When did we move to Amsterdam? I thought to myself while rolling along my favorite, usually sparsely traveled rail trail, giving wide berth to families of five, teenage siblings, couples on cruisers, and single riders of all ages atop two wheels.
My typically quiet back roads resembled something of a small-town L’Eroica as lone riders spun along on skinny-tubed steel bikes with leather saddles and down-tube shifters. But I wasn’t in the Netherlands or some cool retro-inspired race. I was in the very current, increasingly frightening modern reality framed by the COVID-19 pandemic. People were using these bikes—new and old—to stay healthy, sane, and connected to the outdoors during extraordinarily isolating times.
And we have our local bike shops to thank.
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Let’s be clear. We haven’t always been so grateful for our local bike shops. In fact, we’ve occasionally been pretty critical of them, calling them out for elitism, snobbery, and in our own words “treating customers like garbage.”
If we can call out the bad, we need to call out the good. And in the face of an insidious, invisible viral enemy, there are a lot of local bike shops doing a whole lot of good. These shops have stayed open for business (even if behind closed, locked doors) and have been treating customers like gold because they want to help.
Michael Gacki is a store manager at Bicycles Plus in the Dallas–Forth Worth area. He worked in New York City’s financial district the day the Twin Towers fell in 2001. Shell-shocked and 60 blocks from home, he went into a nearby bike shop that sold used three-speeds. He was stunned to see that within an hour of the 9/11 attacks, the store had already marked up the prices 300 percent.
“I thought, ‘You sons of bitches profiting off disaster,’” Gacki says, still simmering 19 years later. “I’m not here to profit off this. I’m here to help people stay mentally and physically healthy through this,” he says.
“We’re not selling our high-end Pinarellos right now. We can barely keep $400 to $500 and kids’ bikes on the floor.” The shop is sold out of kickstands and floor pumps, and the service department is scheduled eight or nine days out as people drop off dust-covered bikes with rotted tires that haven’t seen daylight in years. “I don’t know how much longer we can work at this pace,” Gacki says, “but riding a bike is something everyone can do and it keeps people happy in these extremely difficult times. You have to give back.”
It’s also been a good time to welcome new customers into the sport, says Joey Sikorski, service manager at Patuxent Adventure Center in Lusby, Maryland, who has seen a spike in sales of basic mountain bikes, cruisers, and smart trainers. “We’ve been slammed since this all started. People are coming in because their gyms are closed and they just want a way to stay active. Everyone seems very grateful,” Sikorski says, noting that maybe more people will be riding bikes when this is all behind us.
He’s not the only one who believes this might be a boon for cycling. Based on skyrocketing bicycle usage—rail-to-trail use was up 200 percent from the norm in mid-March—some industry veterans like Heather Mason, who’s in charge of eastern U.S. business development for Bianchi Bicycles, believe that despite the horrific catalyst, more people “are about to realize the incredible brainpower-boosting effects of the bicycle,” as she wrote in an op-ed for Bicycle Retailer and Industry News.
And it’s not just about recreational riders. Many local bike shops are helping essential workers get to their jobs. “We have a large commuter population,” says Judi LoPresti, who owns and operates Spun Bicycles in Cincinnati with her husband, Dominic. “The bike share is shut down. The streetcar is shut down. They’ve slashed the schedule of our Metro bus service.” LoPresti says that many of their customers who depend on mass transit are buying “terrible used bikes” so they don’t have to walk five miles back and forth to work. “We’re doing what we need to do to make them safe.”
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Shop owners like Lisa Ronca, co-owner of Cutters Bike Shop in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, who, like many, find themselves servicing bikes that are coated in grime and sometimes have dead stink bugs in the cassettes, are also trying to help other financially strapped businesses and community members.
“I’m extending friend-and-family discounts to as many people as I can while staying open,” Ronca says. “I fixed my hairdresser’s bike for a bottle of conditioner because she’s completely out of work and we’re just trying to help people like her as much as possible.”
Shops are also trying to help their staff stay afloat. “It sounds horrible to say, but after 24 years of owning and running a shop day to day, with precious little time away, I was sheepishly looking forward to a little extra time with my sons,” says Jim Hogan, owner of Geneva Bicycle Center in Geneva, New York. “But when we were considered essential, I had faces looking at me saying, ‘Can we stay open? I’d like to continue working.’” Once Hogan realized the shop could stay open safely, it was a no-brainer. “It’s amazing how many people have been coming in who haven’t ridden in forever, but they have no other outlet for activity for themselves and their families.”
In New York City, where Covid hit especially hard, shops like Brooklyn’s Redbeard Bikes are hanging on by a thread. They’re servicing bikes by appointment, and delivering trainers to riders who are on lockdown. “We sold more trainers than ever for March,” says co-owner Ilya Nikhamin. “We’re shipping them out, and I have a trailer attached to my Turbo, so I can make deliveries.”
Redbeard’s goal: Help people train smart and safe while staying inside to help “flatten the terrifying curve.”
All these shops, which are easy to take for granted during “normal” times, have been a community lifeline during these extraordinary ones—providing a means for fresh air and exercise, essential mobility, and the ability to stay sane while sheltering in place. They’ve kept the fabric of our lives from unraveling so our communities can stay tightly knit while physically distancing. And for that, we say thank you.