Editor's note: This is the fourth story in a weeklong series looking at the effects of rising costs on the Kenai Peninsula.
Without hesitation, the owner of the Bike Loft above Beeman's variety store in Soldotna, says he is selling more bikes these days due to record-high gasoline prices.
"We are selling more bikes and a number of customers say they specifically want a bike so they can ride to work," said Steve Beeson.
Now that gasoline prices in the central Kenai Peninsula area have sped past the $4 mark and are fast approaching $5 a gallon, motorists are being forced to make changes in their driving habits and in deciding whether to drive at all.
What Beeson is seeing is a greater demand for what he calls a "comfort bike."
The bicycle that compares somewhere between a skinny-tire sleek racing bike and a fat-tire off-road mountain bike, features wider tires than the racing bike and has the same 21 gears typical of a mountain bike, according to Beeson.
Comfort bikes have a slightly larger diameter wheel as well, at 27 inches.
"They're called '700s' because they use metric (measurements)," he said.
Priced in the affordable range, the comfort bikes made by Trek and Specialized, start at $339 at the Bike Loft. They have a front wheel shock absorber as well as a seat-post shock.
Additionally, Beeson's customers are asking to have their bikes equipped with fenders and carrier racks so they can carry a lunch or change of clothes for when people do get to work.
Beeson said that although he can order bicycle baskets to be mounted on the handlebars, most customers are asking for rear racks, baskets or bags. With the fenders, the add ons also add to the price of the bike.
"It eats up a $100 bill pretty fast," Beeson said.
Nevertheless, he said bike sales for the month of May were up 8 percent and rising.
A quick look across the Stanley Ford car lot in Soldotna reveals people are also shopping for small cars.
"We're out of Ford Focuses," said Matt Hopson, general manager for sales.
The dealership does have a selection of other smaller vehicles in stock, namely the Ford Fusion, the Taurus X and the Escape, Ford's smaller sport utility vehicle. Hopson said the Fusion and Taurus come in two-wheel as well as all-wheel drive.
While the Ford Escape is made in a hybrid version, he said, "I don't recommend it for Alaska.
"Where it saves fuel is in city driving conditions," he said.
Hutchings Chevrolet Sales Manager Travis Burnett said that Soldotna dealership also has seen a rise in small car sales, but most of his customers are also keeping their larger vehicles for winter.
"They're buying the small cars for the summer, but they want to drive their larger vehicles in winter with our road conditions and all the moose on the road," Burnett said.
He said Chevy does offer a hybrid in its Malibu line, but so far, there has not been much interest on the Kenai Peninsula.
"Our weather isn't too conducive to hybrids," Burnett said. "It's not worth the (fuel) savings not to drive the larger vehicles in winter."
For those who find it impractical to pedal a bike to work or whose budgets don't have room for a new car, Ellis Automotive offers some tips for improving gas mileage.
A good clean air filter tops the list for co-owner Larry Ellis.
"A tune-up helps," he said. "And, with newer vehicles, it's good to change fuel filters often."
Co-owner Brant Ellis said having fuel injectors cleaned professionally with an injection cleaning system also helps. To have it done along with a tune-up, the cost is $80. Doing it without the tune-up runs the cost up to $139, he said.
"It definitely helps," Brant Ellis said. "It cleans out the whole system.
"I'd do it once a year with these high gasoline prices," he said.
He also recommends maintaining the manufacturer-suggested tire pressure to aid gas mileage.
Motorists should pay attention to the "check engine" light when it comes on as well, Brant Ellis said.
"If it means the oxygen sensor has gone bad, gas mileage really goes down, even though the car's performance is still OK," he said.
"Some people think as long as the vehicle's running the same, they can ignore the 'check engine' light. Don't," he said.
For Beeson at the Bike Loft, people switching to pedal power from horsepower is more than selling more bikes.
"It's about getting people more active," Beeson said. "The exciting part is it gets more people riding."
Phil Hermanek can be reached at email@example.com.
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