Walk into just about any bicycle retailer in the Omaha metro area and you will see a similar trend: stores bombarded by bikers.
At both Trek bicycle stores, in Omaha and Papillion, managers have had to schedule more employees to handle the traffic.
Year-to-date sales are “definitely up,” said Steve Herbermann, manager of the Bike Rack, near 144th Street and West Maple Road.
At Scheels near 168th Street and West Dodge Road, you'll see more commuter bike accessories on the shelves, such as laptop cases, because of the demand.
Re-Cycle Bike Shop near 47th and Center Streets has had to hire more bicycle mechanics to keep up. And Greenstreet Cycles at 13th and Mike Fahey Streets is scheduling service a day out because they have been so busy.
They're benefiting from a “perfect storm” of more people trying to get healthy and active, gas prices going up and nice weather, the retailers say.
“It's a great problem to have, but it's still a problem,” said Sarah Johnson, manager of Greenstreet Cycles. “We are busier than we know what to do with. We are all working like 60-hour weeks. It's kind of insane.”
She said the mild winter and earlier warm weather has had a huge impact. “We really didn't have a winter this year so we've had no recovery time. It's just been business straight through.”
Trek saw the same thing. “Business didn't die off like it normally does,” said manager Miah Sommer. “It's never been this busy this early. Traffic in the store has been crazy. But everybody is riding, which is great.”
The Bike Rack in Omaha typically starts looking for help in January and February and hires as needed, but the warm weather caught Herbermann off-guard. Part-time workers and seasonal help from last season worked a lot more hours than they normally would.
“It was unexpected,” he said. January through March, sales were very strong and involved both commuters and recreational cyclers, he said. “March was pretty phenomenal for us.”
Looking for a bike?
So you're ready to buy a bike. LiveWellNebraska reporter Katy Healey talked with local bike experts and enthusiasts about what you should know.
Q: What do I need to know about buying a bike?
Decide where you'll be riding before you buy. If you want to ride short distances around your neighborhood, you can look at vintage bikes that a serious cyclist probably wouldn't consider. If you want to race, go for a road bike. If you want to ride through rough terrain, a mountain bike is your best bet. Looking to commute, ride on trails through the city or both? Opt for a hybrid.
Pick the right fit. When you stand over the bike with your feet on the ground, the bar that connects the tires and props up the saddle should sit a few inches below your crotch. When you sit on the bike with your feet on the pedals, the leg on the pedal nearest the ground should be only slightly bent.
Take it for a test ride. Try out multiple bikes before you buy to make sure the one you like rides comfortably.
Expect to spend a few hundred dollars. Bikes sold at cycling shops start around $450. Road bikes are even pricier. Bikes are usually less expensive at Walmart or Target. But buying at a specialty store gives you access to more options and experts who can answer your questions and find a bike that fits your frame and your needs.
Look for a used bike. Some bike shops sell tuned-up used bikes starting around $200. Or, if you know what to look for, browse the classified ads. You may find a gem for a reasonable price or a bargain bike that needs more work than it's worth. If you know someone who rides, ask them to come with you to check out the bike. Ride it. Make sure it fits. Make sure the gears don't click and the pedals don't jam. The frame shouldn't be rusted.
Budget for accessories. You need a helmet – though it's not illegal in Nebraska to ride without one – lights for night riding and a lock. You might want a basket or rack to carry your backpack, gym bag or other personal items. Some people equip their bikes with a water bottle carrier and a kickstand, which don't come standard. A repair kit, starting at $15, isn't a bad idea if you know how to use it. A fender fits over the back tire so any puddles or mud you encounter won't splash up your back. A new bike may or may not already have one.
Q: Why should I start cycling?
It's economical. For every 10 miles you bike rather than drive, you save $4, according to Kiplinger's commuting calculator. The calculator considers the per-mile cost of driving, which includes gas, insurance, maintenance and depreciation as well as the per-mile cost of biking, which includes maintenance and depreciation.
It's good for the environment and your health. If 30 million Midwesterners made 5-mile trips on bikes instead of cars for six months a year, they could save approximately four trillion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, 1,100 lives and $7 billion in mortality and health care costs annually, according to a study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives last fall. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison conducted the study.
Find more fitness and nutrition tips at LiveWellNebraska.com.
Julie Harris, program manager for Activate Omaha, said she's seen an increase of bicyclers on the roads and an increase in the number of people interested in getting started.
