We've all seen headlines about Britain's bike shops running out of stock as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and stories of waiting lists for repairs and new supplies, but is it really difficult to buy the new model you've been lusting after?
As usual in matters of commerce, it's a question of supply and demand, and both have been affected by COVID-19. Let's flip things around and look at demand first....
Quick note before we start
A lot of people have spoken to us for this article on condition of anonymity. Some brands are reluctant to give out commercial information publicly, which is understandable. In an ideal world we'd attribute all quotes, but on this occasion we've had to compromise.
Lockdown restrictions were announced in the UK on 23rd March, and the bicycle trade in this country saw an immediate uplift in sales.
"There has been a perfect storm for cycle usage: enforced free time [as a result of people being furloughed and restrictions to other activities], cycling being a permitted exercise option, cycle shops being classed as 'essential' [and therefore permitted to remain open], and excellent weather," the managing director of the British arm of one global bike brand told us.
You can add to that list a desire to avoid public transport boosting the number of people commuting by bike, and the improved cycling infrastructure in some towns and cities, the government having instructed local authorities to provide more space for cyclist in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
We reported back on 23rd April that UK bike sales were booming. Evans Cycles said that it had seen "unprecedented demand" for bicycles and another leading online retailer told us that it was busier than during the Black Friday sales period in late November.
This high demand has been sustained. In early May The Observer reported, "Would-be cyclists keen to exercise during the lockdown have cleared stores of their stock." On 23rd May The Guardian said, "Bicycle shops are selling out as soon as new stock is delivered and are swamped with demand to overhaul old bikes." And on 19th June the BBC reported, "As people venture further afield for exercise, or return to the workplace while avoiding public transport, bikes – new and used – are at a premium."
Anecdotally, here at road.cc we've been unable to get our hands on many bikes that we'd like to review because brands have either sold out – in which case they don't need the publicity – or they're at full stretch getting enough units out to bike shops without spending time preparing bikes for the media.
"I think the increase in demand is clear – it’s a huge conversation across the industry, but it’s also become massive within political spheres, across mainstream media, and we’ve all got friends hitting us up for bike advice!" says Kirsty Woodcock, Specialized UK's Head of Marketing.
"Hopefully cycling is a positive lifestyle change that some people can take forward from this challenging time. Some bikes have been more popular than others as the market welcomed less experienced riders, but we have stock arriving into our UK warehouse all the time."
Claire Beaumont, Marketing Manager of London's Condor Cycles, says, "Initially, indoor training products sold well. However, when the government clarified the type of exercise we could do outside, we started retailing a large range of items online. Workshop servicing and repairs have also been in high demand."
The managing director mentioned earlier says, "Demand has increased massively and has shown no sign of dropping. We have sold as many bikes in the three months since lockdown began as in the whole of 2019.
"Entry-level hardtail mountain bikes and hybrids were exhausted in May. No more are available until 2021 model year stock arrives in the UK in September.
"Demand has switched to whatever models are left, with almost nothing below £2,000 remaining. Like many other distributors, we've run out of bikes."
Equally, COVID-19 has affected the supply of many bikes, components and accessories. We ran a feature way back in February explaining how the virus was affecting the bike industry. UK distributors were worried that the virus could cause delays to the shipping of new bikes and components as a result of temporary factory closures and quarantine rules in China.
To put it mildly, things have moved on since then. First, supply from China was indeed disrupted, as was the flow of goods from other countries involved in the bike industry as a result of shortages of Chinese raw materials and parts. Then, of course, many other countries had to cope with their own lockdowns during the first half of the year. This has all had a knock-on effect within many global industries, the bike industry included.
One brand told us that the temporary closure of factories in the Far East has naturally affected supply, and that even when the various lockdowns were released, social distancing measures meant that production capacity was reduced.
Travel restrictions within Asia slowed distribution too, so as well as less product being made, it was been more difficult to move around. If a small part gets held up somewhere in the supply chain, it could be that a particular component or even a complete bike doesn't get shipped.
One brand told us to bear in mind that it only makes economic sense to transport shipping containers when they're full. If slower production results in a container that's only 75% full, say, chances are that you won't get 75% of an order delivered to Europe, you'll get none of it and the container will stay where it is until it reaches capacity.
"We are waiting for several shipments from overseas, and I would guess that is the position for many in the industry," said the head of marketing at one UK bike brand.
"We are hoping it is a temporary bike vacuum and there will be some normality for the rest of 2020."
The decreased supply wouldn't satisfy even normal demand but, as we've seen, the appetite for bikes and components is higher than ever and that exacerbates the discrepancy.
Adjusting supply to meet increased demand isn't always straightforward. The managing director quoted earlier also told us that his brand generally has a six month lead time for new bikes.
