By some weird twist of fate, COVID-19 reminded people how fun it is to ride bikes. Throughout the U.S. and the world, since the novel coronavirus shut down businesses, closed schools, and sent people home to work, new and existing riders are buying bikes faster than brands can make them, and retail shops carrying bikes are seeing record sales.
Patrick Hogan, spokesperson for PeopleForBikes Retail Business Intelligence Hub, a new online clearinghouse for bicycle industry trends, said that bicycle riding since March has increased by 21% over 2019 according to Eco-Counter, which uses automated counters across the U.S. to record bike trips in urban areas. The Retail Toolkit Independent Bike Dealer (IBD) sales index, based on data from several hundred U.S. bike shops, reports sales dollars have increased by an average of 37% over last year.
Retailers in some cities are reporting a 300% to 400% growth in bike sales compared to 2019, but they’re having a hard time keeping the momentum going because they can’t get products on their shelves. Here’s a rundown of the current state of the bike business, from manufacturing to retail to events and travel.
The biggest growth in bike sales has been in mountain bikes under $1,500, fitness bikes, gravel bikes, and mid-level full-suspension mountain bikes, according to Jesse Porter and Sam Benedict from Specialized’s U.S. sales and marketing team. Ryan Birkicht, senior communications manager for Pacific Cycle, said his brands have seen an explosion in sales of kids bikes and step-through women’s hybrids.
When gyms shut down and people were furloughed or working from home, the bike industry was well positioned to take advantage of the boom in bike buying. Manufacturers had most of their 2020 bikes in warehouses, so they weren’t hit hard immediately when Asian factories closed down.
“We hold a lot of inventory, so we had a lot of bikes ready for the season, and it took us a while to sell through them,” said Birkicht of Pacific Cycle, which owns Schwinn, Mongoose, and other budget brands. “We were in a great position when everyone went home for quarantine in the U.S., though no one could have expected the demand.”
Chris Conroy, co-owner of Yeti Cycles, said the company started March strong, had a slow first half of April, and then by May business was “blistering.” When shutdowns hit, Yeti pivoted to producing face shields and masks with partners Black Diamond and Smith. “We didn’t panic. We kept staff intact, we continued to invest in product development,” said Conroy.
In 2019, under Trump’s trade war with China, many imported bicycles and related products were hit with an additional 25% in tariffs in addition to existing 11% tariffs. In 2020, many bicycle industry manufacturers kept orders lean so they wouldn’t get stuck with overpriced, old-model-year products they’d need to dump cheaply when 2021 models started hitting the market during the summer, while also holding out hope the additional tariffs will eventually be dropped.
“Our biggest challenge is to know what product to bring in when,” said Conroy. “We don’t know the magnitude of this. COVID could peter out or come back in the fall with a vengeance. We’re in uncharted territory.”
That said, both Pacific Cycle and Yeti say they haven’t changed either their product-design schedule or inventory planning moving forward. “We aren’t creating products due to current conditions,” said Birkicht. “We think this was a unique event.”
Where shops are open, the hustle is real. “But it’s on the back of hard work, long hours, and tighter staff while balancing keeping everyone safe,” say Porter and Benedict.
“As soon as social distancing and furloughs started, the bike market immediately exploded,” said Brian Gootee, owner of Gray Goat Sports, a chain of four bike shops in and around Indianapolis that was considered essential during shutdowns. His stores stayed open and fully staffed all spring.
In March, on a hunch, Gootee over-ordered and opened with new brands. Now, he says he’s surviving on backorders trickling in, and he can’t receive a PO without it being assigned to a special order, some of which were placed 12 weeks ago. Some suppliers have told Gootee they’re sold out for the rest of the calendar year.
“It’s a feeding frenzy,” said Gootee, 52, who has worked in the bike industry since he was 15, and who opened his first store in 2003. “We’ve been trying to restart the bike industry since the 1990s. Now we’re caught with our pants down.”
Gootee says that increasing bike sales by 10% a year used to be tough. Now he’s worried he’ll run out of things to sell, and interest in buying bikes will dry up if there aren’t bikes to buy. He’s not sure how he’ll stay in business in July and August, although his service departments will be busy.
Indianapolis deemed bikes essential. Vermont did not, and independent bike dealers were forced to close along with other nonessential retail. In Burlington, Vermont, Outdoor Gear Exchange, a 50,000-square-foot shop was allowed one employee and no customers, so the management chose to close entirely. But even with the doors locked and the website notifying customers of the shutdown, customers wanted bikes.
