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Bike shop owners aren’t seeing the spring rush for tuneups

Bike shops — deemed essential by the governor — are open for business. But the coronavirus has thrown a wrench into the gears of the industry.

Annie Byrne, owner of BFF Bikes, stands outside her store, Friday, April 3, 2020.
Annie Byrne, owner of BFF Bikes in Bucktown, on Friday emailed 2,500 customers to let them know her shop would be limiting service to customers who have “essential” needs. 
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Bike shops in the first week of April are normally humming as cyclists drop off their bikes for a tuneup and often linger a few minutes to catch up and chat about rides and gear.

However, business and chitchat are down dramatically as a result of the coronavirus, shop owners tell the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Business is down at least 50%,” said Mark Mattei, owner of Cycle Smithy in Lincoln Park.

Coronavirus fears have affected the way everyone is doing business, he said.

Mattei locked his doors. Customers must knock — and can only come inside one at a time. Most stay outside and lean their bikes against the building for an employee to come out and grab moments later — a social distancing measure.

“And we kind of minimize small talk for everyone’s well being,” said Mattei. “I’m not hanging over the counter and jawing with someone for a half hour like I normally would.”

Like many shop owners the Sun-Times spoke with, Mattei hopes to receive federal stimulus money. But, unlike many of his counterparts in the industry, Mattei hasn’t reduced hours or staff.

“I’m more worried about dying before my time is up than going out of business. If it happens it happens. But I think the business will sustain itself, I’m not too worried,” he said.

Business is down about 20 percent at Beverly Bike and Ski in the Beverly neighborhood, according to the shop’s owner, Paul Weise.

“We have good days and then really, really bad days,” said Weise. “But we’re rolling along. I haven’t laid anybody off, but there’s definitely more repairs at the moment than new bike sales.”

It’s a concerning trend for many, including Justyna Frank, owner of Cosmic Bikes in Jefferson Park, who said nearly all bike shops rely on new bike sales.

“You can’t just sustain yourself on labor. We’re happy about that, but it’s not sustainable for the whole season,” she said.

Comrade Cycles shop in West Town has reduced staffing and is seeing a fraction of its regular bike sales, co-owner Stephen Parkes said. Like other shops, Comrade is trying to make up for it with online sales by making a wider variety of goods available to people sitting at home on their computers.

“We’re still servicing bikes and have curbside service, but it’s a little weird. We’re not blasting out ‘Bring your bike in!’ at the moment because it seems opposite to the governor’s order to stay home to help stop the spread of coronavirus,” Parkes said.

Annie Byrne, owner of BFF Bikes, stands in her store’s showroom, Friday, April 3, 2020.
Annie Byrne, owner of BFF Bikes, in her showroom on Friday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Annie Byrne, owner of BFF Bikes in Bucktown, struggled with the same issue and on Friday emailed a newsletter to 2,500 customers to let them know her shop would be limiting service to customers who have “essential” needs.

“If you need service on your bike or have other bike needs, please reach out and we will ask if it is needed for essential purposes. For example, if you rely on your bike for transportation and need service or an item to continue to make essential trips,” Byrne wrote in the newsletter.

However, the customer will have the final say.

“We defer to your judgment on what is essential for you to stay healthy and safe,” she wrote.

The decision was extremely difficult but was made in order to prioritize the safety and health of people over the health of the business, she said.

“A lot of people still do need their bikes for transportation, so I’m glad we can still be here,” she told the Sun-Times.

Thousands of people rely on bikes to commute to essential jobs and places like grocery stores and pharmacies, said Kyle Whitehead, a spokesman for the Active Transportation Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group for walking, cycling and public transit.

The alliance was part of a group that successfully lobbied Gov. J.B. Pritzker to include bike shops on the list of essential businesses allowed to stay open during the stay-at-home order in place through the end of April.