Iowa City’s WOB rises to challenges of COVID-19, historic bicycling interest

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IOWA CITY — Here and there, silver linings exist during the COVID-19 crisis — and one of those is a burst in bicycling interest across the United States so strong it’s made worldwide news.

For Iowa City’s World of Bikes, this phenomenon has meant historic sales levels, more workers who are asked to work less, and getting creative about keeping up with the never-ending demand while staying safe.

WOB, for instance, created an outdoor sales kiosk and even now only lets customers inside under limited, controlled circumstances with new disinfection and air purification measures in place. It’s been able to hire more employees, while also giving all of its employees more time off.

As COVID-19’s growing spread fuels the drive to breathe outdoor air and find alternatives to group gatherings, World of Bikes has increased its inventory — including of children’s bikes, which are so in demand there was a worldwide shortage for a few months.

Repair is also in greater demand than ever, says owner Ryan Baker.

“We’re seeing bikes that haven’t seen the light of day for years come in for service that people want to get up and running,” he says from his Gilbert Street shop.

Some experts say this year’s explosion of bicycling is the greatest since the 1970s. Interest is so high that a shortage in bikes is predicted through 2022.

World of Bikes, founded in 1974, has worked hard in recent months to bolster its inventory. It aims to serve all levels of bicyclists — whether their purpose is leisure, serious exercise, racing, or practical transportation. Its variety of bikes ranges from the standard cruiser, to highly-customized specialty bikes, to fat bikes, mountain bikes, and e-bikes, the newest trend.

WOB now also offers Wahoo Fitness indoor bikes. It carries an extensive collection of fat bikes, which are especially suited for snow travel, and accessories including winter gear.

The store saw its largest month of sales in May since Baker became its owner 14 years ago. The demand has continued through the summer and now, when unseasonably warm daytime weather has enabled bicycling to remain a viable option.

Baker recalls the early days of the pandemic in mid-March, “when everything started blowing up.” At first, the store strictly controlled store traffic, only allowing side door entry. Everything in the store was disinfected, and staff wore gloves until it became apparent that wasn’t a key part of fighting the virus.

Then, after closing briefly like all other non-essential businesses, World of Bikes created a two-tent outdoor sales approach, along with a small sales kiosk. The set-up enabled World of Bikes’ staff to serve five customers at a time, process purchases outdoors, and undertake minimal service outside.

“Operating outdoors has given us the ability to be socially distant and still help people,” Baker said. “This is the best way we’ve found to do that.”

The store interior became a warehouse, to spare staff from running downstairs to the old storage location. Now, WOB:

— allows public access to only certain parts of the store

— strictly limits the number of customers inside at once

— has installed hand-sanitizing stations

— requires masks

— has protective barriers at the cash register

— and installed a new smart-air filtration system.

“We’ve really tried to be proactive on the measures we take on the safety of our staff and customers,” Baker says.

The other silver lining has been allowing employees to spend Sundays on personal needs or with their families.

The downside of the bicycling industry’s explosion is a worldwide shortage of bicycles, especially kids’ bikes, Baker said. In mid-summer, he was concerned that the shortage meant “there are a lot of kids out there that don’t have bikes.”

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World Of Bikes has focused strongly on rebuilding its inventory in recent months, and in the face of a worldwide bicycle shortage.

That has now changed, with new weekly shipments helping to increase inventory. Baker says the greatest inventory growth is in youth mountain and hybrid bikes that cost under $1,000.

Baker himself turns to bicycling as a form of stress relief and family fun, often heading out with his two sons. He recommends the Sugar Bottom bike trail in Coralville/North Liberty, and the Woodpecker Single Track in Coralville.

He first discovered bicycling as a child growing up in Marshalltown, relied on it to get to his odd jobs and school over the years, began working in bicycling retail in college and has never really left the industry.

Baker says he is pleasantly surprised by the burst of interest in his life’s devotion — and also is grateful that it has enabled him to allow World of Bikes employees to keep taking Sundays off.

“Definitely, as far as a personal well-being for the staff, that has been a bonus,” Baker says. “There definitely have been a lot of highlights and bright spots to our business. Including just seeing so many more people wanting to ride bikes and get out and enjoy bikes as a family.”

World of Bikes is open 10 a.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and closes at at 6 p.m. every day except Saturday, when it closes at 4 p.m. You can learn more about WOB at its listing in the Advertiser Directory; or its website, Facebook page, or its Instagram account. Or, reach World of Bikes at 319-351-8337 or 800-794-8337, or at info@worldofbikes.com.

Also, click here for comprehensive advice on bicycle-riding in the winter — including clothing (inner, outer and more), footwear, type of bicycle, skills and more. If you have an unused bicycle you’d like to donate for possible repair and reuse, contact either World of Bikes or the Iowa City Bike Library.

This is part of an occasional series on how TRM advertisers are responding to the coronavirus crisis.

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