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When Marian Hayes took an evening bicycle ride along the Midtown Greenway in Minneapolis last year, she felt as if she had the trail to herself.
Now the greenway is a freeway. Fast cyclists pass slower ones on the left. Commuters get on and off via exit ramps. Traffic moves along at 15 miles per hour.
"You feel like you're in rush hour," said Hayes, who commutes 25 miles roundtrip from Mendota Heights to downtown Minneapolis.
The latest bicycle boom has little to do with fitness and everything to do with $4 gas. People are hauling long-neglected bikes to repair shops and snapping up bicycle saddlebags. In Minneapolis, already home to the nation's second-highest number of bicycle commuters, the network of bicycle paths is getting crowded.
Metro Transit expected 700 people to enroll by January 2009 in its new program encouraging commuters to cycle to work. More than 1,100 have signed up in the first seven weeks.
The bicycle traffic on one bridge linking Minneapolis and St. Paul jumped by 50 percent over the past year.
"A lot of people are pulling old bikes out of mothballs," said Steve Phyle, owner of Tonka Cycle and Ski in Minnetonka. "There's people resurrecting stuff that I wouldn't resurrect, but I think that's the economy."
Commuter accessories such as grocery bag racks have become must-haves, sold out from some suppliers and wholesalers. Baskets and lights are also in demand, as are 27-inch tires, not used on new bicycles since the 1980s.
Though bicycle retailers are seeing more customers, they are also selling fewer high-end bicycles, which can cost $3,000 or more.
Many shops' repair appointments are booked for weeks. The growth is especially significant for retailers near downtown Minneapolis, where commuters can easily switch to cycling.
Suburban residents are using bicycles more frequently to run errands, even if they won't take them to work, said Dave Olson, president of Erik's Bike Shop.
"A lot of people, because they've got a 20-mile commute, are tying it into more of a local lifestyle thing," Olson said.
Not every suburban bike shop is benefiting.
"When you look at most people who have a job, they drive a ways to work," said John Obara, owner of Bikemaster in St. Louis Park, who said business has been average to slow. "It's a lifestyle change if you are traveling any distance at all."
Still, many commuters are willing to make that change.
Between May 2007 and May 2008, the number of cyclists on the Lake Street Bridge jumped 50 percent, said Steve Clark, the walking and bicycling program manager for Transit for Livable Communities.
"That one is pretty representative of the overall city," Clark said. "We've seen some gradual increases, but this is really the first big jump."
Bike2Benefits, the Metro Transit program offering incentives for bicycle commuting, began in May. Since then, its members have logged 67,000 miles of bicycle commutes, said Bob Gibbons, director of customer services for Metro Transit.
One of them, Amanda Ressler of St. Paul, last got a new ride -- a purple mountain bike -- at 14.
She won a commuter bicycle during Bike Walk Week and tries to ride it for her 8-mile commute at least three times a week.
"The first day was kind of a challenge," Ressler, 28, said. "I didn't know very good streets, and I took Snelling and it was kind of terrifying because of the on-ramp with I-94, so that was really scary."
Minneapolis City Council Member Scott Benson also began cycling on Bike Walk day, commuting on his bicycle at least once a week since then.
"I never thought about using [a bicycle] to come in the morning for work," said Benson, who rides 11 miles round-trip. "Really, what governs it now is whether or not I have to wear a suit that day."
Most retailers said that, with gas prices climbing and people discovering the advantages of cycling, they don't expect to see business decline anytime soon.
"We think obviously the kick start to this is fuel prices, but as more and more people start to realize it's an option, it's kind of 'follow the leader,'" Olson said. "As more people integrate it into their communities, it's a piece of the lifestyle."
Libby Nelson • 612-673-4758