"We sold a month’s worth of hardtails in the space of about 20 minutes"

Online and in-store, everything from hardtails to e-bikes are out of stock. Where have all the bikes gone?

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Out of stock.

Three little words that have come to haunt retailers these past three months, as websites and shops run out of bikes. From big brands like Leisure Lake Bikes and Chain Reaction Cycles, to small independent shops like Ace Bicycles in Guildford, decent bikes have been getting harder and harder to find. Hardtails and entry-level bikes are about as scarce as bog roll was a month before, while some brands have reportedly completely run dry of e-bikes and high-end trail bikes too.

“We’ve never seen anything like it, every bike shop has sold out,” says Rob Sherratt from Nukeproof. “My mate runs a bike shop down the road, at Leisure Lakes’s store, and there are people coming in saying: ‘we have £1,500 to spend, what can I buy?’”

So what’s going on? Is there a blockage in the supply line, with factories temporarily closing in the Far East, or have UK riders stripped the shelves bare, adding bikes to their shopping lists alongside pasta and bottled water? There have indeed been supply-side problems, according to Andy Jeffries from Whyte – Shimano’s rotor factory in Malaysia shut for nine weeks in March, while shipping has naturally been delayed, with fewer containers moving across the seas. “There’s not been one big issue, though, it’s numerous issues that have contributed,” he says.

You’ll have a hard time getting hold of hardtail thanks to Covid-19

Supply-side problems have been dwarfed by a huge surge in demand though, with people desperate to get hold of new bikes, or sort out their old neglected ones. “It’s been crazy, we sold a month’s worth of Scout hardtails in the space of about 20 minutes,” says Sherratt.

The phenomenon started at entry-level bikes, with decent hardtails for £375 being snapped up in the early weeks of lockdown. Then the price points crept up and up as bikes sold out at the cheaper end. “First it was £500 hardtails, then we sold out of £600 ones, then that became £700 and now I think the cheapest bikes we have are £900 hardtails,” Toby Pantling of Ace Bicycles in Guildford says.

Trying to find bikes from our own Hardtail of the Year test that are still available to buy has become nearly impossible. The £350 winning bike, the Calibre Two Cubed, is sold out, as is 
the £500 category winner, the Vitus Nucleus 27 VR.

Specialized has seen a range-wide increase in demand

Specialized says it’s seen an explosion of demand across its entire range, from Rockhoppers at the bottom to Levos at the top of the price tree, and naturally this is what’s causing a slowdown in supply. Orange said it practically ran out of hardtails at one point, with stock of the Crush not expected until October. Similarly, Cotic lauched its new bike last month, the BFeMAX hardtail, and sold half the stock in just a single weekend.

Surging demand

The National Trade Body for cycling, the Bicycle Association, has just released figures that tell the same story – sales of bikes between £400 and £1,000 more than doubled in April 2020, up 112 per cent by number sold and 99 per cent by value, compared with the previous April. And overall, bike sales increased 60 per cent by number sold and 57 per cent by value.

We’ve seen the effects of this at mbr, with scores of letters asking – pleading – where can decent bikes be bought for reasonable money? Trying to get hold of any of the bikes we’ve rated highly has been a near impossible task – bikes like the Nukeproof Reactor have sold out, and Calibre is killing it, with bike sales up 334 per cent on the previous year, according to John Williams from the brand.

The bike industry’s in the pink, with money even flowing to high-end e-bikes

“We’ve seen every price point in our range perform fantastically,” he says. “The cheapest went first then the next level above and then those above that and so on.”

Supply bottleneck

It wasn’t just new riders rushing out to buy bikes, though; according to Williams, the pricier Calibre Bossnuts have sold quickly too and sales of that bike are up a ludicrous 387 per cent. “Last week I had five 40ft containers of different bikes arrive on the Friday, and I’d sold them all by Monday,” he says. “That’s 1,100 bikes sold over the weekend.”

Chain Reaction Cycles has also seen a 120 per cent growth in mountain bikes over the past three months, and they’re selling more components and groupsets too. “That tells us we have a healthy mix of customers buying new bikes and those who are making upgrades to their current bikes,” says Gary Wells from CRC.

