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Athens Bike Shops Close Amidst Surge in Demand

Caitlyn Gegen and Scott Long repair a bike at BikeAthens’ West Broad Street shop. The nonprofit expects increasing demand for its services now that two local bike shops have closed. Credit: Adria Carpenter

One might think a worldwide boom in bicycling during the COVID-19 pandemic would be good for business, but two Athens bike shops are shutting their doors.

Ben’s Bikes announced on Mar. 27 that the store would be closing to “take a break and restructure” starting on Mar. 30. Amal Stapleton, co-owner of Ben’s Bikes, said the demand for bikes during the pandemic was one of the reasons for the temporary closure. 

“Business was through the roof. So, like most bike shops, we sold through pretty much all of our inventory in the first three or four months of the pandemic because everybody was at home and wanting bikes,” Stapelton said. “The supply chain hasn’t caught up yet… It’s gonna be probably ‘til next year until the supply chain catches up.”

However, the main factor in Ben’s Bikes’ closure is the uncertainty of the future lease of their building on West Broad Street. Stapleton said a developer is trying to purchase it to build commercial and high-density residential developments. Just a block away on Reese and Finley streets, a Boston-based company’s 370-bedroom student housing development is currently under construction.

If Ben’s Bikes permanently closes, a lot of people will likely take their bikes to BikeAthens for repair, said the nonprofit’s executive director, Scott Long. “I imagine between us, Georgia Cycle Sport and The Hub, we will have to pick up the slack,” Long said. “A lot of people can’t afford to go to some of the other shops. That’s sort of the gap that we [fill] is taking care of those folks. I know a lot of people that would take their bike to Ben’s would also take their bike here to get help with it.”

Ben’s Bikes prices range from $60 for a basic tune-up to $100 for an advanced tune-up. Stapleton said they’ve always been more of a “people shop,” and there’s a big hole right now to fill in the middle ground. 

However, that middle ground will have to be filled by someone other than Stapleton, as Ben’s Bikes also announced they were looking for new management. The status of the shop depends on other factors, such as who will continue running the shop. 

“I was never planning on staying in Athens. I’ve been doing it for 10 years, and now I have a construction business that’s doing really well,” Stapleton said. “Ultimately what I want to do is, I’m trying to find somebody who wants to buy the business. Moving it to a new location as a permanent situation I think would be the best thing.”

The closure of Ben’s Bikes comes along with the closure of another bike shop in Athens, Sunshine Cycles on Baxter Street. Sunshine did not respond to requests for comment, but its website states: “At this time, we have made the decision to consolidate our two locations into the Watkinsville store. We are continuing to conduct business, as usual, under our blue tent in front of our showroom.”

Due in part to a global bike shortage that has led to a lack of parts and forced riders to fix rather than replace older bikes, Sunshine’s website said that the turnaround time for repairs was three weeks as of May 31.

Bike sales shot up 120% in spring 2020, according to the Washington Post, as gyms closed and people sought ways to exercise outdoors during the pandemic. Production was also affected by President Trump’s tariffs on Chinese goods, Bicycling magazine reported. The tariffs caused bike manufacturers to flee China and open new factories in other Asian countries. Many later reopened their Chinese facilities to meet demand, but it took time to ramp up production. 

“We’re seeing a very large increase in ridership, and our supply has dwindled so much,” Heather Mason, president of the National Bicycle Dealers Association, told the website Quartz in April.

When the pandemic began in early 2020, factories in China—where 90% of bikes are manufactured—were coming off a pause for the Lunar New Year. They then remained closed through February under lockdown orders, just as COVID-19 hit the U.S. and demand for bikes began to spike. Other complications have included a shortage of shipping containers and a cargo ship blocking the Suez Canal. Experts believe the shortage could last into 2022.