When Frank Babel began advocating for Hilton Head's bicyclists seven or eight years ago, an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 bikes were available for rent on the island.
Today, that number is more than 20,000, estimates Babel, co-chairman of the Hilton Head's Bicycle Advisory Committee.
The bike rental business on Hilton Head and in nearby areas is booming -- causing concern among existing rental companies that competition has become too fierce.
Roughly 30 businesses rent bikes on the island alone, Babel said. Once the exclusive domain of a handful of bike rental shops, everyone from plantations to resorts to businesses that rent beach gear are now in the business.
The town of Hilton Head's investment in more bike paths paired with the growing popularity of bicycling means word is getting out that Hilton Head is a bike-friendly vacation spot.
"We are getting a reputation," said Babel who worked to help Hilton Head acquire the coveted Bicycle Friendly Community award at the silver level, making the town the highest ranked bicycle-friendly community in the state by The League of American Bicyclists. "Cycling is still primarily a family-oriented thing on Hilton Head, but we're also seeing an increasing number of destination cyclists coming here, too. It's really becoming an economic driver for this community."The trend extends beyond the island.
Palmetto Bluff, a gated community in Bluffton, is the latest to add bike rentals to its list of guest offerings.
Outside visitors can now bike the community's 20,000 acres and check out wildlife and views of the May River. Competition is increasingly becoming an issue for those in the business.
"There are a lot more bike companies than ever, and we're all competing," said Stanton Allaben, co-owner of Palmetto Bikes, adding that his profits were down by a few percentage points in May.
In addition to bike rental companies, island visitors are increasingly taking matters into their own hands.
"The word has gotten out that Hilton Head is a bike-friendly community, so many people are bringing their bikes with them," Allaben said. "We watch the cars stream in every Saturday with the bikes on the back."
The booming bike business also means new precautions are being taken for the first time this summer.
New rules in Sea Pines require bike rental companies to distribute bike safety rules to their Sea Pines customers. That includes recommendations on how to alert others when bikers ride up from behind them and a reminder that cars, not bikes, have the right of way unless a bicycle is in the crosswalk.
"Just the volume of people we have here during the busy time of the year, it means we need to remind people to pay attention and be courteous," said Cary Kelley, executive vice president of Sea Pines' Community Services Associates, which maintains the community's bike paths.
Nearly 6,000 Sea Pines visitors rented bikes from outside vendors during the first four months of 2012, Kelley said, and the busy biking season is just now beginning.
Also for the first time, Sea Pines' security officers are patrolling bike paths, paying special attention to Harbour Town and South Beach during the busiest times of day.
"It's been well-received," Kelley said. "The officers are there to address any kind of safety concerns (and) also give information and directions to guests."
The Town of Hilton Head boasts more then 50 miles of paths, not including the private ones within Sea Pines, Palmetto Dunes and other resorts, said Charlie Clark, spokeswoman for the Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce.
"We probably have the highest number of bike trails compared to any other area our size in the country," Clark said. "Visitors love the fact that you can also bike on our beaches."
The chamber is trying to take advantage of bike mania, holding its first Bike & Dine Week last month. Forty-six area restaurants offered special deals for visitors and locals who biked to their favorite dining spots.
Follow reporter Gina Smith at twitter.com/GinaNSmith.