Ingenuity, adaptability have made the difference for suburban bike shops since the pandemic


The inventory and service demands that accompanied the pandemic’s sudden surge of interest in cycling sent suburban bike shops pedaling uphill on an already 4-year-long journey that hasn’t yet seen a downhill coast to 2019 market norms.

Ingenuity, adaptability and long-term thinking seem to be the factors that separated those still in business from the ones that shut down, according to the survivors.

Mikes Bike Shop in Palatine is now in its third generation of family ownership. If that has anything to do with its resilience, it might be either its brand familiarity in the community, according to current owner Matthew Mikes, or his father Wayne’s experience with a similar situation borne of the oil embargo in 1972 when his own dad was still the boss.

“The pandemic made a lot of people not be able to do things,” Matthew Mikes said. “People were looking for what they could still do. It’s not so different from how people got into golf. We sold more bikes and it went on for some time. We also did a lot of service. We were fixing bikes up.”

 
Michael Wright makes adjustments to a bicycle at Mikes Bike Shop in Palatine. Service demands have increased at least as much if not more than those for new inventory since the pandemic, suburban bike shop owners say.
Joe Lewnard/jlewnard@dailyherald.com

The initially welcome boost to business soon gave way to inventory shortages as severe as, but longer than, the toilet paper scarcity many experienced at the time. Even when bikes and parts could be located, there were huge increases in the cost of the products and their shipping.

Demand for service at bike shops became so overwhelming that some potential customers were turning to garage mechanics for a quicker turnaround, Matthew said.

While things are more manageable in 2024 than even two years ago, he hasn’t seen a definite sign of a return to normal and no longer is sure that he will.

Wayne Mikes, having experienced the surge of 50 years ago, is comfortable that business is more sustainable again now, but is certainly requiring a different level of work to be so.

“I spent a lot of time ordering bikes,” he said. “I went crazy putting bikes on back order. It went on for two years. There was no way to stop what was happening. I think the weird thing is we’ve seen more older bikes coming in for repairs.”

Wayne Mikes’ own favored method of building and sustaining interest in cycling — rather than relying on pandemics and social distancing — is to create more long-distance paths to really go places in the suburbs. He’s been advocating for years for connections that would tie Brookfield Zoo all the way north to Cuba Marsh.

If the Mikes’ strength came from the momentum of 60 years of combined family experience, Streamwood business owner Mike Geigel’s motivation was almost the opposite. He was hungry to maintain his ambition of operating his own shop, Never Ending Cycles, only four years after realizing it.

“I’m a new shop and had no dream of retiring,” Geigel said. “For others, it was an opportunity to do so.”

He bought out the inventory of five closing shops, leased additional space and tripled his staff as he experienced 80 repairs within a four-day period. Old bikes that hadn’t seen the road since the 1980s were being made ready for either personal reuse or to be flipped in the suddenly hot market.

“It was ugly and fantastic,” Geigel said. “It was absolutely horrible and glorious.”

There were three bike shops in Schaumburg that shut down for non-pandemic reasons in late 2019, he said. But they would have enjoyed a resurgence if they’d just held on a few months longer.

Even so, Geigel said he wouldn’t have made it himself if he hadn’t thought long-term immediately by placing orders and seeking out inventory where he could.

But if there was a human cause to the industry’s troubles, Geigel added, it was the dishonesty of manufacturers in keeping shops like his on the hook with promises of delivery that were not going to be met within a foreseeable time frame. Had he recognized that sooner, he would have been even more aggressive than he was in scouring any warehouse within driving distance.

People were pounding on the door of Geigel’s shop as soon as pandemic restrictions were announced on March 13, 2020. Even with all the measures he took, his inventory on June 30 was seven bikes — two of which had been his own.

Though he’s been in the business — previously working for others — since 1988, Geigel said he’s confident he’s found a way to operate within the changed industry landscape.

“We’ve adapted to the new normal,” he said.



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