Coronavirus put more cyclists on downstate Illinois trails

Bicycle sales soared in March of this year, when the coronavirus closed gyms, restaurants and other businesses.

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BELLEVILLE, Ill. — Stores haven’t faced this serious of a bike shortage since a 1970s boom driven by environmental concerns, and metro-east trails are busier than ever.

Bicycle sales soared in March of this year, when the coronavirus closed gyms, restaurants, movie theaters, hair salons and other businesses. State officials designated bike shops as “essential” parts of the transportation industry and allowed them to stay open.

“(Biking is) a way to keep active, and a lot of folks have had this newfound time on their hands,” said Jon Greenstreet, co-owner of a O’Fallon bike shop.

Many big-box stores have been sold out of bicycles since April because they only carry lower-priced basic models that are popular with newcomers, Greenstreet said. One supplier told him that his inventory for the whole year was depleted in a week.

Bicycles still on sales floors at bike shops tend to be electric or high-end road and mountain bikes that cost $1,500 to $3,000. Other models are trickling in a few at a time.

“We’ve got hundreds of bikes on back order, and when we get bikes in, they’re sold within days, if not hours,” Greenstreet said.

Cycling stores in downstate Edwardsville, Shiloh and Alton were able to keep a range of bicycles in stock longer than some bike shops because they had a large inventory in three warehouses, said co-owner Katie Parks.

The Cyclery also has faced shortages of fitness equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Some people don’t feel comfortable going to the gym, and they still want to exercise in bad weather,” Parks said. “… Maybe before they didn’t have a home gym or equipment for working out, but they want it now.”

Bill DuBois, a Fenton, Missouri, resident who rode Madison County Transit’s Nickel Plate Trail recently, can attest to the high demand for fitness equipment.

Earlier this summer, he was regularly checking Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist for used treadmills because he wanted to buy one for exercising this winter without spending thousands of dollars for a new model.

“Every time I saw a candidate, I’d e-mail or text, and it was already gone,” said DuBois, who finally got a used treadmill after another buyer backed out and the seller called him back.

Beyond bicycles and fitness equipment, stores also have had trouble getting parts.

“We had another bike shop call us and want us to sell them some of our inner tubes,” Parks said. “They couldn’t get any.”

Reports of increased metro-east trail usage are anecdotal, but consistent.

Parks, an avid cyclist, said Madison County Transit trails “definitely” have been busier this summer. Adam Litterst, who lives across the street from a Nickel Plate parking lot in Edwardsville, heard the same thing from his roommate.

“He said that when he started biking in May that the trails were packed, more so than he had ever seen them in the two years we have lived here,” Litterst said. “There were a lot more bikers, but also people in general, walking, running and on bikes. I think people who had been cooped up for a couple of months were just wanting to get outside and do something.”

Jennifer Ayres, who lives along the Nickel Plate east of Edwardsville, has noticed more people pedaling by her house. On Wednesday, she and her daughter, Isabella and Adelin, rode bikes to Dairy Queen.

“When the shutdown first happened, it was crazy (on the trail), but then it died down, and now school has started,” Ayres said.

Lisa Zamfir, a member of Belleville Running Club, has seen more cyclists on the MetroBikeLink Trail, as well as streets and sidewalks in her west Belleville neighborhood. That includes children riding bikes with their parents, a rare sight before COVID-19.

Josh Hubbard, a contractor who does landscaping and maintenance for St. Clair County Transit District, said use of district trails has gradually increased the past several years, but there was a big jump this year.

Ken Sharkey, the district’s managing director, welcomes the news.

“(The trail system) is supported by taxpayer money, and we like to see it used to its fullest extent,” he said. “We do a lot of work maintaining it and keeping it in good condition.”

People looking to buy new bicycles in Illinois are likely to face the same challenges if they cross the Mississippi River into Missouri.

Jim Leach-Ross, who rode the Nickel Plate with DuBois on Wednesday, said his son stopped by a St. Louis bike shop this summer, hoping to trade his 25-year-old Trek bicycle in for a newer model.

“He went in and said, ‘I want to buy a bike and spend around $500,’ and the (clerk) just laughed,” said Leach-Ross, of Creve Coeur, Missouri. “He said, ‘If you want to spend $3,000, I can help you. Otherwise, no.’”

In May, Bike Surgeon resurrected an event called “The Recycle,” inviting customers to bring in unwanted bicycles for resale so it could offer lower-cost options to others.

Bike shops also have seen increases in same-day bicycle repairs and accessory sales this summer. Under normal circumstances, Bike Surgeon customers can get more complicated repairs done in a week. Now the waiting list runs into October.

Greenstreet said he feels bad for other small businesses that are struggling because of the coronavirus, but he’s happy to see more people take up biking.

“We’re trying to help those folks enjoy the experience as much as possible so they continue doing it, and they keep a healthy and active lifestyle moving forward,” he said. “… Getting outside and biking is one of the healthiest things you can do.”

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