James Thurston, a mechanic at Bikes and More, works on one of the many service bikes waiting to be repaired, Tuesday, June 9, 2020. (Photo by Thomas Weber)

Pandemic’s Bicycle Boom Leaves Gainesville’s Bike Shops Reeling

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Alongside masks, toilet paper and hand sanitizer, one industry has seen an unlikely boom this spring: bicycles.

With gyms closed and stay-at-home orders in place, many were desperate for any excuse to get outside, which made independent forms of exercise and outdoor recreation all the more desirable.

Hence, humanity was overcome with a hivemind-like urge to dust off that 20-year-old Schwinn in the garage, and for those whose dusty bikes were totally beyond repair, the urge devolved into a mad dash to go out and buy a new one. For local bicycle shop owners, this surge in business has been equally profitable and stressful.

Paul Schmidt, owner of Bikes and More, described himself and his crew as “super stressed out” and “absolutely zapped.”

“I have two kids at home,” he said. “They’re asleep when I get up for work, and if I rush home, I can see them before I put them to bed, and that’s it. They’ve seen me one day a week every week since the start of this.”

Schmidt said he’s been working around 80 hours a week ever since Gainesville declared bike shops essential businesses at the beginning of the pandemic. Most of those hours are spent on service bikes, or bikes that customers bring in to be repaired.

“If I were to work the regular hours and the regular amount of service I normally do, we would have a two-month backlog,” he said. “So the only way to get over that is to work 30-hour shifts sometimes.”

Currently, he has a backlog of around 90 bikes that need to be serviced, which equates to about a two-week wait for customers. Because the store is so stocked full of service bikes, he’s had to buy a storage container — his third, actually — for the bicycles that are still patiently waiting to be fixed.

Despite the stress, business for Schmidt—and every other bike shop owner, considering all the bike suppliers are now empty handed—has been undeniably good.

“We hit record highs for the months of March, April and May in the thirty years the company has been open,” said Brian Frinzer, manager and lead technician of Gator Cycle.

Frinzer’s shop, which relies more on bike sales than Bikes and More, has seen a stark increase in monthly sales from an average of 60 a month to around 150.

But, bike shops like his are now facing a dilemma — the huge surge in bike sales has exhausted their suppliers. Frinzer said he likely won’t receive more bikes until August, while some shipments are scheduled to arrive as late as October.

Fortunately, he said the record-breaking sales from the past three months will likely keep them afloat until more bikes come in. Until then, the few bikes that trickle in are sold right after hitting the floor.

“The only worry is how long can the average consumer wait? A week, two weeks, three weeks?” he said.

Schmidt had similar concerns—some customers are completely dependent on their bikes to get them to and from work, and with layoffs and furloughs abound, not everyone can afford to pay for gas or car insurance.

Because of the large backlog of service bikes, he has resorted to a triage system where he tries to prioritize customers with “essential” bikes.

“Now that I have more customers than I have time in the day to handle, I have to kind of pick and choose, and it’s at a detriment to me because if I had the ability I’d help everybody,” Schmidt said. “I have to put a priority on people that need the bike for basic transportation.”

Apart from the standard that had already been set in other cities like Philadelphia, transportation was part of the reasoning for the city classifying bike shops as essential businesses, and it was a process that Schmidt was indirectly involved in.

Because people rely on bikes for both exercise and transportation, Schmidt had customers ask him if they could petition the city commissioners on his behalf to reopen local bike shops. It only took two weeks for them to be reopened.

“There’s no telling what would’ve happened if I had not been essential and been able to come to work,” said Eric Ford, owner of Re-Bike.

Ford said he would have struggled to pay rent for his business had he not reopened. He said the loss would have been devastating considering the effort he put into launching the business in 2016, which involved him living in and repairing bikes out of a storage unit to save money.

Now, he’s faced a surge in bikes needing repairs.

“I believe that bicycling got accepted because it’s a source of transportation, but also for mental health, too,” Ford said. “Some people might not be used to being confined — they need to escape.”

The desire to escape has been evident beyond the busy bike shops; Jess Larsen, vice chair of Gainesville’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, noticed a consistent increase in nighttime bikers throughout the pandemic.

“At a certain time of the night, maybe around 11 p.m. to 2 a.m., there became a very large increase in cyclists,” Larsen said. “At any given moment you could see four, five, six cyclists around you.”

He said the cyclists might have been more noticeable simply because there were fewer cars on the road, but he still felt that there was some sort of anomaly.

The Bicycle Pedestrian Advisory Board is responsible for reviewing and recommending policies and plans to the city commission, county commission and other boards to help maintain cyclist and pedestrian safety.

Naturally, as the board’s vice chair, Larsen felt concerned about people’s safety as the city’s streets, sidewalks and trails have been filled with more bikers than ever.

“I would suggest that as you’re going to do many things differently to be cautious of a virus like this, you would want to use a bicycle differently and not be so close to the other riders and not ride in their slipstream,” he said.

He also mentioned the dangers of riding at night, especially now that people might have grown accustomed to cycling with fewer cars on the road, because as traffic increases, so will the number of accidents.

Now that the bike supply is dwindling and cars are returning to the roads, it seems that cyclists’ unfettered reign over Gainesville’s streets is coming to an end.

About Thomas Weber

Thomas is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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