Since the COVID-19 pandemic delivered a collective middle finger to the entire world in 2020, massive shortages have upended pretty much every sector of trade.
Product shortages have developed for several reasons, including staffing issues, increased demand, and broken supply chains. The bicycle market, in particular, was acutely impacted by shortages early in the pandemic.
People found a sense of freedom in biking that offered a break from the monotony of quarantine. Bicycles were among the first items to fly off shelves. Until recently, they hadn’t bounced back with new inventory.
Many companies have been posting dates for new arrivals months before expected availability. Additionally, with inflation rampant, prices are up, up, up.
Depending on where you live and the types of shops around you, finding the perfect bike can still be a difficult task, even if conditions are improving.
Is the Global Bicycle Shortage Ending?
Mainstream media covered the glut of bicycles through the pandemic pretty consistently. Most stories focused on the struggle riders and shops faced to find complete bikes and parts to service existing bikes. New headlines have begun to emerge, harkening to the arrival of a new day of plenty for the market.
A recent story on NPR’s “Here & Now” laid out how the shortage that has afflicted the market since 2020 is no more. The report “Bike surplus hits U.S. companies big and small” says that since much of the world has returned to a lifestyle more in line with pre-pandemic norms, bikes are not as hot of a commodity as they were.
This includes in-home trainers like Peloton and others. Roben Farzad, the host of NPR’s “Full Disclosure,” said bike retailers ordered huge inventory, as demand was high during the pandemic’s peak. Now, with waning demand, bikes are sitting on the shelves.
Another story from ABC News 23 in Bakersfield, Calif., echoed those sentiments. Its report, dubbed “Don’t Waste Your Money: The ‘Great Bicycle Shortage’ Is Over, but Prices Are Still Up,” talks about how there are plenty of bikes available, albeit for a higher price.
Stories like these may encourage many to head to their local bike shop to throw down some savings on items they’ve wanted since the pandemic. But things may not be that clear-cut.
While bicycle retailers aren’t hurting as much as they were at the pandemic’s beginning, it can still be hard to find bikes and components.
Andy Howard, owner and founder of Galaxy Bicycles in San Marcos, Texas, said shortages are still causing significant issues for bike retailers. Howard has been selling bikes in San Marcos for over a decade. He first owned a shop called The Hub, then opened Galaxy in a new location just before the pandemic.
“It’s been a very different climate,” he said.
Howard said he already had placed orders he would need for his new business just before the pandemic took hold in the U.S., which put him in a much better position when things fell apart in 2020. However, anything that has come out since that was not pre-booked about a year in advance or more is virtually impossible to get.
“The bikes are already allocated. So if you ordered bikes a long time ago, you may have inventory,” he said.
If not, you’re out of luck for now.
Higher-end bikes have been easier to come by, but not bikes in the “sweet spot” for most consumers. The sweet spot usually is around the $2,000 mark. Fewer people buy top-tier models compared to more entry- or mid-level options.
Parts and accessories also have been a challenge.
Howard said he had stayed up late into the night tracking inventory to jump on items when they became available. That tactic enabled him to keep parts in stock and continue 24-hour turnaround service throughout the pandemic.
But Howard said he’s also seen and heard of shops placing large orders after they ran out of everything at the beginning of the pandemic, only to see items sit on the shelves. So while inventory may be rising, it may not be the inventory currently in demand.
Howard said he still is waiting for the parts he ordered a year ago. Now, he’s going with his gut and hedging his bets on his ability to adapt quickly.
He said the position a bike shop is in now depends on where they were at the beginning of the pandemic. Things like the ability to place orders quickly, the amount of storage space for inventory, and how much sleep shop owners and employees are willing to sacrifice to stay on top of orders and still crank out repairs all determine what is possible.
“It’s not normalizing yet. I think we still have another … I don’t know,” he said. “I would hope we are getting closer by spring of next year. But I don’t really know.”
Looming Bicycle Shortage Threats
A “normalized” bicycle market requires a normalized world too. Recently, there always seem to be more threats to supply chains and trade lurking at every turn.
For example, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has widely been blamed for increases in inflation worldwide. The conflict has led to significant shortages of grain, neon, and other commodities that have far-reaching consequences on food and manufacturing around the globe.
Luckily for the cycling community, Russia and Ukraine do not have a stranglehold on bicycles and componentry. But two other countries with simmering tensions do.
China and Taiwan have been embroiled in a political conflict for decades that has recently boiled up. Many fear current animosity could lead to another conflict in which historic sanctions are likely to be levied.
Worse, full-scale war could bring production to a screeching halt. To understand the potential problem, all you need to do is look at the source of components on your bike or other items in your home.
According to The Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), China and Taiwan accounted for $3.28 billion and $1.23 billion, respectively, in bicycle exports in 2020. That makes them the world’s two largest exporters of bicycles by a massive margin.
The third largest exporter in 2020 was Germany, which exported $779 million worth of bikes, according to the OEC. The total world bicycle trade produced $9.11 billion in 2020. So, China and Taiwan accounted for more than half of all bikes shipping worldwide.
When Should You Buy?
Whether the bicycle shortage is ending or hurtling toward a new complicated shakeup, it’s a tough time to be in the market for a bike.
Consumers will likely pay top dollar if they can find the bike they want. If not, they may have to settle on what is available for the time being. At worst, they might have to hold off and hope things move toward pre-pandemic conditions.
It’s still unclear whether those conditions are just around the corner or further off. It seems much of the bike market varies depending on where people are.
Whether or not now is the right time feels like a roll of the dice. But what hasn’t felt like a dice roll in the past couple of years?