In November of 2020, I took my old commuter bike from college for a ride on the park road in Grand Teton National Park. All the singletrack trails here in Jackson were too snowy and muddy to ride already so for one last two-wheeled hurrah, I decided this was the best option before setting my bikes aside for ski season. As it would turn out, I had a fantastic time on this ride. There was something newly meditative about riding just to ride rather than the technical and adrenaline-filled singletrack mountain biking I had grown addicted to over the previous two summers. It was simple, but I spent time in the sunshine and my legs still burned when I arrived home. That one ride convinced me, wholeheartedly, that I needed to become a gravel biker and that I wanted nothing more than to spend the next summer getting lost on the gravel roads of the Teton Valley.
I set out doing extensive research on which gravel grinder would be best for my needs and price range. I searched around PinkBike and Craigslist to see if I’d stumble upon anything that fit the bill. In the back of my mind, I noticed that there were several posts containing sentences like “this bike was a pandemic purchase, but I’m not really riding it anymore!” I put my gravel grinder research on hold when the snow started to fall more consistently and decided I’d save my money for some inevitable ski-season purchase (hello, Kingpins!) and wait until spring. It wasn’t until spring actually rolled around that I found this had been a huge mistake.
Old gravel grinders on display at Fitzgerald's Bike Shop, Jackson Hole, WY. Everyone in town says "you have to go to Fitzy's," so I did.
My research had landed me on a Specialized Diverge. Here in Jackson, we only have one Specialized dealer. I went to lay my claim on a Diverge and was met with somber looks. If they even were getting another shipment of gravel grinders, they were only getting one in the model and size I wanted, and they weren’t even sure they were getting it. Defeated, I returned home and set out on the internet for more research. I found a bike shop in Salt Lake City, roughly four and a half hours from Jackson that had one Diverge in my size and I called them and begged them to hang onto it. Two weeks and a COVID vaccine later, I set out and drove all the way to Salt Lake and back in a day to get my bike.
This is the case not only with gravel bikes, but all sorts of bikes, all over the world. I was able to chat with Cal Jelley, the brand manager at Evil Bikes, Massimo Alpain, the Global Relations Manager at Cannondale, and Nick Hage, the General Manager at Cannondale North America about just how much of an impact the pandemic has had on the bike industry. This bike industry boom is a multi-faceted problem, and if you’re like me and are not only wholly intrigued but constantly inspired by the cycling community, you’re gonna want to buckle up and throw on your Pit Vipers cause this onion has a whole lot of layers.
Be Nice to Your Local FedEx Guy: Growth in the Industry and Supply Chain
One of Evil's beautiful carbon frames. Photographed at Hoff's Bikesmith. Izzy Lidsky photo.
I talked to Cal first. Cal lives in Madrid, Spain, which is where Evil’s international headquarters lay. We logged onto the call and through his camera I could see stacks of Evil merchandise in the warehouse behind him. He reminisced to me about this time last year when the world went into lockdown, and how in Spain, they weren’t even really able to go outside. Once the restrictions lifted a little, the boom in the bike industry began. Evil Bikes Europe is composed of just five people; Cal, “the bossman,” and the three guys in the warehouse, and between the five of them they do it all. In order to keep themselves and each other safe, they were only working one at a time in the warehouse, but orders were pouring in. Without the prospect of going on vacation, and no real need for a new car, customers, especially in Germany and the UK, were turning their extra cash towards new, full suspension mountain bikes.
Cal explained to me some of the nuances of supply chain for bike manufacturers and just why this spike created such a shortage. Bike brands place orders with component manufacturers like SRAM, who make brakes, shifters, derailleurs and other bike parts, several times a year and these orders get delivered in usually about thirty days. “But this massive spike happened, and everyone had to catch up, and countries were still in lockdown. It all just got backed up,” Cal told me, “And bigger brands like Trek and Specialized will do this ordering a year in advance, much more ahead of time than us, because they’re producing on such a huge level. Obviously, no one knew that bikes were going to go as mad as they did, so certainly there’s this massive amount of demand for the whole world.” Everyone had gone insane for bikes, and suppliers no longer had the inventory to keep up. Even the biggest brands have had their warehouses wiped clean for 2020 and even 2021. While Evil created wait lists to help out their customers, they were still scrambling to get all the pieces they needed to ship out full bikes. Where one week a set of 50 derailleurs would come in, they’d still be waiting on some other part of the bike, and once they had all the pieces, it would be a scramble to get them shipped to customers. “We had FedEx and DHL guys crying outside the warehouse twice a day,” he joked.
