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Shopping for a bike leaves some spinning their wheels

For the second year in a row, retailers are struggling to keep up with demand

Charles James, co-owner of CrimsonBikes in Cambridge, trains sales runner Solomon Sakakeeny-Smith. Bike shops have been dealing with shortages during the pandemic.
Charles James, co-owner of CrimsonBikes in Cambridge, trains sales runner Solomon Sakakeeny-Smith. Bike shops have been dealing with shortages during the pandemic.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

With the weather warming, outdoor mask restrictions loosened, and the fog of a year spent mostly indoors finally lifting, it’s an ideal time to take up bike riding. If you can find one to buy, that is.

A shortage of bicycles that began more than a year ago shows no signs of abating this spring, as retailers contend with ongoing global supply and shipping disruptions amid a relentless surge in demand from cooped-up consumers eager to enjoy the great outdoors.

Some retailers are taking orders for 2022 and beyond, while others look for ways to boost their meager inventories.

“The supply chain is broken to a level that the industry has never seen,” said Charles James, co-owner of CrimsonBikes in Cambridge. “It’s unprecedented.”

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Getting bikes onto store shelves and into the hands of consumers is as hard as it’s ever been. Some retailers who are fortunate enough to have kept bikes in stock say they’ve done so by turning to unfamiliar brands. There are certain sizes and categories that remain elusive, and prices have risen. Parts remain difficult to obtain, too, making repairs similarly hit-or-miss.

And as the busy season ramps up, the effects of the shortage will become more pronounced. Most bikes and their components are made overseas, leaving them vulnerable to shipping delays along with localized production challenges due to COVID-19.

Nick Hage, general manager for North America and Japan at Connecticut-based Cycling Sports Group, which includes the GT and Cannondale brands, noted that bicycles have hundreds of parts, and “if you can’t get one of those pieces, it delays the entire bike.”

Consumers are buying as much as manufacturers can produce. At CrimsonBikes, James said, in-store sales doubled last year, and online sales rose by a factor of 10. Other retailers also saw huge increases. Overall, US bicycle sales grew 65 percent in 2020 over the previous year, according to the analytics firm NPD Group.

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And many stores believe they would have sold more if they had enough in stock.

A report released by the industry advocacy organization PeopleForBikes said 41 percent of US adults surveyed in March reported paying higher prices for bikes, and 53 percent had encountered long waits for the products they wanted. The survey found that consumer issues from shortages had eased since last year, but that 39 percent of participants experienced inventory issues over the busy spring and summer seasons, while 26 percent did in the fall and winter.

“It is a shame that you can’t capture more of that enthusiasm and energy around biking right now,” said Mark Vautour, manager of the Allston store of Landry’s Bicycles. Landry’s does have bikes to sell, but the selection is limited.

Regular customer Aveen Nagpal shops for accessories at CrimsonBikes in Cambridge.
Regular customer Aveen Nagpal shops for accessories at CrimsonBikes in Cambridge.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Bikes costing under $1,200 are particularly coveted. But even customers willing to spend more must sometimes compromise on their preferred model, or wait for orders that could take months to arrive. Prices can also be 20 percent or more higher than normal.

Still, Vautour and others who sell bikes say they are doing what they can to get riders on roads and trails. The sooner you start shopping, he said, the better.

For instance, he has sold “low-step” bikes — those with an angular crossbar — to men, even though the design is typically used in women’s bikes. Vautour said male customers who rode them away were happy just to get their hands on a high-quality bike.

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“If you’re looking for something to tootle around the city, I would guess that you might not have your choice of color — or the dream bike that you want — but you can get a bike,” Becca Wolfson, executive director of the Boston Cyclists Union.

Some sellers, including CrimsonBikes, are getting creative in an effort to boost inventory. Instead of getting its supplies through representatives for the brands Crimson typically carries, the store has turned to importing bikes directly — a much more complicated endeavor.

Last year, he traveled to Mexico City to arrange for a supply of Benotto bicycles that were made there. While that’s a brand that might be known among biking enthusiasts, it’s not a household name — and Crimson didn’t carry it before.

James said that through that deal and other agreements with companies in “China, Portugal . . . literally anywhere we could go where there were companies that manufactured bikes,” the store has been making its way through the busy spring season with thousands of bikes in stock.

James said the store has fulfilled about 3,000 orders this year and has ordered enough bikes to sell about 20,000 more. But he’s concerned that delivery delays could cause him to run out.

“This is a global phenomenon; just like the pandemic was global in nature, the impacts of the pandemic — one of them being a surge in demand for cycling — was also global,” said Hage, of Cycling Sports Group.

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Hage said supply challenges have included congestion related to COVID-19 at ports, limited availability of raw materials such as steel and rubber, and shortages of parts such as derailleurs.

Some consumers are turning to used bikes. At Bikes Not Bombs, a Jamaica Plain nonprofit that sends donated bikes to developing countries and whose shop also reconditions and sells used bikes locally, shop director Ben Goodman said it’s having trouble refurbishing bikes fast enough to meet demand.

On a recent afternoon, there were a handful of bikes on sale, including a solid-looking $300 road bike and an unusual $600 specimen with narrow tires and shocks on its front forks. Bikes Not Bombs, which employs apprentices to help get bikes ready for sale, is working as fast as it can to replenish the floor stock.

Goodman said the organization has experimented with assembly line-style work in its shop, and it has held events at which it sells donated bikes as-is — without refurbishing them.

On a recent afternoon, Dymari Guillaume was working on an attractive, if dusty, Specialized road bike. As he cleaned the front gears, the Wentworth Institute of Technology student said he figured the bike would not be on the floor for long after he was done with it.

“We have to move fast just to get things done. I’m not saying we rush, but we have to move at a good pace,” he said. “It’s a good feeling seeing your bike taken down and ridden, just seeing people being happy, smiling, and getting something.”

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At the front of the shop, Fabian Weinstein-Jones and spouse Yana Weinstein-Jones were buying two refurbished bikes.

Yana Weinstein-Jones had started shopping with their heart set on a Cannondale, but wound up with a Specialized. The pair were pleased to have gotten some wheels quickly, though, given the shortage.

“We both kind of set our expectations kind of low,” Fabian Weinstein-Jones said. “We didn’t expect to be able to get one, for sure.”







Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.