I want to ride my bicycle, Freddie Mercury once sang.
Yeah, well, 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.
A 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. “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.
National numbers show the escalating demand.
Bike sales from January to March were up 78% from the same timeframe one year ago, according to Dirk Sorenson, sports industry analyst at NPD Group, a market research firm.
The January 2020 through March 2020 bike sales figures, coming during the earliest wave of shutdown orders in mid-March, were up 38% from the same point in 2019.
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.
Approximately 90% 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.”
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. For example, the vast majority of fireworks are created in China. People in the fireworks business say there’s plenty of fireworks still being made there, but bogged-down ports and a lack of capacity to get the product off of boats and into trucks and stores is keeping those fireworks out of consumers’ shopping carts.
The pandemic revealed that when it comes to supply chains, the concepts of “efficiency and resilience are frenemies,” said Harvey J. Miller, an Ohio State University professor who is 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.
Miller, by the way, recently went to his local bike store seeking certain type of bicycle tires. They’re on back order until April 2022, he said.
How can I get a bike soon and at a reasonable price?
“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.
Shoppers 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.