Riding High

Wes and Sarah Neal

NB|AZ® helped set the wheels in motion for bicycle tour operator

“You can take the boy out of the wilderness, but you can’t take the wilderness out of the boy.”

This saying couldn’t be more true than for Wes Neal and Kyle George, owners of Bright Angel Bicycles, a Flagstaff-based bicycle rental company that offers tours in Grand Canyon National Park. Growing up, the pair knew each other in high school, but connected when they both became Grand Canyon river guides with Arizona River Runners in early 2000.

“We thought we’d never leave,” says Neal. “We both loved the smell of the water, the sound of the water, the way the boat moves in the water. We shared an appreciation and love for the outdoors.”

But just like the river that ebbs and flows, so did their lives. They both met their wives, got married and had children.

“As much as we loved the Grand Canyon and the river, we loved our families more,” says Neal. “We needed to figure out a different way to make a living, something closer to home in Flagstaff. That was the big change.”

Working on a shoestring budget, Neal and his wife Sarah, a graphic designer, started a small tour company that offered day trips and hikes at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

“It was tough and I was pretty naïve. It ended up serving as a great teaching tool,” Neal says. “I was working two and three different jobs at the same time and Sarah was the real anchor of the family, working with an agency on the East Coast.”

But Neal and George, who had joined the couple as managing partner, would soon land the opportunity of a lifetime. The National Park Service (NPS) had just completed a project that widened and added bike paths to Hermit Road, one of the most scenic viewpoints of the South Rim. Confident they could develop and run a successful bike program, they submitted a bid to the NPS…and won. Bright Angel Bicycles was born.

“Five other companies bid, as well, and we ended up getting it,” says Neal. “We couldn’t believe it.”

In 2009, the NPS issued the company a one-year, conditional-use permit, and Neal and George soon opened up shop in a 28-square-foot kiosk. Along with a small staff of five employees, the pair rented bicycles and led tours to cycle-loving visitors who wanted a unique way to experience the canyon. In that year, they rented nearly 6,000 bicycles and the NPS extended their permit another year.

At the end of 2011, however, the contract ended and Bright Angel had to close up shop. “We didn’t have [another] extension on our contract and we didn’t know if we were coming back. There were a lot of question marks,” Neal says.

Neal and George ended up bidding on another contract, this time for 10 years that included a bicycle rental and café concession located at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center. Competing again with larger companies at the national level, Bright Angel Bicycles beat the odds and was awarded the contract in 2012.

Today, the company is an authorized concessioner of the NPS and the park’s first in-park bike rental facility. It offers rentals, tour packages and bike tours, as well as a coffee shop and café that offers bagels, sandwiches and salads.

“Looking back, we always joke about the days we were short staffed,” Neal says. “Those first years, I was the cashier, bike fitter, shuttle bus driver and tour guide. Now we have a general manager and upwards of 30 staff members. It’s hard to believe we’re already in our eighth season.”

Neal says they couldn’t have accomplished all they have without the support of family, friends and local business owners, many of whom advised, consulted and provided recommendations—including where to bank.

“Some of our best resources came to us by word of mouth,” Neal says. “That’s how we came to bank with National Bank of Arizona. Many people in the Flagstaff business community highly recommended them.”

In preparation for their bid for the 10-year contract, Bright Angel needed to expand their operations, which included increasing their bike inventory, hiring more workers and securing equipment for the coffee shop and café. Neal admits it was a tough sell, but NB|AZ—recognizing the great opportunity and potential—helped fund the bid.

“At that time, we had two years of sales, no brick and mortar, and limited inventory,” he says. “We had meetings with three other banks because we wanted to make sure we found the right fit. NB|AZ was the only one who really took us seriously. The team at the Flagstaff branch were right there with us and the rest is history.”