Rob Breidenbach took a knee to check the spokes.
He inflated the tires a bit and tightened the brakes. The shop phone rang and he grabbed it to answer a rental question. After he hung up, he turned back to the bike, spinning the rear wheel with his left hand while shifting the gears with his right.
When he finished the inspection, he rolled the bike out to the customer out front. Then he hefted the next one into the repair stand and started the process all over again. It was 11 a.m. on a Sunday, but the door chime at Spoke ‘N Sport bike shop in Spokane wouldn’t stop ringing.
The past year has mostly been a chaotic but profitable one for American bike shops and the entire outdoor recreation industry.
COVID-19 pushed people outside, and many decided to buy bikes.
Breidenbach said the past year was the best he’s seen since he got into the bike business 40-plus years ago. Cycling had been coming off a bad decade, he said.
“Oh God, it’s been so good for business,” the Spoke ‘N Sport owner said. “We were almost double what a normal year was.”
Demand for bikes is still high, more than a year after the pandemic began. The problem, bike shop owners said, is supply chain disruptions have led to a major bike shortage. Stores have customers eager to buy bikes, but in many instances they simply don’t have any to sell.
“I wish I had another 500,” Breidenbach said, noting stores last year sold a lot of the world’s 2021 bike inventory.
People often show up to buy bikes and realize that shops simply don’t have what they’re looking for.
“It’s every bike shop in the U.S., the world,” Bicycle Butler co-owner Kathy Arnold said.
There are essentially two reasons for the bike shortage.
First, there’s the increased demand because of the pandemic. People who might normally have gravitated toward indoor activities have picked up new outdoor hobbies.
At the same time, there’s a supply shortage. Bike factories – and even raw materials producers – have gone through temporary shutdowns. Plus, the shipping industry is backed up. Shipments of bikes arriving from Asia haven’t been able to unload at port as quickly as they normally would.
Because of that, the average would-be bike buyer in Spokane could be having a hard time.
“There are a lot of things that people are looking for that just flat out aren’t available,” Arnold said, noting her store is trying to modify bikes to meet customer needs. “It’s disheartening to say ‘no’ all day long.”
Scott Willegalle, owner of North Division Bicycle, said he only has three bikes less than $2,000 right now. He recently presold a bike that won’t arrive in his shop for another 250 days.
“It’s like ordering a Mercedes,” Willegalle said. “It’s like waiting for a house to get built.”
Bike shop owners said their new orders, for the most part, aren’t going to be arriving anytime soon. Breidenbach said the bikes he’s getting now are the ones he ordered a year ago.
Buyers who put in orders today might not get their bikes until 2022. Willegalle said it looks like the supply might not return to normal until 2023.
Certain sectors within the bike industry have fared better than others. Breidenbach said kids’ bikes are a bit easier to get because they don’t have as many gears – fewer parts is a benefit, in this case.
Mountain bikes, on the other hand, especially ones with dual-suspension, are practically needles in a haystack. Anything with a derailleur is scarce.
Used bike sales are booming, too. And a lot of cyclists are choosing to fix up bikes that they wanted to replace, Arnold said. Even parts are hard to come by in some cases at this point, though.
Stores said business has been relatively good overall, although they’ve lost lots of sales because of inventory shortages.
Breidenbach said he’ll sell more bikes by the end of April than he would in a typical year. He said if it weren’t for the supply problem, 2021 would surpass 2020 as the best year he’s ever had.
“A lot of guys made a lot of money (last year),” Breidenbach said. “And then a lot of guys are going to go out of business this year because they didn’t buy any product. Because they firmly believed that it wasn’t going to last.”
Breidenbach said he thinks the pandemic has turned more people on to cycling. Hopefully a lot of the people who took up the sport in the past year stick with it, he said.
“Every day we’re seeing faces we haven’t seen before,” Breidenbach said.
For now, people who want to start cycling might have to be patient.
“Choose early, put a deposit on it and wait,” Willegalle advised. “They’re not going to show up magically.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.