May 23—The toilet paper shortage at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic lasted only a few weeks. But the pandemic also created a nationwide bicycle shortage that has persisted for more than a year now as people sought out socially-distanced outdoor activities to help get them through it.
Santa Fe wasn't exempt from the extreme demand, with local bike shops selling out of bikes in nearly every size and type. The increased demand was paired with a supply shortage as manufacturers struggled to operate under COVID-19 restrictions.
Charlie Verral, owner of Rob and Charlie's bike shop in Santa Fe, said this biking boom was reminiscent of a similar phenomenon in the 1970s, when gas shortages led to a surge in bicycle sales across the U.S.
"The volume of orders is completely above anything we've ever experienced," he said.
Verral said last March that nearly every bicycle they had was sold. His store went from having over 400 bikes to just eight in a flash. Complicating matters was the fact that bike factories slowed production, so once the 2020 bikes were sold out, there wasn't a way to get more.
Verral said the supply network for bikes broke down as manufacturers and factories navigated through the pandemic.
Now, the demand for bicycles has calmed down, he said, but the problem persists. It's not uncommon, he said, for a person to go to several bike shops to try and find the right bike — and even then they might not find one the right size.
Business is pretty much a steady roar, he said, growing four to six times what it was before the pandemic. Because the bike shortage is a widespread problem covering the whole country, he said Rob and Charlie's is even getting customers from out of state.
Someone from Washington bought a bike from his shop while they were on vacation, he said. Another customer drove down from Vail, Colorado, to pick up a bike.
Prior to COVID-19, Verral said that hadn't happened before and the store's clientele were all locals. Verral said most manufacturers have sold out of their 2021 bikes and it's still unclear what availability will look like in 2022. Right now, Verral said the store is selling only about one-third of the number of bikes it likely could if it had more inventory.
The crunch to get a bike hasn't affected only shops, but also manufacturers.
Preston Martin, president of BTI-Bicycle Technologies International in Santa Fe, said the company is definitely feeling the brunt of the bike boom. He said the company, which stocks about 300 brands and over 20,000 different products, supplies parts to bike shops across the country.
He noted also that the company is trying to keep up with demand, especially for bike repair products. It has placed supply orders in factories all over the world, he said, and the wait time is six months to a year.
At the beginning of the pandemic, it was mostly children's bikes, and those costing under $1,000, that were selling out. Then bikes at the upper end of the price scale started to disappear from stores.
It was these market factors that led Todd Baribault to start his own business, Santa Fe Mobile Bike Works.
With 15 years of experience working in bike shops, Baribault, a new Santa Fe resident, started his business as a side job, but hopes it will grow to a full-time option as his clientele picks up. He first got the idea for his mobile bike repair service when he put out an ad on Craigslist offering his services and got an overwhelming response.
He said he thinks people were looking for an outlet after being cooped up during pandemic lockdowns.
Baribault said he hopes people who bought new bikes during the pandemic have the gumption to stick with it, especially with all the nice weather and riding trails Santa Fe has to offer.
He said most people likely rode bikes as a kid and have memories associated with that, and have come back to it later in life.
Frank Ortiz, a self-identified jack of all trades at New Mexico Bike N Sport, said he's also seen the increase in biking demand and a supply shortage.
"This time of year, but also like just in general, sales and labor in the shop have skewed." he said. "We've been hustling. We've been trying to do our best to keep up since it's so busy, probably like three times busier than usual."
Ortiz said a whole row of the shop's bike hooks were barren, when normally this time of year they would be filled. Some customers have been waiting over 10 months for bikes, and some bikes aren't likely to be restocked until 2022, he said.
They have also been slammed with bicycle rental requests. The extensive bike fleet is regularly booked three to four months in advance.
If people want to get a bike, Ortiz said he recommends they spread their roots wide and look at multiple bike shops, Craigslist and even eBay.
Because, even after the pandemic subsides, biking will remain popular.
"It's definitely a sustainable means of transportation," he said. "It's a great way to slow down a little bit ... it's a good perspective on your environment."