Mike Donohue, mission control for OGE (who is also my husband), was getting email messages at the shop’s general mailbox from people begging to buy bikes. He got creative, drop-shipping a pair of kids bikes to our house and assembling them before delivering them to twin 11-year olds in a customer’s driveway. Another day he rendez-voused with a new rider at a park n’ ride to hand off a bike, then he delivered a bike to a customer who hadn’t ridden in 15 years but wanted to ride with his daughter. The customer later called Donohue to thank him for facilitating a more profound father-daughter experience than that customer had had in years.
But after eight weeks of closure and a limit to customers in the store at any time since, the future remains uncertain. “Bike sales are the strongest we’ve ever seen,” said Donohue. “But we’re in a new normal and it’s going to be a challenging year for sure.”
Events and Travel
“Everything in Colorado through August is cancelled or postponed,” said Mike McCormack, organizer of the Breck Epic, a summer stage race held in Breckenridge. “You can put all the social distancing in place that you want, but once you get 425 people on a trail, all that goes out the window.”
“We’re asking athletes how they feel and what they want us to do,” said Kimo Seymour, senior vice president of Life Time Fitness, which owns Dirty Kanza, Leadville , Crusher in the Tushar, and other iconic bike races. Cancellations to date were at the direction of local officials. “Now, we’re exploring every possible variation or alteration we can to put events on. We want to create memorable, fantastic experiences for our athletes, and we’re not sure how great an experience it will be to ride for 12 hours at 10,000 feet with a mask on.”
Colorado didn’t tell McCormack he had to cancel his race. He did it because he believes it was the safe thing to do for riders, volunteers, staff, and the community. Instead, this summer McCormack is running Epic in Place, a challenge to pedal 549 miles, the length of the Colorado Trail, anywhere by September. So far the event has 550 participants, and it’s raised $7,500 for charities, including the Colorado Trail Foundation and First Descents.
Euan Wilson, co-owner of H&I Adventures, which runs mountain bike tours worldwide, says his company was lucky. When restriction went into place, it was days before the start of a busy season, but they didn’t have anyone out on tour.
“Most guests were good about moving bookings to another date,” said Wilson, who has rescheduled travelers starting this July. Many of H&I’s guests chose to postpone travel until 2021. Wilson and his staff got on the phone with their customers, which allowed them to shift 98% of their upcoming bookings to another date or place or both instead of issuing refunds. “When you talk to people, they realize there are humans behind a company,” said Wilson. “By talking, we’ve been able to come up with a resolution that suits everybody.”
As restrictions loosen and time pressures return to American life, PeopleForBikes’ Hogan says shops and manufacturers should expect to see sales and participation drop off even with explicit efforts to support new riders.
Gootee agrees that the spike in bike sales this spring was an anomaly but thinks next year could be up 25% over 2019. “No one is going to hot yoga or to the gym any time soon,” he said. “A massive COVID spike is predicted for fall. People aren’t going back to their old ways. Come spring, we’ll all be bitching to get outside again, and people are going to buy bikes.”
Outdoor Gear Exchange and other retailers are bracing for the next shutdown and putting practices in place so they won’t be taken by surprise. “Before the shutdown, we had a strong set of protocols to meet or exceed CDC and other health department standards,” said Donohue. “Since then, we’ve ratcheted up, following VOSHA requirements, wearing masks, taking temperatures, reporting daily on health conditions, and updating best practices constantly. We’ve sourced PPE, cleaning supplies, and we know that when the next wave of COVID comes, we’ll be set up to operate in a safe and physically distanced way so that we can continue to serve our customers, even if we’re limited to curbside delivery and service.”
According to Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, the draft U.S. House Transportation Committee transportation reauthorization bill contains $6.3 billion for biking and walking infrastructure, as well as safety and accessibility measures. The U.K. and France have both announced a significant investment in cycling infrastructure. Pacific Cycle’s Birkicht, who is also a board member at PeopleForBikes, said, “Hopefully new riders will stay recreational riders beyond quarantine.” Seymour feels similarly: “A piece of me thinks that shitty as COVID is for the event industry, it could provide new event participants.” And Wilson thinks he’ll start seeing COVID-era cyclists on tour in the medium to long term.
What makes Seymour nervous is what the economy will look like down the road. “The part I can’t predict is what spending power will be in a year or two,” he said.
For McCormack, the bigger concern is America’s mental health now. “We’re in a crisis that was building before this started,” said McCormack. “Getting connected and getting out of the mental malaise matters. Kids are committing suicide. People are sad. Moving your body helps, and that’s why biking is booming.”