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Finding an unusual-sized bicycle tire might have been tricky before the COVID-19 pandemic, but there’s a good chance you would have found a match at Truly Spoken Cycles in Milwaukee.
But with a surging interest in cycling during the pandemic, everything from complete bikes down to the very innertubes that make them go round have been in short supply.
Area retail bike stores are experiencing product shortages and have been since last year; bike pumps were unavailable last summer and now, rebuild kits for bike pumps are gone too, said Truly Spoken Cycles owner Aytan Luck.
“There’s shortages in a lot of areas,” Luck said. “We were pretty much sold out of most saddles last year. Right now, there’s certain gears that we can’t get in addition to complete bikes.”
Truly Spoken Cycles, based in the city’s Riverwest neighborhood, is known for the ability of its mechanics to solve even the most peculiar of bike problems, along with a high level of customer service of its employees. Supply chain disruptions, on the other hand, are a big enough problem even the most talented mechanics can’t solve.
Luck ran low on a common-sized innertube at the onset of the pandemic, but with the help of another local bike shop, he made a connection with a new innertube wholesaler with available supply. That’s just one way the bike shop navigated product shortages, but it also shifted operations to accommodate customers too.
The bike shop limited the flow of traffic by keeping its front door locked, all in an effort to keep both its customers and employees safe during the pandemic. Curbside pickup for serviced bikes became the norm, and during the winter, Truly Spoken Cycles launched an e-commerce platform so that customers could place orders online.
Luck has seen growth in his business and if the world were free of supply chain issues, he estimates Truly Spoken Cycles could have increased sales by an another 15%.
“Even with limiting the number of people inside the store, we still had our busiest year in our history last year,” said Luck, who opened the bike shop in 2008.
Luck used to get along by ordering “bread and butter” bike components in volume, but the days of ordering just one or two of the more unusual products are gone for now. If it’s available, Luck buys it in bulk.
“We’re always assuming it’s going to sell out,” Luck said. “‘Get it while you can,’ as Janis Joplin said.”
Amid the disruption of the pandemic, the world rediscovered the simple joy of riding a bike as people returned to paved paths and mountain bike trails in droves. People are buying new bikes, fixing up old ones and riding more than ever before, driving demand for safe places to walk and bike too.
Trail use across the country increased by 200% between March and July 2020 when compared to the same period in 2019, according to a survey conducted by the nonprofit Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
U.S. bike sales soared to more than $4 billion (not including e-bikes) between January and October 2020, representing a 62% increase over the same period in 2019, according to NPD Group, a market research firm that tracks retail trends. The same research group found that U.S. e-bike sales grew a staggering 190% year-over-year in June 2020.
In a normal year, analysts say U.S. bike sales are typically between $550 million and $575 million during early spring. In April 2020, U.S. bike sales, including indoor bikes, parts and other accessories, grew a combined 75% compared to the previous year, reaching $1 billion in a single month for the first time since NPD began tracking the cycling market.
The social impact of the pandemic coupled with increased pedestrian and cycling traffic is already shaping how people move through communities across the country. More than 200 U.S. cities changed the layout of their streets in 2020 by eliminating through traffic, slowing cars and opening roadways while city parks, fitness centers and schools were closed, according to national biking advocacy group PeopleforBikes.
Last year, the City of Milwaukee in partnership with Milwaukee County Parks implemented the “Milwaukee Active Streets” initiative, which created more safe spaces for pedestrians and cyclists to travel by using signage and barricades to reduce vehicle traffic.
The program was temporary in 2020, but city officials are now looking to bring the Active Streets back in 2021 in a way that would lead to more permanent infrastructure for pedestrians and riders in the future.
All of these improvements have helped generate equity on the streets between pedestrians, cyclists and cars, said James Davies, executive director of Bublr Bikes, a Milwaukee-area nonprofit rideshare program.
“You’ve got all these people that went out and bought bikes, so I think there’s a huge opportunity to keep that going,” Davies said. “But I do think we need to work together to make sure there is adequate infrastructure for all these new cyclists.”
