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Bicycle shops see steady business as Washington grinds to a halt

UPDATED: Mon., March 23, 2020

Craig Kent and his daughter, Avery, 3, test ride a new bicycle, Monday, March 23, 2020 at The Bike Hub in Spokane, Valley. She ended up choosing a purple bike. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Craig Kent and his daughter, Avery, 3, test ride a new bicycle, Monday, March 23, 2020 at The Bike Hub in Spokane, Valley. She ended up choosing a purple bike. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

She got her first bike – a purple Trek tricycle – just hours before Gov. Jay Inslee announced a “stay-at-home” order in the fight against COVID-19. .

Avery Kent, 3, and her father, Craig Kent, were at the Bike Hub in the Spokane Valley Monday afternoon. Kent, a graduate student at Whitworth University, had been meaning to get his daughter a bike for a while. The rumor of a stay-home order, which was announced Monday night by Gov. Jay Inslee, spurred him into action.

The bike, he hopes, gives them something to do besides sitting at home.

“Something new to work on,” he said.

The Kents weren’t alone.

As the COVID-19 virus has spread throughout Washington and the nation, the Bike Hub has seen more first-time customers than normal, said John Abernathy, one of the owners.

“Boy, the other day, I think I fixed five or six stroller tires,” he said. “We’ve been selling lots of children’s bikes. Lots of entry-level and mid-level bikes. People just want to get out and ride.”

Inslee’s new order still allows people to be outside as long as they practice social distancing, and it even allows bicycle repair shops like Bike Hub to remain open.

The pandemic has coincided with warm and sunny weather, and Abernathy is quick to point out that he doesn’t know the motivation of each and every customer. But business has been brisk, something he didn’t expect a week ago.

“We were anticipating everything would slow down,” he said. “It’s much busier than I would anticipate with a pandemic.”

That’s a trend bike shops across the U.S. have seen as Americans grapple with how to avoid crowds. In large urban areas, bike use has exploded as residents shun public transportation. New York City’s bike share program saw a 67% increase in use, the New York Times reported last week.

Other large cities – including Bogotá, Colombia, and Mexico City – are encouraging people to bike as a way of slowing the spread of COVID-19. Several states in the U.S. – including Pennsylvania and New York – have classified bike shops and bike repair as an essential service, thus allowing them to stay open throughout shelter-in place orders. Unsurprisingly, so has the Netherlands, a famously bike-friendly country.

Bicycle repair is included in Washington’s essential business list, which was published Monday evening.

“I do think it’s essential for people who only use a bicycle as transportation and for people who need it for their mental health or physical health,” Abernathy said.

Abernathy, an avid mountain biker, said trailheads at Beacon Hill and Saltese Flats were jammed with cars. Public health officials have encouraged outdoor recreation, noting the raft of health benefits of being active.

“People are getting out,” he said. “They’re definitely feeling a need to get out. In our neighborhood there are so many people walking.”

Paul Knowles, Spokane County’s park planner, echoed Abernathy. He said in an email that several trailheads appeared to be “over, at or near capacity” last weekend. As of Monday, he did not have exact numbers.

Rob Breidenbach, the longtime owner of Spoke ‘N Sport, also has seen steady numbers. But he hesitates to connect it to COVID-19 or celebrate too early.

“About nine days ago, it started getting really good,” he said of sales. “But it also coincided with the weather getting better.”

He remembers clearly the financial crash of 2008. That was their best year ever, he said, with high gas prices driving people to bikes. And 2009 started strong, too. Bikes were flying out of the store throughout April.

It didn’t last.

“The rest of the year sucked,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 40 years. Just because one week is busy doesn’t mean every week is going to be busy.”

Both the Bike Hub and Spoke ‘N Sport have implemented social distancing recommendations by limiting the number of customers in the shop, asking customers to not linger and encouraging curb-side pickup and drop-off.

“There are really only about three things you can do,” Breidenbach said. “Hike, bike and run. And from a family perspective it’s going to be bike.”

That’s certainly the case for Craig Kent and his daughter.

Craig’s wife, also an avid biker, is the principal of a local elementary school. Although she has been working, after Monday’s stricter order from Inslee, Kent said she would be home, where they’d be teaching their daughter how to ride her new bike.

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