Harvey J. Miller, an Ohio State University professor, wanted to buy a tire for his bike recently. His local bike store told him the tires he wanted are on back order — until April 2022.
That, it turns out, is the least of cyclists problems this summer. Buying a bicycle at a reasonable price is proving even more difficult for many Americans.
Bike sales rose 78% on the year between January and March, after rising 38% during the same period last year, according to Dirk Sorenson, sports industry analyst at NPD Group, a market-research firm.
I want to ride my bicycle, Freddie Mercury once sang. These days, seemingly everybody’s got that idea. Now go try to buy one.
More than a year into a pandemic that geared up the allure of biking — an outdoor activity where it’s already a good idea to stay at least a couple feet away from another person — it can be pretty difficult to get bikes and bike parts.
Some industry estimates project it will be 2023 before inventory gets back to normal levels.
“The demand has exceeded the supply of bicycles on a global level,” said Heather Mason, president of the National Bicycle Dealers Association, a trade group with approximately 700 members. Some industry estimates project it will be 2023 before inventory gets back to normal levels, Mason said.
Mike Gray, owner of Sourland Cycles, said he’s added 1,500 new customers into his database who have visited his Hopewell, N.J. store and bought something since the pandemic started.
At the same time, the current moment is “incredibly frustrating” because it seems like he gets calls every hour from people “looking for bikes that you can’t get them.”
If someone walked in Gray’s store right now, they’d have a choice of less than 10 bikes to buy on the spot. Pre-pandemic, Gray had about 200 bikes ready to purchase and roll out the door.
Alternative to gyms, staying home
What gives? Cycling was the ideal way to get around during the pandemic for many people living in cities and those who fled them during the peak of COVID-19.
During the pandemic, people were cooped up, and riding a bicycle was one relatively safe way to be outdoors and social distance from other people.
With less traffic and more wariness about taking public transportation, it was also an easier way to get around the city streets.
There was a COVID-related migration from urban centers to the suburbs and exurbs, and cycling seemed like a natural way to explore the surrounding area, get in much-needed exercise while also taking care of one’s mental health.
“Cycling traffic after the pandemic began in 2020 increased by 50% from the same time the previous year in New York City and that several metro areas modified traffic patterns, and opened more miles of roads to accommodate bikers and pedestrians,” according to a U.S. Census Bureau report on the shortage.
Cycling was the ideal way to get around for many people living in cities and those who fled them during the peak of COVID-19.
“When many fitness centers across the United States closed temporarily, gym members quickly looked for other alternatives,” it added.
“This burst of interest in biking increased demand for lower-priced bikes and, at the same time, bike aficionados continued to buy high-end gravel, mountain, road and electric bikes that can cost thousands of dollars,” the Census Bureau said.
This combination of increased consumer demand and pandemic-related supply chain snags have gummed up the works for all kinds of products, including cars and fireworks.
“It’s clear that American consumers have relied heavily on imports of bicycles — primarily from China,” the Census Bureau said in its report.
“Bike imports dipped significantly in March 2020 but, by September, imports had rebounded. More than half of the $124 million in bicycle imports in January 2021 came from China ($69.8 million). Taiwan ($30.0 million) and Cambodia ($14.6 million) ranked second and third.”
More than half of the $124 million in bicycle imports in January 2021 came from China, the Census Bureau said.
Prices are climbing too, the data shows. Average selling price during this year’s first quarter was 27% higher than 2020’s first quarter.
“Factors for this increase include limited retail supply and consumers increasing their purchases of more expensive bike categories, like e-bikes,” Sorenson said.
A majority of the bikes people ride in America are manufactured and assembled in China and other Asian countries, said Jay Townley, a founding partner and resident futurist at Human Powered Solutions, a consulting firm studying the bicycling industry and other non-car modes of transportation.
The current bike shortage is the result of a demand surge coinciding with a “supply-chain nightmare,” he said. “The side effects and collateral damage continues to this day.”
It’s a running theme this summer. The bike industry, like many other sectors, is still feeling the effects of the supply chain issues that started early in the pandemic when Chinese ports were either shut down or significantly slowed.
Similarly, people in the fireworks business say there are plenty of fireworks still being made in China, but bogged-down ports and a lack of capacity to get the product off of boats and into trucks and stores.
The pandemic that the concepts of “efficiency and resilience are frenemies” for supply chains, said Miller, who is also the director of the university’s Center for Urban and Regional Analysis.
The focus on efficiency can be valuable because it means conserving energy and resources. “But when we focus on efficiency, we often lose sight of resiliency,” which emphasizes back-up plans and systems, added steps and stop gaps, he said.
Don’t forget Craigslist
“There are bikes to be had, but you got to go and find them,” Mason said.
Demand is easing somewhat for kids’ bikes and lower priced bikes (below $500) that are often sold at big box retailers and sporting goods chains, according to Townley.
The shortage, however, remains particularly acute for mid-priced bikes — from $500 to $1,000 — as well as bikes above the $1,000 price point and e-bikes, Townley said.
The best bet is to ask around at several different local bike stores, Mason said.
Shoppers should tell the store the type of bike they are seeking, but be open to different types of bikes if those are out of stock or on back order. “Be communicative, be flexible, but don’t delay,” Mason said.
Consumers should also be willing to travel to pick up their bike, because a store might not want to bother with shipping, given the demand, Gray said. In one instance, he had a customer drive from Boston to his New Jersey store to pick up a bike.
Don’t forget places like Craigslist.org to buy a bike for the summer, Gray said. He’ll often get customers seeking tune-ups on second-hand bikes they bought online. “It’s not a bad way to go,” he said.