Bike shops were designated as providing essential services during the pandemic. As the New York Times reported, not everyone agreed that businesses designated as essential were essential. I ride a bike for my primary form of transportation and would advocate that a bike shop is definitely an essential service. Nori Kasai, General Manager at Neutral Cycle, agrees. I chatted with Kasai about new cyclists and those who rediscovered an interest in riding their bikes during the pandemic as well as how Neutral Cycle is sticking to their mission.
Smile Politely: Tell me about your history with biking and Neutral Cycle’s mission.
Nori Kasai: My history with biking started when I was 11 or 12. I rode bikes every day. I worked on bikes, fixed bikes. I realized over time that there is so much to it. It’s a lifestyle. I started picking up on things mechanically and sales-wise when I worked at a nice bike shop in St. Charles, IL when I was in high school. I learned the craft of the trade and I worked as a sales associate with a really good manager there for a long time. I learned how the shop ran and worked there for three or four years before moving to the C-U area to attend school and transitioning to work at Neutral Cycle.
When Tim Chao opened the shop, from the beginning, the mission of the shop was to create a community where people can come in, learn the lifestyle biking offers to commute or for exercise. When people come to Neutral Cycle, they find a bike that works for them. They love it. They come back to attend events. They refer friends. We host a lot of events and open rides. We try to give back to the community and do more than just selling or fixing bikes. We want to interact with the community instead of having customers being stonewalled like they would in a more corporate environment. We want everything to be organic, more natural. Every customer who walks in the door is treated like a friend.
SP: It seems like there is a lot of collaboration between Neutral Cycle and Brewlab.
Kasai: We are very close with each other. I know most of the workers over there and they know most of us. We are trying to experiment and send customers who are waiting for repairs to get a cup of coffee and relax, to create a holistic style. Brewlab is great. That’s where I get my coffee.
SP: How has business been since the pandemic? How have you had to shift your business?
Kasai: We had to adjust like every other business to ensure the safety of our customers. We take that very seriously. We are following all of the local, state, and national guidelines. We are trying to create an environment where people feel comfortable. We started an appointment system. Walk-ins were not allowed because the safety of our customers were more important than anything else.
Across the nation, there is a boom of recreation sports. Biking, swim sports, boats, camping, a lot of recreation sports blew up. We saw so many people coming in and buying bikes. It was hard because we also had to stay safe. We had to bottleneck the kind of sales we were doing and focus more on the safety of the customer. It was so relieving to see how many people were getting into cycling and trying to be more active. I run almost every day and I saw so many runners on the streets and I saw bikers too. People started to do more self-care when they had more free time. A lot of people were exercising and doing self-care. It was interesting that this is how people pivoted.
I’m not surprised why the government chose us as an essential service. Biking is very essential. People use it as transportation and exercise. It’s a way of life. It’s how people express themselves. All I know is that if I was not allowed to bike, I would be very sad.
One thing I noticed is that I saw two types of customers. One customer was someone who was very interested in biking and wanted to buy a bike for the first time because they had free time. The second customer is the person who bought a bike five years ago and it was sitting in the garage, or basement, or attic, or wherever and they brought it out because they have time to use it. We fixed it up for them. It didn’t cost a lot and now they are riding on the road and exercising and having fun. It’s reassuring to see that people can turn around a situation and bring something in that they haven’t used in a while.
SP: I noticed that you hosted a ride on July 4th. How did it go?
Kasai: The ride went great. We had new people ride with us. It was interactive. We felt like it was a good time to start interacting with more customers. We saw the spike starting to flatten and we felt comfortable to create a ride. It was a great ride. We went almost 30 miles. Most of the time we take bike paths to ensure the safety of our riders but there isn’t a lot of traffic during the morning. It was safe.
SP: What have you sold the most of (repairs, bikes, rentals, etc.) during the pandemic?
Kasai: We see a lot of rentals during the school year for students that only come in for a short amount of time. In regards to service, I was referring to people who bring out their bikes that they haven’t used in many years and we have seen a lot of repairs for those customers. We charge a fair rate, make sure the customer is happy with what they pay for and they feel like they get the service they need. We have nothing in the warehouse. Across the world, there is a national shortage on bikes and bike parts. It’s hard to get bikes. I do the processing and ordering and I find it very hard.
We carry Jamis and Felt. Those are our two main brands but it’s hard to get any bikes right now, any brand due to the surge in recreation sports but we plan to have what we need for our customers by the time the academic year begins.
SP: What would Neutral Cycle be doing/working on right now if there was not a pandemic?
Kasai: We’d still be focusing on the community. We are right now trying to do a lot of bike pop-ups like we are doing in Urbana at Analog. It would be nice to not worry about customer interaction and the safety of the customer. But these are steps we have to take to ensure the safety of the customers.
SP: Is there anything positive that has come out of this time for Neutral Cycle?
Kasai: Self-care in general has been the most positive. I think that people are starting to exercise more and focus on family life and the things that people take for granted when they work a lot. When people work a lot, they mostly focus on work and the financial needs for their families and themselves. There had been a diminished importance of what exercise means, what family means, and what day-to-day activities mean. The pandemic was devastating for the world and has brought out some things that we were taking for granted.
For the bike shop, it was heart-warming that people are starting to ride bikes again. People are enjoying recreation sports and interacting with family. We set up bikes for whole families and then they go riding together. It’s very heart-warming to see that in the community. If we keep focusing on that then we will have something great on our hands.
SP: What are you most excited about in the future for Neutral Cycle?
Kasai: We are getting ready for the school year, making big orders for bikes. We are building a lot of bikes right now. We will be ready for the surplus of students who want to ride bikes to class instead of taking the bus. We want to make sure that all of our repairs are spot on and all of our customers are happy. We are more or less getting ready.
SP: What do you want Smile Politely readers to know?
Kasai: Enjoy the little things. Come by the shop. You can get a bike and we can also fix your bike if it has been sitting in your garage for five years.