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In these uncertain times, local bike shops are surviving, thanks to dependable service and customer loyalty

By Kevin Noonan

Spring is always the busiest time of the year for local shops that sell and repair bicycles, as people emerge from their winter hibernations and look to get some fresh air and exercise. This spring, of course, has been unlike any other we’ve known, but that hasn’t stopped biking enthusiasts from enjoying their passion.

Brandywine Bikes receives a new shipment to keep up with demand.

“Actually, [the coronavirus] has affected business in a positive way, in that people are coming in and purchasing bikes like crazy, getting ready for being self-quarantined,” says John Strojny, owner of Brandywine Bikes in Branmar Plaza in Brandywine Hundred. “We’re making sure we’re very careful and keep our social distance from our customers and each other, and even though we’re selling plenty of bikes, we’re not doing any service now [on bikes the shop doesn’t sell].”

Bike shops have been judged to be essential businesses in Delaware for two reasons—they’re used for transportation and many people depend on their bikes to get to work or the grocery store, and riding bikes is a form or exercise and entertainment where it’s easy to keep the proper social distance even if you’re riding in a group.

“I’ve been riding with my guys and we’re usually at least six-to-eight feet away from each other anyway, and now we’re even more conscious of it,” says Matt Holloway, owner of Henry’s Bicycle Shop in the Poly Drummond Shopping Center in Newark. “I think people understand that biking is a good, healthy activity where they can go outside and not endanger themselves or anybody else, and that’s something we really need right now.”

Wooden Wheels in Newark isn’t exactly a mom-and-pop operation, but it is as much a locally-owned operation as any. It originally was located on Main Street and was owned by Tom Harvey. When he decided to get out of the business, three of his employees—David Ferguson, Chris Denney and Robbie Downward—got together and bought the company.

They relocated to the Fairfield Shopping Center off New London Road, and business is still booming despite the concern over COVID-19.

“The current pandemic is absolutely pushing people to get outside and get moving,” Ferguson says.

Other Bumps in the Road

COVID-19 has been a new challenge for bike shops owners as well as all businesses, large and small, but that’s not the only challenge in owning a bike store. One factor affecting the business over the last few years—like it has just about all businesses-—is online shopping. More and more people just stay home and shop on their favorite device, which adversely affects local dealers.

“That’s the world we live in today and a lot of people like the convenience of shopping on-line and that’s something we all have to deal with,” Holloway says. “You especially see that in the younger generation, because they’ve basically grown up with that and it’s natural for them.

“But we still have our loyal customers who want the kind of individualized service that they simply can’t get from an online dealer. And the more hard-core a rider is, the more they want that

The Wooden Wheels crew at their Newark shop (l-r): John Mester, Robbie Downward, Alex Musemecci, Chris Dennie, David Ferguson.

personal service with somebody they know and trust. That’s more important to them than a perceived convenience.”

Ferguson also acknowledges that on-line shopping has made an impact on his business, but he agrees that customer loyalty is the biggest reason local shops can stay viable in this era.

“Fortunately, Delaware has a tight-knit cycling community, with a lot of riders who like to support their local shops,” he says. “I think of it as a compliment when someone comes into our store and says, ‘I bought my first bike from this shop’ and they’re there to buy their grandson or granddaughter their first bike. It speaks to the loyalty that cyclists have to their specific shop.”

Plus, many online customers discover they didn’t get exactly what they wanted, and that starts a process where they have to return things and hope they eventually get what they want, which can take weeks. And bikes purchased via the internet come disassembled, which isn’t a problem for some buyers, but can be a major problem for others. And when they discover they’re in over their heads, they call their local bike shop for help.

Rob Garrison, owner of Garrison’s Cyclery in Greenville, says it is difficult to find time in his shop’s schedule to service bikes not purchased at his store — even though he gets plenty of calls from distraught riders who want his help.

“With so many people shopping online, they’re cutting out the local bike shops,” he says. “And we’re not able to be the service for the competition. So, people can sit at home and click and have the bike show up at their door, but if something is wrong with the bike, they show up at our doorstep and want to take advantage of our expertise. But we have to put our focus on our own customers.”

“A lot of people want to test-ride a bike before the buy it, and that makes sense since many bikes cost $1,000 or more,” Garrison adds. “And that’s what we and other local shops give them. They get a chance to physically handle the bike before they buy it and make sure it’s exactly what they want, and they have experts to help and advise them.”

“So, it might be easier to shop on-line, but that doesn’t mean it’s better.”

Battling the Big Boys

There’s something else that can make life difficult for small shop owners—big shop owners. Just like local hardware stores have to compete with big box stores like Home Depot and Lowes, small bike shops have to deal with corporate and manufacturing entities like Trek, which buy out the small, local shops.

Jonathan Smith (14) with his parents, Sue and Mark Smith, receive instructions about their new bike from Garrison’s mechanic Joe Zimmerman. Photo by Lindsay duPhily

“At least 10 bike shops around here have closed in the last 10 years,” Garrison says. “They’ve gone belly-up, whether by corporate takeover or poor management, and it’s running small businesses out of the business. They cut out the middleman and the middleman can’t make any money.

