Despite safety challenges during the pandemic, Chicago bike shops keep rolling

Customer David Leclerk and mechanic Doug Burk are separated by a wall of cycles at Logan Square's Boulevard Bikes. Photo: Kevin Womac
Customer David Leclerk and mechanic Doug Burk are separated by a wall of cycles at Logan Square's Boulevard Bikes. Photo: Kevin Womac

During times of crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, government officials are required to make decisions about what kinds of businesses and activities are and aren’t essential. Are bike shops an essential service? The answer depends on who you ask.

Before Illinois issued its “Stay at Home” order, Active Transportation Alliance sent a questionnaire to bike store owners across the state to help organize an effort to classify cycle shops as essential and allow them to stay open during the pandemic. Of the 127 shops contacted, over 70 signed on, and lawmakers like State Rep. Theresa Mah and advocacy and business groups like Ride Illinois and the Illinois Retail Merchants Association also lent their support. The work paid off when the edict was issued and bicycle shops were included as essential “businesses needed for transportation.”

We checked in with a few local bike stores to see how they’re holding up during the crisis, and learn what measures they’re taking to keep employees and customers safe. Annie Byrne is the cofounder of BFF Bikes, a Bucktown shop that caters to women cyclists. “The COVID-19 crisis escalated quickly,” she noted. “A few weeks ago we were busy, but now traffic is [still] brisk. The majority of inquiries are for tune-ups… The range of services is the same; it’s just that we are handling them differently.”

In normal times, BFF relies on walk-in customers. But during the pandemic, to reduce in-person interactions, the shop is asking customers to set up appointments. When the client arrives, a staffer goes outside to meet them and discuss services. Byrne said that she feels it’s particularly important to repair bikes that people are using for transportation during the pandemic because cycling “is safer than taking public transportation.

Uptown Bikes, another woman-owned shop, which is also largely staffed by women and non-binary folks, is currently closed to walk-in service “out of an abundance of caution,” according to owner Maria Barnes. The front door is locked and the metal gates are closed, but customers can text a phone number to arrange a drop-off.

Barnes asks the client to leave their bike leaning against a rack outside. After they have departed, she goes outside and sanitizes the contact points with a bleach solution. After that, she brings the bike into the foyer and sprays it with an anti-viral cleaner. (Luckily the shop bought a case of the stuff just before it became unavailable due to panic-buying.) Then she waits until it dries completely and fixes the bike. After that, she sprays the cycles down once more and lets it dry again before returning it to the customer. It’s a time-consuming process, so fixing a flat takes about two hours.

Sign at Uptown Bikes. Photo: Facebook
Sign at Uptown Bikes. Photo: Facebook

Payments are done over the phone, so there’s zero direct contact between the mechanic and the customer. “We really don’t want to take any chances,” Barnes said. Despite all the hassles, business hasn’t been terrible — she fixed three flats and replaced a spoke today. And while shopping inside the building isn’t currently allowed, the store has sold several locks and about ten bike pumps since St. Patrick’s Day. They no longer leave an air hose outside the store for topping off tires due to concerns about viral transmission.

In Logan Square, Boulevard Bikes is remaining open for their regularly scheduled hours for now. (Streetsblog Chicago editor John Greenfield is a former employee.) While customers are allowed in the front of the shop, most of the sales floor is walled off with bike boxes, with a turquoise cruiser bike for a gate. “We understand that bikes may be the only way people can safely get around right now and we want to be at your service,” the shop’s Facebook page states. “That being said, please respect the health and well being of our staff and loved ones. If you are feeling under the weather, please stay at home. While we love to see your faces, we would prefer to not have social visits at this time. Stay safe and be well.”

Social media is indeed providing handy for shops to get the word out about their pandemic policies. However, many local bike shops don’t seem to have online updates about their current hours and policies, so they would be wise to post that info on their websites and social media pages.

Another way technology is coming in handy during this challenging time is the multiple options available for contactless payment. Many shops use are using platforms like Square or PayPal. And several shops have online appointment-setting systems that allow consumers to pay ahead of time for services.

If you’re having troubling finding an open bike shop, or one with pandemic policies you feel comfortable with, the local website Bike Lane Uprising, which documents bikeway blockages, has a handy crowd-sourced database with this info. If you’re a shop owner reading this article, be sure to add the details for your store to let customers know you’re available to help them keep rolling.

Here are some tips on preventing the spread of the coronavirus, and advice for Chicagoans on what to do if you think you may have been exposed to the virus. 

Imelda March is a UX designer, speaker, and technology student with interests in cycling, running, and yoga. Follow her on Twitter at @hcram1.

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