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TECH NEWS

When will Britain’s bike shortage end?

“God only knows,” say industry insiders – plus the reasons why those looking for lower-priced models are getting hit worst

We all know that buying a bike is really difficult at the moment – nigh on impossible at some price points – with demand far outstripping the ability to supply, but when can we expect the shops to be well-stocked again, particularly with affordable models? We asked some of the key figures in the bike industry, several of whom opted for anonymity due to the commercial sensitivity of this topic.

Why are the bike shops short in the first place? Short answer (and not a surprising one): Covid-19. We’ve covered it in-depth in a couple of features:

> Britain’s bike shortage, part 1: what’s going on, when will supplies return, and how can you improve your chances of bagging the bike you want? 

> Britain’s bike shortage, part 2: tips for buying the bike you want in 2021

If you haven't got time for the details, the brief explanation is:

  • The supply chain has been severely disrupted by Covid-19.
  • Demand has rocketed with people wanting to ride both for exercise and transport.

But shouldn’t things have sorted themselves out by now with much of the world lurching back to some sort of normality? Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as that.

2020 Ribble CGR Tiagra - crank.jpg

“Component supply is much better than it was a year ago but it’s still an issue,” said the product manager of one major international bike brand.

Shimano’s factory in Malaysia closed for a while earlier in the summer due to a government-imposed lockdown, for example.

“Shimano make each product in one factory, so if a particular factory closes it can’t increase production in another to make up the shortfall,” said our contact.

The managing director of the UK arm of another global bike brand said, “Temporary closures are still happening. Vietnam is a source of bikes, frames, and components and it is currently in lockdown. Malaysia is still in lockdown. As a big company, Shimano can work but at limited capacity. Its suppliers, as small companies, can’t open which has an even bigger impact on Shimano’s ability to produce.”

Shipping those components that are produced remains a huge issue.

“The biggest difficulty at the moment is getting product here from the Far East; the problem with shipping containers is getting worse,” said our product manager contact. “There’s a shortage of containers where they’re needed. Plus, e-bikes need to be shipped in dangerous goods containers because of their batteries, and there’s a huge lack of those. We’re actually looking at shipping bikes and batteries separately to get around the problem.”

The shortage of shipping containers has driven the price up – that’s basic economics – and this affects cheaper bikes disproportionately.

Our MD contact says that his company ships 265 bikes per container. It doesn’t matter if they’re cheaper models or high-end, that’s the maximum number that’ll fit.

Before Covid-19, shipping a container from the Far East cost about $2000 – or $7.55 per bike. At today’s exchange rate, that would be about £5.50.

Shipping a container from the Far East today costs about $18,000 – or $67.92 per bike. That’s about £49.45.

  • Adding £49.45 to a £5,000 bike, say, is an increase of less than 1%.
  • Adding £49.45 to a £500 bike, on the other hand, is close to 10%.

“Import duty is calculated on the value of goods plus the shipping, so the cost increases even more,” said our MD contact. “The reality is that it will become uneconomic to import low-end products or prices will have to increase significantly to cover the higher costs.”

2021 Boardman SLR 8.9 Carbon - riding 2.jpg

What about airfreighting? That might be an option for high-value, low-bulk products, but it’s impractical and prohibitively expensive for larger items like bikes.

Even when bikes arrive in Britain, shifting them around the country is difficult because of a lack of HGV drivers, as has been extensively reported. The Road Haulage Association says that the driver shortage stands at about 100,000, out of a pre-Covid total of about 600,000.

The government has temporarily extended HGV driver hours in a bid to ease the shortage but big brands are reporting difficulties moving bikes from Felixstowe, say, to their distribution centres.

“This is the same for people in many industries,” says our product manager contact. “There just aren’t enough trucks to move bikes around and there’s nothing we can do about it. And then there are warehouse staff getting pinged by the NHS Test and Trace app and needing to self isolate, which causes further delays.

“A lot of these issues are on the news every night and they’re happening in every industry so at least most people are of what we’re up against and realise it’s not the bike companies profiteering."

Where do we go from here?

“This morning I had a video call with an industry big hitter,” said our MD contact. “The unpredictability of the virus, the global nature of the supply chain and then the container shortage mean that the catchphrase this morning became: God only knows.

“That sounds flippant, but frequently we are planning production on an almost hourly basis due to juggling what components have arrived, and what bikes we can now complete.

“The constraint is not our ability to bolt stuff together, but the availability of the stuff. The longest lead time I’ve heard of is 900 days.

“We talked for 90 minutes, but there is no answer to the key questions about when we will get back to normal and what will happen next."

The list of future variables (some of which have already been covered) includes:

  • Covid infection rates globally
  • Governmental reaction Covid infection
  • Raw material supply
  • Component manufacture
  • Bike assembly capacity
  • Container availability
  • Shipping capacity
  • HGV driver availability

Over at Specialized UK, Symon Lewis said, “We’ve always been in a position where bikes and product land daily, and we’ve invested with our manufacturing partners to increase capacity significantly for the more popular models. Shops do have stock of Specialized but for us, it is about getting bikes to where the demand is. Lead times vary massively depending on the bike.

“We’ve certainly seen demand increase considerably for the sub-£1000 models, but also across our Turbo range, with some massive growth in both performance mountain and active electric bikes. We put this down to the growing desire (and at times necessity!) for exploring more from your doorstep, and finding alternative, sustainable and safe modes of transport.”

Across the bike industry, though, production has been booked and pre-sold a long way into the future and several industry figures have suggested that things won’t settle down to normal until some time in 2023.

Prices

Our MD contact said, “In addition to the higher shipping costs, plenty of price increases have been coming through from the Far East. There was an early-round of price increases at the back end of 2020 and more will need to come.

“The range of sub £1,500 bikes, say, will change as the entry-level is unviable and increased prices will push some models out of this category. You will definitely be getting less for your money.”

One thing to beware of in these times of scarcity is scam websites taking advantage of customers desperate for a bike. We’ve had reports of a few popping up lately, such as this one, claiming to offer bikes at low prices. They can be hard to spot but bear in mind that hardly anyone is selling bikes below retail price at the moment. Why would they when they know they could sell a bike many times over at full RRP? Even if it looks legit, do some homework before parting with your money.

We have a full list of tips for getting hold of a new bike over here, but the most important thing you can do is plan as far in advance as possible. Talk to your local bike shop regularly, sign up for stock alerts on retail websites, and be flexible on brand, model, and price because, to cut a long story short, stock won't be in plentiful supply any time soon.

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.

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