When I logged into my Zoom call with Cannondale’s Nick and Massimo, Nick was showing off his ‘Bikes Bikes Bikes’ t-shirt and I knew I’d get even more good insight from him. As Nick Hage sees it, the pandemic is a global phenomenon, which means that people all over the world have changed behaviors and ways of life. In turn, that means that markets all over the world were affected by these changes. Cannondale in particular does business anywhere you can think of, making them a key player in these changes. In North America alone, sales at Cannondale were up roughly 50 percent in 2020. This is a huge increase looking at the last 10 years in the bike industry where growth has been only fluxing by a little each year. As a result, inventory at any major bike supplier, Cannondale included, is down by 90 percent compared to last year. “Nothing sits in our warehouse, literally. A container comes into the warehouse, the warehouse empties it, and then basically prepares those bikes to be shipped. It’s pretty wild what we see happening,” said Nick. Not only are bike parts in shortage, like Evil’s Cal had talked about, but the commodity prices of materials like rubber and aluminum had gone up. Even shipping containers are in shortage and that temporary jam of the Suez Canal did no favors to the problem. Just as Cal had mentioned SRAM, Nick brought up Shimano, another manufacturer of bike components riddled with the same issues.
So what happens when bike manufacturers can’t get parts from the big brands? They turn to the smaller ones. Cannondale in particular turned to microSHIFT, a smaller and relatively unheard of drivetrain manufacturing company for some of their builds. They saw a large positive response from retail on these drive trains. This also means that individual cyclists are turning to smaller component companies. When Shimano or SRAM might be sold out, in come the smaller companies like Hope, PNW Components and Deity to save the day--and benefit from this growth as well.
Both Cal and Nick were adamant that Evil and Cannondale (and most other bike brands) were completely fine in the frame department, but that the real glitch in the supply chain came countries going in and out of lockdown due to the pandemic and that this caused a shortage of components which meant a shortage of bikes. The reality of the situation is that a lot of it is just bad timing. Where SRAM and Shimano (whom Cal and Nick both applauded) are working their little drivetrains off to get parts to bike companies, they had no way of anticipating how much they’d need to amp up production and just can’t keep up with the orders rolling into brands.
Pivot Cycle's Firebird model at Fitzgerald's Bikes. I was told I should definitely try one when I told the mechanic what kind of bike I was in the market for. Izzy Lidsky photo.
I wondered how many people who had dropped their vacation or new car money on a bike (the Evil Offering in its nicest stock build retails for $8,299), would actually stick with the sport or if those “bought this in the pandemic” posts I’d seen would become even more common. The way Cal saw it, there were probably a lot of people who were kind of into biking, and the pandemic offered them an opportunity to delve further into the sport. Nick broke it down in a more scientific way. He sorted people who rode bikes (hint: not cyclists) into three main categories. First was the Recreational Rider. These were the folks who rode bikes maybe once or twice a month and enjoyed their time on two wheels, but didn’t consider themselves cyclists. Next was the Commuter -- maybe an essential piece of this puzzle. The Commuters are the people who maybe once relied on the train, the bus, Uber, or taxis for their transportation. But with the threat of contracting COVID if left in enclosed spaces with others, a bike became a pretty good option. These people rely wholly on their bikes to get places. Lastly is the Enthusiast, which is what many of us here at TGR consider ourselves. We call ourselves cyclists, we probably own at least two different types of bikes, biking is part of our identities, all of our friends do it, and we will tell you how cool our new dropper post is.
