Amid pandemic, bikes are wheely tough to find

Kenny Boettger stands next to bikes at his Placid Planet Bike Shop in Lake Placid. (News photo — Amy Scattergood)

In the basement shop of Saranac Lake’s Human Power Planet Earth, Mike Campbell is the only mechanic working on a room so filled with bicycles that it looks more like a storage locker than a repair shop. The showroom on Main Street is closed for a few days so owner John Dimon can get caught up with repairs and, well, because there aren’t any more bikes to sell.

“People that were picky have stopped being picky,” said Campbell, a mask covering his face as he spun the wheel on the bicycle he was working on. Human Power Planet Earth sells both new and used bikes, and makes it a mission to repair old bikes and keep them running. Of the few dozen bikes crammed into the repair shop, Campbell said, all were just that week’s repairs.

Not much has been business as usual this year, but the bike business has been booming, joining bookstores, boat shops and other industries thriving amid the COVID-19 pandemic. People have been getting on bicycles in record numbers, and stores across the country have been selling out of bikes for months, confronting both huge demand and a compromised supply chain.

“We ordered more than 150 but ended up selling them,” said Brian Delaney, who has run High Peaks Cyclery in Lake Placid with his wife Karen for 38 years. “Then we sold all the rental fleet.” Delaney and other bike shop owners have been open for most if not all of the pandemic, as bike stores were deemed essential businesses. The Delaneys closed for two days, and have been busy since.

While some aspects of their business fell off or stopped altogether — events, school trips, college orientations, corporate groups — Brian said that he’s had a definite rise in the number of families coming in, and often for longer than just a day or weekend trip. There are also a lot of first-time bikers, either alone or with others who are also new to the sport. Electric-assist bikes, called e-bikes, are also booming, an aspect of the market that had been a niche until this year, when the New York State Legislature legalized them.

To replenish supply, Brian said he’ll get sporadic shipments if any. “Out of the blue we’ll get five bikes, and they’ll sell immediately.”

At Placid Planet Bike Shop in Lake Placid, owner Kenny Boettger said he’s been selling bikes not only to avid cyclists but to people using their bikes in place of public transportation.

“It’s nice to see things come back,” Boettger said, noting that he’s even recognized many of the machines. “Stuff that I sold 30 or 40 years ago,” he said with a smile.

Running a bike shop now is an exercise in sourcing, often for things that no one can find. “I spend a lot of time finding products,” said Boettger, who has been in the bike business for 27 years.

Citing issues with both production and the supply chain — which has been impacted by COVID-19, by border closures and by the trade issues with China that predated the pandemic — he figured it would be 12 to 18 months before things got back to normal.

“Getting car racks is now impossible,” Boettger said. “No steel.”

At Human Power Planet Earth, Campbell said he feels lucky to be in a business that’s stayed busy, even too busy, and is grateful for how patient and responsible customers have been. Earlier in the season, folks faced a three-week wait just to get their bikes tuned.

Campbell says he figures that 2020 could even alter the future of the sport. “If even half of the people who got a bike this year rediscovered their love for it,” it could change the face of the industry. “I got a lot of thank-yous.”

Meanwhile, bike shops are making do with what they have.

“We’ve resorted to patching up a lot of innertubes,” said Boettger. “It beats walking.”