The New Bike Boom: The Bike Industry Is Blossoming During the COVID-19 Pandemic

words :: Drew Wayland.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a disaster for thousands of small businesses, but the impact of closures and stay-at-home orders has created the second great sales boom for bicycle shops around the world.

“I’ve been here for 33 years,” Marty Pluth, owner of Gregg’s Cycles in Seattle, said last week. “And I’ve never seen it this busy. The closest I could think of would be before my time, when the first big bike boom happened in the 1970s. Even now I think we’re doing better sales than they were then.”

The first bike boom made history in the first half of the seventies, as millions of North Americans rejected the motor vehicle in favor of the bicycle, which was both economically and environmentally friendly. Between 1970 and 1974, the intersection of the exploding green movement and the budding gas crisis made bikes a smart and trendy option, especially for people living in cities.

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“If I had 100 bikes today, I could sell 100 bikes today.”—Marty Pluth, Owner, Gregg’s Cycles

In just one six month period during 1973, the US government limited most citizens to driving only five days per week while passing over 60 laws to increase citizen access to cycling paths and commuting. We can credit the first bike boom with introducing millions of people to the bicycle, and therefore the sports of road and mountain biking.

Nearly fifty years later we are living through the largest shutdown of industry since World War II, and the disruptions have lent themselves to a new bike craze even more unpredictable than the last.

The demand for bicycles skyrocketed in North America within days of the first lockdowns. In cities like Seattle and Vancouver, the necessity of bicycles for delivery service and clean commuting became even more apparent, and many people were now looking for new ways to get outside and exercise. Biking occurred to many consumers as an obviously safer activity than going to the gym or playing team sports, especially to concerned parents.

The first bike boom coincided with a time of great civil unrest—coincidence? We think not. Bikes are always something we can fall back on. Photo :: Courtesy Getty Images

“The initial days and weeks after everything started for us were probably a lot like any business,” said Pluth. “We made decisions on a rolling basis as new information came about, and the state and county government gave us guidance. Hand sanitizer, wiping down surfaces, frequently cleaning our bathrooms, of course, and metering people at the door so they weren’t wandering around in packs when they came in to shop.”

What Pluth and other shop owners didn’t anticipate was a perfect storm to break profit records going back decades. As the coronavirus spread through Asia in the early months of 2020, the supply chain for many bicycle companies was disrupted. 

“Early on our suppliers were panicking and anticipating huge losses that never turned out, so they were offering us 25%, 35% and 40% off products,” says Simon Coutts, who owns Simon’s Bike Shop in downtown Vancouver. 

Coutts took advantage of the deals and ordered $2.5 million of merchandise in one month compared to a typical month in which he’d put down no more than $300,000. Simon’s has found itself even further ahead of the curve by having a fully stocked inventory. Gregg’s Cycles in Seattle, for example, has sparsely filled showrooms but hundreds of backorders already placed.

“If I had 100 bikes today, I could sell 100 bikes today,” said Pluth. “We’re selling bikes we don’t even have in the shop yet. We’ve never had to be so meticulous about keeping track of our inventory.”

Many bike shops have switched to appointment-only business during the pandemic, but Simon’s and Gregg’s have both remained open for customers, especially the essential workers who ride bicycles for a living, to come in for maintenance.

“We’re really proud to serve that community of people, our delivery workers and everybody who rides our bikes for their jobs, they’re incredibly important to us,” said Coutts. The mountain bikes, however, are still a hot commodity.

A typical scene in bike shops across North America—empty bike racks. Photo :: Courtesy Gregg’s Cycles

Gregg’s Cycles said that the greatest demand they are seeing is for kid’s bikes, hybrid bicycles and mountain bikes that are considered more user-friendly than drop-handled road or racing bicycles, mostly in the $400-700 range.

“I remember ordering 75 units of a 24-inch Specialized bike thinking it would hold us over for the summer,” said Pluth. “They sold out in 10 days.”

High-end road and mountain bikes can cost thousands of dollars, but many new bicyclists find lots to like about those under $700. Hybrid bikes with straight handlebars, for example, allow riders to sit in a more upright position, have lots of gears to make pedalling on the hills easier, and can go from paved roads to most gravel or dirt bike trails with few problems.

Cycle shop owners say they are grateful that they have seen so much success, in part because they are able to retain their employees at a time when many other businesses have been forced to lay off workers. 

“We put our employees first and foremost,” said Coutts. “Making sure they can still work safely and effectively came before everything else.”

An economist will tell you that a supply chain disruption is a perfect storm for chaotic sales, and in every bout of chaos, someone is bound to benefit. This time it was bike shops’ time to shine. 

Many of the most prominent mountain biking competitors got their start in the original bike boom of the early seventies. Time will tell if this surge will have a similar impact on the sporting side of the industry, with the potential for new athletes rising with every bicycle purchase.

“At the end of the day,” said Coutts, “you just love to see people take an interest in cycling. If we can make a profit off of that, I say great, but it’s always worth it just to meet people who love to ride.” —ML