With restaurants, bars, concerts and other public spaces closed, the pandemic drove people outdoors. Parks were swamped, Minneapolis and St. Paul closed streets to accommodate a flood of people on foot and wheels, and stores that sold equipment for getting out — tents, snowshoes, skis — were often sold out.
Demand for bikes surged, too. In 2020, U.S. consumers spent an estimated $29.5 billion on bikes and accessories, up 17 percent from the $25 billion spent in 2019, according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.
Many shops had trouble keeping up with demand, as bikes flew off the shelves. Further, pandemic-related global supply chain issues — bike parts are often made in Asia — constricted manufacturers’ ability to keep up with demand for new bikes and shops’ ability to stock parts to fix old ones.
Now, as Minnesota hits prime biking season, there are signs the bike boom of 2020 hasn’t let up.
“We’re seeing a lot of the same, sometimes just more of the same and the volumes turned up,” said Jake Helmbrecht, the general manager of Freewheel Bike, a local bike shop with many metro area locations.
Busy bike shops; busy trails
Lauren Peck was one of many Minnesotans who got into the habit of biking during the pandemic. Peck was furloughed, and later laid off in a round of job cuts at the Minnesota Historical Society last year, leaving her wondering what she was going to do all summer during a pandemic, when she couldn’t travel, go to shows or eat out like she normally would.
She pulled an old bike out of her garage.
“I literally think it’s from middle school — the bike that I got when I was tall enough to have an adult bike … sitting in my garage at my house from at some point getting it from my parents’ house,” she said.
She took it to her dad, a cycling enthusiast, and had him look it over to make sure it was safe to ride. Then she downloaded TrailLink, an app that has maps for biking, running, hiking and other outdoor activities, and she started going for bike rides, and started getting out.
She started with a park near her house that has a short loop, then ventured to North East Minneapolis, where she could link up with the Grand Rounds and go for longer rides. Now she’s explored all sorts of parks and trails.
In the spring, she went to a local Freewheel location and picked up a new bike that was lighter and easier to transport by car.
Now, she’s working again so it’s harder to get out on rides during the day, but she still goes once a week or so on nights and weekends.
Signs of the bike boom are also evident at Theodore Wirth Park in Minneapolis, where about a dozen miles of singletrack mountain bike trails are popular with people looking to ride in the Twin Cities — especially during the pandemic.
“There were some instances where trail use either doubled or tripled — of course last year … and we are not seeing really any decrease in that momentum this year,” said Claire Wilson, the executive director of the Loppet Foundation, which co-manages Wirth’s mountain bike trails.
The busy-ness of the trails is one indication of the popularity of biking, but what’s striking to Wilson is demand for classes for both kids and adults.
“We’ve had to add additional locations outside of Wirth to meet the demand,” she said, including Monarch in Waconia and Lebanon Hills in Eagan.
Not only is the foundation offering more classes, but it’s seeing between 60 percent and 70 percent of the people signing up for its adult classes sign up as novices, which Wilson takes as a sign that many people remain interested in trying new outdoor activities even as COVID-19 restrictions end and more other activities become available.
Wilson counts herself among the recent mountain biking converts. She’s a big cross-country skier but hadn’t tried mountain biking until she took the foundation’s adult beginner’s class.
“I just loved it. I think it’s because you have to be present. It’s almost meditative. Your head can’t be anywhere else but on the trail,” she said.
Supply vs. demand
As popular as biking has become, the pandemic has created its share of problems for the bike industry, with manufacturing and shipping issues that constricted supply even as demand boomed.
Perennial Cycle, at Hennepin Avenue and 34th Street in South Minneapolis, has been selling bikes for decades. But the last year and a half have brought dynamics owner Luke Breen has never seen.
Supply chain issues make it hard to get fundamental bike parts. Take a rear derailleur, for example, the part near the back wheel that moves the chain to shift the gear the bike is in.
Normally that would be something the shop would order week by week, but this year the shop did a big preseason order, anticipating a shortage.
“We’re ordering way more than we would have but we knew we needed to do that in order to have inventory,” Breen said.
Benita and Michael Warns run Midway Bicycle Supply, a bike parts supplier, and Mr. Michael Recycles Bicycles, which sells used bikes, does repairs and gives away bikes to people in need, in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul.
Sales in 2020 far outpaced 2019, and so far this year, are ahead of 2020. But like other bike companies, they’ve seen their share of supply chain issues. Bike part manufacturers in Asia have been shut down intermittently due to COVID-19 outbreaks. For Midway, parts ordered in July of 2020 showed up in January of 2021. September 2020 orders showed up in June. October’s order is supposedly shipping this month. Once it does ship, it takes a few weeks to get across the ocean, then lately, sits until a dock becomes available for unloading, at which point it can be shipped to them.
Another pandemic phenomenon the Warnses have noticed is demand for sizes and types of parts no longer found in new bikes skyrocketing. Because shops were closed in the early days of the pandemic, or bikes were hard to come by because of high demand, lots of old bikes came out of storage.
“We’re seeing bikes that hadn’t seen the light of day since the first Clinton administration,” Benita said.
“Five, six, seven speed freewheels — these are, from the eighties or earlier,” Michael added. “In January I got a hundred of the seven-speed freewheels. They lasted about a month.”
Breen is seeing that, too. Perennial is somewhat of a specialty shop when it comes to new bikes, for example, with cargo bikes, compact bikes and e-bikes, and Breen says he sees signs of new people getting into biking in who’s walking in for the repairs and service part of the business — and what bikes they’re bringing with them.
“These are people that have had a bike in their garage for 15 years, but they probably haven’t ridden it in the last four years,” he said.
Maggie Anderson experienced some of the supply chain issues in pandemic bike shopping in recent months as she’s started riding more, buying two bikes. One is a used bike she found on Craigslist — one that she can ride around comfortably and not worry about having stolen. The other is a brand new All City, which she found online. When she called her local bike shop that stocks All City bikes, she learned she couldn’t just go there and pick her new bike up.
“They’re like, we’re going to give you a heads up right now that gone are the days … of walking into a bike shop and being able to pick out a bike that you want, you definitely have to order in advance,” she said.
She was a little surprised. Anderson had heard that bikes were selling faster than stores could keep up with last year, but didn’t realize until the shop told her that production issues were still constricting the number of new bikes out there into 2021.
She ordered the bike and put a down payment on it early in the year, but the manufacturer couldn’t tell her how long it would take before the bike arrived, so she worried she could miss out on some of the prime biking months. Luckily, it didn’t take that long. The bike arrived within a month.
While some bike shops have ridden out the supply and demand mismatch, others have been driven out of business, unable to stock enough bikes or parts to make money.
Bike part suppliers and shop owners are hoping some of the kinks in the supply chain work out soon. Many say things may not return to 2020 levels, but they think the bike boom is here to stay, as more people pick up the activity and as bike infrastructure improves, making biking as transportation feasible for a wider swath of the population.
“Once the supply chain returns to normal, I think demand is going to stay higher than it was pre-pandemic,” Benita Warns said.