The Pro’s Closet to spread among recreational cyclists. Now their items make up about 80 percent of Martin’s commissioned inventory.
“It’s fun to take something people thought had no value, sell it for them at top dollar, and give them back money and space in their garages,” Martin said.
As sellers come into the company’s north Boulder office, they are usually greeted by Lopinto, who takes in their items. He can pull up similar auctions on his computer to give the seller an idea of what an item might be worth.
From there, each person’s items go into a labeled plastic bin, which is added to an enormous floor-to-ceiling matrix of bins in the back warehouse. As those items reach their turn to be posted, they are pulled from the bin and individually photographed.
“Pictures are worth a thousand words,” Martin said. “And part of why we get such positive reviews is because we are careful to accurately describe what’s there. With used equipment, we make sure any defects are photographed.”
Leaning over a gray seamless backdrop, photographer Andrew Kelsey carefully positions a pair of running shoes from professional triathlete Cameron Widoff so that the wear on the soles can be seen.
In addition to the photos, Martin’s team of auction-posters write detailed—and sometimes humorous—descriptions of each item, giving the auctions a one-of-a-kind urgency.
“The unique shock system was designed by Eric Buell,” reads the full description of the 1992 Schwinn, “who made his name using Harley Davidson engines in high-performance motorcycles. The bike has a claimed 4" of rear travel while most bikes of the era were lucky to have 2" of travel. This one has a sweet purple paint job and matching parts. It’s the Purple Mountain Eater!!!”
“A lot of people get hooked on browsing our inventory,” Martin said. “We get a lot of really cool stuff.”
And because of the worldwide exposure of eBay, that bike sold for $1,200.
While the company specializes in cycling and athletic gear, “we can sell anything, because we understand auction science,” Martin said. Indeed, one of the bins behind him holds a handful of car stereos; another holds brightly colored pendant lamps.
In exchange for the expertise and detail work, sellers pay The Pro’s Closet a percentage of the sale price as well as the applicable eBay and PayPal fees.
While the competition of online sales has not traditionally been good for local bike shops, Martin says The Pro’s Closet has brought some shops relief in slow retail periods.
“We buy their overstock and sell it on a worldwide market, so it doesn’t flood their local market,” Martin said. “This frees up the money they put in inventory so they can purchase new product without discounting the merchandise they have on the floor.”
This method also helps companies dispose of rental and demo fleets, which Martin often buys outright.
Chris Soden, managing partner at Pro Peloton bike shop in Boulder, works with The Pro’s Closet in another way. “When we have a customer shopping for a new bike or other gear, the sticking point is often, ‘What do I do with my old bike?’ Using The Pro’sCloset is a great way for them to generate money for that new product that fits them better or is more suited to what they’re doing in the sport.”
And since a lot of The Pro’s Closet product is unique in some way—pro gear, hand-assembled bikes, club clothing—it wouldn’t be for sale in shops anyway. “We have stuff in our store that no bike shop has access to,” Martin said. “And another way to look at is this: no bike shop could survive selling what we do locally.”
The company does only about 10 transactions per week for local buyers. Meanwhile, about 50 percent of their total sales are international.
A lot of that has to do with the cost of gear overseas, Martin said. “In New Zealand, for example, a jersey costs $200. So that buyer gets it cheaper, and then it helps our sellers, because it’s on the global market. When you put an item out there, it truly goes for market value.”
One of Martin’s international customers buys 12 items a day on average. Although Martin doesn’t know this buyer’s business, he guesses the person is a reseller to local cyclists in his area.
An unseen advantage of this global reshuffling of goods, Martin said, is the benefit to the environment. “By buying something that already exists, rather than manufacturing a new item, this is as green as it gets for shopping.”
The seed for The Pro’s Closet was planted in 2003. Martin, then a pro mountain biker on Trek/Volkswagen’s Rocky Mountain regional team, started selling his old gear to pay for race entry fees. He was also a VW bus fanatic, so he was able to make more money by sourcing and reselling VW parts.
At that time, he was living out of his own bus, parked in pro rider Ross Schnell’s backyard in Grand Junction. He used Schnell’s computer to post his auctions.
“I would come home from school or work every day and find that I was out of coffee beans, and there were bread crumbs all over my computer,” Schnell said. “That’s how I knew that Nick had been selling stuff all day.”
Schnell notes that even back then, Martin took his work seriously. “People liked to sell through him because he did a good job and was very professional, and that’s still how it is. His auctions are still really professional, and he runs a tight ship.”
After four years of racing full time, Martin began to realize his bid to climb the professional ladder was not panning out. “I didn’t have the natural genes to make it as a pro racer. I needed to figure something else out.”
By then, his connections with the professional ranks were starting to pay off, but he still had no idea that The Pro’s Closet would grow so rapidly.
“Looking back, I’m very humbled. I never, in a million years, expected [the company] to do what it’s done,” Martin said. “And in this economy, it’s a blessing. I’m grateful for that.”
Today, with his crew of auction-posters, photographers and shippers taking care of the details, Martin is free to focus on the future of The Pro’s Closet.
“My ideas are constantly changing,” he said, citing the inevitable changes in both technology and the economy. “Maybe we’ll have multiple locations. We’d like to have more control over our inventory by buying things direct. And our five-year plan is to get off eBay because of all the fees.”
He pauses, glancing around the warehouse stuffed with gear and bikes that are both remarkable and commonplace. “No matter what, though, we want to continue to capture the used bicycle marketplace by providing the same level of customer service you would expect from your local bike shop.”
To get your hands on some of these one-of-a-kind items, visit www.TheProsCloset.com.
Photo by Rob O'dea