ST. PAUL — You have reached Bicycle Chain at Lexington and Larpenteur. We are open. If you want to check out our hours, they are on bicyclechain.com. We are getting a high volume of calls and we cannot always get to our phone during business hours, but we are open and can do curbside if you prefer.
The message on the answering machine for longtime Roseville bicycle shop Bicycle Chain says it all. Bike shops, which were deemed essential businesses in the first COVID-19 shutdown back in March, are so busy, it’s difficult for someone to answer the phone. And they’ve made adjustments to provide no-contact service for customers.
Repairs have shops booked out weeks in advance as “a lot of bikes are coming out of sheds,” said Dave Bole, owner of Bicycle Chain. Sales of new bikes are so strong some manufacturers are running out of inventory.
Sales had been flat the past couple of years, Bole said, so the surge is “a huge roller coaster, but it’s a wonderful problem to have.”
The NPD Group, a U.S. retail tracking service, said independent bike shops saw a more than 20% increase in bike service/repair sales in the first quarter of 2020 over last year.
“Even before the shutdown, people started panic buying,” said Jake Helmbrecht, general manager of Freewheel Bike, which has nine locations in the Twin Cities. Sales and repair are “both at maximum capacity now,” he said, adding that spring is always the busiest time of year at bike shops, anyway. “The repair queue is out a couple of weeks.”
Shops adjust to demand, virus
Freewheel has hired two to three times more people than in a usual season to deal with the crush, Helmbrecht said.
“A lot of us are working 12- to 14-hour days.” Managers have been going to the Freewheel locations after hours to assemble new bikes. Thirty to 40 bikes assembled overnight “all sell the next day,” he said.
Manufacturers have “a pretty decent supply” for May and June, Helmbrecht said, “but they’ll be gone by August.”
The great gear-up has been good for mobile bike shop Velofix, said Al Watts, who owns the Minnesota franchise that sends fully outfitted repair vans to customers. Mechanics arrive via appointment at velofix.com, get the bike that needs work, make repairs right there in the van and do the billing via a computer inside the van. A woman asked Watts if Velofix just started because of social distancing. The company was started about six years ago in Canada; Watts and his wife have had two vans operating in Minnesota for four years.
“All it took was a pandemic for business to take off,” Watts joked.
Velofix used to encourage customers to come into the van and carried biking gear like helmets, locks and pedals, Watts said. Now those items can be ordered ahead. Velofix also sells new bikes via direct-to-consumer bike companies.
An estimated 80 percent of people say they’re not riding their bikes because of a mechanical issue — a flat tire or broken chain, Watts said. “We help people get their bikes out of the rafters.”
Bole said social distancing also comes into play for staff. He has 12 to 15 employees and room for three mechanics to work at a safe distance in the shop. Some staff members don’t want to work right now because of the risk factor, he said. When the weather is nice, Bicycle Chain parks the shop van in the alley and sets up another work station there. The number of customers is limited in the store.
Demand raises prices
Bole, who started Bicycle Chain with his dad and brother 30 years ago, said the demand for bikes is unprecedented. He’s seen manufacturers short of a color or popular size in the past, “but never to this scale.”
The bicycle brand Specialized has no bikes left for under $1,000, Bole said, adding he was fortunate that a big order of new bikes came in before the coronavirus crush started. “Without that, half of our show floor would be empty.”
Freewheel has a limit of one guest per staffer in its shops, “almost like a concierge,” Helmbrecht said. There are separate lines for sales and service, as well as curbside options. Freewheel added a chat feature on its website just to answer questions that might be difficult to get through on the phone.
Bike prices have gone up. Any bike below $1,200 is difficult to find, Helmbrecht said. Prices per unit have gone up by half of what they usually sell for, according to Bole.
People shopping for new bikes should move quickly, Helmbrecht said, and check out used bicycle options.
Bike shops don’t expect the long days to end soon.
“Last night, I thought I quit early,” Bole said on a day last week he found some time to chat. “It was 10 p.m.”