"That means there's no way to react quickly," he said. "Putting in a new order for bikes the day after lockdown began would normally mean stock arriving in the UK in September, but it's not as easy as that because the surge in demand has been felt all around the world. Australia experienced almost exactly the same pattern as the UK, for example. Even the Netherlands, which is culturally far more cycling-oriented, has seen a huge spike."
The increased global hunger for bikes means that a UK distributor might not get the units it has requested even a few months down the line because manufacturers simply can't keep up.
Another bike industry source told us, "Pulling the line forward [meaning getting a product made earlier than originally planned] is as impossible as getting more of anything outside of your programmed number of units from a factory. Even if you own your own factory, you can't increase units quickly due to the supply schedule of components for everybody else.
"If you own the assembly line, bonded storage, and so on, you still need parts to make a bike. A simple brake lever might have more than 10 vendors supplying all the bits inside, and each has a lead time that's inflexible.
"The big brands can apply leverage or even kick out smaller brands from the lines to get more of their stuff through – it happens a lot to the small fry – but the lead time is still somewhere between three and six months, depending on what it is.
"Shipping is 28 days or longer. Air freight is quicker, but it's also more expensive so it's only an option if a product is light enough or it has a very high retail price."
Air freight costs are especially high at the moment because of high demand. One brand told us that it has even had to suspend its usual practice of sending PR and photo sample bikes by air ahead of the main stock coming by ship because it is so expensive.
The UK head of one international brand said, "Looking at the production dates we have so far, the issues of component supply affect the sub-£750 bikes more than other sectors."
In short, supply and demand have fallen well out of balance in the bike market as a result of COVID-19, and there's no quick way to restore the equilibrium. It's also worth pointing out that all of this is happening at a time when many bike distributors would be running down stock anyway in anticipation of the new model year. Warehouses tend to be at their emptiest at this time of year, so there's not much to fall back on.
That said, some brands have told us that they have been able to meet demand.
"Specialized work differently to much of the industry in that we’ve moved away from a traditional ‘model year’ structure," says Specialized UK's Kirsty Woodcock. "Instead, we release product when it’s ready for our riders. This has helped in ensuring our future releases are minimally affected.
"The general uplift in demand has been incredible, and we are loving all the new people out there enjoying cycling! To meet the needs of these new (or returning) riders, we’ve utilised our entire global network to improve logistics, source more bikes for the UK and improve warehousing processes to support our retailers as best we can.
"We managed to launch four incredible new bikes too! The Diverge, Rockhopper, Vado SL and Demo all launched with stock in the UK."
The UK marketing manager of one bike brand told us, "Our logistics partners continue to deliver, based on our pre-purchase orders, despite the understandable increase in pressure from market demands.
"Like most brands, we’re working far ahead in terms of planning and ordering, in most cases in advance by 18 months of production, so we’d expect component manufacturing partners will also react accordingly. With regards to current ordering and shipping, these continue unaffected.
"We are quite fortunate with our business model – we can be agile enough to cover over-performance and stock replenishment. Because we schedule production we’re never really left with unexpected gaps in our stock over a long period. The next build slots are only ever a handful of weeks away based on our extensive seasonal planning."
So what exactly is the current market situation? It's difficult to make sweeping statements because some brands say they're on top of things while others are experiencing real difficulties with supply.
It's fair to say, though, that bikes from the more affordable end of the market are the ones most likely to be in short supply. Of course, there are bikes to be had, but not necessarily the one you're chasing.
For example, the most recent sub-£1,000 bike that we've reviewed on road.cc is the £699 Cube Attain 2020. It's now out of stock at Wiggle and Cycle Solutions. You can get it from Rutland Cycling, but only in a 47cm frame size.
Okay, this is anecdotal and we're not saying you can't find this particular bike elsewhere. We're not singling out Cube either, this is simply the most recent brand that we've reviewed, and we're getting to the end of the model year so you might have had difficulty in getting hold of this bike anyway. However, even with all those caveats, do some looking around and you'll see that this is a familiar story relating to bikes of this price.
What about more expensive bikes? Let's look at the two most recent bikes we've reviewed in the £2,000 to £3,000 price bracket.
This is just a snapshot. It doesn't prove anything in itself but we've been told by several retailers that it's easier to get hold of higher end bikes than more affordable models. Most people deciding to cycle to work instead of taking the bus don't go out and buy a £2,000+ road bike, especially if they see it as a temporary measure. Those wanting to get on a bike while the gym or swimming pool are closed also tend to be after cheaper options.
In terms of accessories, indoor trainers have sold well, as mentioned by Condor's Claire Beaumont earlier, and so have loads of other product types.
"Our entry-level kit, in particular, has been in huge demand during lockdown, whether that be shorts, bib shorts or jerseys," says Rob Atkins, brand manager of the dhb clothing label. "Couple that with a rise in new customers and we’re really excited at people either taking up the sport or returning to it in a bid to stay active. It’s great news for cycling in general.
