Saturday, June 27, 2020

A New Bike Boom

Been to a bike shop lately?

If you have, you probably noticed a lot of empty racks. If you were actually looking to buy a bike, you may have been told you'd have to place an order and wait indefinitely for a bike to come in. If you needed repairs on a bike you currently own, you may have even found a longer than usual wait to get the job done.
Our local shop had a few rental bikes on the rack, and a handful
of others with "sold" tags on them.

It's uncertain how long the situation will last, but for now, it seems that we might be in the midst of a new "bike boom" - or more specifically - a "COVID19 Bike Boom." What's going on seems to be what one might call a "perfect storm," of increased demand, and reduced supply -- and a lot of it has to do with the reaction to the corona virus, both at home and abroad.

I was talking with the folks at my local bike shop, and what they have been experiencing seems to fit the stories that people are sharing all over the country. More people are buying bikes (along with helmets and other accessories), and others are getting long-neglected bikes road-worthy again. As far as the shortage goes, what the experts are saying is that there are several factors that have led to the supply/demand issue.

First, bike shops (in most states) remained open even as many other businesses were closed. The need for transportation meant that many states declared bicycle shops "essential businesses" - and if you're reading this blog, you probably agreed with that notion.

Second, people have been "cooped up" with little to do - but outdoor exercise has generally been permitted, as long as people try to maintain some "social distancing." Many people have discovered - or re-discovered - bicycling as a great way to get some exercise and enjoyment. The fact that fitness centers were closed (and may still be closed) fits right into that as well.

Third, the supply of new bicycles has been disrupted - first because of economic uncertainty, and second because of the virus. According to bicycle industry insiders, many manufacturers had already reduced their production in the last couple of years because of concerns about the current president's trade war. One source I found said production had been down as much as 25 - 30% even before the virus hit. Remember that China accounts for a huge percentage of the world's current bicycle production. If you factor in Taiwan and Japan into the figure, you'll find that the vast majority of bicycles and components are made somewhere in Asia - regardless of what brand might be on the frame. And Asian countries were among the first to shut down because of the virus - and to take the most serious measures to contain its spread.

The last time we had a drastic increase in demand for bicycles was the bike boom of the early 1970s. In that "American Bike Boom" sales of bicycles jumped from about 7 million in 1970 to 14 million in 1972. And the biggest part of that increase was in adult bicycles which had previously been only a small market segment. The tremendous spike in demand meant that American and European factories could not keep up, which proved to be a major opportunity for Japanese bike and component manufacturers who had been eager to break into the American market. Within a decade, they would dominate the world.

There are a few things that are different this time time around. As mentioned already, most of the world's bicycles are now being made in China and Taiwan. As their factories closed down due to virus concerns, there's really nowhere else that could pick up the slack. Most bike "brands" that we might associate as "American," "British," "European" are now nothing more than names on decals that get stuck on the bikes. So when the Asian factories shut down, nobody else had the production capacity to crank out bikes to meet the demand, and that has meant empty racks in the shops, and a waiting game for new bikes to come in.

Another difference is that in the '70s bike boom, the biggest chunk in sales was in "adult" bicycles -- but especially for lower priced, entry-level "10-speeds." From what I understand from talking to both sales people and buyers is that this time people are buying everything and anything they can get their hands on. If they've got the means, they've even been buying the high-ticket items like bikes with electronic and wireless shifting. While it can be a little harder to track accurately,  I've heard anecdotally that even sales of used bicycles are up. Whatever people can do to satisfy their current itch.

One thing that remains to be seen is how long before things go back to "normal." Demand could remain high as long as there is uncertainty about the virus and there are restrictions on what people can do for exercise and entertainment. I understand that factories in Asia are starting up again, so production should soon start meeting the demand.

Another thing that remains to be seen is how long will all these people who can't wait to get their hands on a new bike stay interested in biking. Not long after the boom of the 1970s, an awful lot of those bikes that were sold ended up collecting dust in basements and garages all over America. One can still find them today at garage sales for bargain prices, or (if you're really lucky) out on the curb on trash day, free for the taking. Will the current buyers be different? Will they keep riding even after everything is reopened and concerns about social distancing are just a memory? Or will the later half of the decade see tons of used bike bargains?

Only time will tell.


  1. Coincidentally, bicycle thefts also seem to have spiked. More people unemployed seeking any means of income combined with the value of used trafficked bicycles presumably having gone up.

  2. I am in the process of restoring a mid level 1987 steel road bike for my wife, and have encountered a discouraging and unprecedented scarcity of decent components during the past few weeks. Beat-up used drop bars that people would probably have thrown away a year ago are fetching $30+ on ebay, and are below the condition I would be willing to put on anything I'm building. To purchase simple brake levers, I had to sift through about 20 online retailers to even find one that could supply the desired (and common) model, and then the price was almost double what it would have been last year. Tubes?...what used to cost $7 is now $12 or more. I visited my LBS a couple days ago, and they informed me that they had neither brake levers or tubes of the size I need, but "we can order them...though it might be quite a while before they come in".

    Despite the frustrations with the supply chain, I hope it is an indication that Americans are increasingly using bikes for transportation and exercise. I anticipate that supply vs demand will begin to creep toward something more normal when winter comes. If this boom plays out as previous ones did, in a couple years there will be an abundance of lightly used bikes at inexpensive prices on the resale market.

  3. If cycling is the most efficient, healthiest and safest way to get to work people will do it - they are not stupid. but they will not until all three are in place (in any meaningful way that is).

  4. One difference between the bike booms of the 70s and today is that then, as you point out, a lot of young people were “graduating “ from their “muscle” bikes. Another is the “counterculture “ element you mention.

    What those factors meant was that, while some people were commuting by bike, most Americans didn’t see the bicycle as a viable transportation alternative. Save in a few college towns (like Davis, CA), there was no bicycle infrastructure and folks who rode their bikes to work were seen as misfits or merely clowns

    In short, cycling became mainly a leisure-time activity for adults, and the bicycle, which had been seen as a toy for kids, became one.for adults.

    Today, there is more cycling infrastructure, at least in some places. Thus, more people are coming to see the bicycle as a vehicle. That gives me hope that the current “boom” might have more staying power.

  5. It was about a year ago that I saw pictures on the internet of millions of bicycles in piles in China, all junk. I think the rental market collapsed, but if it did I don't know why.

    It was another example of how China uses it capacity to vastly overbuild stuff that people don't want. See "China ghost cities." I wonder what happened to all those bikes.

    1. To my understanding, there was a huge push on implementing bike share docks that companies could go through the government to get funds to establish. This lead to basically anyone with the slightest inclination to get in on it, and ultimately lead to a ton of basically unused bike docks and bikes. Culturally, China seems to be shifting away from cycle transport and is embracing the car in increasing numbers.

  6. I located the article about millions of junk bicycles in China. The waste is staggering:

    The Bike-Share Oversupply in China: Huge Piles of Abandoned and Broken Bicycles
    Bike sharing remains very popular in China, and will likely continue to grow, just probably at a more sustainable rate. Meanwhile, we are left with these images of speculation gone wild—the piles of debris left behind after the bubble bursts..."