COVID-induced cycling surge keeping Hamilton-area bike shops in high gear

·4 min read

John Street’s Downtown Bike Hounds has a one new bike left in stock: a black KHS Urban Xcel, an entry-level road bike with drop handlebars, from last year.

“We do have a bunch of them on order, but I’m definitely a little bit nervous about what’s actually going to arrive and when it will arrive,” said owner Sean Burak, adding that orders placed in the fall would typically start “trickling in” late winter.

“But March has now come and gone and my first shipment hasn’t arrived, so everything is delayed.”

Bike shops in Hamilton are grappling with a surge in demand — both for repairs and new and used bikes — amid a countrywide shortage, the Toronto Star reported.

In anticipation of a demand similar to last year, the first pandemic summer, Burak ordered 50 per cent more new bikes than usual. To manage repairs, Bike Hounds has shifted to an appointment-based system to meter intake.

“It’s kind of this balancing act to not fill your basement up to your eyeballs and not be able to walk around, but also have the bikes that people are looking for,” he said.

Bike Hounds currently accepts eight bikes a day — though the number will increase this month with seasonal hours — and returns bikes to customers in two or three days.

“We’re probably going to stick with that even when things kind of return to ... normal, whatever that looks like,” he said.

On March 24, Freewheel Cycle in Dundas posted on social media that the shop was out of storage space and wouldn’t be accepting new repairs until April 8.

“The spring rush showed up much earlier than usual and this time with way more bikes than we have ever seen,” the post reads.

A November survey from Cycle Hamilton, set to be published in the coming weeks, found that the majority of respondents changed their cycling habits as a result of the pandemic.

Nearly 35 per cent said they have been cycling more for exercise than they were before the pandemic. Some respondents said they were cycling more to avoid using public transportation.

Seven per cent had purchased a bike in the first eight months of the pandemic.

“Cycling has become an essential way to get to essential destinations like work and the grocery store, but it also is a socially-distanced way to get around the city,” said board member Eva Salinas. “It’s become essential for mental health and exercise.”

In total, nearly 50 per cent of respondents said they were cycling several times a week. Some said their overall time on the road had decreased as they spent more time at home.

Salinas said that the pandemic demand “underscores the need to accelerate cycling infrastructure plans that the city has in the works.” Temporary solutions, such as pop-up bike lanes, could be used as stopgap measures to meet demand.

“We are already seeing just this weekend trails packed with hikers and cyclists,” she said. “We need to get innovative with temporary closures of streets or street lanes like so many similar-sized cities in Canada and around the world have done.”

New Hope Community Bikes, a charity and social enterprise that sells new and used bikes with the goal of providing affordable transportation, was closed to the public over the weekend to catch up on a backlog of repairs.

Before the long weekend, New Hope had about 85 bikes in its repair queue — similar to last year in June.

“It’s like everything got moved up,” said executive director Andrew Hibma. “I think people realize that bikes are still going to be hard to get and that we still will have a COVID summer of distancing.”

Already this year, New Hope has sold about 120 used bikes and has about a dozen left. They aim to fix up about 12 a week to ensure they can offer affordable transportation for those who need it.

More than half of the 50 new bikes stocked this year have already sold.

“That’s pretty high for this time of year,” he said. “March was just the highest revenue we’ve ever had, in any month that we’ve existed.”

Kate McCullough, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator