How Mountain Bike Shops Across the Country Are Coping With COVID-19
In most states that have enforced stay-at-home orders to help slow the spread of COVID-19, bike shops are being considered essential businesses and are allowed to stay open. But it’s complicated. Yes, it is essential that those who rely on bikes to commute to jobs in healthcare or other positions deemed essential be able to keep their bikes working. But the same can not be said for those who rely on bikes purely for recreation. That has left many shops with difficult decisions to make: Is it worth it to stay open? Is it sustainable to close? Is there a middle-ground? And it all gets even more complicated when much of your business relies on tourism, which is slowing rapidly both by choice and by force. We spoke to a few mountain bike shops in a few mountain bike destinations to get a sense for how they’re coping.
Poison Spider Bicycles: Moab, Utah
Poison Spider is one of the most iconic shops in one of the most iconic regions for North American mountain biking: Moab, Utah. But on March 17, Moab shut down access to any out-of-town overnight visitors. By order of the Southeast Utah Health Department, you can’t get a hotel room or a campsite if you aren’t in town for an essential purpose. That’s not unheard of right now. For cities that have done the same like Crested Butte and Telluride, it’s been an effective way to isolate the community.
“For us it’s a little hard because we have a major highway going through our town,” explains Scott Newton, owner of Poison Spider. There is traffic there naturally, ready for Poison Spider harness if it were safe to harness it it. “We have our front doors closed and locked, and we are encouraging people to come around back and wash their hands, then we greet them inside.” Including employees, only 10 people may be in the store at one time. But at least on this past Tuesday when we spoke, Newton says there was plenty of interest. “Our phone’s been ringing off the hook. People saying they’re planning a trip for this weekend. That’s a lot of what we’ve been dealing with, people who aren’t aware of that restriction. And it’s challenging because this restriction went into effect on March 17, and then Governor Gary Herbert comes out on March 19 stating, ‘Go to your national parks.’”
This makes the decision shops are making that much more difficult. Poison Spider is not renting bikes, and is discouraging those who reach out to them from coming, and it is having consequences. “We have close to 100 rental bikes, and those aren’t going out right now.” Fewer bikes out and fewer people mean less business, and inevitably, that means cutting hours. “Right now, we’re running the staff through the 1st, trying to work on projects. Fortunately we do have some bike sales in the works, and fortunately people do want to go through with those sales, but I’d say we have half staff right now.”
In tourism-dependent Moab, there are a lot of factors outside of Poison Spider’s control. “Right now, the lodging ban is to April 17, but I’m thinking it may be more like May 1. It could be longer, it could be longer. It could be June or July.”
[Check them out: poisonspiderbicycles.com]
Sycamore Cycles: Pisgah Forest, North Carolina
On the other side of the country is Sycamore Cycles, in the heart of the Pisgah National Forest. But they’re in a very similar predicament. “Basically, we’re a tourist destination,” explains Sycamore Cycles owner Wes Dickson. But that’s changed. “It’s kinda odd to try to attract people for years, and then have to think how do we not attract people.” North Carolina has decided to close DuPont State Forest, which holds a dense cluster of popular trails just southeast of Brevard. But north of Brevard is a larger collection of trails in the still-open Pisgah National Forest.
Without enough political will on the federal level to take measures like the local ones being taken in North Carolina and southeast Utah, national forests will remain open. It puts further burden on shops like Sycamore Cycles which, like Poison Spider, has locked its doors to walk-in customers. “If someone really needs something, they can email us and we can do an appointment,” but Dickson feels that staying open would send the wrong message to potential visitors, in addition to posing a potential public safety risk. And he puts it very plainly. “Honestly, we were part of the problem being open, so that’s why we decided to lock our doors.”
It’s had consequences for Sycamore Cycles employees. Right now, Dixon is running the show with the help of one employee who, at the moment, is technically a volunteer. “It just didn’t make financial sense to keep them all on, and the state of North Carolina is being fairly gracious with allowing them to collect unemployment with no penalty to the company. They’re treating it like a seasonal layoff.” Layoffs are a difficult decision for many reasons. Especially in core mountain bike cities, there is a loyalty between employee and shop. Of course, nobody wants to cut anyone loose.
But also, there’s a cost to a business when an employee makes an unemployment claim, just like when you make a claim on your car insurance. If a shop hopes to stick around, cutting its entire staff isn’t cheap, so any relief is important. And Dickson definitely plans on sticking around. “That’s Ideal, right? But if I had a crystal ball, I’d be on CNBC.”
[Check them out: sycamorecycles.com]
Fanatik Bike Co: Bellingham, Washington
Otherwise known as Bike Mag North, Bellingham is or was home to at least four current or former Bike Mag employees. It’s rad up there. But it also happens to be in Washington State, an early hotbed in the COVID-19 outbreak. During the first week that Americans were finally realizing that this was something we would have to face head-on, Washington was nevertheless just as hesitant as the rest of the country to enact statewide restrictions. But that all changed after a rare sunny spring weekend brought mountain bikers and other recreationists out on the trails in droves. When I first called Steve Coen, operations manager at Fanatik Bicycles, the order had come down just hours before stating that Washington would become another stay-at-home state. I gave him a day to sort things out before we got into it, but still he said the same thing everyone I spoke to said. “Everything right now is constantly in flux. There’s a lot of unknowns.”
