By Margo Wagner | mwagner@alextimes
Ever since the coronavirus pandemic hit Northern Virginia, residents have been spotting more bicycles zipping around Alexandria’s streets and careening down local bike paths.
Alexandrians have been flocking to bicycle shops in recent months, looking to stay fit, avoid public transportation and have fun while social distancing. As a result of the increased demand, bike shops are among the few retailers that have flourished during the pandemic.
Handy Bikes LLC owner Peter Buck has seen the increase in demand for bikes firsthand. But at the beginning of the pandemic, Buck was worried his bicycle repair business would not survive.
“We were very nervous that we were going to have to shut down completely, or at best that business was going to be super slow,” Buck said.
Buck’s nerves were quickly soothed when the bicycle industry began booming in early spring. He moved his business from a converted USPS truck into a storage unit to expand his workspace and prevent crowds from forming around his truck. Buck went from servicing three to four bikes a day to fixing 14.
“I think we’re doing about two or three times normal business levels right now,” Buck said.
Lifelong Alexandria resident Bobby Mahoney purchased a bicycle for his 6-year-old daughter when her school went remote. He thought socially distanced kindergarten should include learning how to read and how to ride a bike. His daughter enjoyed biking so much, Mahoney purchased bicycles for the entire family, including his sister, and rides with his children during his free time.
“It was really part of the routine that I needed to get off of my computer and outside, and it made me feel young again,” Mahoney said.
Christian Myers, co-founder of VéloCity Bicycle Cooperative, a bicycle rehabilitation shop located on Mount Vernon Avenue, said he’s seen a similar sentiment among his clients.
“Because people are sitting at home alone and can’t go to work, everybody wants to get outside and do something,” Myers said.
VéloCity had an increase in bicycle sales this season, and business heated up earlier than usual. Typically, peak bicycle season is May through mid-July, Myers said. This year, peak season started in March, and business has hummed steadily along since, he said.
“Everyone is having a hard time trying to meet the demands,” Myers said. “This is one of the first times in a long time where demand outweighed supply.”
The increase in demand for bicycles combined with the slowing of bicycle and bicycle part production overseas has made it difficult to restock, Myers said. Production halted in many Asian factories in January and February and was not able to resume full capacity production until April.
“We’re finding that a lot of things are just totally out across the industry. Things that you would normally take for granted, like cages and kickstands,” Conte’s Bike Shop store manager Bill Harlow said.
Both Myers and Harlow agreed that it could be difficult to find a bicycle until September or October.
To meet the demand, Conte’s Bike Shop has worked with its other locations and expanded its online presence. This allows employees to source particular models and colors that might otherwise be hard to find. But even with expanded stock, Harlow has seen beginner and lower end bicycles sell out, causing the entry point for the market to creep up.
Harlow advised bicycle customers not to worry too much about looking for the perfect bicycle. Instead, he recommended finding a good bike that will suit your needs and buying it, because it might be difficult to get a bike later in the season.
VéloCity has had an easier time stocking bicycles because the shop sells refurbished bikes and does not rely on new bicycles manufactured overseas.
“We have a surplus of bikes in our warehouse. When everybody else is not going to have bikes, we will,” Myers said.
However, because of the pandemic, VéloCity has fewer workers who can refurbish bikes.
In addition to working overtime to meet the demand, local bicycle shops have also increased sanitation and implemented new safety precautions. VéloCity is requiring appointments, allowing only one customer in the store at a time and limiting hours. Handy Bikes LLC is requiring staff to wear masks, wash their hands frequently and wipe bikes down after they get dropped off and before they get picked up. Similarly, Conte’s Bike Shop is limiting the number of customers in the store and frequently disinfecting the bicycles they are servicing.
“It’s a pretty narrow spot and bikes are pretty personal. A lot of it is just making sure that we’re not doing unassisted browsing. Folks come in and we want to make sure that we have an employee to deal with every customer personally,” Harlow said.
Looking forward, Myers and Harlow are unsure how long the demand for bicycles is going to last, but they expect it could continue for at least two more months. Harlow also expects to see more people turning to cycling instead of going to group fitness classes or boarding a crowed Metro train in the age of coronavirus.
As for Buck, he said he hopes new bikers fall in love with the sport and stay riding even after the pandemic.