Remember a few months back when the odds of finding a roll of toilet paper were about the same as locating a pay telephone booth?
Well, walk into your local bicycle store these days and the situation is about the same as TP was – empty shelves and shoulder-shrugging sales people.
You see, the two-wheelers business has been hit by the perfect storm, thanks to our deadly little nemesis that encompasses the globe.
First, most bike frames sold in the USA are assembled in China (gears, brakes, seats, etc. come from Japan). China, as you know, experienced beaucoup health issues early in the pandemic.
So production lagged. Big time.
Meanwhile, over here in the States, millions of people found themselves out of work. As the weather warmed up but schools, restaurants, libraries, theaters remained closed, people looked to break out in a safe way.
Ta-da. Let’s get everyone in the family a bicycle and relive our youth.
So, tearing a page out of the Black Friday handbook, people rushed out and stripped bike stores clean.
But because the flow of bikes was reduced to a trickle, inventory only lasted a couple months.
In most cases now, bikes are for sale only on a buy-and-wait basis. A bike might take a few weeks or a few months.
Then comes Problem #2: With so many new bikes on the roads and trails, someone has to make repairs, fix flats, etc.
So while bike store owners have seen sales dry up, they’re now swamped keeping bikes in shape rather than selling them.
And there doesn’t appear to be an end in sight.
But at least that pays the bills.
Bob Burke, who operates Guy’s Bicycles in Feasterville, says the problem can’t be totally blamed on the pandemic, at least from the production side of the coin.
“The demand for bikes became so huge that most people are putting the blame on COVID, that China can’t produce fast enough,’’ Burke said. “That’s really not the case.
“For 40 years, the system was exactly the same: America bought ‘X’ number of bikes every year. But when the COVID thing came on, and people can’t do anything but stuff like biking, they all want to buy bikes.’’
Case in point: The Delaware Canal towpath has now become a slightly slower version of the Tour de France. On a sunny Saturday morning, bike traffic has tripled, possibly quadrupled.
“People literally bought up the inventory in North America,’’ Burke said. “From Mexico to Canada, it’s gone. We ran out by early June.’’
If conditions improve in the Far East, Burke expects some bicycles to start showing up as demand drops — particularly as the weather cools and recreational cyclists call it a season.
“A lot of folks saw it as we did really, really good in May and June because we sold all our inventory, which is everyone’s goal,’’ Burke said. “As the owner of any retail store, you want to sell your product.
“But you want to sell it four times a year, not once. It’s actually sad to tell customers all day long, sorry, we don’t have any bikes.’’
All that said, Burke reveals he’s putting in more hours per week than at any point in his 40 years at the store.
Repairs, repairs, repairs. The appointment book is backed up two, three weeks or more.
“Right now we’re about two and a half weeks behind in work,’’ Burke said. “There’s a line out the door into the parking lot right now as we speak.
“We close earlier now because we have to work later just to keep up (with repairs). If we keep the door open, we’ll never get done.’’
Guy’s keeps its staff of 15 employees still working full-time.
“But we need bike sales,’’ Burke added. “We’re going backwards a bit but we’re not complaining.’’
People continue to come into the store with hopeful looks, even though the racks are empty.
“This will go down in the books as the biggest bike boom that every happened,’’ Burke noted. “Originally, 1971 was the biggest bike boom that ever took place. But this thing now has just spiked through the roof.
“It’s everything — cycling shoes, shirts, shorts, helmets in absolute panic mode. You can’t blame China for that, that’s just demand.’’
Burke said bikes can’t be constructed in the U.S. simply because of labor costs. It’s just cheaper to build them overseas and no company is going to pay more just so it can stick a “Made in the USA’’ decal on its frames.
U.S.-based Trek, the biggest bike producer in the industry, had never sold one million bikes in a year.
Now they already have one million bikes on back order for 2021.
Over at Newtown Bike Shop, owner and manager Harry Betz continues to make do, putting in long hours on the repair and maintenance side of things.
“Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought we would have sold all the bikes in the store,’’ Betz said. “The phone is ringing off the hook with people looking for bikes (you’re a bike shop, you should have bikes) and overwhelming service requests to the point we have had to refuse work.
“It’s now July and still no new bikes except for a couple kids’ and a couple road bikes. Service work is off the hook and currently a three-week wait.’’
Mike Joseph, who owns and operates Firehouse Cycles in Yardley, also reports working longer hours to keep up with repair demand.
“Like most businesses and individuals who have kept their jobs during this time, we are working about 50 percent more than we have in the past,’’ Joseph said.
“We have shut down our repair business four times this season (usually a week at a time). We have never done that before, but the flood of repair bikes necessitates that. We cannot fix them faster than they are coming. Before, our typical tune-up wait was about seven days. This year it’s 10-14 days.’’
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