But Fanatik is tackling things one issue at a time. “What we’re trying to focus on is the well-being of our employees. We’re having anyone who can work from home work from home, we have currently shut down our brick-and mortar, so we’re just doing online orders only.” This is what sets Fanatik apart from Poison Spider and Sycamore. Fanatik has a relatively healthy online business. It’s helping Fanatik to do something pretty unique. “Employees that need to stay home such as the sales staff that are no longer out front, we are offering compensation for them while they’re away during this time.” This surprised me.
Layoffs are surging right now, and a shop needing to cut all of its in-store sales staff would be a forgivable reason to join the club. But Coen doesn’t want to lose the people who make Fanatik Bikes what it is. “Maintaining those employees that we’ve put a lot of effort into and are part of our family is important. We want to maintain their health benefits. We’re still hopeful in planning for a busy season at some point.”
Tourism and rental business is a factor for Fanatik, but it’s not as significant as at Poison Spider and Sycamore. The shop largely serves in-town customers, which makes service a difficult issue. “We’re working on potentially doing a drop-off with a wash station so we can wash the bikes right away. But that’s something we’re still navigating. Everything’s happening so quickly. Before the stay-at-home order, we were operating a curbside pickup program for both online orders and repairs, but we have stopped the curbside pickup.”
Of course, beyond safety measures, Fanatik is continuing efforts to keep the business afloat, and the online presence is a big part of that. “Just because we’ve shifted the front-of-the-house sales onto online, we’ve seen a slight increase there, but it’s kinda surprising people are still riding bikes right now. Maybe an entry-level mountain bike so they can go do something active that’s not just sitting at home. We see a lot of individuals coming in to pick up a bike for their kids who are out of school right now so they can get them out of the house.”
[Check them out: fanatikbike.com]
Over The Edge: Sedona, Arizona
One of the last things the North American mountain bike community did together before we woke up was the Sedona Mountain Bike Festival in Sedona, Arizona, organized by Mike Raney. Raney also runs the Sedona location of Over The Edge, a very unique, very core chain of shops with six locations around the world. Like everyone I spoke to, Raney has a heaviness in his voice as he talks about what’s going on. But his worry goes beyond just that of someone managing a small business in times of crisis.
“Currently, I feel lucky that we’re a pretty healthy shop and that we have some savings and we’re in a reasonable place. But taking care of these people is important to me.” Despite the benefits of being supported by a chain and having a robust online presence, Sedona is a tourism destination, and the hit that tourism has taken is having an effect on Over The Edge’s business. Raney has yet to lay anyone off because of it, but it hasn’t been easy.
“We’ve been communicating with them what we’re doing, we’ve been having changes in our rental fleet, selling bikes down online, we’ve had changes in our ordering. We’ve been telling them all the steps we’re taking, which also includes what all the owners are doing. We’ve cut our pay in favor of paying staff to keep them going, and we’ll communicate that going forward. And that is speaking strictly for the Sedona location, but that’s what we feel we need to do.”
Sedona is in a unique position because, privately, bold steps are being taken to contain the virus. A lot of hotels have closed and restaurants are serving take-out only. But there’s no sign from Arizona’s state government that they are planning on standing behind or reinforcing those efforts, which is frustrating for Raney. “The governor has said that local governments are not allowed to make controls over this anymore. And the governor has said he would not allow Sedona to shut down or regulate business any further.”
The message being sent to Arizona’s citizens puts Over The Edge Sedona in a particularly difficult situation. Though Utah is seeing similarly disjointed communication, Moab was still free to put widespread restrictions on lodging and camping. And North Carolina was able to close a state forest. And Washington enacted statewide stay-at-home orders. There is no such support in Arizona.
At least for now, there is business at Over The Edge’s doorstep if they want it. “We’re stuck in this dilemma whether it’s personally- and public-health-wise a good idea to remain open or if being open is what’s right to keep our staff going and keep this thing alive.” Still, Raney is optimistic that, whatever he chooses right now, they will come back from this. “I would say that wasn’t a clear thing a little while ago. I wondered—is this going to shift everybody’s psyche so they would just want to play video games inside forever? And I don’t think that’s the case. It’s pretty universal that people are finding the opportunity to be hiking and riding if they do have some free time right now.”
The question remains, though, what to do until we get there. Every shop owner I talked to spoke of their employees first. It’s a job like few others. You start wrenching or selling bikes because you love riding, and you learn from the get-go that there’s not much money in it. The people who make it to high-end shops like the ones I spoke to in the last couple days are special, and the employers know it. Raney feels the gravity of what he and every other shop is facing right now. “These people are there for us when it’s hard for them, so we’re going to try to be there for them when it’s hard for us.”
[Check them out: otesports.com]
This article originally appeared on Bikemag.com and was republished with permission.
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