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Bike shops shift into higher gear as Marylanders become more active outdoors during coronavirus pandemic

Memorial Day was no holiday for Joe Traill. The owner of Joe’s Bike Shop in Mount Washington and his staff of six employees experienced a deluge of customers, bike orders and repairs Monday.

“We have shortened hours, and it seemed like it only compressed a day’s amount of work into eight hours,” he said. “We had a full staff, and we barely had time to eat or drink anything the entire day.”

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While many retail stores have struggled during the era of coronavirus-related shutdowns, business has been brisk at several Baltimore-area bike shops. Sales have surged as more people have sought alternative forms of outdoor exercise and activities to combat the cabin fever caused by the pandemic.

Shop owners are struggling to keep supplies on the shelves — but the increased workload is a welcome change.

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“I’m thriving,” said Larry Black, who owns Mt. Airy Bicycle Company and College Park Bicycles. “I’ve had red ink for five years, and I finally have black ink this year.”

Joe Traill, who has owned Joe's Bike Shop in Mount Washington for 20 years, has seen sales surge since the outbreak of the coronavirus. However, his inventory is depleted, particularly for popular items like entry-level mountain bikes. May 26, 2020
Joe Traill, who has owned Joe's Bike Shop in Mount Washington for 20 years, has seen sales surge since the outbreak of the coronavirus. However, his inventory is depleted, particularly for popular items like entry-level mountain bikes. May 26, 2020 (Amy Davis)

Traill said business at his stores in Mount Washington and Fells Point has increased by about 75% with what he called “record marks” in March, April and May.

“I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and in a typical spring, you might have two or three really busy days, almost uncomfortably busy,” he said. “It has been seven days straight for the last two months. Every day has been uncomfortably busy.”

It’s a trend that’s been evident across the country. Companies selling bikes and cycling equipment have had a hard time keeping up with the demand, with sales of adult leisure bikes up 121% in March and children’s and BMX bikes up 56%, according to retail tracking company NPD Group.

Scott Chambers, who has owned Pedal Fun Cycles in Towson for two years, said he tripled sales in March and April, and has been putting in long hours.

“I worked 88 hours last week. I’ve been in the 80s many weeks in a row. In fact, [Monday] was my first day off in 84 days. So it’s been a real blessing, especially for me because I have a young bike shop in the area, and it’s helped me establish myself in ways that it would take me years to get there.”

Black, who specializes in selling pre-owned and new bikes at his shops in Mount Airy and College Park, said he experienced a 200% increase in sales in March and April.

The surge in business is welcome for an industry that had been on the decline in recent years. The number of specialty bicycle locations of 6,195 in 2000 dropped to 3,790 in 2015, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association.

Liz Cornish, executive director of Bikemore, an advocacy group, said independent bike shops were struggling to stay afloat against online retailers and large department and sporting goods stores.

“If you order a bike online, can you put it together on your own without the help of a bike shop?” she asked. “Now people are really starting to understand the value of that in-person experience from the bike shop in their neighborhood. So that’s really encouraging because I believe those relationships will endure.”

Joe Traill, left, owner of Joe's Bike Shop in Mount Washington, talks with customer Kristin Glass, right, who was seeking a 24-inch bike for her son Jay, 8, who has outgrown his bike. Glass said the shop had a 24-inch bike when she called in the morning, but when she and her son arrived in the afternoon, it had been sold. Demand for bicycles is up since the outbreak of the coronavirus, but as a result, inventory is low. May 26, 2020
Joe Traill, left, owner of Joe's Bike Shop in Mount Washington, talks with customer Kristin Glass, right, who was seeking a 24-inch bike for her son Jay, 8, who has outgrown his bike. Glass said the shop had a 24-inch bike when she called in the morning, but when she and her son arrived in the afternoon, it had been sold. Demand for bicycles is up since the outbreak of the coronavirus, but as a result, inventory is low. May 26, 2020 (Amy Davis)

When Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan ordered bars, restaurants, movie theaters and gyms to close in March, there was a run on children’s bicycles. Since then, adult bikes have been the most sought-after items, especially entry-level hybrid and mountain bicycles, owners said.

“Bikes that are easy for customers to ride are selling at a record rate,” said Chambers, the Pedal Fun owner. “This pandemic is capturing the interest of people who haven’t been riding on a regular basis, and they want to start in the easiest and safest manner.”

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Black said that while his Mount Airy branch has been selling more recreational bikes, his College Park shop has been frequented by customers purchasing what he called “transportation” bicycles as alternate modes of transit to their workplaces.

“People are coming out from Washington to get bikes,” he said. “People don’t want to take public transit.”

The flip side of the tidal wave of business is that supplies are beginning to run low. Traill said he has been scheduling repairs 10 days out compared with the typical three-day turnaround.

Chambers said Giant Bicycles, which his store stocks as a preferred retailer, has already sold through much of its 2020 stock of new bikes and is beginning to take preorders of its 2021 models. He said availability of new components for older bikes is also strained.

“It’s become a challenge to acquire them in the manner you need to run a business,” he said. “There’s just simply not much out there because of worldwide demand and then a decrease in production for a certain period of time. … It doesn’t mean that bikes are gone. They’re just coming in more sporadically until they’re up and running.”

Cornish said she anticipates that bike shops will continue to be inundated with requests because people can no longer frequent bars, malls and pools to relax or play.

“So you’re seeing a huge return to public space, including streets,” she said. “You see more people jogging, you see more people walking, and you see more people riding bikes. So I am encouraged. It’s psychological. I think more than ever, people need an outlet, an opportunity to get outside and exercise. So I think in that way, it’s encouraging to see people discover the joy of bicycling.”

Joe Traill, who has owned Joe's Bike Shop in Mount Washington for 20 years, has seen sales surge since the outbreak of the coronavirus. However, his inventory is depleted, particularly for popular items like entry-level mountain bikes. May 26, 2020
Joe Traill, who has owned Joe's Bike Shop in Mount Washington for 20 years, has seen sales surge since the outbreak of the coronavirus. However, his inventory is depleted, particularly for popular items like entry-level mountain bikes. May 26, 2020 (Amy Davis)

Traill said he has received phone calls at his shops at Mount Washington and Fells Point from potential customers as far away as Maine and Wisconsin seeking bicycles. While his longest wait list is about 20 customers for entry-level mountain bikes, he no longer accepts deposits because he can’t guarantee delivery.

“It’s going to be a while before bikes come back to stock,” he said.

As if to serve his point, Mount Washington resident Kristin Glass and her 8-year-old son, Jay, visited Joe’s Bike Shop on Monday after being informed over the phone around 10:30 a.m. that a used 24-inch bike was available. But by the time mother and son arrived around 2 p.m., the bicycle had been sold.

“In hindsight, I should have gone sooner, but my kid was doing his schoolwork,” she said. “I do know that my husband went down a couple months ago to try to find a bike, and he said it was really busy in there, and I know that in general, bike shops have been pretty busy since the pandemic hit.”

Jay’s disappointment was short-lived though as they were able to find a bike elsewhere.

“It turned out to be a successful day,” Kristin Glass said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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