Boom and doom: Bike shops are in an anxious state of flux right now

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While tumbleweeds roll through many major cities in Australia, the nearby suburbs are seemingly a buzz of activity. COVID-19 is changing the world, but at least in certain parts of that world, and at least for the moment, cycling is having its day.

In Australia, the majority of office workers are no longer travelling into the city, but they’re not exactly in total lockdown, either. Weekend sport is cancelled and gyms are closed, but bikes are being re-discovered, dusted off, and taken in for repairs.

Depending on who you speak to, the Australian cycling industry is either going through a rapid boom of panic purchasing or is on the edge of doom. And that perspective seems to be determined by geographic location and the chosen speciality.

A honeymoon period that’s happier for some

Shops that cater to the masses are excelling, selling more family-oriented bikes than usual and seeing a huge spike in demand for servicing rusty previously forgotten rides. While those who stock premium racing bikes and little more are a different story — people are being careful with their spending, and a luxury purchase seemingly isn’t high on people’s list of priorities at the moment.

Grant Kaplan, owner of Giant Sydney, a key bike shop in the centre of the Sydney CBD, saw the panic-buying a week ago, but now the city is dead. Foot traffic has died off, Giant Sydney has reduced its opening hours, and the next logical step for the store will be to send its staff home.

“It’s just getting deader, and deader, and deader in the city,” Kaplan said. “And I think people who were doing the last minute panic-buying have already done so.”

Meanwhile, it’s seemingly the polar opposite in the wealthy suburbs away from the city. Those who previously would be spending their working hours in the city are now at home, bored and looking for things to do with their families. People are flocking in droves to have their old bikes serviced, get new bikes for the whole family, and re-discover the joy of cycling. And it’s a trend that’s easily evident with young families seen riding bikes all through the suburbs.

“[We’re selling lots of] hardtails, commuter bikes, and low-end of the performance mountain bikes,” said Kevin Eddy of Northside Cyclery in the suburb of Chatswood. “[It’s] people who maybe had a gym membership and their gym has closed, now they’re looking for the alternative.”

Not too far away in the leafy suburb of Cremorne, PlayBikes is a newly expanded store that has seen a similar uptick in business. “It’s not so bad — we certainly have a lot of (workshop) work coming in,” said store owner Nick Both. “Still moving a fair bit of product, too. Haven’t seen much of a dip.”

A staff member at another nearby suburban store, who wished to be left anonymous, said business is booming and is more akin to Christmas demand. “We’re flogged busy at the moment with repairs of shitty bikes, low-end bikes, family bikes, kids bikes,” they said. “Everything in the sub-AU$700 bracket.”

Dedicated cyclists are preparing for the worst, and those who were previously dedicated to riding outdoors are now desperately clamouring to bring an indoor trainer home, no matter the cost.

| Related reading: The impact lockdowns are having on the indoor training market

“Indoor trainers are our toilet paper”, joked Eddy, a sentiment that’s echoed elsewhere with shortages of indoor trainers at a time of year where the distributors were only just beginning to land stock for winter sales. Want a smart trainer? You’ll want to pre-order one right away if you want it for any of April.

Demand for indoor trainers has surged in almost all markets, catching many distributors off-guard.

While business is currently going OK, Eddy is hopeful that bicycle shops, or at least bicycle repair, will be deemed an essential business (like in most parts of the USA) if further lockdown measures are implemented in Australia. And such uncertainty is certainly causing great stress. “At this point we’re working day by day,” he said. “We don’t know if in two days we’ll be allowed to open. We have literally no idea to what extent society will be shut down and how long it will last.”

Looking abroad

It’s a similar story in the city of Boulder, Colorado. One of the town’s biggest shops, University Bikes, was having an unusually strong winter prior to COVID-19. While half of the staff have been let go due to health concerns, and in-person sales have halted, business continues.

