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Metal on Metal

Navigating the global dearth of bike parts

Mountain biking has never been the easiest sport to get into. It can be technically challenging, the equipment is relatively expensive and it can really hurt when you fall. However, if you can make it through that steep and costly part of the learning curve, it can be one of the most rewarding activities to undertake in the outdoors. But like any vehicle or mode of transport, bicycles are linked together with hundreds of small parts of metal, plastic and rubber, parts that wear out with use. And being ridden on Whistler’s world-class and famously burly trail system, parts break.

The supply chain for those bike parts has remained relatively stable over the years as cycling enjoyed stable growth, but the sudden surge of outdoor activity in the last 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic threw the proverbial stick in the spokes. Bikes were bought, sold and resurrected from dusty storage sheds in order to get outside for some physically distanced, family-friendly quality time. All those used bikes needed parts to get rolling. Like all sudden market events, demand quickly outstripped supply.

The problem facing the entire cycling industry now is: 

How do we source enough replacement parts to keep current bike owners happy?

How do we source enough parts to build the shiny new bikes so many people want to buy?

“Normally we have an excess of supply and our entire job is getting it into the stores and making sure everyone is well stocked,” says Dylan Smith, Vancouver Island and Lower Mainland sales representative for distributor Live to Play Sports.

“Now, there’s no supply. It’s essentially back-ordering stuff, providing [shops] with ETAs and managing expectations down the road. It’s a strange world to live in as a [sales] rep for sure. It’s almost like the whole job description has changed.”

Over the course of his career, Smith has seen shortages and delays with products coming to the market before, but nothing on the scale of what he has seen over the last 15 months.

“This is like a one-in-a-hundred-years type of event, a kind of shortage you’d see during World War II or the Spanish Flu or something,” he says. “It’s so global and it’s impacting so many industries, not all consumers are recognizing that.”

The sheer scale of the global COVID-19 pandemic has affected countless industries and their workers, especially in Southeast Asia, where much of the world’s consumer manufacturing takes place. But temporary closures of factories to prevent coronavirus transmission turned out to be just one piece of the global bike parts puzzle. In March and April 2020, as the world seemed to grind to a complete halt, every industry was faced with uncertainty. That included the production of bikes and the associated parts. Every tier in the supply chain, from factory floor to household consumer, waited to see what would happen before ordering for the following season. 

“When the pandemic first hit, our sales dropped pretty dramatically,” says Tim Hadfield, GM of Shimano Canada’s bike division. “We were down to probably half of what we [were selling] the previous year, for about two weeks. Basically, the bottom just fell out. When we hit the beginning of April, it began to go the other way. We were continuously putting twice as much product into the market on a daily basis from May 2020 until November 2020. But there’s only so long you can ship twice as much as the year before.”

The hockey stick growth didn’t slow down at the end of the 2020 riding season, either. Hadfield adds that sales in 2021 were up by as much as 76 per cent over the previous year.

“Every cycle we think we’re going to catch up, incoming orders exceed our expectations,” he says. As we rolled into March [2021] we started putting through four to five times as much product as in 2020. We’re looking at astronomical numbers of incoming orders. That’s quite telling. There is a shortage in the market because there are so many people riding. No one can get enough parts.”

Shimano, which is celebrating its 100th year in 2021, is the largest bicycle components manufacturer in the world. Because the company owns all its own factories (located in Japan, China, Malaysia and the Philippines), Shimano was able to make the call to invest significantly in its manufacturing facilities to scale up production, expecting the boom to at least increase the baseline sales once the world returns to normal. Many bike component brands contract third-party manufacturers that were not willing or able to scale up their output so quickly, choosing instead to weather the storm of the shortage. The entire industry is watching closely to see where consumers choose to spend their money once tourism and travel open up to normal levels. Meanwhile, orders for bikes—and their associated hundreds of parts—keep flooding in.

“The biggest challenge is in components that are more complex to manufacture,” says Smith. “Things like suspension, drivetrain components and dropper posts in the mountain bike world, but also high-performance road biking stuff as well. It’s a bit easier to make more handlebars, but you can’t open a factory that makes chains quickly.”

Ship globally, break locally

With so many consumer industries experiencing unprecedented demand, the logistics of global shipping has been equally stressed. A well-documented shortage of shipping containers has caused bottlenecks in ports all over the world. Add the embarrassing Suez Canal incident (there were likely bike parts aboard the Ever Given, too) and you suddenly have to adjust expectations at every level of the supply chain all over again.

