Looking to buy a certain new bicycle? At Chain Reaction Bicycles in Redwood City, you’ll have to get in line behind hundreds of people.
The COVID-19 pandemic may be near its end in the United States, but the effects of increased demand and international supply chain issues are still upending the bicycle industry — with some shop owners projecting the bike shortage may last until 2023. While customers can still walk in and buy a bike, long waits exist for specific types of bikes, said Mike Jacoubowsky, co-owner of Chain Reaction Bicycles in Redwood City.
“We have been in business for 41 years now. So we’ve seen quite a few bicycle cycles come and go, so to speak,” Jacoubowsky said. “But we’ve never seen anything like this.”
The trend began when the first shelter-in-place orders were issued in California back in March 2020. With public transportation shut down and fitness gyms indefinitely closed, people started looking for alternative forms of transportation and exercise. Those who were confined at home began gravitating toward outdoor activities.
That led to a spike in demand for bicycles nationwide. According to market-research firm NPD Group, U.S. bicycle sales hit $1 billion in April, up 75% from the previous year. Sales of bikes under $200 increased by over 200% and sales of front-suspension mountain bikes grew more than 150%.
At Chain Reaction Bicycles, that meant that bikes started flying out the door in late April 2020. Sales surged by 50% for the store in June 2020 compared to June 2019.
“By the first or second week of June , that was the end of bikes in stock,” Jacoubowsky said. “Once the floor was cleared, we moved into a position of ‘who knows when the next bike is coming?’”
In normal times, the shop has 200-300 bicycles ready to sell at any given moment. Customers could expect to walk into the store and roll out with a bike on the same day. That number dwindled to 30 during the height of the pandemic, and now, the average wait for a bike is five months.
The limited supply has drastically changed the experience of buying a bike, according to Ben Jones, general manager at Cognition Cyclery in San Mateo.
“I think for a lot of consumers, it’s a given that when you walk into a store, there’s going to be product on display and product to buy,” Jones said. “And none of that is necessarily given anymore, by any stretch of the imagination. Now we’re lucky to have a bike in their size in stock.”
Customers are typically able to see and test ride a wide selection of bikes in person before committing to a purchase. But at only 50% of normal supply, that isn’t always possible at Cognition Cyclery. While the team makes its best effort to match customers with similar bikes for test rides, it isn’t uncommon now for customers to place deposits to reserve bikes they’ve never even touched. A significant percentage of the shop’s bikes now arrive presold. Jones estimates that they have hundreds of bikes on back order, with wait times anywhere between two weeks and several months.
“I’ve been doing this for 15 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it. Nobody has,” Jones said. “We’ve had consumers calling from all over the county, all over the state — people driving hundreds or thousands of miles to get bikes.”
International supply chain issues are another major contributing factor to the bike shortage. The United States imports the vast majority of its bikes, and according to Reuters, about 90% of supply came from China in 2019.
Most bicycle parts are produced and assembled in Asian countries, which were part of the early 2020 wave of temporary COVID-19 shutdowns. Those shutdowns, combined with Lunar New Year holiday closures, slowed the supply chain to a stop. Ongoing international freight issues such as a shortage of shipping containers have further compounded those problems.
“Freight costs for containers have tripled within the past few months, and in some cases, they aren’t even available,” Jacoubowsky said. “Occasionally, a bike might be pushed back a month or even two months.”
People who haven’t been able to snag a new bike are unearthing old ones from their garages and sheds, leading to increased foot traffic to bike repair shops.
“Business is nuts. I mean, it’s crazy,” Alan Gorman, who runs a used bike and bike repair stop in Burlingame, said. “Usually I try to go home at 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. … but I was here until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. in the morning to try to catch up on stuff.”
In pre-pandemic times, Gorman typically gets around two to three repairs a day. That number jumped to 30 to 40 during the height of the pandemic. As a one-man-shop, Gorman said late nights were necessary to maintain his regular wait time of 24 to 48 hours.
He’s seen everything, from rusty tandem bicycles to old 1940s Schwinn bikes to high-end electric bikes worth more than $6,000. The wide variety of bicycles coupled with part shortages have led to challenges in fulfilling repairs.
“Sometimes I’ll just buy an old bike from Craigslist just so I have parts. Because everything is just backlogged like crazy,” Gorman said, adding that wait times for parts can range anywhere from a week to 78 days.
But he isn’t complaining, despite the increased workload and new challenges.
“I love it! The busier I am, the better,” Gorman said with a laugh. “We’ll get it done. No matter what it is, we’ll stay here 24 hours to get the bike repaired.”
As for the future of the industry? According to Jacoubowsky, some industry estimates project that bicycle inventory won’t return to normal until 2023.
Trek Bicycle Corporation, one of the largest bike companies in the United States, wrote in a March blog post that it nearly doubled its manufacturing capacity in the last nine months. But demand has almost tripled and still remains far ahead of production.
“I’m preparing myself for this to be the new normal until 2023 at this rate,” Jones said. “Once we fulfill the back orders that we have, that’s going to diminish the bike supply that is landing. And so we’re still not gonna have open stock.”
For those still on the hunt for a new bike, Jacoubowsky suggests looking for a bike shop that maintains a list of incoming inventory like his own. Those shops can provide more accurate estimates regarding wait times.
“If you find something you like, just buy it. Don’t ponder it. Don’t think about it. Don’t flinch,” Jones said. “There’s a strong chance that if you have horrible buyer’s remorse, the next day, you’ll be able to sell your bike on Craigslist for literally what you bought it for.”