As gas prices have shot up, so has interest in two-wheel transportation, say Northern San Joaquin Valley bicycle shop owners.
Whether commuters are buying new bikes so they can park their vehicles, or bringing in ones taken down from the garage rafters to fix up for the same reason, what's good for Shell and Chevron also has been good for bike shops.
"Most people only drive four or five miles to work around here," said Nick Blackwood, assistant manager at Fun Sport Bikes in Modesto. "So they figure, 'Why drive?' "
On Tuesday, AAA of Northern California reported in its monthly gas price survey that $4 a gallon for regular gasoline is becoming more common in California, which had an average price of 3.94, up 22 cents from the previous month. In Modesto, the AAA survey put the price at 3.92, also up 22 cents.
Blackwood said that for the past six months, he's seen a boost in bike sales, repairs and sales of accessories such as racks and bags that suggest riders taking items with them, such as for work.
At World of Wheels in Modesto, co-owner Stephen Burton said sales were up 20 percent in April from the previous month, and May looks to be a strong sales month as well. Burton and brother Richard also own Fun Sport Bikes.
Some of that is attributable to an annual surge of interest in biking that coincides with spring, Stephen Burton said. This week, National Bike to Work Week, also might spur interest.
Many of the bikes being bought these days have skinny, high-pressure tires and comfortable seats that make them ideal for commuting, according to Burton.
In some cases, those customers fixed up older bikes first, then realized those bikes were made for a different body. So they're returning to the store for a new, more enjoyable ride, Burton said.
"We're getting the comments from customers that they're looking to save on gas," Burton said.
National sales trend
About 18 million bicycles have been sold annually in the United States over the past few years, accounting for about $6 billion in annual sales, said Fred Clements, executive director of the National Bicycle Dealers Association in Costa Mesa.
Bicycle shops across the country are reporting strong sales this year, and more people are bringing in bikes that have been idle for years, he said.
Shop owners said the trend reinforces itself when employees at one workplace see others rolling in on their bikes and start riding themselves.
That's what happened at American Lumber Co. in Modesto, where salesman Jason Garza said bikes suddenly became the fashionable commuting trend about two months ago.
"We all started doing it," said Garza, 28, who lives in Escalon but drives only to Modesto's city limit, then bikes the rest of the way.
Taking his bike proved to have additional benefits, because vehicle parking is scarce around the lumber company's Ninth Street location, he said.
At The Bike Shop in Salida, salesman and bike mechanic George Ingerson said he's found that biking is good for more than saving money.
"It's also not going to hurt me getting in shape," Ingerson said.
He and the store owner started riding to work the past few weeks, and Ingerson said he's barely driven his Ford Explorer since.
Bike shop owners and workers said they believe many people may have made a permanent switch to riding, even if gas prices were to drop back to $3 a gallon or less, for example.
Burton, at World of Wheels, said riding also appeals to people concerned about the environment.
And, Garza pointed out, even if prices go down, the benefits of riding a bike don't change.
"It is good exercise, it's fun to do it, and no matter what, you are saving money," he said.
Meg Gonzalez of Modesto, a member of the Stanislaus County Bicycle Club, said she began riding 18 months ago because she thought it was inefficient to drive her small sport utility vehicle to work in downtown Modesto.
Lately, she's getting more company on her trip, which takes her down the Virginia Corridor bike trail.
"When I first moved here, I heard Modesto was a horrible place for biking," said Gonzalez, 45. "But change takes us awhile."
As the number of cyclists has increased, Gonzalez said, drivers seem more respectful when sharing the road.
A little cold won't stop some
For the committed bike rider, even a less balmy climate than Modesto isn't reason enough to stop.
Steve Stelton, 47, of Bismarck, N.D., said he was inspired by Greg LeMond's 1986 Tour de France victory and has been commuting year-round ever since. He said he's physically fit because of it and has saved "a ton of money on gas."
Stelton, a printer, doesn't let North Dakota's cold, windy weather slow him. He said he's ridden to work on snow- covered roads when the wind chill temperature was 40 below.
"If you waited for a bluebird day to ride to work in North Dakota," he said, "you'd never do it."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Ben van der Meer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2331.