COVID-19 puts the brakes on bike sales, repairs

After years of casual browsing, Mundelein resident Jeanna Cristino recently decided to get serious about buying a decent bicycle that would be fun to ride on trails.

She mentioned it to a neighbor, who works at a bike shop in Lake County.

"Basically what he said to me was, 'Good luck finding one,'" Cristino said. He was right.

For months, selections of new bicycles have been thin or nonexistent at shops throughout the suburbs.

Timely repairs also have become a luxury because parts, such as tires, inner tubes, shifters and brake pads, are in short supply.

Tariffs, unfortunate timing and the disruptive coronavirus played roles in creating a big gap between what people wanted and what they could get, experts say.

"Demand for any new bike and repairs have gone through the roof," said Rob Rayl, manager at M & M Cyclery in Mundelein.

"Every bike shop in the area is in the same boat."

Supplies shrank when production shut down. As the virus spread, the state's subsequent stay-at-home order made people look to bicycles as a way to safely escape their homes.

"At a typical time, we'd have 500 to 600 new bikes in store ready to sell. Right now, I have about 15," said Chris Enockson, sales manager at Mill Race Cyclery on the Fox River bike trail in Geneva.

"We haven't had many new bikes come in for about two months now," he added. "It's not just bicycles. It's repair parts."

Most bike shops started getting notices of shipment delays from manufacturers in March, explained Jim Kersten, show director at the Chicagoland Area Bicycle Dealers Association. There are about 200 independent bicycle dealers in Chicago and the suburbs, according to the association.

"There was a tremendous increase in demand (because) it was one of the few things people could do," Kersten said. "Reordering was difficult because the bikes weren't produced yet."

Jay Townley, founding partner and futurist for Human Powered Solutions, a California-based consultant to the bicycle and electric bicycle business, said the current shortages of new bicycles, electric bikes and parts are rooted in a 25% tariff imposed on Chinese imports in 2019.

To avoid the tariff, importers last year reduced orders.

"The American brands, the vast majority of which import ebike and bicycles from Asia and primarily China, worked off inventory that they had imported under the normal tariffs prior to the punitive tariffs going into force and effect," according to Townley. "That inventory was reduced to the bone going into January 2020."

Importers wrangled exceptions from the tariffs in late 2019 and were poised to increase orders, Townley said. However, because manufacturers shut down for about two weeks for the Chinese New Year, the order spurt was planned for late February and March.

By that time, the coronavirus was raging and the supply chain was "totally disrupted," Townley said.

Looking to escape home confinement and burn off stress, people in April began dusting off old bikes from garages and basements and snatching up new ones. Shops were emptied within weeks.

Inventories are wiped out and resupplies have been slow, Townley said, resulting in continuing shortages across the board in all retail channels.

"You call any shop in the area and you'll hear the same thing," Enockson said. "It's everywhere and it's super frustrating. We've turned away so much business just because we don't have items to sell."

Demand for repairs of old bikes simultaneously escalated and so did wait times. Some shops switched to repairs only.

Rayl said M & M was "blasted" with repairs all summer and is catching up. But repair time - when parts are available - is still about 10 days or double that of normal. Because of short supply, M & M is rationing inner tubes.

Mill Race has had as many as 160 open work orders, Enockson said. Estimated repair time tripled to three weeks.

"A lot of people left the bike and said, 'Fix it when you can,'" according to Enockson. "Some of them have been here two or three months."

Kersten predicted shortages in some categories will continue next year. Rayl said he expects a "good shipment" of bikes in September but figures inventory won't be close to normal until next year. Enockson said he hasn't been able to get an accurate estimate of when normal shipments will resume.

And what of Jeanna Cristino? She finally found a bike in her size but will pick it up at a dealership near Milwaukee, where it will be shipped from Minnesota.

"It was kind of a surprise when they said seven to 10 days," Cristino noted. "I was expecting three weeks."

  The Fox River Trail in downtown East Dundee is crowded on a Tuesday afternoon. John Starks/
  M & M Cyclery in Mundelein is looking bare these days as the coronavirus has created a run on bicycles of all kinds, leaving the racks on the ceiling empty. Mark Welsh/
  Bruce Heidlauf, owner of Mill Race Cyclery in Geneva. Rick West/
  Mill Race Cyclery in Geneva is suffering from the dearth of supply industrywide and is carrying a fraction of the usual bicycle inventory. Rick West/
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