Doug Grosset was searching for the perfect bike for his 15-year-old son last month.
If he went with the Salsa Timberjack with Shimano SLX components and Rockshox fork – his first choice – Grosset would have had to wait 11 months for the bike to ship.
He ended up having to choose his second choice, the Shimano Deore components and a Suntour fork, as he confronted a new reality of bicycle shortages that people across Maine and the country are encountering thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.
“It’s incredibly frustrating, but it’s the new reality,” Grosset, a media salesman and longtime bicyclist, said about his search. “I consider myself fortunate because as a former, longtime bike shop employee, I’m able to utilize my experience and relationships to find alternatives. … The average customer does not have that luxury and I sympathize with their pain.”
The pandemic that started in Asia in late 2019 has forced bike manufacturers to close their factories, leading to an inventory shortage at the retail level. At the same time, demand for bikes is soaring. According to NPD, a market research company, leisure bike sales are up 121 percent, and sales of children’s bikes are up 56 percent.
At Gorham Bike & Ski, which has four locations in Maine, General Manager Dave Palese said that on a “really good day” the stores collectively will sell around 30 bikes. The average amount that a customer will spend on a bike is between $500 and $700.
“Around March 15, when the (economic) shutdown went into effect, we were at the beginning of our bike season,” Palese said. “We had a good inventory of around 500 to 1,000 bikes and we were selling bikes left and right.”
Under Maine’s coronavirus state of emergency, Gorham Bike & Ski transitioned to online sales and curbside delivery, or in some cases, delivery to customers’ homes.
CycleMania, another Portland bike shop, is having the same experience. Manager Ben Sawyer said they’re wondering what sales would be like if people were able to come into the stores earlier in the season, since now the store can only allow three people at once with masks; before that, sales were only online or by phone.
“Usually bike sales get spread out over spring as weather changes,” Sawyer said. “You’ll have people comfortable in April when it’s still a little chilly to buy bikes, and then you’ll have May, June and July riders. All they can do now (during the pandemic) is ride a bike, and we had a really nice spring here and it all got shoved into April sales. And panic buying was a little part of it, too.”
In addition to sales, he said, the repair side of the business has also seen an increase in volume, with customers having to wait three to four weeks for a tuneup or repair. In the past, those jobs would have taken no more than a week or so.
Many of the customers having their bikes repaired are doing so because they have been unable to buy a new bike, or the bike they want, Sawyer added.
CycleMania is repairing around 25 bikes a day, and 50-60 are coming through the door each day, he said. Most of the bikes are older models that were sitting unused in garages until their owners started looking for new ways to exercise and get out of the house.
“If you can’t play group sports, or go to the gym, your options are going for a bike ride or running,” Sawyer said. “Also, the weather being nice, I think that people are looking for other things to do with the restaurants and bars shut down.”
Portland Gear Hub, a nonprofit bike shop that sells used bikes, had to upgrade its phone line to keep up with the number of orders being called in, according to Brian Danz, the adult education and technology coordinator at the Washington Avenue shop.
The Gear Hub’s business model is different, with the gears and bikes donated. Danz said they haven’t seen much of an increase in their inventory, because people are “holding on to stuff longer,” and presumably taking advantage of what they already have.
However, like the other shops in the city, he has seen an increase in the number of families that are taking up bike riding as a hobby.
“There are more people with time,” Danz said. “I live near a park in Portland and I see people – mom, dad and kids – and it’s a Tuesday afternoon.”
With the closure of workplaces and recreational places to go across the city, Eliza Cress at the Bicycle Coalition of Maine said she thinks people are turning to the outdoors for more fresh air and exercise, rather than using bikes as their means of transportation.
“It’s two-fold,” Cress, the group’s communication and development manager, said. “In Maine, (biking) is definitely seen more as a recreational amenity. Maybe more so in Portland, it’s a response to not wanting to be on public transportation as well, but we are seeing that in larger cities.”
The coalition works to make roads across the state safer for bike riders, and Cress said this is the perfect time to encourage alternatives to public transportation and to promote safe bike use.
She said BCM is unsure how long the “boom” will last, but said that even if bike sales go down, repairs are at the “highest that they have been in history.” Bike sales will depend on how comfortable people feel about reentering shops, she said.
“We hope that we can maintain momentum, and we hope that with all the new bikes that people have the cycling won’t fade into history and will still feel important to people,” Cress said.
In the meantime, demand continues to outpace supply.
Palese at Gorham Bike & Ski said the industry is pretty “tech savvy” and is attempting to get a better grasp on the situation by keeping track of what’s in demand and reporting it to warehouses, to help provide a more accurate estimate of when bikes will be back in stock.
Doug Grossett said he understands the dilemma and feels fortunate that he was able to get the bike for his son, even if it was his second choice.
“No one considered what happens,” he said, “when the (factory) machines are turned off.”
Freelance writer Emily Duggan lives in Portland.