It started with baby seats.
As parents turned to family bike rides to keep occupied during stay-at-home orders, they are one of the first items that went out of stock, said Monica Pasquinelli, co-owner of Firehouse Bicycles and Wolf Cycles in West Philadelphia.
Then March’s lockdown stretched into warmer months, and heading outdoors remained one of the few activities to do safely. The region’s thirst for the freedoms attached to bike riding grew stronger.
It’s a demand that, frankly, bike shops deemed “essential” can’t always keep up with. As they change operations during an already busy time of the year, they rely more on online sales and curbside pickups while balancing adjusted hours and limited staff to keep employees and customers safe from the coronavirus.
The shops also are sifting through shortages after riders gobbled up budget-friendly bikes priced under $500. More recently, it’s the basic parts, such as inner tubes and bike tires, that have become a problem across the industry.
“I’m not going to say we’re booming,” said Pasquinelli, who is also picking up the pieces after Wolf Cycles was looted last month. “I’m just going to say we’re sustaining. Under difficult circumstances, we are sustaining.”
‘Something next level’
Frankinstien Bike Worx in Center City is building bikes “right out of the box,” said owner Jeff Harris. “I just wish it wasn’t so popular so we can catch our breath.”
It’s likely a mix of customers who inflated popularity — the essential workers who looked to bikes as an alternative to SEPTA, the gym rats keeping fit with the businesses closed, and those grown tired of movie marathons and in need of some exercise.
The riders, new and old, dug deep in their basements and parents’ garages to dust off department store rides, or called up shops to see how they could get their hands on a set of wheels.
By May, Shelly S. Walker, owner of Fairmount Bicycles and Brewerytown Bicycles, said it was clear that the demand was “something next level.”
“It really did gradually change from, ‘Are we going to be able to be open?’” she said. “To, ‘Oh. Yeah we are.’”
The bike boom shows up in the numbers.
There’s been a surge in bike usage on local trails, according to the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission’s bike counters measuring how many times it’s been passed. The Chester Valley Trail saw a 63% spike from March 1 to May 31 this year compared with last. Figures along the Delaware River Trail at Port Richmond jumped 187% in the same period.
“There’s probably a strong indication that if trails are up higher that people are going to be biking in the city,” said Betsy Mastaglio of the DVRPC, “even if they’re just getting to get to the trails, perhaps.”
It’s an issue the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia called attention to as the pandemic worsened. In May, the group joined other advocates in a “Recovery Streets” effort reimagining public spaces in Philadelphia that included adding temporary protected bike lanes.
Injury crashes involving bicyclists between May and June are up this year compared with last, according to data from the Philadelphia Police Department.
The recent death of Sam Ozer, 17, killed by a driver while riding his bike in Roxborough, reignited the call for safer streets. The city is aiming for zero traffic deaths by 2030 through Vision Zero, its safe streets initiative.
The city does not have plans, however, to install any temporary measures to better protect an uptick of cyclists, or advance any previously planned projects, spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco said.
Forming new habits
Owners are hopeful that some stocks will replenish in the fall but are getting creative now. They’re, of course, fixing and selling used bikes, as well as patching holes found along inner tubes instead of a full on replacement.
Brady Gibney, co-owner of Cadence Cycling Centers with locations in Manayunk and Center City, speculates that his shop sold three months of bikes in one month. But it’s gotten to a point where he’s recently handed a bike back to a customer looking to repair a torn tire.
He said it’s “a shame” that the shop can’t fulfill all the requests it’s receiving.
“My concern is, how many people who have come to our doors wanting bikes, and we’ve had to turn them away, and will they just go find a new hobby?” he said. “And when we call them in October, they’re going to go, ‘No, it’s OK. We got something else.’ ”
Henry Sam, owner of Kayuh Bicycles & Cafe in North Philadelphia, said the store “would absolutely be selling more.”
“But there’s just nothing left,” he said.
Milay Galvez, director of marketing for Fuji Bikes distributor BikeCo, shares the sentiment. She points to manufacturing delays from the coronavirus as a contributing factor, but predominantly, it’s the rise in demand — a ripple effect from a lack of organized sports.
“If we had more bikes, we would have sold all of them,” Galvez said. “That is something that is happening across the industry.”
Whether demand leads to a lifelong habit, or if new bikes will instead collect dust in garages and basements remains to be seen. But there’s no question that many are reevaluating their commuting options as they emerge from their homes and give pause to hopping on a subway or a bus.
“If people do end up using a bike long term to get to work, to get to wherever they need to go … and this becomes more of a trend than it already is,” said Randy LoBasso, policy director at the Bicycle Coalition, “then we need to give people a safe way to do so, and a safe place to do so.”
The shops rally behind the effort.
“I truly believe a lot of people will find a love for cycling,” said Sam, of Kayuh Bicycles & Cafe, “and see that it truly is one of the best ways to get around the city.”