These days, Karl Kimbel heads to work at about 4 a.m.
A few hours float by before Kimbel runs home to see his wife and daughters. But as soon as the long hand inches closer to the nine, he’s summoned back to his shop, Klunk Bicycles & Repair, at 212 E. Green Meadows Road, Suite 7.
Along with being the owner, Kimbel is Klunk’s sole employee, meaning he handles everything — selling and repairing bikes, taking phone calls and responding to emails and Facebook messages.
“I’ve had the shop for 15 years, and it’s never been quite like this,” Kimbel said.
Nationwide, children’s/BMX bikes showed a 56% increase in sales during the month of March, with adult leisure bikes seeing a 121% increase in sales, according to the market research company NPD Group.
The upswing in business came as a surprise at first to Kimbel, but the cause was easy to identify: COVID-19.
When the pandemic spurred Columbia to issue a stay-at-home order in late March, Klunk was deemed an essential business and remained open. Kimbel continues to follow social-distancing guidelines as the state and county have begun easing restrictions. He conducts all in-person business on the sidewalk outside his storefront and blocks the front door with a table to prevent people from walking inside.
“It felt really weird at first, like here I am as a business owner that is actually thriving in this new landscape,” Kimbel said. “I’m thankful that I’m healthy and that people are riding bikes and that I can keep doing this.”
While he’s thankful for the stability in such an uncertain time, the 4 a.m. mornings speak for themselves. The sheer volume of repairs, coupled with the shop’s lack of storage, has made Klunk packed with bikes to repair.
“I feel like I live here right now,” Kimbel said.
With high demand came an international shortage of bicycles and bicycle parts. The COVID-19 pandemic shook bicycle manufacturers across the globe, and only now are some resuming work. Local shops haven’t been able to keep up with the demand due to part shortages and shipping delays.
Kimbel hasn’t been the only bike shop in Columbia witnessing the boom in the bike industry. Employees at Walt’s Bike Shop have also been bearing the brunt of the bicycle boom and seeing the same issues affecting Kimbel.
“Stuff we’re ordering now won’t get here until like November,” said Sarah Anderson, store manager for Walt’s.
Mechanics and workers at Walt’s are also seeing early mornings and long days, going to work at 6 a.m. and staying at the shop until 9 p.m. Along with being understaffed — some employees are staying home to care for family members — the shop also has an increase in bikes to repair.
“Bike repair is super busy,” Anderson said. “We’re excited that we’re busy, but it’s a bummer when someone calls and we have to tell them it’s gonna be a while.”
The shop owners say they are excited to see the city’s bike community grow.
“Anybody in the bike industry would encourage more people on bikes,” Kimbel said. “It’s crazy that something like the COVID pandemic to kind of trigger that mad rush.”
Although the bike boom centers mainly on kids’ bikes and entry-level adult bikes, Columbia’s biking community appears to be seeing a lot of new cyclists coming into the fold. People are pulling out their old bikes that have been stashed in garages for years and bringing them in for tune-ups and repairs.
To Columbia residents Jeff and Laura Baker, the city’s trail system was a big factor in their decision to visit Walt’s and buy a pair of bikes. Jeff Baker said, after six weeks of staying indoors, they were looking for ways to spend time outside.
“This is an opportunity for us to support a local company,” Jeff Baker said. “So the experience has been good. It’s been great, even talking through the yellow tape.” Walt’s has added caution tape near the front entrance to keep customers out of the store as much as possible, unless they’ve made a prior appointment or called ahead for repair service.
Columbia Parks and Recreation has seen massive increases in trail traffic when compared to last year’s usage. The biggest jump in use, whether walking or cycling, has been for Scott’s Branch Trail, where there was an 188% increase in traffic in April 2020 over April 2019.
Parks and Rec tracks trail usage with special counters that Columbia’s Public Works has implemented throughout the trail system. To help compensate for the increased traffic, the department has been publicizing proper safety procedures for trails users via social media posts, installing more trail signs that detail safety guidelines and giving trail guides to bike shops, which in turn are given to customers, according to Parks and Recreation Department Planner Janet Godon.
They also encourage trailgoers to explore more of the trails, which helps avoid the more popular areas, such as MKT Nature and Fitness Trail, from getting too crowded.
“We did close down some of the park roads at Cosmo Park and encourage new riders to go there to get away from the crowds,” Godon said. That opportunity ended Tuesday, when the city reopened the park roads at Cosmopolitan Park.
Parks and Rec also released an in-depth FAQ guide May 14 about how to navigate its current operations, complete with recommendations for staying safe while on the trails. Among the guidelines, Parks and Rec said trailgoers should stay 6 feet away from people outside their own household, warn others when passing them and avoid crowds by visiting trails earlier or later in the day.