(WATERBURY, Vermont) - Many residents and business people in the Central Vermont town of Waterbury recognize the bright, fluorescent lime-green sported by bicyclist Alan R. Aitken, a die-hard cyclist who turned his passion for riding into a small yet ever-evolving business. Working full-time these days for a poster and brochure distribution company in Burlington, Aitken conceived of starting his bicycle courier company while doing some serious soul-searching in the waning days of employment at Ben & Jerry's.
Still, what started as a bicycle messenger service - the most challenging delivery being a six-foot sub from the local Subway Restaurant - progressed from there to greetings cards at one time to event posters now. While admitting it's not the money-maker he had initially hoped, Aitkin relishes the workout, the social-networking and other invaluable benefits reaped from a part-time endeavor he hopes will become full-time in retirement.
"When I started out, I wanted to create something fun, healthy, and mass marketing promoted the use of the bicycle," Aitken explains. "When I have those jobs where I have to go Waitsfield, I'm getting a workout, baby, and that's okay. That's what I like about this because I can combine getting a workout with doing something I love."
Serious about making a go of the business after speaking with a rider working with Lightening Bicycle Courier in Burlington, the longtime Waterbury resident researched large courier companies in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle before concluding the needs in Waterbury would be entirely different. With just about four miles between his home and the end of town, he knew at age 54, when he officially launched GEAR-A Bicycle Services, LLC. - The Green Courier on April 1, 2005, he could handle being the town's first - and probably only - bicycle messenger.
Noting the hazards of winter riding, he initially considered working year-round and had purchased winter biking clothes and tested his studded bicycle tires on an icy parking lot. The reality, though, of poor visibility and motorists unused to seeing a bicyclist on the road during snowing conditions changed his mind. And the bright neon green shirt, shoes, socks, bike and duct tape?
The first reason, he says, is to be visible and eye-catching. Second: "It's a 'green' business. There's no idling, no emissions from a car. No pollution," Aitken explains. "And number three, is branding. I wanted people to associate neon green with the crazy guy riding around on his bike."
His toned, lithe frame a testament to the benefits of riding, Aitken also embodies energy, enthusiasm and enough people skills to make him the unofficial town ambassador. Ride along with him during one of his poster-delivery treks and you immediately become enmeshed in a living Who's Who of Waterbury teeming with anecdotes and personal introductions.
While his territory stretches from Barre and Montpelier to Waterbury, Waitsfield and Stowe, this particular day he covers only Waterbury, beginning with the information booth at Ben & Jerry's and the Vermont Visitor Center kiosk on Waterbury Stowe Road, across I-89 to Zachary's Pizza House on Butler Street to the recently opened Pack and Send Plus at the US Route 2/Vermont 100 Roundabout and on through town to Aubuchon Hardware on Mason Drive in Moretown.
At nearly every place he stops, Aitken requests permission to post the Northern Decadence Food & Travel Expo poster then chats with owners and staff. On Stowe Street, stops include the Cork Wine Bar and Market and WDEV, where he jots upstairs and introduces Joel Najman, host and producer of Vermont Public Radio's weekly "My Place" program. Back on Main Street, he leaves posters at The Reservoir-Restaurant and Tap Room, which he explains, has a fantastic burger and brew deal, and at the Sunflower Salon and Boutique. On Elm Street, it's Craft Beer Cellar and Prohibition Pig.
Finally, after reaching Aubuchon, he heads back while stopping at Depot Beverage, the Vermont Liberty Tea Company and at three retailers shops in Waterbury Square before visiting Waterbury Sports, the town's newest cycling shop. Afterward there's Bridgeside Books and Hen of the Wood farther down Stowe Street, the Cabot Annex on Waterbury Stowe Road and Jimmz Pizza on McNeil Road.
By the end of this particular ride, lasting nearly six hours, the success of his branding efforts is evidenced through the numerous waves and greetings emanating from car windows, business outlets and passersby. John McConnell owns Vermont Liberty Tea Company, where Aitken visited often to hash out business ideas such as Quick Expressions - which delivered greeting cards to locals from anyone attending a Waterbury public event - and Home Safe, a sort of at-the-ready dial-up designated driver who brings along a bike for his return trip home.
"It's not like you don't miss Alan. Alan's in his green. He's in his fluorescent green," McConnell says while describing the distinctiveness of Aitken's apparel and bike colors. As a longtime friend, McConnell notes his "human energy, excitement and effervescent" spirit, qualities naturally suited for a local ambassador. "He makes good connections with people. He's got that whole nexus in terms of connectivity."
Yet what always comes to mind is the green. “So, you go the post office and there's Alan. You'd go to the store, and there's Alan. Then he even taped his bike with that fluorescent green; so, you didn't even have to be at a place, there would go Alan. This fluorescent green. And you just knew," he adds. "There was never a time when you would catch a little bit of green and think, 'Huh? I wonder if that's Alan.' It would be this splash with undeniable recognition. That's Alan. That is Alan."
Born in Milford, CT, Aitken moved to Waterbury in 1988. Married with two children, a son and daughter, he had envisioned his son joining him in his bicycle ventures; however, his son, like several others he consulted in devising a workable business plan, felt the returns on investment left a lot to be desired. Still, for him, the rewards far outweigh any losses.
"I quickly realized I'm not making money here," Aitken acknowledges. "But the richness I'm getting out of this experience money can't buy. I'll tell ya; looking back, I have no regrets."