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Earth Rider Cycling closing in October after five years on Milwaukee Avenue

The closure of yet another local Chicago bike shop reflects a shifting and challenging market for small business owners.

Earth Rider Cycling’s current storefront. Photo: AJ LaTrace

This post is sponsored by the Active Transportation Alliance.

Earth Rider Cycling owner Sharon Kaminecki opened her storefront at 1873 N. Milwaukee in Bucktown five years ago, and will permanently close the door to her shop in mid-October. 

The closure comes after a sluggish couple of years of business following the pandemic bike boom and uncertainty about the future of the local bicycle retailing industry, she told Streetsblog. But the 71-year-old shop owner said that she’s also ready to “try retirement,” spend more time with grandchildren, and travel. 

Exactly one year ago, longtime Clark Street staple Cycle Smithy closed its doors after being in business for 50 years. And more recently, the owner of On the Route — which has two North Side locations — announced intentions to close both shops and retire from the industry.

Kaminecki cites a number of reasons for her decision to close, including low in-store foot traffic, a noticeable decline in bike commuters on Milwaukee Avenue since the start of the pandemic, and a growing concern about bicyclist safety in Chicago.

The pandemic “perfect storm” in the bike industry

The pandemic set the stage for a “perfect storm” of conditions that has caused the bicycle industry to reel, she explained.

“Everyone was optimistic that this was going to result in a boom for the industry, but it did not,” she said. “Everyone in the industry was super excited, thinking we hadn’t had this demand since the 70s when gasoline [prices were] very high. So now we've got the COVID whiplash. The industry is really hurting.”

Inventory shortages and tariffs on imports during the pandemic led to skyrocketing prices for bicycles, but as more inventory became available, Kaminecki said that she stocked up to ensure that she would have bikes on-hand. Now she has too much inventory, she said, and has had to slash prices to move them, impacting her margin. 

The rise of direct-to-consumer online bike brands is also having an impact on local bike shops, Kaminecki said, though she has accepted the direction the industry is moving in. “The market wants online and the market gets it,” she explained. “Consumers were trained during COVID to shop on the internet, and that’s what they’re doing.”

Streetsblog editor John Greenfield discusses bike infrastructure issues at Earth Rider in August 2019. Photo: Earth Rider

A fall-off in Milwaukee Avenue bike traffic

Kaminecki said that she’s also noticed a significant decline in the number of people commuting by bike downtown and back since the start of the pandemic. This is particularly important to her as she specifically chose her shop’s location on Milwaukee Avenue for its status as Chicago's busiest cycling street, as well as its proximity to the Bloomingdale Trail, aka The 606, and CTA Blue Line stations. 

“In Chicago, the other thing is there's less riders out there now,” she said. “People just are not riding for recreation or transportation because they're not going to the office and then they're not riding their bikes, period.”

[According to a recent Bloomberg report, a new study from StreetLight Data found that the Chicago region has seen a roughly 50 percent increase in bike trips since 2019. - Ed]

Her bike rental business has also been down, she said. Kaminecki added that she’s only seen a fraction of the rental business she had last year. “This year, it’s pretty dead — no one is renting,” she explained.

Fewer people have joined the group rides from her shop in the last few years, she said. Those who do join up tend to be new residents to the neighborhood or to Chicago looking to explore the city and make new connections. 

“Retailing is a passion business,” she said. “We love cycling and we do it even if we don't make money, but I'm just finding not so much the money but just traffic is way down.”

Conditions for Chicago bicyclists still need improvement

Kaminecki said that the noticeable drop in full-time bike commuters and neighborhood recreational cyclists looking to rent a bike to ride along the Bloomingdale Trail is indicative of a bigger issue in Chicago: safety. 

“I've heard more and more people talking about how scared they are to bike in Chicago. And I know we hear about protected bike lanes, especially on Milwaukee Avenue, but the intersections are still dangerous,” she said.

“The risk, as you know, being in cycling is the intersections and you've got no protection when you’re a cyclist,” Kaminecki elaborated. “There's no protected bike lanes in an intersection.” (Protected intersections do exist in bike-friendly countries.)

An increasingly unreliable CTA and ongoing Kennedy Expressway construction are leading to more people driving and more drivers taking surface streets instead of the highway. Just as there may have been a COVID whiplash within the bicycle retailing industry, so too has there been a similar whiplash with the amount of vehicle traffic in Chicago streets. 

“So yeah, and then I hear customers come in and say ‘I was hit by a [driver.]’ I hear that a lot. I mean, if you've been around other parts of the country, you’ll know that our infrastructure is not as strong as many other communities.”

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