"Of course, there have been shortages. You can’t replenish everything when factories are closed or working at reduced capacity. But we are super proud of the way our team has managed intake during this period, working closely with factories to understand what’s possible within their various restrictions and restocking in key areas. It has been a fantastic effort by everyone in the supply chain.
"We have deliveries almost every week at the moment. Some of our Classic and Blok jerseys were back in stock last week, while the Stelvio and Sierra prints arrived this week along with other lines such as MODA shorts. There is more to follow later in the month, too. We can’t restock everything we sell through, though. Our autumn and winter lines are not too far off, although I’m not wishing the summer away just yet!"
It's a similar story in many other sectors of the bike industry – high demand is resulting in shortages, especially at the more affordable end of the market.
One other thing to consider if you buy from an online retailer, or if your local bike shop has to order something in for you, is that the time taken for delivery could be longer than normal.
Wiggle, for example, currently warns that "due to government restrictions and controls in place to reduce the spread of coronavirus, we are experiencing some delays in delivery times," although our experience is that any delays on its delivery to UK addresses are minor. Other online retailers say the same thing.
The UK head of one global bike brand told us, "As a small team we’ve been under massive pressure to cope with the volume of calls we're receiving from the public wanting spares advice for ancient bikes pulled from the shed, or tracking down bike availability, unable to understand why there aren't any!"
Struggling to satisfy demand is the sort of problem that many people would love to have. Whereas some sectors of the world economy are in a dire state, the bike industry is doing alright thanks to all these extra people cycling for health, exercise and transport.
"Based on the past three months, we hope that a whole new community discovers cycling and takes it further as a hobby and really love it, like we all do," says Condor's Claire Beaumont. "Hopefully by 2021 people can travel again and take their bikes to discover more and grow the influence of cycling as a sport/activity in this country."
We hope that too, but bear in mind that if it does happen we could be looking at shortages in the UK's bike shops for a while yet, especially at lower price points, so what should you do?
Well, as mentioned, retailers do have bikes, but far fewer than usual, even for the time of year. If you just wanted a bike – any bike – you could definitely get one... but no one wants any bike. We all have a budget and genre in mind – road bike, mountain bike, gravel bike, commuting bike, or whatever. You might have your heart set on a particular brand – perhaps a short list of two or three – or even a specific model. If you're hoping to spend £600 on an urban bike for commuting, a £5,000 road race bike isn't going to cut it. This is where things get difficult.
The good news is that model year 2021 bikes are just starting to become available – mostly in the shape of recently launched models like the Specialized Diverge, Trek Emonda and Giant TCR Advanced – and more will arrive with retailers over the coming weeks and months (some brands have moved away from model years, but most still update the range annually, even if that's just a question of revising colours and/or prices).
Does that mean that you'll be able to walk into a bike shop later in the year and take your pick? More bikes will certainly arrive in the UK between now and October, say, but the unknown factor is future demand. Will those bikes soon be out the door again, sold to people still keen to stay off public transport, for instance? We simply don't know for sure, and neither does anyone else, although Halfords has just said that it expects the cycling market to stay strong for the rest of the year.
“We expect a shift towards commuter bikes, as people return to workplaces and cycling infrastructure improves, and we expect bike servicing and repairs to become more in-demand as consumers take advantage of the Government's voucher repair scheme,” said Halfords.
That's why we'd advise you to pick a particular model and, where possible, reserve the bike you're after, especially if it's in the most popular sub-£1,000 price band.
Brands and retailers have schedules for the arrival of new models, so you can make enquiries and find out whether the model you're after is due to arrive imminently or not until next February (it really does vary that much; some brands try to get ahead of the came whereas Vitus, for example, didn't reveal its 2020 road bike range until the end of February this year).
We'll just deal with Boardman as an example. Stock of its 2021 bikes will be arriving gradually over the next 13 weeks (taking us to early October).
In the SLR 8 Series of road bikes, a £1,000 limited edition 8.9 model (above) goes on sale 9th July and is likely to sell out quickly, then stock of the 8.6 and 8.8 stock lands in a couple of weeks, with a new 8.9 Disc landing mid-to-late August. The 9 Series SLR range will follow in September.
The 8 Series ADV 8.6 adventure bike lands next week, with the new 8.9 available from the start of September.
The full suspension and hardtail 8 Series mountain bikes arrive at various times, starting at the beginning of September through to the end of the month.
The 8 Series HYB hybrids arrive at various times from late August.
It's similar with other brands, different bikes arriving at different times. No one will have their entire 2021 stock arriving in one shipment.
Some websites tell you when stock is expected, which makes life easier. If not, it's worth making enquiries.
Check out the 2021 Giant TCR Advanced 2 (above) on tredz.co.uk and it says, "Due with our supplier on 09/11/2020." You can pre-order the bike here to ensure you get what you want. In the current climate, it's something to consider seriously.
Mat has been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been road.cc technical editor for over a decade, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now pushing 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.