Higher-end sales have also beaten every expectation for Pantling too. “I’ve had a few people come in who say, where do I spend my money? We had a guy the other day asking for a new e-bike – he said ‘as long as my kids see it and think I’m really cool that’s what matters.’ It’s funny as he has three Lambos in the garage, I guess they don’t impress anymore.”

Impressing your children with highly priced consumer goods is one reason to buy a new bike, but surely not the only reason. So why did the UK go on a bike- buying binge that continues still now?

People wanted to treat themselves to their hobby in a dark time, says Nukeproof’s Rob Sherratt. “It’s a passion industry, it’s just a godsend for us that our customers are people who love bikes,” he says. “It’s a lifestyle not a luxury, they live and breathe bikes.”

It’s fortunate that UK riders were never actually prohibited from riding, even in the depths of the lockdown, while other countries like Spain and France specifically prohibited it.

“A lot of us got more time to go out riding too, and it was one of the few things you could actually do,” says Andy Jeffries from Whyte. “You could run, you could walk and you could ride. 
We also had an amazing run of weather, that would have had a big impact on sales anyway but with lockdown it was even greater.”

New riders flooded to the sport to escape the lockdown blues, and to get around when public transport was discouraged. “People not having to commute has saved them some money too,” says Mike Smith from MB Cyclery, in Hampshire. “We had people going to the train station to reimburse their season tickets for a few grand, then coming straight into our shop to spend the money on a new bike.”

The government’s furlough scheme no doubt played a part by keeping people employed. “I reckon people’s family holidays got cancelled too and they’re thinking, ‘I have five grand to spend on a bike I wouldn’t otherwise have had,’” says Pantling.

Usually bike brands, like all businesses, worry about not selling enough of their products. Now though, they’re worried they’ve sold too many. Where will they get more stock from to fill the shelves? How will they service and support the customers they’ve already sold to, should things go wrong? And what about all the disappointed customers who couldn’t get the bikes they wanted at the right price?

It’s not as simple as simply bringing forward bikes and gear from their 2021 range, says Whyte’s Jeffries. “The problem is we forecast about 12 to 18 months in advance, so all the bikes we’ve sold were forecast last year,” he says. “We’re too small to react and just go and make more. Like most manufacturers we all share factories, and cash is king.”

Can the biggest brands muscle their way in and boot other smaller bike builders out then? Not exactly, says Andy, it’s more about those brands that put their orders in first. Brands that were smart, figured out quickly there was a bike boom coming, and placed orders for more stock while the others were laying off staff, had a better chance of getting more stock. “But honestly, no one expected a bike boom when we first went into lockdown,” Andy says.

Besides, the hold-up isn’t necessarily with the factories that make bike frames per se, it’s all the myriad of components that bolt on to make up a complete bike. “The problem is you’re still waiting on products from SRAM and Shimano,” Rob from Nukeproof says. “We don’t have the power to just switch on a factory.”

Virtuous circle

All the brands we spoke to say they do have more stock arriving soon. Specialized says more arrives every week and they’re still pressing ahead with new bike launches, while the fact they don’t limit themselves to model years anymore really helps here. Meanwhile, Whyte says it has stock arriving all the time, and Calibre’s best advice is to watch the website closely – then snap it up before it disappears.

What does it all mean for the future of the sport? In the short term it’s potentially tricky if you’re trying to buy a new bike and it’s just not available. But the long-term prospects for mountain biking are excellent because there are thousands of new riders. Yes, some will abandon the sport but many will love it and stick around. More mountain bikers mean we have more influence and a louder voice nationally. It also leads to more trails and more venues, because there are more mountain bikers ultimately paying for them to be built, either directly at private bike parks, or indirectly through government grants. It’s also good for the bike brands that now have more customers, and ultimately that’s good for riders because we want healthy competition to create better products.

It’s been gladdening to see that, when lockdown lifted, the first thing people did was to head for the hills. Covid-19 is a dreadful thing, but perhaps it’s taught us what’s important in life – family, friends, health… and a little further down the list, just getting out and riding.