It’s a bittersweet reality. COVID-19 is producing winners and losers. From the surge in online shopping to the free fall of the airline industry, time and again, the economic gods either smile or look askance at a given industry.
Often, it’s seemingly a roll of the dice that determines which side of the equation winners will emerge on. Take the humble bike shop. Its ubiquitous presence was taken for granted in the pre-pandemic world.
Today, customers are streaming into such shops to score a cycling machine that can free them from the lockdown. And if they are fortunate to own a bike already, they may need some repairs since it’s probably been ages since it has seen heavy use.
A moment of portent for bike shops in Virginia came when the governor deemed them essential businesses.
“The pandemic has completely changed the bike game,” said Bob Leftwich, 53, owner and operator of The Bike Stop located at 19 Main St. in Warrenton. “People are seeing and feeling the fun of this recreational sport. There are a ton more people today showing an interest in it.”
Leftwich explains that with gyms still only partially open and reduced opportunities for exercise, “A lot of families are telling me spending time together biking rather than sitting at a computer or playing video games is great.
“I’ve been in the bike business for over three decades. I've never seen anything like this before. It’s been a huge, huge boon, in both the number of bikes we sold this year and the number of backorders. We have some people who recently purchased certain models who probably won’t see them until next April.”
A contributing factor to the delays is that many bike components are produced in Asia and China, which shut down just when demand was surging.
In addition to sales, the shop has seen a doubling of repairs as older machines are dragged out of basements and garages needing attention.
Leftwich thinks industry sales have doubled in size since the early part of the year, mirroring his own shop's experience.
The good news is the economic benefit this small business owner is reaping. The bad news is he has worked almost seven days a week since March. A staff of five part-time employees help keep the shop spinning.
“Fortunately, we have not had to shut down. A lot of bike shops in other regions had to close because of the overwhelming demand.”
It’s easy to understand how a crisis is a gift to some and a curse to others. But consider what might be perceived as a gift is actually experience in striking while the spokes are hot. Leftwich's case represents 36 years of wrenches, bicycle chains and endless cans of spray lube.
As a young lad of 9, he worked in his parents’ pet shop in Culpeper, learning the retail trade. But over time, his passion shifted from pets to pedals. Nonetheless, upon high school graduation, he considered attending college and pursuing a career in computers.
But the lure of running his own show had the stronger pull. There were few bike shops in the region at the time, and local enthusiasts would have travel to Fredericksburg, Charlottesville or Fairfax to find a new two-wheeler or for repairs. He opened his first shop at the age of 18 on a part-time basis.
For 36 years, he built his business, first in Culpeper and then expanding to Warrenton in 2010.
With his growing experience, he was given the opportunity to work the Ironman Triathlon circuit for a decade while simultaneously running his two bike shops. The circuit involved international travel, including Lake Placid, Austria, Brazil, Canada and all the North American races.
“Our group was the official mechanics to the Ironman. It involved making sure some 3,000 cyclists had mechanical service throughout the cycling portion of the race.
“It could be tense work. The competitors were always under pressure to resume riding as quickly as possible. Our team of five followed the athletes on our motorcycles and assisted them with all mechanical issues on race day.”
He then spent time as the operations manager for Bikes for the World. The organization’s mission is to make affordable and good quality used bicycles available to low-income people, primarily in developing countries.
The donated bikes provide better transport for work, education and health care. It also generates additional skilled jobs in repair and maintenance overseas and offers environmental and humanitarian service opportunities for volunteers in the United States.
Leftwich has an ever-ready quote when asked about the role of bikes in today’s society. “The bicycle is a simple solution to our complex problems.
“Today, we are seeing people visiting the shop from far outside Fauquier County.” He attributes that to a trustworthy online store reputation. “We do our best to treat people right and stay on top of our business.”
For more information on sales, service, and rentals visit http://www.rideva.com.