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‘Bike boom’ as people turn outdoors during pandemic

News Photo by Katie Anderson/Observer-Reporter Raffaele Zallo, an employee at The Tandem Connection bike shop in Washington County, Pennsylvania, sanitizes a returned rental bike Tuesday afternoon.

There’s nothing like catching one’s breath on a downhill, cool breeze after a lengthy uphill stretch of trail in direct sunlight.

On the Montour Trail, which covers 46 miles across Washington and Allegheny counties in Pennsylvania, many residents have rediscovered bicycling in the fresh air, as fitness centers remain closed and things like spin classes aren’t an option. The weather this past Memorial Day weekend was perfect biking weather, too, and after being cooped up in the house for two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, people were itching to get outside.

David Poe, owner of The Tandem Connection, a bike shop that sits along the Montour Trail in Washington County, said he saw more traffic on the trail this Memorial Day weekend compared with previous years.

“The traffic definitely has been up on the trail with people being home,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of new faces and people who have never been here before. Bike shops are busy in the spring anyway, but now, people are staying home and the only thing for them to do is get out and walk or bike.”

Along with their bicycle sales and repairs, the shop also rents bicycles to folks who want to experience the trail before making an investment. They are one day rentals, and once returned, each bike must be cleaned and sanitized.

“The traffic for the rental has spiked,” Poe said. “It’s nice to see people get out and discover the trail and see how beautiful it is. I think there will be a resurgence with biking in the next few years because people are rediscovering bicycling.”

The Tandem Connection also sells food, drinks, snacks and ice cream, a refreshing reward after a long ride. That aspect of the business did well in the past week, but according to Poe, “you’re not going to pay your mortgage selling ice cream.”

More people on the trail and riding bicycles hasn’t necessarily meant more business or profit for the local bike shop, with one reason being that there are no more entry-level bikes to sell. Countries and states where bikes are manufactured were in lockdown for months, which meant no bikes were being made or assembled, Poe said.

“When the pandemic started, I thought, ‘Well people are getting laid off, who’s going to buy a bike?'” Poe said. “Within three or four weeks of being shut down, the weather started to get nice, and that’s when you saw traffic pick up.”

The demand for bikes increased and the supply was quickly depleted across the nation. Poe said he’s got bicycle parts on backorder through August and has had customers cancel bike orders because they got tired of waiting.

“We are selling some bikes, but the bike industry is in a shortage,” he said. “It’s kind of a roller coaster ride — there’s been good news, but there’s been bad news too.”

Poe can’t sell bikes he doesn’t have or can’t even order, and he’s not alone. Erik Jensen, manager of Bluestone Bike and Run in Harrisonburg, Virginia, said that “most bike shops are completely out of bikes in the entry level price range.”

“A lot of the bikes come from places with lockdowns that weren’t able to assemble bikes with only 10 people in the building at once,” Jensen said. “It’s kind of been the perfect storm for bikes being hard to come by.”

Jensen’s store sold out of children’s bikes first, he said, followed by bikes costing $700 or less. They’ve also done well in service sales, working on bikes that hadn’t been ridden in years.

“If you look at the total store sales, we’ve done a little less than normal,” Hensen said, “but if you look at the category of lower priced bikes, that portion of our sales is more than normal.”

People are usually looking for used bicycles or less expensive new ones, typically less than $600, which aren’t the money-makers for shops like Poe’s. With races, trips and triathlons canceled this year, the “higher profit margin” bicycles and bike accessories are not doing as well in sales, Poe said.

Also, since people have taken to buying everything online, including groceries, Poe said people aren’t visiting local bike shops to purchase a bike. They’re buying online.

“Now we’re concerned about how the rest of the summer looks,” he said. “We’re making the best of it.”

That’s what other shops plan to do as well — ride the “bike boom” as long as possible. Steve Sachetti, owner of The Bike Gallery in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, has stayed very busy since reopening May 1, selling and repairing bikes in a town near multiple state forests and bike trails.

“It’s been just crazy here the last month,” he said. “We’ve pretty much blown through our inventory and can’t even reorder because there’s nothing to reorder.”

Sachetti’s shop is located near the popular Pine Creek Rail Trail, an area that also has multiple mountain biking trails, too, he said.

“People are buying everything across the boards, from kids bikes to road race bikes and everything in between,” he said. “It’s been a bike boom.”

He’s owned the shop for 29 years, but hasn’t seen this many customers, especially folks new to cycling, in the last 15 years, he said.

“With everything shut down, there’s only so many things people can do,” Sachetti said.

He said it’s tough to tell now if the new bicyclists will stay interested once fitness centers open back up and things go back to a relative normal.

“If we retain half of the new customers we’re seeing now, that would be incredible,” Sachetti said.

EDITOR’S NOTE

This story is part of a series of reports on the effects of COVID-19 on the people, businesses, and communities of America. The Ogden Newspapers COVID-19 Reporting Team includes News Lifestyles Editor Darby Hinkley, Katie Anderson, of the Washington (Pennsylvania) Observer-Reporter, Evan Bevins, of the Parkersburg (West Virginia) News and Sentinel, LynAnne Vucovich, of The Norwalk (Ohio) Reflector, and Lauren Fox, of the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World.

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