Remember last spring when grocery store shelves were emptied of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies?
“That’s kind of what bike shops are like today,” said Marty Pluth, the general manager of Gregg’s Cycle in Green Lake. “Every bike that comes in is sold right away, so we never get to a point where we refill the tank.”
Last February and March, as the coronavirus emerged in the United States, manufacturers canceled bike orders, predicting an economic slow down for the industry.
But by late spring, demand had skyrocketed, brought on largely on by stay-at-home orders that stopped most travel and nixed gym visits but permitted distanced outdoor activities like bicycle riding. Bike shops across the country saw a record year for sales.
Now retail shops, including those around Seattle, are still playing catch-up with last year’s orders as demand remains high and supply is limited due to the pandemic’s impacts on bicycle production and distribution.
For customers hoping to snag a bike for this summer, the message is urgent: Start shopping now and expect a two- to three-month wait — unless you want to drop a couple grand or even more on an electric bike.
Pluth, who has been working in the bike industry since 1987, recalled a boom for mountain bikes in the 1990s and for road bikes in the 2000s influenced by Lance Armstrong. But “nothing even comes close to this, in terms of the demand we’re experiencing,” he said.
The number of bikes sold at retail stores in the United States soared 65% last year compared to 2019, according to Marissa Guyduy, a spokesperson for The NDP Group, which analyzes market trends. Bike sales in January 2021 grew 113% over January last year.
For its part, Seattle has encouraged more bike riding during the pandemic by expanding its network of bicycle lanes and closing more than 20 miles of residential streets to most vehicle traffic and opening them to people walking and biking.
Recreational trails also saw more bike traffic. Seattle’s bike counter at the Burke-Gilman Trail north of Northeast 70th Street tallied a 22% increase between March and September last year compared to the same time period in 2019.
Causes of the shortage
Gregg’s Cycles normally keeps about 2,000 bikes in its shop so riders can choose from a variety of sizes, colors and styles. After last year’s sales, Pluth said he’s down to about 200 adult bikes in stock and has 7,000 bikes on back order.
That’s because the supply chain has been nearly broken. Amid the record demand, COVID-19 disrupted bicycle production and distribution from Asia. Once bikes get to the U.S., staffing shortages at ports have also slowed the pace of shipments.
Currently, sales are mostly made through pre-orders, while the industry struggles to get bikes from factories to ports to shops.
Shawna Williams, who owns Free Range Cycles in Fremont, has seen an uptick in bike sales and repair requests. But distributors have limited the number of bikes and bike parts each shop can order, so all shops have at least some inventory, Williams said.
“Nowadays, the only bikes we have available [in stock] are the ones I chose back in September, so we can’t meet the needs of every customer,” Williams said in an email. She can, however, order bikes for shoppers.
Demand for refurbished bikes is up, as well. Bike Works, a nonprofit shop in Columbia City, sold more refurbished bikes last year than in 2019 — despite the challenges in getting new parts and temporarily closing down during Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order, said Kellen Rack, the shop director.
“A lot of people spent the early part of the pandemic cleaning up their houses,” Rack said. In turn, his shop received a steady stream of donations of bikes plucked from the cobwebs inside garages.
“We could have sold more bicycles if we had more space available,” Rack said, but the shop hired fewer workers to allow for more social distancing in the shop.
Standard bikes remain popular
The most popular bikes during the pandemic have been recreational models designed for riding on trails and around the neighborhood, and costing under $1,000, shop owners said.
Electric-assist bikes are more available because they are usually more expensive.
State Rep. Sharon Shewmake, D-Bellingham, wants to make electric bikes a bit more affordable and a more popular alternative to driving.
Her proposal, House Bill 1330, would provide a sales and use tax exemption for electric bicycles and related cycling equipment. (State Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, has proposed putting more taxes on bikes and bike parts, although his plans seem unlikely to pass.)
“I personally had a hard time getting over the sticker shock,” she said of her electric bike. “I never spent that much money on a bike before. And I love bikes. I ride all over the place.”
Even with the shortages, all hope isn’t lost for those in the market for a bike.
“If you’re lucky enough, if you’re the right size, if you’re looking for a more expensive electric bike, we might have something in stock,” Pluth, of Gregg’s Cycle, said. “But it’s like winning the lottery.”