‘A perfect storm’ for local vendors
Based on data it analyzes, PeopleforBikes estimates that 9% of American adults rode a bike for the first time after a year or more in 2020, and that 36% of riders with children either took their kids out for their first-ever bike ride or took up riding more often.
There are various reasons for the “bike boom” phenomenon, including stay-at-home orders, a drop in mass-transit riders and a population in search of physical activity that adhered to social distancing guidelines.
Milwaukee-based Wheel & Sprocket saw firsthand the community’s growing appetite for riding and the outdoors. Parents with ample time to spend with their children purchased that first bike and taught their kids how to ride, said Amelia Kegel, Wheel & Sprocket owner and marketing director.
“All of a sudden people were cooped up in their house, had lots of time and we saw whole families coming back to biking in a way that we’ve never seen before,” Kegel said.
Wheel & Sprocket’s growth strategy has mirrored the cycling industry’s upward trajectory over the past five years, with the independent retail chain opening a new store every year since 2017.
During the pandemic, the bike retailer opened a new location in Bay View, which now serves as Wheel & Sprocket’s headquarters. The bike shop shares the building with Joy Ride café in addition to offices of the Chris Kegel Foundation, the Wisconsin Bike Fed and Rails-to-Trails Conservancy.
Wheel & Sprocket started in 1973 as a family business with a small shop in Hales Corners and has since grown to 10 brick-and-mortar shops spanning from Appleton to Madison and down to northern Illinois. All Wheel & Sprocket bike shops are within a 2-hour driving distance from Milwaukee, a radius representing approximately 11 million people.
The 2020 bike boom has only “scratched the surface” of the levels that increased ridership could reach, Kegel said, adding that growth both in ridership and the business already has Wheel & Sprocket planning its next location in 2022.
“We’ve found that we have by no means saturated the market we have,” Kegel said. “We’ve really gained market share in the markets we exist, which is 30% in some areas. But we’ve worked hard for that.”
Even as bike retailers have grown, supply chain disruptions continue to inhibit sales. Kegel describes it as being caught in “a perfect storm” of a rise in demand for products, shortages in supply and increased tariffs on aluminum and steel.
The tariffs caused vendors such as Giant Manufacturing Co. Ltd., Trek Bicycle Corp. and Specialized Bicycle Components, Inc. to become conservative with initial buys, leading to low predictability heading into the riding season, Kegel said. The widespread shutdown of factories across the globe and port congestion made matters worse.
“Then this huge wave of demand came, and now (vendors) are tripling and quadrupling their orders,” Kegel said. “They have this backlog and all of a sudden, they can churn out only as much as they can churn out.”
Looking at the footprint of the cycling industry’s supply chain, it makes sense why order times increased from weeks to months and why some local bike shops looked bare during the pandemic. A bike is the sum of many parts, and a majority of those parts come from manufacturers in southeast Asia, said Eric Bjorling, marketing and public relations director for Waterloo, Wisconsin-based Trek.
“If you think about it, one bike can have 50 different suppliers,” Bjorling said. “You’re talking about brakes, handlebars, cables, tires and wheels.”
Trek spent the better part of 2020 climbing out from underneath a backlog of orders generated by pandemic-related supply chain disruption. But even with delays, manufacturers are shipping bikes at record rates, Bjorling said, adding that Trek ships more bikes today than it ever has in the company’s more than 40-year history.
“You still have a lot of momentum in the industry, but you just have capacity that hasn’t been able to increase at the same rate as demand,” Bjorling said.
Retailers with a more aggressive approach at the onset of the pandemic have more robust inventories while other stores are still experiencing shortages in supply. Current lead times vary based on bike model, with high-volume products like entry-level hybrids and mountain bikes experiencing delays of weeks to more than a month, Bjorling said.
Bicycles with more approachable price points or those most suited for family use and neighborhood riding showed the strongest year-over-year sales gains in 2020 compared to 2019, according to NPD Group.
Lifestyle and leisure adult bikes that are typically under $200 grew by 203%, while front suspension mountain bikes and children’s bikes experienced sales growth of 150% and 107% respectively in April 2020. Accessories sales also grew, including helmets (+49%), water bottle cages (+60%) and bike baskets (+85%), according to NPD Group.
