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June 25, 2022

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Pandemic pumping up biking interest in Clark County

Group cycling events have been put on hold, but individual riders are driving record sales and repair jobs

By , Columbian business reporter

Wave 1 was when the gyms closed. Wave 2 came when the layoffs began. Wave 3 arrived after the stimulus checks went out — and that was all before the start of the sunny weather that typically ushers in the busy summer season.

That’s how Vancouver Cyclery President Will Phillips describes the pattern of customer traffic at his Hazel Dell bike shop, which has seen a boom in bike sales amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bike sellers across the country — ranging from small independent shops such as Vancouver Cyclery to departments within big retailers such as Fred Meyer — have been experiencing surges in demand.

“It’s really off the charts for us. It’s unprecedented,” said Peter Van Tilburg, executive director of Bike Clark County, a nonprofit bicycle education and advocacy group that also runs a community shop in downtown Vancouver.

New rides and repairs

Phillips and Van Tilburg both point to intuitive reasons for the surge — with gyms and parks closed down, biking is one of the few remaining outdoor recreation and exercise options, and it’s made all the more appealing by the lower-than-usual car traffic on the streets.

“Walking gets old after a while, so riding a bike seems like a new exciting option,” Phillips said.

Still, Phillips said he didn’t foresee the scale of the surge.

When the pandemic began, he was more concerned that quarantine efforts would force Vancouver Cyclery to close. But bicycle repair was designated as an essential activity, so the shop was able to continue with online sales and curbside pickup — and bikes began flying out of the store.

“Everything under $1,000 was gone right away,” he said.

Phillips said most of his suppliers have been grappling with inventory shortages, not only for bikes but also for most of the common parts and accessories such as tubes and tires.

Repairs jobs are up as well, he said, by about 50 percent compared with a usual summer season. With more than 100 bikes in the shop for service at a time, the store had to start using parts of its showroom floor as overflow storage.

The high demand for new bikes is likely fueling more repair jobs, he said. Would-be buyers are finding empty shelves at both small and large retail shops, so they have to settle for tuning up older bikes that they might have tucked away in their garages.

Van Tilburg described a similar scene at the Bike Clark County headquarters. The community shop closed for the month of April, but there was a surge in demand as soon as it reopened. The store quickly hit a record high point with 120 bikes in for service, compared with about 20 to 30 at a time under normal circumstances.

The nonprofit is also continuing to accept donated bikes, which can be fixed up and given back to the community through Bike Clark County’s programs, he said.

Riding solo

The sales boost stands in contrast to most other bicycle community activities. Group rides, summer camps and big annual events such as Ride Around Clark County have all been canceled. Bike Clark County is still trying to figure out whether it would be practical to try to host its usual summer events, Van Tilburg said.

David Barna, co-president of the Vancouver Bicycle Club, said the organization has been urging its members to ride solo or with just one friend, and maintain safe distances between riders.

Club membership has remained flat during the pandemic months, he said, but the group is hoping to see new members once group rides restart during Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan.

The number of participants in each ride will still be limited, and riders will need to wear masks and maintain their distance from other cyclists. Still, it will be an important step back toward normal club activities.

The club also hopes to be able to restart its riding classes, which are aimed at teaching new cyclists how to safely travel on roads and in groups. Those lessons will be important for new riders, Barna said, particularly if the new round of cyclists decide to stick with the activity after the pandemic ends.

Van Tilburg, Phillips and Barna all expressed hope that more cyclists in Clark County would lead to creation of more bike lanes and other rider-friendly features. It remains to be seen whether the new wave of riders sticks around in the long term, but so far there aren’t any indications that it’s slowing down.

“I think it is the new normal,” Van Tilburg said. “We’ll probably continue to see a busy summer.”

Columbian business reporter

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