“Bike shops are considered essential, specifically for bike repair,” explained Lester Binegar of University Bikes. “So we are allowing one customer in at a time to stand behind a counter, we accept the service bike, sanitize it, evaluate it, and recommend the work that needs to be done. We average 40-75 customers per day that come just to our service counter. There is a constant stream of people waiting but not a long line.”

Unfortunately being able to legally conduct business varies greatly by location, and not all shops are allowed to trade at this time. Across the border in Canada, mechanic Carl Presseault of Centre du Velo La Shop tells a different story. That business has been closed by the Quebec government for a period of three weeks, while literally 3 km away bike stores in Ontario are deemed essential and allowed to trade.

Boris Del Cid, a mechanic in Girona, Spain, says his shop has been closed for two weeks, his job as a race mechanic has ceased, and likewise for his other work at another nearby shop. In Paris, another mechanic, Paul Legendre, finds himself in the exact same situation, with work piling up, but not allowed to do it.

Not all who are closed have done so because they’ve been forced to. Many of the mechanics not working could realistically still do their jobs remotely but have decided to sit out and do their bit to help slow the spread of coronavirus. In the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, boutique store Jetnikoff finds itself in a similar place, choosing to shut up shop in order to slow the spread of infection – a decision that most certainly means a significant loss of business.

Things are looking more dire as you go further up the food chain. The USA’s largest bicycle parts distributor, QBP, is running a skeleton staff to fulfil orders, and one of its key competitors, BTI has closed its facilities entirely for the interim. Brands are struggling too, and many are trying to keep up with external demand by going it alone.

Josh Poertner of Silca is currently a one-man band, trying to keep product moving out the door in order to pay his staff that have to remain at home. And it’s a similar story for toolmaker Jason Quade of Abbey Bike Tools who also had to send his staff home, and is currently doing everything himself from welding tools to packing boxes. These are just two examples, but the same story applies to nearly all we speak to.

It’s a similar story in Australia with distributors taking notes of the struggles overseas and battening down the hatches before the storm hits. Some distributors have already put some staff on zero hours, and certainly, sales reps aren’t doing quite the same miles.

High-end has halted

Demand for servicing and recreational bikes may be ripe, but the high-end market has already taken a hit to the ribs. It would seem that most are being far more careful with their spending in these uncertain times. The industry knows it too — our secret industry insider suggested major things are happening behind the scenes, and not a day goes by between different brands announcing the temporary halt of production.

“High-end is gone,” said Eddy of Northside Cyclery, a store which up until recently was seeing significant demand for high-end mountain bikes, road bikes and e-bikes. “People are holding off big purchases. Those conversations about those high-value sales have gone much quieter.”

It’s a similar story with other nearby shops, who all echo that there is a general nervousness from customers around ordering bikes that may be delayed in transit, or worse, can’t be collected if the shop suddenly closes.

And again, suppliers and brands know this, too. Many have halted production or shipments where possible, delayed new product launches, and are simply holding off exciting products for a better time.

A bright spark in a dark time?

Sickness is all around and people may be forced inside, but it’s not all bad news. Streets are quieter. Where allowed, more people are noticeably outside riding bikes, and families are being brought closer through them. And more than ever, people are dreaming up an escape outdoors that gets them away from the masses. “The future is very very bright in our eyes,” said Binegar of University Bikes. “We think people are gonna realize the amazing solutions that bikes provide for almost every problem in the world today.”

Though the stores currently booming in business are well aware that it likely won’t last, and that tough times are indeed ahead, many are seeing this as an opportunity to store some fat for a harsh winter. Equally, many are being forced to get more creative, reach out to their customers, and change how business is conducted.

And if or when that long winter comes, you can bet that some of the less creative won’t be able to afford to re-open their doors. Distributors who extended credit to those stores will default. And manufacturers will feel that pain too. And worst of all, this rippling domino effect is not even slightly unique to the cycling industry. And so the merry-go-round of lost expendable income further impacts all.

More than ever, now is a time to see whether your local bike shop is open for business, and rather than take the easiest click-and-deliver online option, pick up the phone and see what they can do. You may be pleasantly surprised.

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