Spike in bike use saps supply, sees wannabe cyclists fixing up old rides
Pedalling through a pandemic
AMID the darkness of the COVID-19 crisis, there has been a small bright light for many of us: bicycles.
People are buying new ones, tuning up old ones and riding more than before. Bike shops have reported booming business, far above even the normally busy spring selling season.
As people are venturing out in the warmer weather, commuters and recreational cyclists — even faithful riders who’ve been biking for years — are encountering a world they’ve never seen before: streets with less traffic and which are sometimes closed to automotive traffic altogether.
COVID-19 has cancelled summer festivals, sports and travel. With so many activities no longer possible, people are turning to cycling and the pandemic has prompted commuters and families to go on bike-buying binges.
Affordable bikes are in high demand right now. Entry-level bikes — anything under $1,000 — are pretty much sold out.
“I’m down to less than 100 bikes in my building and most of them are over $3,000,” says Phil Roadley, owner of Bikes & Beyond, the Henderson Highway mainstay. The last time Roadley had fewer than 100 bikes in his building?
“Um, never,” he says. “The lowest level of bikes I’ve ever gotten down to is maybe 350 or 400. I need 200 bikes for my store sales floor to look full.”
Physical distancing has sparked an explosion in cycling as people are seeking alternative modes of transportation to stay mobile and active. Pandemic restrictions have finally given people the time and motivation to take up a new hobby. As a result, bike shops across North America, Europe and Australia are seeing record sales and facing supply shortages.
“Sales were up 30 per cent through April and May, and 15 per cent up through June,” Roadley says. “Suppliers don’t have any inventory to ship me until August.”
It’s fun, physically distant and good for you — no wonder cycling has soared in popularity. Since March, Roadley has sold about 1,500 bikes. It was around mid-May that inventory really started to thin out.
“Kids’ bikes went first,” he says. “And then your basic mountain and commuter bikes under $1,000.”
The room for growth in terms of new cyclists is massive. Prior to the pandemic, a small percentage of people biked or walked to work in Winnipeg, according to the 2016 census. The Statistics Canada data shows that “active transportation,” defined as walking or cycling to work, was used by 6.2 per cent of people in Winnipeg, just slightly behind Toronto at 6.7 per cent.
But since our lives have been turned upside down, cycling has taken on a critical, sanity-saving role — a way to exercise when gyms are operating with limited hours and an inexpensive means of getting around in order to avoid crowded public transportation.
Going for a bike ride has replaced grabbing a drink in a bar and has been used to persuade kids to go outside while parents are on conference calls at home.
Bike sales aren’t the only things skyrocketing. So are requests for bike service, as riders are pulling old, neglected bikes out of garages and basements.
Married couple Heather and Bill Quinn hadn’t been on their bikes in years — five years for Heather and more than a decade for Bill.
“My sister donated me her bike a couple years ago,” Heather says. “It went into the garage and was never touched since.”
But back in May, they got tired of walking the same route outside every day — so they decided to tune up their bikes that had been collecting dust in storage. Since then, they’ve become avid cyclists in their neighbourhood.
“We started riding pretty regularly because we got tired of walking along Wellington Crescent and doing the same route into the park,” Bill says. “We also found that our ankles and hips were getting sore from walking on concrete all the time. Riding a bike has been easier on our bodies.”
As new and returning cyclists venture outside, they’re noticing a different riding environment. A spike in biking has led some Canadian cities, such as Calgary, Edmonton, Victoria and Ottawa, to reduce traffic lanes and close off portions of roadways altogether.
In Winnipeg, traffic restrictions from the City of Winnipeg on several streets have transformed roads into pedestrian- and cycling-friendly destinations.
“With Wellington Crescent being used for active transportation, that really inspired me to do it,” Bill says. “We just saw so many people. I don’t know if I would have been as ready to hop on my bike if we didn’t have Wellington so close to us that we could do it without getting knocked over by a car.”
The active transportation routes in Winnipeg, first announced in April, limit vehicular traffic to one block to create more room for pedestrians and cyclists while maintaining physical distancing. Recently, city council extended these temporary cycling and walking routes until Sept. 7 to accommodate the increased demand during the health crisis.
The safety of the active transportation routes is also a draw for Bill’s wife.
“We know a lot of people our age, in their 60s, who have taken up biking,” Heather says. “There have been broken shoulders and fractured ankles. Yes, we have designated bike lanes, but it’s kind of tricky. On Wellington Crescent, it’s so safe.”
Canada isn’t the only country making changes. Expansive public safety and environmental measures have been announced in cities across the globe, including hundreds of miles of new bike lanes in Milan and Mexico City, as well as widening pavements and putting pedestrians first in neighbourhoods in New York and Seattle.
While it has been hard to meet the demand for bikes, those who have access to one have also been reaping the health benefits.
“Bike riding is another way to exercise. We’ll be in and out of the city all summer so we decided to freeze our gym memberships until September,” Bill says. “We were kind of doing the same thing at our own gyms and now we have something we can do together that takes us a little farther than walking, and we can exercise at the same time.”
The retired couple spends a few weeks at a lake community every summer — this year, because of their new hobby, they were able to see more of it.
“We’ve been going to Victoria Beach for years,” Bill says. “But because we have bikes this year, we’ve gone to places we’ve never been before because we can access it on our bikes.”
They now go riding every other day and outings have become an adventure.
“It’s kind of exhilarating to feel the wind in your hair and the bugs in your teeth and you can go farther and see more,” Heather says. “My next goal is the Harte Trail in Assiniboine Forest.”
Whatever one’s reasons for getting back on a bicycle, it’s a pastime that offers many benefits during this turbulent time.
“It’s something we can do together,” Bill says. “And it really does give you freedom to go places that you may not normally go.”
Whether this is a temporary surge in cycling’s popularity or the start of a future where bikes become a more prominent form of transportation, the experiences cyclists have enjoyed over these last several weeks can’t be undone.
“To bike to work requires a lot of bravery in our city; I admire those people. We’re new bikers so we haven’t explored all the cycling routes yet,” Heather says. “I’m sure there are a lot of possibilities of places to go and I’m looking forward to checking them all out.”’