SAN FRANCISCO – Joel Johnson hadn’t owned a bicycle since he was 15, but the pandemic changed all that.
Johnson first bought a multipurpose bike to avoid the germs on crowded buses and trains but then discovered a passion for pedaling around San Francisco, where some streets are now closed to traffic. He has been taking regular morning rides to stay fit and weekend excursions in leafy Golden Gate Park or along the Pacific Ocean. He has since upgraded to a new road bike.
“It’s addictive,” he said.
Johnson, 25, is among thousands of cooped-up Americans snapping up new bicycles or dusting off decades-old bikes to stay fit, keep their sanity or have a safe alternative to public transportation. The pandemic is proving to be a boon for bike shops, which have seen a surge in demand, with people waiting in line at still-open shops and mechanics struggling to meet the demand.
All around the country and the world, bicycles are selling out and officials are trying to take advantage of the growing momentum by expanding bike lanes during the pandemic or widening existing ones to make space for commuters on two wheels.
“We have a three-day sale once a year literally called ‘the madness sale.’ This just feels like two straight months of madness sales,” said Dale Ollison, a bike mechanic at Hank and Frank Bicycles, an Oakland, California, shop that is selling online and doing curbside pick-ups.
Oakland was the first California city to launch a “slow streets” program in April and has closed 20 miles (32 kilometers) of city streets to cars to create a safer outdoor space for pedestrians and cyclists. San Francisco soon followed, closing sections of twelve streets in a city that already has a robust network of bike lanes.
The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, an advocacy and education group, has seen demand for its classes on city biking — now online — jump from 30 participants to more than 100, Executive Director Brian Wiedenmeier said.
“A lot of folks are dusting off their bikes to get themselves and their families a bit of fresh air during all of this,” he said. “It’s the perfect tool for this time.”
In the Southern California city of Santa Clarita, which boasts more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) of trails and bike lanes and a strong cycling culture, avid riders have noticed trails they built and maintain in nearby hills busier with newcomers, including some riding the wrong direction.
Ivan Harms has been riding bikes since second grade and works at Incycle Bicycles, a high-end Santa Clarita shop. He built a mountain trail so he could ride alone, but recently he’s had plenty of company.
“I used to never see anybody, but now I see hikers and bikers and dogs. They’re everywhere. I love it!” Harms said. “Cycling was slowly becoming more niche for years. But now with people wanting to be outdoors, I think it’s going to be exploding for many years to come."
The only drawback for him is the long, hard work days at the bike shop, which remained opened after the state listed bike shops as essential businesses. The store had at least 15 people working before the pandemic. But with employees too scared to work for fear of exposing themselves or their elderly relatives to the virus, they are down to five employees.
“It's wild! We’re a skeleton crew with double, triple the customers,” many of them first-time riders, he said.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
Louie Correa of Santa Clarita recently visited Incycle Bicycles seeking an electric bike for his wife. Like many families, the Correas often ride around the quiet streets in their neighborhood with their four children, ages 3 to 14.
But Correa, an avid mountain biker who rides the trails at least three times a week, said he'd like his wife to join him. An e-bike would help her keep up.
“Biking was a big joy when we were children and kind of the first freedom we all felt,” Correa said. “This whole isolation thing is really starting to spark that back into a lot of folks.”
Whether the thousands of new riders keep up the habit will depend how safe the streets become, said Dave Snyder, executive director of the California Bicycle Coalition, which advocates for cycling and bike lanes throughout the state.
“Name a crisis and the bicycle is probably a good solution,” he said, listing off the problems that a bike solves: climate change, obesity, expensive gas prices and crowded germ-filled public transport.
“Maybe this crisis will finally be the one that gets our leaders to take the action needed,” he added.