No gas? No problem: Bicycle sales, interest on the rise locally
The Bike Project's warehouse may look like the place where bicycles come to die, but really, it's just the opposite: This is where bicycles are reborn.
And, as gas prices rise and word of mouth gets out about the warehouselike space in the basement of Urbana's Independent Media Center, more and more bicycles are coming and going as more people join the cooperative or just pedal by to work on an off-kilter wheel or get a replacement part.
One Thursday night in June, toward the end of open hours, the shop is busy with people making repairs, volunteers showing them how to do the repairs, and the bustle of about 150 bikes and even more spare parts bartering for space.
"It's grown on any index you can think of – demand for bikes, demand for repair," said Fred Davidson, one of the leaders of the co-op.
Turns out, high gas prices have been a boon for those in the bike business.
At Durst Cycle and Fitness in Urbana, general manager Ronald Durst remembers a customer earlier this year saying she was spending too much on gas. She said, "I'm going to park it, I'm going to buy myself a new bike, put a basket on it and ride myself around town," Durst remembers.
She's one among many turning – or returning – to cycling.
Since gas prices have risen, "we have seen a difference," Durst said. "The first evidence of that is many people are dragging out their 15- to 25-year-old bicycles that they used to ride when they were in college and bringing them in and wanting them fixed up, cleaned up."
Durst sees evidence not only in fixing and selling more bikes, but in the types of bikes people are getting. "They're looking for quality, and comfort is by far the overwhelming factor in people selecting their bike today, for the person who's a family individual who wants to ride around town either for commuting or leisure," Durst said.
He said popular add-ons like fenders and baskets indicate people are doing a lot more of the former, since fenders help keep clothes from getting hit with mud from tires and baskets help commuters carry groceries or other belongings – not as important to someone on a joyride and not helpful to someone cycling for speed.
Durst, who said he's been riding bikes for the greater part of 60 years, said the high gas prices are making him rethink his habits as well. Instead of taking a company van, he's thinking he might start commuting to work by bicycle.
At Champaign Cycle Co., owner Peter Davis is also noticing an upswing, and selling more hybrid bikes – crosses between road and mountain bikes.
"I believe we are seeing increased purchases due to gas prices," he said. "The hybrid bike is where the sales are, and they make great sense as a commuter. They're light bikes. They're easy to ride."
Davis said he's hearing more people talk about cycling to work, and says cycling doesn't have to be a 24/7 commitment – even one day of skipping the car in favor of a bicycle could cut down on 20 percent of weekly gas costs, he said.
"It's a matter of incremental changes that work within each individual's lifestyle," Davis said. "Both within their personal economy and for the environment generally."
At The Bike Project, repaired and ready-to-sell bikes aren't sitting around long before finding buyers, said Davidson. "They keep saying the same thing, 'I just want a basic bike that'll get me around town.'"
But the focus of the co-op isn't on selling – it's on teaching and on helping create and grow a community of cyclists.
The project is best-known for its Build-a-Bike program, in which a participant picks out a bike in need of some (or a lot of) repair, then learns how to fix it.
The person often gets that bike at around half the price it might be if purchased ready-to-ride, and learns about how a bike works in the process, said Davidson. Classes are also available to give people the basics on bike maintenance and repair.
The space and tools are paid from membership fees ($40/year for adults, $25/year for students or people with low incomes). Bikes are generally found or donated, and volunteers like Max Schnuer help keep the place moving – and help gear up riders with excitement about the activity.
"I love to ride. I think that's the most basic part of it," he said. "I like that it's really self-reliant. ... I am depending on a machine, but I am the engine."
Getting along alongside each other
Like it or not, bicycles and cars share the roads. Below, cyclists give their experience-tested (and sometimes crash-tested) tips for a safer, more peaceful coexistence:
Wear a helmet – "Always wear a helmet. Always. Buy a helmet if (your old one) has a crack in it," said Urbana cyclist Sarah Hoyle-Katz. "It's just a piece of foam and plastic, but if you fall on your head, it's all you have."
Cycle defensively and predictably – Cyclists "need to ride defensively because they are the lightest-weight vehicle on the road, and if they are in a collision, they are going to lose," said Ronald Durst of Durst Cycle and Fitness.
Max Schnuer of Urbana doesn't stop with a helmet. "I have a nice set of lights that I use at night. I try to ride in a predictable manner," he said. "I signal. I try to act and move with the flow of traffic."
Be aware of each other – Cyclists should think about vehicles' blind spots and people in vehicles should think about potholes, quickly opened car doors and other things that might affect a cyclist's ability to pedal in a straight line, said Hoyle-Katz.
Be visible – "After dark, I wear a light on the front, blinker on the back," Hoyle-Katz said. "The more spots or reflector strips on your body, the more you're recognized as a human being. ... Don't wear black – obviously."
People in cars should look for and expect cyclists – and give them enough clearance when passing. "When a car cuts very close, it's shocking," said Schnuer, who was once hit by a car while cycling.
Cyclists should know where to go – "Plot your route. Do not ride on main arterial streets. You don't ride on Springfield. Move over one block and ride on Healey," said Peter Davis of Champaign Cycle Co. Figure out what the lowest-traffic streets are that you can get on to get you safely and comfortably where you want to go."
Follow road rules – This goes for cars and cyclists.
"Bicycles do have riding privileges on ... streets and highways," Durst said. "Bicycle riders seem to think that the rules of the road do not apply to them. Sometimes they don't stop for stoplights, they just sort of go where they want to go. If everybody would obey the rules of the road, there probably would be a whole lot less accidents."
Just how bike-friendly is Champaign-Urbana anyway? Staff writer Amy F. Reiter will find out, as she attempts to go bike-only for a week, starting Monday. (Note to Amy's mom: Yes, she'll wear a helmet.) She'll blog about the experience daily on www.news-gazette.com/blogs, where readers can share favorite bike routes, safety tips and suggestions.