Wes Neal (left) and Kyle George
Opening a bike-rental shop in most places wouldn't make headlines, but doing so on the rim of the most famous canyon in the world is a big deal. Especially when the shop owners — two young men from Flagstaff — out-dueled some of the nation's largest concessionaires to get the contract.
© Dawn Kish
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By Kelly Vaughn Kramer
Most people love a good underdog story. Nolan Ryan might still talk about the '69 Mets. Al Michaels believed in the miracle that was the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. Any boxing fan relishes the story of Buster Douglas. And up at the Grand Canyon, people are starting to talk about Wes Neal and Kyle George.
For two years, Neal and George ran Bright Angel Bicycles, the only bike-rental and bike-tour company on the South Rim, under a Commercial Use Authorization (CUA) permit, a temporary license issued by the National Park Service. Earlier this year, the business partners submitted 400 pages worth of material to the NPS in hopes that they'd win a 10-year contract for the bike rental operation, as well as the go-ahead to operate an accompanying coffeeshop.
Their competitors, 14 in all, were among the nation's largest concessionaires. Some of them were park incumbents, like Xanterra, Delaware North and Forever Resorts, but, in the end, Neal and George came out on top.
"It was really hard to out-Grand-Canyon us," says George, a former river-runner who grew up in Flagstaff. "Wes and I both spent years in the Canyon."
In fact, that's where they became friends. Neal spent eight years as a guide on the Colorado River. As his family grew, life away from home became less appealing, but, still, he wanted a way to stay connected to the Canyon.
"This is a fairytale for us," Neal says. "We're stoked to be part of a whole new era at the park. This is a brand-new concession, and it's an honor to be part of the new program and usher in a new intermodal option on the Rim."
George's story runs parallel. He ran the river, as well, then joined his friend in conceptualizing a bicycle operation on the rim. Today, he divides his time between the South Rim, Flagstaff and Salt Lake City, where his wife attends graduate school.
Despite their deep connections to the park, Neal and George were stunned when they learned that the long-shot contract was theirs.
"It was good that the news came on April 2, instead of April 1," George says. "We wouldn't have believed it had it come a day earlier."
But believe it they did. Then they had to scramble.
Though bike operations continued, Neal and George had to hire enough people to staff the café. They worked with a Flagstaff-based caterer to plan a menu and partnered with yet another Flagstaff company, Late for the Train, for coffee service. The café opened on July 10.
In the months since, the café has sold as many as 2,500 sandwiches, burritos and snacks per week. As the only food and drink option at the South Rim's visitors center, it's primed to receive plenty of foot traffic — millions of people funnel through the center each year.
"It seems like the right attitude in the Park Service for us right now," George says. "They're interested in trying to move to smaller operators, where possible. What Xanterra runs up there would be really hard for a mom-and-pop shop to run, but for something smaller [like the bike shop], they're looking for local folks who are connected to the area. We felt like we just needed to show them that we were competent to deal with all of the regulatory issues that can arise at a place like the Grand Canyon."
Turns out, Neal and George got that opportunity, and they made the most of it. Park Superintendent Dave Uberuaga is a strong supporter of their mission.
"For me, it was two young men from the area, and for them to put together a very competitive, winning proposal ... it was a formidable task," Uberuaga says. "They were aggressive with their vision and were clear about wanting to carry on their connection to the Canyon, to the river. They nailed it. They're great young men, and I'm excited to see them succeed. There are lines of people being served at the café. It's a great opportunity, and we hope that they'll be very successful. It's already blowing away everybody's projections."
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