A group of cyclists ride along the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail intersecting with East Lincoln Avenue near Abshire Park in Goshen on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. Joseph Weiser | CNHI News Indiana
A group of cyclists ride along the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail intersecting with East Lincoln Avenue near Abshire Park in Goshen on Wednesday, Aug. 31, 2022. Joseph Weiser | CNHI News Indiana
Bolstered by a significant boost in interest following the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, cycling tourism is thriving in Elkhart County and across the state.

That’s the word from Spencer Short, owner of the Middlebury-based bike shop Pumpkinvine Cyclery, where he has been selling and repairing bicycles since 2010.

“Yeah, COVID was kind of crazy. The entire state shut down, but the bike industry was exempt because of transportation, and we have a lot of customers — especially being in the Amish territory — we have a lot of customers who rely on their bikes for transportation,” Short said of the early days of the pandemic. “There were so many people who were home from work and didn’t have anything to do. Their kids were home from school, they were home from work, they had a lot of free time on their hands but not a lot of options for how to use that free time. So, biking became a very popular thing for people to do during COVID, because in a world of ‘you can’t,’ this was something you could.”

Danny Jones, owner of Goshen-based Lincoln Avenue Cycling, saw a similar spike in cycling interest on his end following the arrival of COVID-19.

“We sell a brand of bikes called Trek, which is a very large bike company, and on April 12, 2020, they recognized sales as not being a normal spring rush — there was something bigger going on,” Jones said of COVID’s impact on demand within the industry. “They weren’t quite sure what it was, but they started increasing their orders from that time on, and by July 4, 2020, that holiday weekend, pretty much bikes were sold out across the country.

“Bikes went from open stock to having a one-to-two-year wait list for getting the product,” he added of the surge. “So, in January of 2021, we started taking $100 nonrefundable deposits from people wanting to assure getting a bike from what we had coming in, and we did that up through this year, basically.”

According to Short, the economic impact of the cycling tourism industry within Elkhart County was already significant prior to the arrival of COVID, a fact due in large part to the popularity of trails such as the Pumpkinvine Nature Trail, which when combined with the nearby MapleHeart and Wilden Avenue trails stretches 25 miles and connects the communities of Elkhart, Goshen, Middlebury and Shipshewana.

“It’s huge — I think it’s a lot more than people realize,” Short said of the impact cycling tourism has on the local economy. “And especially the Pumpkinvine Trail, which is a huge economic driver for the local economy, where it sees approximately 150,000 people coming through it every single year.

“And those people are spending money at the local restaurants, they’re staying at the local hotels, they’re shopping at the local shops,” he added. “It’s a huge amount of people coming through this area that are specifically here riding the trail. And a lot of it is local people, but there’s also a ton of outside tourists that come specifically to ride the trail.”

Mark Gingerich, co-owner of Family Bicycle Center Inc. in Elkhart, offered a similar sentiment when referencing the positive impact that trails such as the Pumpkinvine can have on local communities.

“We get a lot of people coming down from Chicago, where maybe they have a summer cabin in Michigan on the lake, and they’ll come to this area. Or we’ll get phone calls from Chicago saying, ‘Hey, we’ve heard about this Pumpkinvine Trail. How do we get to it? Where do we park?’” Gingerich said. “So, I think our local trails have been a big draw. And a couple years ago, the Pumpkinvine trail was rated the best trail in Indiana — number one in the state — which was pretty neat.”

STATEWIDE IMPACT

According to the Indiana Department of Transportation, the economic benefits of a robust trail system stretch well beyond just Elkhart County, as Indiana has more than 3,260 miles of trails and bikeways open for public use across the state.

Examples of some of the longer and more notable trail systems in Indiana include: the Cardinal Greenway in the Richmond-Muncie- Marion area, the Monon Trail in the Indianapolis-Hamilton area, the Nickel Plate Trail in the Rochester-Kokomo area and the Rivergreenway in Fort Wayne.

“Indiana boasts destination trails that enhance tourism, promote healthy lifestyles, and help boost economic development along those corridors and in surrounding communities,” the department notes.

That seems to jibe with a report by The League of American Bicyclists, which notes that the national bicycle industry contributes more than $130 billion annually to the U.S. economy by supporting over 1 million jobs; generating nearly $18 billion in federal, state and local taxes; and providing nearly $47 billion from meals, transportation and lodging purchases during bike trips and tours.

“Bicycling is a healthy, inexpensive, and environmentally friendly alternative to driving that can have a substantial impact on state and local economies,” the report notes. “Though the automobile is still responsible for the majority of trips made in the U.S., there is increasing attention being paid by citizens and policymakers to bicycling as a viable, cost-effective mode of transportation.

“Regions that have invested in bicycling have seen a beneficial impact on their economies,” the report adds. “Studies have shown that the bicycle industry and bicycle tourism can boost local employment levels and economic activity.”

A POSITIVE OUTLOOK

With nearly three years now having passed since the arrival of COVID-19, Jones acknowledged that the cycling boom seen during the thick of the pandemic has begun to ebb as restrictions have lifted and life has returned to some semblance of normalcy.

That said, he was quick to note that cycling interest and sales remain robust — a fact he isn’t anticipating will change any time soon.

“We have definitely seen it soften, and it’s going back to pre-COVID levels of interest,” Jones said of the industry. “But sales are still good, and I see no reason for the bike industry not to continue to grow, as they can be used for commuting, or health, as a means of exercising or just for family fun.”

Looking to the future, Short expressed a similarly positive outlook when it comes to the cycling industry both locally and across the state.

“There has been a lot of push by different municipalities and cities and townships to increase cycling infrastructure in the state,” Short said. “I think that more and more cities are understanding the importance of cycling infrastructure not only for recreation, but for transportation and quality of life. So, if you create places of quality for people to live, and that includes bike paths for recreation, and parks, and those sorts of things, those attract people to want to live and work in a community.

“I think a lot of cities are understanding that having bike paths, and parks, and places for people to recreate increases the quality of life there, which retains employees for businesses to thrive,” he added. “So, there is definitely a lot more investment in cycling infrastructure, and I think that’s something that we’re going to see heading into the future.”

Jon Hunsberger, executive director of the Elkhart County Convention & Visitors Bureau, was quick to agree.

“Cycling won’t replace automotive traffic. We get that,” Hunsberger said. “But having the option to be able to bicycle, and to use that not only for leisure — which we think is valuable, and that’s probably the most significant traffic that we see on the trails — but as a means of alternative transportation, creating safe pathways that would either be in-lane or adjacent to our roadways would also be significant to increase and support bicycle traffic and use throughout our communities.

“And as I’ve talked with local bicycle business owners, they continue to be busy with sales and repairs,” he added. “And so, I can see that this could be, with the right support and the right advocacy for bicycle infrastructure and assets throughout Elkhart County and throughout the state, this really could be significant to set us apart, and also just increase that quality of place that we really value and desire.”
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