As he stood in his driveway in Northfield, Minn., talking about the increasing number of families he sees out bicycling during this most unusual spring, Marty Larson watched a local family roll past on their bikes, as if he had planned it perfectly.
Larson, who is the chair of Cannon River Offroad Cycling and Trails -- a nonprofit that promotes bicycling in southern Minnesota -- said that for avid bikers, it’s a normal season with some caveats, but for families who bike together, these may be the best of times.
“Among the group of friends I ride with, we’re all out riding, but we’re doing it in ones and twos, and not in larger groups like we have in the past,” he said, encouraging social distancing in the coronavirus pandemic fight. “On the enthusiast level, things are kind of status quo. We’re still getting out and riding. But on the recreational level, I am definitely seeing more people out than I have in the past, especially families. We have the time right now.”
Those trends are echoed by the people who sell and service bikes. Many of the races and big bike events planned for the spring and summer have been postponed or canceled, meaning the sales and repair of high-end race bikes has dropped off. But casual riders are picking up some of that business slack.
“I’m seeing a huge increase in family and kids’ bikes, for a ton of logical reasons. You’ve got to keep the kids active, you’re seeing earlier birthday presents, and seeing families that were maybe going to go away on group rides and can’t, so they’re buying a bike here,” said Jan Guenther of Gear West Ski and Bike in Long Lake, Minn. “We’re repairing more family bikes. Mountain bike (sales and repair) may increase but it’s been too cold and wet, but the service of family bikes has increased. So we’re re-prioritizing. Instead of doing 10 things and being busy in all 10, we are very busy in three things.”
Guenther and other store owners have taken steps to ensure customers and employees feel they are in a clean, safe environment. At Gear West there is increased distancing among the repair technicians. Some stores have effectively closed their doors to walk-in customers and are showing bikes by appointment. Others are trying a cautious version of business as usual.
“It’s definitely very, very, very different than anything we’ve ever experienced before. That’s based mostly on uncertainty and the interactions with people in the store,” said David Neustel, store manager at Ski Hut in Duluth. “We shortened hours a little and cut down to just our full-time employees. We still have our doors open, but are putting messages out there to make sure everyone is doing the social distancing thing. We’ve got hand sanitizer everywhere and are offering curbside pickup for service work, deliveries for bike sales and that kind of stuff.”
Uptick on the trails
With people in the region being encouraged to stay close to home, there is a general feeling that warm-weather vacations may be more localized in 2020. That could be a good thing for the areas of the region where summer biking vacations along the Paul Bunyan, Central Lakes, Glacial Lakes and Willard Munger trails -- to name a few of Minnesota's 4,000 miles of paved bike trails -- are important for the economy.
“We have definitely seen an increase in trail use locally,” said Gabby Kinneberg, tourism director in Preston, Minn., which is one stop on the Root River and Harmony-Preston Valley state trails. “I do think people from afar are staying closer to home which is a good thing, but I believe the outdoor destinations will be better than ever this summer.”
It's normal for the region to see more people outside once the snow melts and leaves start to appear on trees. But in this time of stay-at-home orders, when youth sports are on hiatus and indoor workout facilities are shuttered, getting outside is understandably more popular than ever. Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has encouraged outdoor recreation as a way to safely fight the cabin fever that is a part of sheltering in place. Minnesota State Parks are open and doing a brisk business, although their campgrounds are closed.
For those who use a bicycle as a primary means of transportation, the sharp reduction in automobile traffic means a safer and often faster route to and from work. Weather permitting, Ian Price commutes by bike roughly 10 miles each way from his home in Richfield, Minn., to Quality Bicycle Products near the Minnesota River in Bloomington. He is noticing more bikes and fewer cars.
“On my way home in the afternoons, I do see quite a lot of people out on the bike trails, which is pretty awesome,” said Price, who has been busy distributing bikes and parts to customers and retailers. “In the mornings it’s pretty desolate. I’ve been taking regular streets because there’s no rush hour and it’s nice not having to worry as much about car traffic. That’s been really cool.”
In normal times, with summer bike races to train for, Price said he will ride 100 to 200 miles a week, when you factor in his daily 20-mile commute and regular 50-mile rides on weekends. While more and more casual bikers are hitting the roads and trails, with no big bike events on the horizon, Price admitted that there has been some slacking among the hard-core bicycling community.
“There’s definitely a little more beer drinking and a little less bike riding going on,” he said, with a laugh.