People often are shocked these days when they saunter into bicycle shops expecting to see — you know — bikes.
Cycling shops and big-box stores across NWI and the nation no longer have showrooms filled with new mountain bikes, road bikes and kids bikes. The racks are largely bare, the selection sparse.
"We're got some kids bikes, some cruisers," said Kurt Agner with Ridge Cyclery at 3731 Ridge Road in Highland. "But nothing's available. That's just how the market is right now. They can't produce them, and I've read where the freight has quadrupled so they're not shipping them. We've had to turn away people looking for bikes since last year."
Like most bike shops, Ridge Cyclery has been getting by on repairs.
"Everyone's been coming in for bike repairs," he said. "People are looking for bikes but can't find them so they come in with their old bikes to get tune-ups or the wheels replaced."
The coronavirus pandemic disrupted the global bicycle supply chain — the way it did with meat, flowers, toilet paper, semiconductors and many other products. Manufacturers, mostly abroad in countries like Taiwan, Vietnam, China and Indonesia, initially had to shut down because of COVID-19 and now can't get enough parts from backlogged suppliers to fill orders.
The shortage has been compounded by bicycle shops being unable to keep inventory in stock, as biking has surged in popularity during the pandemic as an outdoor recreational activity that allows for social distancing.
The NDP Group, a market research firm, estimates bicycle sales soared by 62% to $4.1 billion between January and October of last year. The Rails to Trails Conservancy estimates trail use skyrocketed by as much as 217% in April 2020.
The selection is currently very slim at the Chesterton Bicycle Station at 116 S. Fourth St. in Chesterton. The bulk of its stock got bought up quickly in the first few nice days in February, owner Tony Evans said.
"I tell people we have bikes on order and to check back with us in a few weeks when more become available," he said. "I have 140 bikes on order from one company and 110 on order from another company. Sooner or later, some will arrive. But it's very difficult right now if you want to get a mountain bike."
Some customers who come in are surprised to walk in on a nearly empty showroom.
"We still have plenty of people wandering in the door who have no idea there's a bike shortage," Evans said. "It happened earlier today. We normally have 200 bikes in here and now it's very bare."
Some in the industry predict inventories might not return to normal levels until 2022 or 2023.
Evans spends hours seeing if he can find any bikes to order and has been relying on a strong repair business when he often has few bikes in stock to sell.
He's never seen anything like it before.
"In 2012 in early March we had a string of 90-degree and 80-degree days. We were selling a ton of bikes," he said. "But we didn't have the complication we do now from COVID-19. The suppliers and manufacturers were able to resupply us. During COVID-19 they had to shut down for 30 days or quarantine and are still trying to catch up. Companies have the specialized frames ready to go but still need the seats and the wheels. That's what holding things up. It's the weakest link in the chain."
Joshua Sutton, a buyer with Buck's Bicycle Shop at 610 Silhavy Road in Valparaiso, said the big rush was in April 2020 and then in March of this year. Its inventory has been picked clean, including from out-of-state customers.
"It's super low," he said. "We still have some stock. We're serving the tri-state. We get customers from Michigan and Illinois, though we had a lot more from Illinois last year."
High-end mountain bikes are the easiest to obtain right now because their price point narrows the pool of prospective buyers, he said. Not as many people will spend $6,000 on a bicycle so they don't get snapped up as quickly.
"We've got almost nothing," he said. "I have over 1,000 bikes on backorder dating back to last year."
Buck's Bicycle Shop started to stock skateboards and is doing a lot more repair and service, particularly with electric-assist bikes that have been taking off in popularity.
"Our joke is that people are pulling everything out of the attic or pole barn," he said. "People want to get outside. Early on it was to have something to do. But COVID-19 has gotten a lot of people to refocus their priorities. They want to spend a lot more time outside."
Sutton encourages people to keep checking back with bike shops to find out when they have more bicycles in stock.
"They're currently saying this might be another year or two," he said. "We've been joking we'll have to adjust to how things used to be, when we were able to get a bike in stock in a day or two. There certainly won't be so much time spent staring at a computer trying to find stuff."
He asks customers for patience and understanding during the prolonged international shortage.
"What happened is this exposed the shortfalls in a lot of industries," he said. "Bicycles were shown to be on a more tenuous footing. People should try to be understanding. We don't like this situation any more than they do. We don't want it, and we don't gain anything from it."
A1 Cycle Center and Hitch at 1407 W. Lincoln Highway in Merrillville was down to six ebikes, seven adult bikes and 10 kids bikes late last week.
"We're significantly depleted, and demand is super high," manager Brad Fennema said. "Supply is down everywhere down the line. We have hundreds of bikes on order."
Every so often, about a dozen bikes get delivered to the shop.
"They're not sitting around," he said. "Depending on the price point, they're gone in a week or two, or in an hour or two."
Many customers have given up on paying visits in person to bike shops and instead call around to see if they have anything in stock. Ebike in particular has been in high demand as they are motorized to help people peddle faster than they would be able to without assistance.
"It's gotten a lot more people who wouldn't have chosen a bike as a modern of transportation," he said. "It's brought in a whole new demographic of rider. They can go faster, further and longer. It's great if they've had knee surgery or hip surgery, or face headwinds or an incline. It's kept growing."
Ebikes have been coming in stock with a little more regularity, but orders of all types of bikes have been slow to trickle in.
"You got to figure with the lead times on some bikes, the orders won't be filled until 2023," Fennema said. "Never in my history of 15 years here has it been anything like this. We're still selling, but there's not enough supply. I hope it ends soon, but I don't have a crystal ball."