In 2010, Activate Omaha's Bicycle Commuter Challenge had 62 teams participate from May to September. That number jumped to 104 teams last year, and Harris expects a bigger number this year because of gas prices.
Harris said the usage of bike racks on Metro buses in the Omaha area has increased — a 150 percent increase from 2008 to 2009, an 8 percent increase from 2009 to 2010 and a 52 percent increase from 2010 to 2011. Between January and March of 2011, 1,124 bikes were counted on Metro Transit buses. This year through March, that number jumped to 2,236.
And the bikers are of all ages.
Johnson of Greenstreet Cycles said she has noticed a lot of baby boomers and longtime runners looking for an exercise option that's easier on their knees. She also credits the efforts by City of Omaha officials and local organizations that are encouraging active lifestyles and bike commuting to work.
RDG Planning and Design near 9th and Farnam Streets is teaming up with WasteCap Nebraska, a Lincoln-based organization that helps businesses with recycling and conservation efforts, to host a roundtable next month on commuting. RDG was recognized as a Silver Level Bicycle-Friendly Business by the League of American Bicyclists.
Omaha City Councilmen Pete Festersen and Tom Mulligan, Public Works Director Bob Stubbe and City Engineer Todd Pfitzer will travel to Minneapolis next month to hear from the mayor and city officials about incorporating bicycles as an integral part of a city's transportation system.
They'll also see how Minneapolis became known as one of the top bicycle-friendly cites in the country with 81 miles of on-street bikeways and 85 miles of off-street bikeways. Minneapolis has been awarded the League of American Bicyclists' Bicycle Friendly Community Award.
Festersen said the workshop will help city leaders learn from a city with a similar climate to Omaha's that has been nationally recognized for its efforts.
“If Omaha could be like Minneapolis, that would be amazing,” said Omahan Christopher Halbkat. “The bike business in Omaha is only going to get larger.”
He's banking on it. He's opening his own bike shop, Dundee Cycles, at 49th and Dodge Streets, in the lower level of Varsity Sports Cafe, in May.
“It's expanding quite a bit and fast,” he said of the bicycle business in Omaha. “More people are interested in cycling now. Obviously, gas prices get people on their bikes, but more people want to get out and exercise, and there are a lot more people commuting to work.”
He'll sell classic bikes and custom bikes built around each rider. He said he will get to know each rider, start with the bike frame and build the bike fitted around the customer, his or her daily life and how the bike will be used.
He is showcasing the custom bikes he'll sell at Peerless Gallery at 3157 Farnam St. through April 26.
Earlier this year, the Re-Cycle Bike Shop relocated from 13th and Center Streets to 47th and Center. Owners Cathy and Mike Turman saw the need to find a new space as a blessing.
“Our customers have been telling us we needed a bigger space for a long time, so this was great timing,” Cathy Turman said.
Their new location has allowed them to triple the size of the store, add an office and inventory room and double the space for the mechanics.
Turman said it's a good location — on the bus line where bikers can ride with their bikes on racks, and in between two trails.
“We have been bombarded,” she said. “We had to hire two more mechanics and it's still hard to keep up.”
She said people are coming into the store concerned about rising gas prices and asking about how to commute.
“They want to know how to go grocery shopping on a bike and carry a laptop,” she said.
Billy Siebler, a bike manager at Scheels, said it can be easy to carry a laptop and groceries on a bicycle with the right equipment. He said there are items to pack clothes, baskets to hold groceries and mounts for laptop cases.
RDG Planning and Design makes it easy for employees to choose to commute by bike. The company has a shower, an indoor bicycle rack, health insurance benefits for active commuters, RDG cycling shirts, a bike safety class to learn how to ride in the streets and free breakfasts for bike commuters on Fridays.
The company provides a commuter tracking system on the company's intranet. There's also flexible scheduling so if riding into work takes longer than normal, it's OK.
Of about 50 employees at RDG, at least 15 of them commute by bicycles once throughout the year. About 10 percent ride into work frequently.
Stuart Shell, an architect for RDG, said traveling by bike can take more planning and time, but he thinks it results in higher morale and more engagement at the office.
“We have to be physically adept and healthy to serve our clients best. That's the big picture at RDG.”
At the Turmans' business, the store first opened in 2006 as half thrift shop, half new and used bicycles. But when the customers came in, they were mostly after a new set of wheels.
So only a year into the business, they converted to a full-service bike shop. Since then, Turman said, their revenues have tripled. “Bicycles are a big business,” she said.
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