By Eric Nakano
When California Governor Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency on Mar. 2, 2020, in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19, Hector Tamayo worried the virus would have a detrimental impact on his electric bicycle store, E Bike Cyclery on San Dimas Avenue.
“Initially I was really worried. Are we still going to be a business? Should we just shut down now? And I saw a lot of businesses that were closing up and couldn’t conduct business anymore,” Tamayo said.
Like most businesses, E Bike Cyclery closed in early March but reopened a few weeks later after California declared that bicycle stores were an essential business. At first, Tamayo hoped to just sell enough bikes to keep his business afloat. Instead, business boomed. Across the country, consumers have flooded bicycle stores looking for alternatives to public transportation during the pandemic.
“Once everyone was in lockdown, riding bicycles was one of the things people could still do. And this created a bike boom, and with that came huge demand for bikes and bike accessories,” Tamayo said.
Consumers were especially interested in electric bicycles, or e-bikes for short. E-bikes use a battery to assist riders with peddling. This helps riders travel farther and faster while requiring less physical effort than standard bicycles.
Doug Brooks, a 63-year-old Claremont resident and e-bike owner, acknowledges the ease of using an e-bike over a traditional bicycle for his 11-mile daily commute to Upland.
“In my case, the bike is heavier, so it’s a more stable, smoother ride than a road bike,” Brooks said. “The e-bike I have can do a constant speed of just around 20 miles an hour, and it’s got different levels of assist.”
A recent study by The NPD Group found that while bike sales overall grew by 63% in 2020, sales of e-bikes nearly doubled. All of this has translated into more business than Tamayo can handle. His store sells out of shipments almost as soon as they arrive, and manufacturers are struggling to meet the surge in demand, often missing shipment schedules because they cannot produce e-bikes fast enough.
“The day a shipment comes in, we assemble them, and they would already be sold,” Tamayo said.
One reason E Bike Cyclery has done so well is that customers prefer to test and purchase an e-bike in person. When customers visit a store like E Bike Cyclery, they can experience the differences between an e-bike’s speed, acceleration and maneuverability — which would be impossible to do if they purchased the bike online.
An advocate with the La Verne Bicycle Coalition, Doug Strange agrees that actually riding and trying out an e-bike is a valuable experience. Strange says e-bikes make biking easier for those who may see traditional cycling as a challenge and can even convert some non-cyclists into bike advocates.
“Every single person who rides an e-bike gets off of it smiling. That was universally my experience,” Strange said.
Another factor Tamayo attributes to E Bike Cyclery’s success is its location in San Dimas. He believes San Dimas is easily accessible to customers across Southern California since the city is located near the 10, 210 and 57 freeways.
Despite his unexpected fortune, running an e-bike store during COVID-19 is not without challenges. Waiting lists for popular models stretch out for months, frustrating customers who come in wanting to start riding an e-bike right away. When customers visit the store, many have to wait outside for a long time since only two customers are allowed in the store at any given time, and a typical transaction takes about 30 minutes.
Additionally the labor required to keep both employees and customers safe can be overwhelming. Staff wipe down bikes with disinfectant before customers take them out for a test ride and after they finish. To serve customers who are not comfortable visiting the store, Tamayo repurposed a van he owned to drop off e-bikes at customers’ homes and pick up bikes that needed repairs. But the additional service adds a significant number of hours to his day.
Another major challenge is finding qualified employees to work at the store. Unlike a shop that sells regular bikes, selling and servicing e-bikes requires a level of technical skill that most people, even those who have worked in regular bike stores, do not possess. At E Bike Cyclery, employees act as both mechanics and salespeople.
“Before I was hired, I worked on both motorcycles and bicycles for four years, so the knowledge really helped me do the job here,” said Christopher Amarillas, one of the store’s employees.
To service an e-bike, many e-bike manufacturers require a retailer’s employees to become certified before they will authorize them to work on their e-bikes. And selling e-bikes requires an understanding of not only the different types of bikes the store carries — from electric cruisers to electric mountain bikes — but also requires knowledge of the differences between brands, since most customers expect staff to educate them on the different options.
“When customers walk into an e-bike shop, they expect you to educate them — what are the laws, what are the different types of motors, what are the differences between batteries, how fast can it go. There’s just an overwhelming number of questions that customers have,” Tamayo said.
While there is no playbook for running a small business, let alone one during a pandemic, it was an especially steep learning curve for Tamayo, who never aspired to be an entrepreneur. In fact, being a small business owner, let alone an e-bicycle business owner, was never part of Tamayo’s plans.
Tamayo studied criminology at Cal Poly Pomona in the hopes of becoming a police officer. After joining the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and later the Claremont Police Department, he worked his way up to the rank of detective before reassessing his career due to a back injury in 2017.
Unable to continue his career in law enforcement, he began customizing and selling e-bicycles to police departments in Southern California after test-riding one at the beach in San Diego. Surprised by how easily he could get around, Tamayo realized the impact e-bikes could have in assisting law enforcement.
“I saw that there was a need in law enforcement for bicycles, but most cops don’t want to ride bicycles because the equipment they need to carry makes getting around on them overbearing,” Tamayo said.
In his view, e-bikes made it possible for law enforcement officers to get around easily without requiring a lot of effort to peddle. After building a few prototypes and selling them to local police departments, Tamayo decided to open his store in San Dimas in December 2018, after finding a storefront that he could buy instead of rent.
At first, business was slow, and the store only carried two brands. But after sales began taking off during COVID-19, Tamayo expanded the number of brands and the variety of brands his store carries. Today, E Bike Cyclery carries nine different brands, each of which Tamayo selects based on quality, availability of parts and company reputation.
Tamayo also prefers carrying bikes that have a connection to California. He carries brands such as Vintage Electric based in San Jose, Intense based in Norco and Santa Cruz based in the city of the same name. Even the European brands the store carries have a connection to California — like iZip, which manufactures its bikes in Germany but was founded in California.
While business has changed quite a bit over the past few months because of COVID-19, Tamayo’s future plans post-COVID-19 are more modest: he hopes to start a regular e-biking group to build a community of e-bike lovers in San Dimas and move to a bigger location within the area so he can carry more inventory. But even if sales taper off after COVID-19, Tamayo believes that the e-bike boom is here to stay.
“When people start riding an e-bike they usually don’t go back. Once you ride an e-bike, you can go faster and farther,” Tamayo said. “Why would you want to go back to a traditional bike?”