This time of year is usually a peak period for bicycle stores as warmer weather prompts central Illinois residents to buy a set of wheels or fix up what they have in the garage. Gov. JB Pritzker's shutdown order designates bicycle stores as essential businesses. And even with the pandemic, the bicycle business is, well, peaking as usual.
Michael Wilson of Wilson Cycle in Bloomington said customers offer a variety of reasons.
“It’s the person that is going and working at a restaurant and hospital, one of these essential businesses that doesn’t drive that needs to use his bike for transportation, or people that are just going stir crazy,” said Wilson.
Wilson also noted that gyms are closed and no one should be doing group sports. That makes cycling attractive.
“You know, get out and clear your head and get some miles in, get some exercise and get healthy. Maybe that’s what this whole thing is all about is telling us to be outdoors and get healthy and have a little bit more solitude,” said Wilson.
Chris Koos, owner of Vitesse Cycle in Normal, reported a slow start to the season because of the weather, but things picked up in a hurry.
“We’re about two and a half weeks behind on our repair schedule. We’re running out of kids’ bikes. And we’re doing almost the same business we did last year at this time,” said Koos.
Caryn Davis agreed the pandemic is affecting buying patterns.
“I’m seeing a lot of families. I’m seeing a lot of just entry level bikes for sanity and for health and for those solo rides that you can do without needing to come in contact with anyone,” said Davis, co-owner of Bloomington Cycle and Fitness.
She said reduced staffs and hours mean the people left are busier.
“We’ve just really had time to think about nothing but keeping the wheels on, so to speak,” said Davis.
All three bike stores in Bloomington-Normal said business is close to normal in spite of barriers to visiting showrooms.
Davis said there's an uptick in people wanting repairs for bikes that have hung on a hook or collected dust in the garage.
“I’m seeing people dragging in bikes they haven’t had out in years and wanting to ride them now for something safe to do outside,” she said.
Sometimes repair is not cost effective. But sentiment plays a role, according to Vitesse sale associate Ethan Leskovisek.
“Sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh no it has been in my family for a while and I want to keep riding it.’ We totally understand, but we are up front about it and say you’re getting up there in cost and you are about to spend more money than you bought this bike for,” said Leskovisek.
Inquiries about sales of new bicycles have been harder to gauge and plan for during the pandemic, said Davis.
“Some days we’re getting as many inquiries as normal. Some days it feels like absolutely none. It’s just really unpredictable right now,” she said..
Wilson agreed the pandemic has affected the pace of the seasonal business.
“They’re more spread out it seems. In years past, they would come in all at once. Now, it just seems like we are getting a pretty steady amount in through the week. People are a little bit more cautious about bringing everything in,” said Wilson.
All three Twin City cycle shops have enhanced protections. Wilson’s asks people to schedule a time and offers touchless drop-off and pickup. He said his store smells of Lysol. He wipes down between every customer.
Workers at all three stores disinfect the bikes before repair and then again after doing the work. They offer touchless payment with invoices or processing credit cards by phone.
Bloomington Cycle and Fitness also offers extensive phone consultation on fit, models, and brands. Thankfully, said Davis, her store built up the business web site over the last few years. But there are many bikes and fit is important.
“We’ve disinfected and set up a bike for a test drive and met the customer in the parking lot with gloves and all of the precautions, brought it back in and hosed it down and gotten it ready for sale and done the sale over the phone. We’re just really scrambling and doing everything we can as the situation allows every day,” said Davis.
With all these measures, Davis said it feels odd.
“It’s funny owning retail for the past 11 years, I have never discouraged people from shopping and I feel like that’s the route I’m taking right now. I’d love to help you, but there’s only so much we can do right now, is not usually my attitude,” she said.
One part of spring bicycling is not the same. All three stores facilitate group rides and area riding clubs did more, perhaps 30 a month in all, said Wilson. Those are all gone for now. Spring races have been canceled. Wilson’s had planned to bring back a downtown Bloomington criterium, a timed race done on a lapped course, this summer, but has postponed that effort a year.
Though cyclists can escape to the road, the pandemic still has affected everyone's spirits. Davis has tried to offer a certain amount of emotional support, spending time on the store’s social media accounts to keep people’s spirits up.
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