TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y. — Like the rest of the country, Ithaca is not immune to the nationwide trend of bicycle shortages amid the COVID-19 pandemic. However, some local bike shops have found solace in focusing on the old rather than the new.
Hector Chang, interim director of Bikewalk Tompkins, said that there is a shortage particularly on inexpensive bikes in Ithaca, which follows a nationwide trend due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the NPD Group, a market research company, cycling sales nationwide grew 75% in April, to a total of about $1 billion in retail sales for the month. This is compared to the typical sales of approximately $550 million for the month. Nationally, the sales for lifestyle and leisure bikes grew by 203% from the previous year.
Chang said that some reasons more people are interested in biking in light of the pandemic are because they are looking for alternatives to public transportation and because they are seeking a new form of exercise, given gym and fitness center closures. In addition to the increased demand for bicycles, there are also issues with the supply chain, which was altered by the economic impacts of the pandemic and production shutdowns. President Donald Trump’s tariffs on goods from China, which is where many bike parts are made, have also disrupted the supply chain. With these factors combined, Chang said that it is difficult for local bike shops to order bikes from manufacturers to meet the increased demand.
According to the 2018 Bikewalk Tompkins Ithaca Bicycle Use and Attitudes Survey Executive Summary, about half of the respondents who are residents biked at least once for leisure in the past year.
“We hope that they can get it together very soon, because we hope that everyone who is interested in bicycling can actually make use of it,” Chang said. “I never thought in my career that we would get to the point where we’d have a bike shortage, but we’re here.”
Instead, some local bike shops have found that the demand for bicycles in the area has shifted to customers looking for repairs to older bicycles.
“I think one of the big things driving the repairs too, is that because people can’t get new bikes, they are pulling old bikes out of grandma’s basement, out of old barns and things like that and bringing the bikes to repair just for something to be out and ride around town,” Steve Gelb, owner of Old Goat Gear Exchange, said. “Biking is a good option when you’re trying to be socially distanced.”
The issue then turns from a shortage of bicycles — which is not a problem for Recycle Ithaca’s Bicycles (RIBs), said director Nicholas Desystemizer — to a shortage of skilled labor and repair parts.
“Nationwide, other community bike shops are noticing that they are the only ones who still have bikes available,” Desystemizer said. “We’re all just in this weird position. Community bike shops nationwide are classically underfunded. They all have a staff shortage, and are very DIY, so they often don’t have access to the same talent pool retail bike shops would. We’ve got the bikes that society wants, but we don’t necessarily have the funding to have staff to fix them up to make them available to the public.”
Desystemizer said that there are hundreds of bicycles that have been donated to RIBs, but they need to be repaired before they are sold at more affordable prices. The price of the repaired bicycles — which takes about one to two hours each to complete — vary, but the average is around $175. New bikes at other bike shops are often sold for over $700.
RIBs usually holds Open Shop hours where members of the community can utilize the space to repair their bikes. However, amid the pandemic, the number of people allowed in the shop had to be limited. Open Shop will be continuing, with social distancing precautions, July 19. Desystemizer was mostly working on his own on repairs at the shop over the pandemic. Bikewalk Tompkins assisted RIBs to pay for an extra mechanic to help do some of the repairs to meet the high demand.
“Selling bikes was pretty normal, we always do that, but we were emphasizing it a lot more just because we weren’t having the time to do normal Open Shop stuff, and we’ve never in the history of the organization have done any kind of work for people on their bikes, especially not for pay,” he said. “This is just something that we decided to do to continue to bring in some sort of income, but since we weren’t allowing people to work on their own bikes, we wanted to continue to contribute in some way to helping people stay on the road in general.”
Glenn Swan, owner of Swan Cycles in Freeville, said he has had an extremely busy summer. Although he has not yet run out of his inventory of bikes, he is working on about 15 repairs a day. He said that as a result of this, he is starting to run low on repair parts as well.
“After going through the winter, lamenting that I didn’t have enough storage space, I’m getting to the point where I can see the walls again,” he said. “I’m getting down on inventory like everybody else. It looks as though it’ll be another month, possibly two, before we get back to some semblance of normal, where if you don’t have what a customer is looking for, we’ll actually get it for a customer, but right now it is kind of frustrating that we might have somebody who is looking for a specific bike, and you just can’t get it, and you can’t even tell them when you are likely to get it.”
Swan noticed that the demand for bikes in the area was mostly for utilitarian bikes, and so he is proactively ordering similar bikes that he thinks people will want, even if they are not yet available.
“It’s not the way we’ve been accustomed to working,” he said. “We’ve been accustomed to the bike companies holding the bike inventories in warehouses and then we order them when we need them, but COVID has changed the model for the time being, at least, and we have to anticipate what we’ll need and order it far in advance so that when they arrive, we might have it to offer to our customers.”
Gelb said that most of his affordable bikes — under about $600 — have been sold out for about the last month. Gelb anticipates that these affordable bikes will be back in stock sometime next month, and there are still some high-end bikes, usually over $1,000, that are available for sale.
Gelb said that the four mechanics at Old Goat often work past open hours to repair used bikes for sale. Gelb noted that the shortage of parts will have an impact on used bike sales, but he does have enough used bikes to take parts from if needed.
“We do have the ability to build a lot of used bikes that are affordable, but I haven’t had the manpower to get those bikes ready during the surge of just repairs,” he said.
Chang said that he encourages people who have older, unused bikes to donate them so they can be refurbished and redistributed in the community. Although Lime Bikes left the Ithaca area in March, Ithaca Bike Rental is open for rentals.
“I don’t wish for COVID to stay around, but I hope that some of the effects on our society do stay around, some of the good effects, getting people outside, getting people to appreciate cycling as a viable means of transportation and a good form of exercise,” Swan said.