Silicon Valley’s Bicycle Backlog: Covid-era Shipping Issues and New Demand Causes a Shortage

The main floor of The Bicycle Outfitter in Los Altos looks well-stocked at first glance, lined with bikes for almost any occasion, but those looking to buy say looks can be deceiving.

David Miller, The Bicycle Outfitter’s general manager, says he’s turning away customers daily due to a shortage of bikes—another unlikely ripple effect of the Covid-19 pandemic that has hampered the supply pipeline for many businesses, from bikes to boba tea. The pandemic has also pushed more people into bicycling while indoor gatherings remain limited, exacerbating the shortage, Miller says.

“I’m likely saying ‘no’ 10 times a day,” he says.

Miller has been in the cycling industry for nearly 40 years and has owned and managed bike shops across the state, including the 25,000-square-foot Action Sports shop in Bakersfield. He remembers this level of limited bicycle inventory once before, in the early 1970s cycling craze partially in response to the 1973 oil embargo.

Now, nearly half a century later, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to similar interest in cycling, from both novices and long-time experts. Yet, for Miller and other shop owners, the demand far outweighs the current supply—and there’s no sign of relief anytime soon.

Bike shops across the country have been experiencing increased demand since the nationwide shutdowns last March, as bike shops were deemed an essential business and reopened during the early months of the pandemic. For local retailers, that’s meant trying to keep up with the demand, but continuously seeing diminished supply.

Rob Mardell, co-owner of La Dolce Velo in San Jose, realized six months into the shelter-in-place ordinances that items were selling too out quickly in-store and his manufacturers weren’t doing much better at keeping up with inventory as the supply chain slowed substantially.

“We’d have to reach out to someone on eBay, or someone in Europe, or someone going out of business,” he says. “It’s still a full-time job trying to source bicycles, tires, wheels, tubes and everything else.”

Miller has had similar issues in Los Altos. He once had between eight to 12 employees working almost daily, but is now “a three-man show” for the past four months. His team followed county regulations by only allowing in one person in the store at a time, often leaving up to 10 customers waiting outside. He still sees lines out the door now at 50% capacity.

“We’re seeing a lot of new riders pulling their bicycles out of storage for repairs, and that’s great,” he says. “But that put a huge strain on demand for people to get certain things that were increasingly harder to get, because the nation was losing stock. It went from all the distributors having full warehouses to now, today, there’s nothing in the warehouse.”

Prior to the pandemic if a customer ordered a specific bike, the distributor could send one along in a few days, Miller says. Today, he and his staff are still waiting on back orders they placed in June 2020.

“We’ve had some bikes that have been pushed back over a year based on things that were designed to go in the box not being available,” he says. “We’re asking sales reps and distributors ‘when am I going to get this bike,’ and no one really has the correct answer.”

Any chance for negotiating down a price or finding a special deal on a bike has disappeared, which has been a shock to some customers, Mardell says.  Less expensive bikes—those that typically sell for $300 or less—are also scarce. La Dolce Velo sold all of those inexpensive options quickly, within the first month of reopening. Most that are available today go for $500 or more, he says.

Meanwhile, Mardell is still awaiting his 2021 Cannondale brand stock, for which he paid almost $200,000. The holdup isn’t the parts, but getting the built bikes to the U.S. because of a global shipping container shortage. He worries about how that will affect demand over time.

“There’s going to be a point where the bike brands can’t get their products to the U.S., that either the consumer demand is going to fall away quickly, or the consumer will have to deal with a much more expensive product,” he says.

Bumpy Ride

Indeed, cycling has grown in popularity for local residents, but the search for a ride has been bumpy.

Chris Higgins began his bicycle search shortly after the original shelter-in-place ordinances. He’d slowed his running and hiking routine and wanted another option to stay active. The cheapest bicycle he could find for his 6’4'' stature was $3,500.

“None of the bike shops had anything, or they’d be sold out,” he says. “There was just absolutely nothing—I was willing to pay $2,000 or $2,500.”

He wanted to shop local, but the bike shops he frequented in April 2020 continuously had delays on specific models or were completely out of stock. As a customer, he agrees the shortage seems to have only gotten worse, he says.

After searching for six months for a bicycle, Higgins finally bought a mountain bike from an online retailer in Malaysia. He ended up spending between $1,600 and $1,700, but says the bike likely retailed for around $800 prior to the pandemic.

“You’re paying a premium for a lower-end bike,” he says. “During the pandemic, I don’t think you’ll get what you’re paying for.”

San Jose native Cheryl Willardson decided a year ago, in May 2020, to get her own bicycle, hoping to revive a long-lost hobby from more than two decades ago. She was stumped by the lack of local inventory.

“You couldn’t go into a store to go on a bike—and there weren’t many bikes to try out,” she says.

Ultimately, she bought a 2019 model Cannondale Synapse from REI’s online store, a bike that currently retails for $2,650 to $3,000. Now her husband is facing the same daunting challenge as he searches for a new mountain bike.

“He’s done some searches online, and been surprised by how low the inventory is, if there is any and what the wait times are like,” she says. “He’s feeling my pain from where I was a year ago now.”

Despite the trials and tribulations, Mardell, of La Dolce Velo, says he hopes that the decreased bike supply won’t discourage cyclists from joining in on the trend.

“Bike shops are an essential part of the community,” he says. “Your passport to your community is your bicycle.”

But that doesn’t seem to be an issue for now. Miller, of The Bicycle Outfitter, says he sold 1,200 bikes last year compared to 800 in 2019 and he sees no slowing down on demand. People from outside the area are even starting to buy his limited supply.

“I have a customer flying in from Los Angeles for a bike this weekend,” he says. “There’s just no bikes… people go to great lengths to find a certain bike, and it’s so hard right now.”

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