Customers are still going to see a lot of unavailable product as they scan the websites of bike manufacturers, but Bjorling says local bike shops may still have the product in stock. If the product is unavailable, a retailer will place an order which gets placed in the queue of vendors like Trek.
“If you’re looking for something specific, I would really encourage people to go in and get that order in as soon as they can,” Bjorling said.
Cyclists boost local economies
An uptick in mountain biking sales didn’t surprise Bjorling, who said social isolation has people looking at the genre of cycling in an entirely new way.
“It’s out in nature and you can find incredible places and do it in a safe way,” Bjorling said. “It just kind of gives that respite that people need right now.”
That connection with nature and the social component of riding have been particularly important for student athletes involved in local mountain biking teams, some of which have attracted new riders during the pandemic.
Even with the pandemic forcing competitive races to be canceled, student athletes still made their way to practice for other reasons, said Nicholas Beermann, head coach of the Milwaukee Recreation Composite mountain bike team.
“So much of it was riding together, socializing and building relationships,” Beermann said. “Having that outlet is important because it’s what teenagers need to be doing at that stage of their life.”
Even before the pandemic, local mountain biking teams were growing by leaps and bounds, Beermann said, adding that he expects the pattern to continue.
Now that more riders are on streets and trails than ever before, cycling companies, advocacy organizations and bike retailers are focused on ensuring the bike boom doesn’t fizzle out. Part of that equation involves increasing bike infrastructure in cities and understanding the industry’s impact on local economies.
Annual consumer spending of bicyclists in Wisconsin is estimated to be $1.42 billion, which supports approximately 13,500 jobs, according to a 2017 Outdoor Industry Association study. For a visual understanding of how cycling contributes to the state’s local economies, look no further than the Tour of America’s Dairyland, the largest pro-am cycling series in the U.S.
ToAD is a competitive 11-day racing series hosted by 11 communities across southeastern Wisconsin, including Kenosha, East Troy, Waukesha, Shorewood and Milwaukee. During each event, community business districts are packed with pedestrians and cyclists as streets close to vehicle traffic for competitive racing.
The event hosts about 1,000 riders from across the world and draws about 145,000 spectators who are spending approximately $2.4 million in Wisconsin each year, according to a Wisconsin Department of Transportation study. After taking a hiatus due to COVID last year, the racing series is expected to return to the region in June.
Studies conducted in both cities and neighborhoods around the country also suggest that pedestrians and cyclists spend more money than other modes of transportation, Davies said.
He pointed to a study conducted by researchers at Portland State University, who found that over the course of a month, drivers spend approximately $61 at Portland bars, restaurants and convenience stores compared to $75 and $66 respectively for bikers and pedestrians.
But when it comes to the economic value of having more bikeable – and therefore walkable – communities, advocates say it extends beyond consumer spending at local retail shops. The benefits include density and livability, which contribute to a company’s ability to attract talent, said Tim Gokhman, managing director of Milwaukee-based developer New Land Enterprises. That was top of mind when New Land integrated a bike-friendly pedestrian plaza into the Kinetik apartments development, which opened in Bay View last year. It’s the sort of infrastructure that helps draw residents to the region, Gokhman said.
“There’s a reason why Northwestern Mutual has invested so heavily into the surrounding infrastructure on its campus,” he said. “They are in a daily battle for talent and if talent comes to Milwaukee, they are no longer saying ‘what does my job look like and how much do I make?’ They’re also looking around and saying, ‘where do I live and what does it feel like?’”
Proponents of the industry say communities across the country are uniquely positioned to turn the 2020 bike boom into something more, but a greater emphasis must be placed on building permanent bike infrastructure to support increased ridership.
Without permanent bike infrastructure, bikers won’t feel safe, and without safety, they won’t ride, Gokhman said.
“Look at Montreal, Minneapolis and Madison,” Gokhman said. “There are a bunch of northern climates that have made the investment into the infrastructure and people are using it. It’s not a chicken or an egg, this one is very straight forward.”