As the pandemic forced people into the outdoors, it also created an opportunity for all three categories of people. Most obvious was the commuter, who turned to the bike as a COVID-safe way of eco-friendly transportation. For the Enthusiasts, it meant an even bigger excuse to be outside, enjoy the trails, and sneak away from our work-from-home regime for a lunchtime ride. But most importantly, maybe, it created a chance for the bike industry to turn Recreational Riders into Enthusiasts. “The opportunity for us to take those recreational riders and one, keep them riding recreationally, or two, convert them to the ‘N+1’ club- they want to get into other forms of cycling, those will pay dividends in the bike industry for the next 3-4 years.” It was those Recreational Riders that so quickly depleted the supply of bikes in the world. But on the flip-side it’s those Recreational Riders turned Enthusiasts that create hope and a bright new future for the world of cycling.
While actually securing a bike might be a headache at the moment, the implications of this boom in the bike industry are actually slated to have a massive positive impact. “If 10 percent of people globally who picked up biking in these weird, COVID times keep going with it, it’s gonna be a great thing for the bike industry in general,” said Cal. Not only has it done wonders for brands like Evil, but at some point, every person who bought a bike and kept riding it will need to get it serviced and fixed. Local bike shops and their mechanics have massive potential to benefit from it. “Up until this point, we were all talking about how to get more people to participate in the sport,” said Nick. Now, as bikes continue to fly off the shelf, it’s pretty clear that the trend is a good thing, and that it may continue this way for the foreseeable future. Nick cited a study by the non-profit People for Bikes saying that 87 percent of people that engaged in cycling said they’re likely to continue cycling in the future.
But purely just having more people ride bikes is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all of the positive change to come from this spike in two-wheeled enthusiasts. Cal told me how little trail maintenance happens on the trails surrounding Madrid. Before the pandemic, he might only see people he already knew riding out there, but now he sees all kinds of people on all kinds of bikes out riding. He’s hopeful that the more trails get used, the more people will engage in trail building and conservation, and while it might take time for all these new Enthusiasts to get there, the odds are in favor of the trails. Nick is also confident that eventually, more non-profit bike organizations will see growth in their memberships as a result of more people cycling.
Past even the physical aspects of trails or bikes themselves, both Cal and Nick are eager to see representation in the bike industry. Just a couple weeks ago, Shimano released a film called All Bodies on Bikes which profiles two plus-sized cyclists as they ride from Corvallis to the Oregon coast and help to create the narrative that anyone can be a cyclist on the way. It’s not only body positivity that films like this showcase, but rather the whole larger idea that really anyone can fit that bill. You don’t have to be the most chiseled guy in spandex on the road or the gnarliest enduro bro on the trail to include biking in your identity. This massive growth that the bike industry has seen is a result of this narrative of who can be a cyclist becoming more and more inclusive as the bike industry has more representation.
More representation also means more innovation for cycling. Nick is confident and hopeful that the new infrastructure bills created by the Biden Administration will work in favor of bikers if they are passed. “Our country is going to invest in infrastructure and I can’t see how cycling doesn’t benefit from that [bill] with everyone’s mind on sustainability and alternative modes of transportation. It’s pretty encouraging,” he said. Cal has hope for the freeride scene as well. With more money coming into the bike industry than ever, there’s more resources for inclusive freeride events to happen. “Hopefully there will be more money around events like Formation, or Rampage or Fest, or whatever new thing someone thinks up. I think something Natural Selection-style in biking would be really cool.”
So, if you’re in the market for a new bike and beating your fists against the wall, I’ll offer the advice my favorite bike mechanic gave me: the right bike will come when it’s meant to. And to cushion the blow of maybe not getting new suspension this year, think about all of the amazing positive change that the bike industry is seeing. If there’s any silver lining to the pandemic, this could be it. Nick summed it up pretty well: “They’re riding hardtails, they’re riding older full-suspension bikes, they’re riding really nice bikes. You can tell new riders versus more experienced riders. But it’s fantastic, people are definitely coming out, and people are falling in love with the sport, whether it’s gravel or mountain or road, there’s no doubt.”