During normal times, bike shops in The City would have slowed to a crawl this by time of year.
The winter months are typically when shops get a brief break, a time to exhale, reset and restock before warmer weather brings business back through the door.
But on a Wednesday afternoon in January, Spoke Easy, a small bike shop in the Richmond District, has a steady line out the door and the service department is booked nearly a month out.
That is, of course, because these are not normal times.
While COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on supply chains and altered consumer behavior across the board, one of the industries most severely jolted has been the bike industry. Demand for bikes skyrocketed amid the pandemic, prompting a worldwide bike shortage that’s shown no signs of easing up.
“My suppliers, their inventory is totally out of stock,” said Anson Vaughan, the owner of Spoke Easy. “As soon as bikes come into stock, they’re just gone again.”
Whether it’s been people looking for new ways to get active, commuters wanting to avoid public transit, parents looking to get outside with their kids, or simply folks with a lot more time on their hands to explore on two wheels, bicycling’s popularity — in the Bay Area and across the country — has soared.
Bicycle sales as much as tripled the previous year’s numbers in certain segments, according to the NPD Group, a market research company.
“People were coming in and asking for bicycles, and I didn’t have any solutions for them,” Vaughan said. “Anything under that $1,500 hundred price point, it’s been really crazy to get a hold of.”
Vaughan, like other shop owners in The City, had to stray from the usual brands he stocks in order to meet demand. Though there are now some bikes ready for purchase on his showroom floor, customers set on particular models from popular manufactures may leave disappointed.
Scott, one of the primary bicycle brands carried by Spoke Easy, has seen its inventory run nearly dry of bikes costing less than $5,000, Vaughan said. It’s a similar story with the other big brands Spoke Easy typically sells.
And the shortages at his shop and others could last deep into the year, possibly beyond.
Chris Holmes, brand director for Marin bikes, a bicycle manufacturer based in Petaluma that supplies bikes globally, said he has no idea when they’ll be able to satiate dealer demand.
“Some of our bikes are pre-booked through the end of the summer,” said Holmes. “I’ve been in the bike biz for over 25 years and have never seen anything like this.”
Holmes said the biggest hurdle for bike companies is the sourcing of components — things like brakes, tires and saddles.
“Some common parts currently have 400-450 day lead times, so our logistics and product development teams have had to scramble to make substitutions,” he said.
That’s partly due to COVID-shutdowns in factories in Asia where such parts are produced. In Marin’s case, similar to other large manufactures, those shutdowns had little effect initially as the company had a safety-stock of pre-made bikes. But even with those factories back open and working overtime, as the pandemic wore on and demand skyrocketed, the backlogs for the necessary components grew.
Long lead times mean making risky predictions regarding future demand. What manufactures and retailers alike want to avoid is getting stuck with too much inventory if and when the boom fizzles out.
With the time it takes for a bike to go from production (when decisions like how much of a certain component to purchase are made) to ready-to-go on a showroom floor, that can prove to be quite the gamble.
“Nobody quite realizes how complicated the bike supply chain is,” said Matt Adams, president of Mike’s Bikes, a Bay Area-based retailer with 12 Northern California locations.
Even inexpensive bikes may require parts from 50 different factories, and those parts then need to come together for assembly at yet another factory, he said.
“Those that reacted quickly in April and started to increase their production back then, those bikes are just starting to come online now,” said Adams.
“Back then, nobody really knew how long — a lot of people thought this [bike boom] would only last through the summer,” he said.
But, according to Adams, sales haven’t slowed at Mike’s Bikes even as winter’s set in.
What has shifted is the type of bikes people are buying. While entry-level bikes were flying off the shelves early on, more expensive bikes, particularly performance-level mountain bikes and electric bikes, are now seeing increased sales, according to Adams.
Some bikes in those categories simply aren’t available, he said.
“It’s kind of hit-or-miss depending on what you’re looking for,” said Adams, and it will likely stay that way through fall.
“My guess is that come springtime we will start to see another crazy boom in demand,” he said. “Will inventory have recovered enough by then? I doubt it.”
So what’s the best advice for buying a new bike? Adams and Holmes both recommend patience.
Until inventory levels return to normal, Holmes said to work with a local dealer that can help you secure a spot in line for the bike you want.
“Put a deposit down,” he said. “And expect to wait a bit.”