A mannequin shows off some of the gear for sale at Triathlon Lab Inc. in Santa… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)
Triathletes and next-door neighbors Stephanie Swanson and Kebby Holden used to hate shopping for racing clothes. Too often they could only find smaller versions of men's clothing that might be dressed up with a dash of bright color.
"Typically, for a lot of the industry, it's 'pink it and shrink it,' " Swanson said.
Last year, the women decided to launch their own business, Soas Racing, to design and manufacture athletic tops and shorts for the growing number of women participating in triathlons, races that consist of swimming, cycling and running.
The San Diego's company's first order for 600 pieces, which featured flared tank tops and running shorts with elastic-free waist bands, sold out in January. The second order was twice as big, and a third order for 2,000 pieces is being manufactured. So far, no pink.
A major line expansion is underway for fall. It will add swimsuits, cycling jerseys and arm warmers to the line, all designed to mix and match.
"We are discovering women really like it when they can have a complete look," Holden said.
The number of female members in USA Triathlon — a group that sanctions triathlon meets — climbed 168% to 50,424 in the five years that ended June 2010. Overall, membership grew 128%.
Women now make up 37% of the USA Triathlon's membership ranks.
Currently in the sport, "the biggest driver is women," said Jack Caress, a veteran race producer whose company, Pacific Sports, puts on the Los Angeles Triathlon and other events.
Triathlon Lab Inc. sells outfits and other gear online and at its shops in Santa Monica and Redondo Beach, where some of the clerks are female triathletes. Lloyd Taylor, chief executive of the company, said that female customers are often more comfortable with these clerks, "versus asking a guy a question when it comes to a product or fit, which can be embarrassing."
Retailer Nytro Multisport Technology Inc. in Encinitas, Calif., formed a women's triathlon team last year.
"We are targeting women specifically and you can't just target them from a marketing perspective," owner Skip McDowell said. "You have got to back it up by buying women-specific products," he said.
Triathlons can't claim the large number of participants drawn to major single sports, such as running. And some small businesses that focus on the triathlons don't make it.
Cameron Collins, who opened Tribuys.com in Van Nuys in 2007, recalled sitting in a pool in 2008 in Kona, Hawaii, where his company had sponsored a professional athlete in a triathlon. At that point the financial markets were melting down, and he was watching sales reports for his company come in on his cellphone.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Collins said. "My business was blowing up."
When a last-chance deal for outside investment fell through in 2009, Collins closed up shop.
To help strengthen the sport — and therefore the market for related products — triathlon-related businesses formed an industry trade group last year, Triathlon America. Many local companies, including Soas Racing, and national corporations signed on to the group based in San Diego.
There were already industry groups for triathlon's three individual sports, but triathlon business owners believed it was time for something of their own.
"At a certain point, this baby, the stepchild of three individuals sports, has gotten so big that it can't sit down at the same table with the other subgroups," said Dan Empfield, publisher of race-focused Slowtwitch.com and founder of wetsuit and bicycle manufacturer Quintana Roo. "The chair is too small, the baby is too big."