“That’s why it’s so important to have loyal customers who appreciate what we do and how we do it. They know we will never steer them wrong and, for them, it’s a win-win. It’s like having a good plumber that you trust. You value that.”

That smaller-is-better philosophy is a common thread with local bike shops in Delaware, which is why Ferguson says he and his partners aren’t concerned about the big, bad corporations running them out of business.

“On thing I think that sets the local shops—Henry’s, Garrison’s, Wooden Wheels, etc.—apart from the larger corporations is this: We are all business people, but while the larger corporations look at numbers, we are looking at our customer base as friends and as cyclists,” Ferguson says.

Different Spokes for Different Folks

There are four main kinds of bikes: road, mountain, gravel and e-bikes. The most familiar is the road bike, which people have been riding for more than 100 years. But road bikes aren’t as popular as they once were, simply because riding them has become more dangerous in the 21st century.

Rob Garrison working out of the parking lot with customers due to new restrictions.

“People who ride road bikes are scared of drivers,” Garrison says. “A lot of people used to [ride bikes] to commute to work or just for general transportation, but there are a lot more cars on the road now and a lot of those people in cars aren’t even looking at the road—they’re just staring [at their cell phones] with their heads down.

“So, you have to ride much more defensively these days. A lot of roadies have had close calls or even been hit by inattentive drivers, and that’s why a lot of them are switching to gravel bikes.”

Gravel bikes are a happy medium between road and mountain bikes, and by merely changing tires they can be used for either one. That gives them a special allure and, right now, they’re the most popular bikes on the market.

“A lot of people want to avoid roads because of the traffic and potential danger that traffic causes,” Strojny says. “And a lot of people don’t like the mountain bikes because it can be too difficult unless you’re an experienced rider and you’re in good shape. So, for those people, it’s the best of both worlds.”

Says Ferguson: “Road riding is huge, but we’ve seen a swing to where cyclists want more options. So, gravel bikes offer the ability to do the road miles that a cyclist may want, and at the same time opening the door to endless miles of trail riding.”

Brandywine Bikes keeps a stocked shop to serve the increasing demand.

Mountain bikes are for the more adventurous and the more fit, simply because it’s harder work and obstacles—whether they be rocks, roots or gavel—are a constant threat.

“They’re really for people who like more of a challenge,” Holloway says. “It’s more physically demanding, but the rewards are greater, too, because you get to go where most people don’t. And that holds a lot of appeal for a lot of people.”

The newest craze in biking is the e-bike, which has a small electric motor that allows the rider to pedal or just sit back and let technology do the work.

“They’ve been selling extremely well,” Strojny says. “They’re very popular with commuters and people who aren’t necessarily hard-core riders, especially if they want to ride through the Brandywine Valley and are a little nervous about the hills. You can go 99 miles on a charge, and people just find them fun to ride. So, you can [pedal] and work as hard as you want, or you can sit back and let the motor do the work.”

Ferguson says e-bikes are most popular with novices and older riders, but they’re not the only ones buying them.

“Even the die-hard athletes have to admit that e-bikes are fun to ride,” he says.

A Pricey Pastime

Bike riding is fun and healthy and it’s an activity you can do your entire life, but it ain’t cheap. These aren’t the bikes of your youth, when a one-speed Huffy cost $50 (and baseball cards in the spokes were optional). The cost of bikes today varies wildly, depending on the make, model, size and brand. The prices listed below are ranges culled from various bike web sites.

Cyclists enjoying the scenic roads of the Brandywine Valley. Photo by Butch Comegys.

Road bikes: $200 to $12,000.

Mountain bikes: $460 to $12,000.

Gravel bikes: $450 to $5,400.

E-Bikes: $2,000 to $10,000.

Hybrid bikes: $400 to $3,500.

Kid’s bikes: $140 to $2,100.

And, of course, no self-respecting rider buys just the bike. There are plenty of extras that have to factor into your budget, including: shoes ($160-$385); bib shorts ($89-$210); performance shorts ($168-$200); helmet ($60-$170); jersey ($140-$160); rain jacket ($130-$160); rain pants ($130-$160); gloves ($35-$50) and the all-important knee warmer ($25-$45).

Plus, you will probably need service at one time or another, and that’s not free. Ball-park figures: minor tune-up ($50); basic tune-up ($70); major tune-up ($125); tube installation ($16); tire installation ($10); chain installation ($20) and pedal installation ($15). And that’s just for parts—labor can run from $50 to $75 an hour.

“There’s really something for everybody and every age and every wallet,” says Holloway. “Most people start small and work their way up to the more expensive bikes, but some people jump right in. Sometimes that can be a good thing, and sometimes that can be a bad thing. It really depends on the individual and how much money they want to spend and how much effort they want to put into riding.

“But, like with anything else, you end up getting what you pay for.”

So, what do you think? Please comment below.