Wheeler Dealers

Karen Bliss (left) director of marketing and a former competitive cyclist, and Stephanie Genuardi, marketing content manager for Advanced Sports International, which makes and sells bicycles. (DAVID SWANSON/Staff Photographer)

Sure helps to be obsessive about bicycles, if you want to work at Advanced Sports International.

The Northeast Philadelphia-based maker, marketer, and distributor is global "home" to some of the most innovative two-wheeler brands - Fuji (no longer Japanese-owned), SE, Kestrel, Breezer, Phat, and Sterling, plus parts maker Oval Concepts - covering all categories "from kids' bikes and beach cruisers to full-suspension mountain bikes, triathlon superbikes, fully equipped commuters, and carbon road bikes ridden in the Tour de France."

So touted marketing content manager Stephanie Genuardi during a recent tour of the 70,000-square-foot HQ, warehouse, and design studio. "Fuji alone, our biggest brand, accounts for 350 different models. SE has over 100."

Advanced also is a super advocate for the biking cause, sponsoring such nonprofits as Neighborhood Bike Works, Gearing Up, and the Cadence Cycling Foundation. And it played a big part, with Philly's first couple, Michael and Lisa Nutter, in bringing a World Cup bike race here next Sunday. More on that below.

So how big is this company you've maybe never heard of?

Spawned in 1998 and now grown to a $105 million-a-year operation steered by Philly native Patrick Cunnane, Advanced will ship more than 300,000 bikes worldwide in 2015, priced $299 to $8,000.

Raised in the age of fit-minded bike shops (his first job, age 12, was at Keswick Cycle in Glenside), Cunnane follows a different path from rivals (Raleigh, Cannondale, Specialized, Trek, and Giant) by exclusively selling through indie retailers.

In Advanced's design lab, we found guys such as global product manager, road, Steven Fairchild, a former pro bike racer, and Oval Concepts product manager Mark Vanek, a 15-year cycling industry vet obsessing over wind tunnel performance, the best placement of brakes for servicing, and the fine tuning of stems, seats, and wheels.

Shared with Advanced's partner-built factories in Taiwan, China, and Poland, the daily mantra also includes enhancing bikes' strength, comfort, and cool looks, while reducing weight and vibration.

"We have a major breakthrough coming in the design of" (super light and pricey) "carbon fiber frames," hinted Fairchild. "Normally, carbon frames are built in layers, formed like paper mâche over a rubbery bladder. We're adding a secret ingredient, a new absorbing layer, that's going to radically reduce the frame's vibration."

Fast-gripping disc brakes (recently sanctioned for racing) and electronic gear shifting ("pricey but incredibly smooth," said Fairchild) are other areas of progress.

And look for the Breezer brand - Gizmo Guy's recent pick for a stylish/practical "Uptown" runabout - to blow up with an even sturdier group of mountain bikes named mostly after storm systems (Super Cell, Thunder, Lightning) and a famed California trail, Repack, where the sport was born.

Another large deal, the city-owned Manayunk/Fairmount Park-looping bike races, will be returning to town next Sunday as the 2015 Philadelphia International Cycling Classic. It couldn't be happening without a major nudge by Advanced and marketing director Karen Bliss.

A Quakertown native, Bliss spent 15 years on the women's cycling circuit with Fuji as her sponsor, earning a rep on the U.S. national team as "the winningest female bike racer in North America." Although injuries did her in, she has stayed active in the Women's Committee of the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale's pro-cycling governing body) and as president of the Philadelphia Bicycling Advocacy Board, advising "the mayor on all things cycling."

Now also a weekend riding buddy of Lisa Nutter's - "a very serious, long-distance cyclist" - Bliss kick-started the idea of bringing a prestigious Women's World Cup race back to Philly - as there hadn't been one here "since 2002." She lured the Nutters to Paris last summer to experience the Tour de France. "The mayor took some flak for it, initially, but I set up a meeting for them with UCI president Brian Cookson and, in remarkably short order, they got the deal done."

Usually, the women's field of cyclists (about 100) races in the morning in Philadelphia, then the men (about 120) enjoy the afternoon sun and bigger crowds. Adding insult to injury, "the money awards have traditionally been higher for the winning male cyclists," Bliss said.

This year, with the women's race earning marquee World Cup status (only one in the U.S.!) and the guys' match characterized as a (lesser) UCI 1.2 meet, "the women will get to race in the afternoon.

"And, for a change, the prize money will be equal."