Getting in two steel wheel in complicated times

31 May

Covid-19 makes bikes more important than ever; It also complicates everything about getting one

A line forms Saturday outside Ace Wheelworks between Porter and Davis squares in Somerville. (Photo: Marc Levy)

When gyms and parks were restricted and shuttered by the coronavirus shutdown, cycling saw a surge as a means of exercise, recreation and transportation – biking by definition has social distancing built into it, a sterling alternative to a crowded subway car where one good sneeze could have a devastating effect. As Massachusetts seeks to get back to normal, bikes will stay important for summer recreation and commuter options. Cambridge just announced a “Shared Streets” initiative to pair with Somerville, and over in Boston, Mayor Marty Walsh announced a “Healthy Streets” plan, safer paths encouraging new riders who were formerly deterred by the crush of regular motor vehicle traffic.

If you don’t have a bike and want to get on one, how do you do it with the Covid-19 restrictions still in place? One way is a bike share such as Blue Bikes, but most people will want the comfort and convenience of owning their own steel steed. Buying off Craigslist and the like is one option, but brings with it questions about bike size and other factors – including whether the bike was stolen. Bike stores offer professional advice and a better understanding of quality and cost, help for first-time buyers and assurance of help and service down the line.

Bike stores were deemed “essential” by Gov. Charlie Baker during the shutdown, and most in the Cambridge/Somerville area remained open. Now all are back online with the exception of Quad Bikes, which operates out of a Harvard-owned facility on Shepherd Street. During the stay-at-home mandate, maintenance and repairs were by curbside appointment, and it’ll be largely the same for the first phase of Baker’s four-phase return plan. One of the big challenges presented are hands-on sampling and test rides. Carice Reddien, owner of Bicycle Belle368 Beacon St., near Porter Square in Somerville, a specialist in cargo bikes, e-bikes and family-friendly extension bikes (and just reopened) said, “We’ve been doing socially distanced test rides outside the shop, and it seems to work.” Jason Paige, co-owner of Ace Wheelworks145 Elm St., between Porter and Davis squares in Somerville, whose shop was open for the duration, said, “We do a pretty thorough sales job on the phone, but the first time they ride it is when they pick it up curbside.” That model is flipped from before Covid-19, but Paige said the store has adopted a relaxed return and exchange policy to make shoppers more comfortable with a big purchase. “If you call with a price range and type of style, we’ll make something happen,” Paige said.

The bigger problem is supply and shipping in times of high demand. “Be patient,” Reddien said. “Supplies are low and shops are stretched thin trying to work in new and safe ways.” Paige said Wheelworks at one point had to stop taking orders over the phone because a salesperson would take an order only to have an online shopper beat them to the last SKU. (On the day that I wrote this, the website had a message saying “Sales temporarily suspended.”)

Other stores coming back are trying novel approaches to meet demand and their customer’s needs. Crimson Bikes, the Cannondale retailer at 1001 Massachusetts Ave., Mid-Cambridge, offers mobile visits to your home as well as curbside appointments; Cambridge Bicycle259 Massachusetts Ave., The Port, has something of what shop manager Josh Smith describes as an “Old West countertop service,” with accessories and helmets exhibited at the door for customers to review and try out. Cambridge Bicycle also offers limited test rides.

One thing all agreed on was that the shutdown has been both a boon for cycling. “More people now see cycling as a more attractive and viable thing,” Smith said. Paige said that he’s doing a lot more family sales, with overall sales in units notably up from last year, but accessory sales down. “Families are getting out and biking together,” he said. “That makes me emotional.”

The best way to buy a bike in these socially distancing times seems to start with online research, then a sales call before a scheduled test ride. And to remember, as Reddien said: “Be patient.”

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