“Lead times are over 365 days,” says Jared Walker, sales rep for Outdoor Gear Canada (OGC), which carries 41 cycling brands. “You hear stories about particular products taking 12 months, 18 months, 24 months ... There are large manufacturers that are no longer giving ETAs. To put that into context, most parts prior to the pandemic were 60-to-90-day lead times; for something to go from two to three months to 18 or 24 months? It’s a huge shift and it takes a long time for manufacturers to catch up with that.”

As expected, those long lead times are affecting bike shops in Whistler and in turn, their customers. The Whistler Mountain Bike Park opened on May 31 after B.C.’s pandemic restrictions eased, and is known to consume bike parts like no other trail network in the world.

“With the bull wheels turning, parts are going to be breaking at a very accelerated rate compared to this spring,” says Scott Humby, owner of Fanatyk Co. Ski and Cycle.  “When the suppliers are telling us that parts are 600 days out, that makes it very difficult to plan for.  We’re sitting pretty right now, but we have to reserve some of our inventory for bikes that are in for repair. I’ve heard of a number of bike shops not selling certain parts to walk-ins off the street unless it has a work order attached and some amount of labour to help capture some revenue for the summer due to this lack of parts.”

One of those retailers conserving certain parts for its workshop is Whistler Bike Co.

“At times we’ve had to limit sales of parts—especially chains—to prevent hoarding. Bike parts are this year’s toilet paper,” says manager David Wilson. “For us [the shortage] has meant we have to search for inventory daily and manage backorders closely. We are already placing orders for the 2022 season whereas we usually do that in September.”

If retailers are all placing their orders around the same time and the supply is a fraction of the requested parts, how do distributors decide who gets what? Generally, it follows the first-come, first-served rule, but exceptions can be made.

“It’s been mostly first in/first out for parts and accessories, but full bikes are more sensitive,” says Smith. “Most bike brands have had to adopt some sort of allocation strategy. If a big bike shop in Toronto orders 4,000 bikes, you can’t just ship them 4,000 bikes anymore.”

Humby’s customers have felt the impact of those allocations firsthand.

“We’ve had up to 40 per cent of our booking orders cancelled by the manufacturers,” he says. “That includes people who ordered their bikes last October, thinking they were going to be ahead of the game.” 

One mountain biker who has to be ahead of the game when it comes to bike parts is Whistler local Dean Olynyk. Having ridden the Whistler Mountain Bike Park for more than 10 years (five years of which he described as “going apeshit”) Olynyk has consistently clocked up more than 100 days of bike park riding per season. To put that number into a seasonal cumulative context, in the 2017 bike park season, he reached 1.7 million feet (518,000 metres) of vertical.  Parts that riders would rarely replace over the course of their bike ownership such as brake lines, headsets and bottom brackets, are an annual investment for Olynyk. 

For the consumable bike parts, per season he’ll go through roughly 12 to 14 pairs of brake pads, as many as 12 tires (Olynyk admits he likes to ride soft compound rubber), four or five pairs of grips and he builds a new pair of wheels every year with at least one set of wheels stored as backup. With this level of consumption, it’s easier and more economical for Olynyk to order his parts from online retailers rather than clearing out the shelves of bike shops like a toilet paper hoarder. 

“The first year I cracked a million [feet] I hadn’t done a bulk order yet,” says Olynyk. “The next year I basically resigned to being my own personal bike shop so I could get the parts I wanted. I usually do two big orders a year and for the 2021 season, I made sure to get my first big order in nice and early in January. I normally do all my shopping from just one place but this year I had to go to three different online retailers to make sure I had all the parts I need.”

While Olynyk’s Doomsday Prepper level of readiness might seem excessive to some, he sees it as a necessary expense to make sure he can keep his cranks turning. Many of his mountain biking friends have had a more lackadaisical attitude towards their bikes, which could result in a shortened riding season.

“I suspect that a lot of people won’t be riding this season because they can’t get their bikes repaired,” says Olynyk. “If your bottom bracket is dead and you can’t replace it, what are you going to do? It’s not like riding chainless.”

With at least another year and a half of forecasted bike parts shortage, the lingering question remains about whether the COVID-induced bicycle craze is an ongoing boom or simply a spike that will recede once the world returns to its new normal. Much of the industry remains conservative with a wait-and-see approach, a move that could impede cycling’s explosive growth. At the local level, retailers need to remain resourceful and customers must remain patient. “Getting on our cases isn’t going to make it happen any faster,” says Humby. “We get that it’s frustrating and we feel that, too.”