Mihika Robertson has spent many weekends cycling along the Burlington lakefront, through parkland and other Ontario terrain – anywhere she can enjoy the scenery safely while getting in exercise she would normally do at the gym.
Ms. Robertson, 57, considers herself lucky she has the Ruby endurance bike she paid about $2,500 for in 2018. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, getting any kind of two-wheeler since early last year is like winning a high-rolling lottery.
“It took two months for my friend to get the bike he ordered, and he was lucky because some people can’t even get one,” says the reception and administration work specialist, and mother of three.
Born in Sri Lanka, Ms. Robertson was a ballerina and into bodybuilding. She’s also an avid fitness club-goer, but COVID-19-related shutdowns meant taking time off indoor training.
The pandemic has changed the way people approach exercise and transportation, contributing to unprecedented bike sales and shortages that some industry members predict could last into 2023.
“A lot of people took to cycling because you’re locked down and there’s not a lot to do,” says Mark Long, co-owner with Tom Vardas, of Infinity Cycle in Windsor, Ont.
“This is not only a local, or provincial or federal thing – it’s a global thing,” he says. “Right now, anything with two wheels is selling.
“In 2019, we were selling maybe five to 10 bikes a week; currently, we’re turning away five to 10 customers a day.”
Bike shops typically are lined with new offerings in the spring, with suppliers carrying stock from previous years, says Mr. Long.
But since the pandemic set in over a year ago, “the showrooms and warehouses emptied quickly, and the old stock went,” he says. “Even bikes that might have been an ugly colour and weren’t selling were all gone.”
Infinity Cycle, which has relied largely on curbside pickup during Ontario’s stay-at-home orders, sells new bikes from starting around $500 up to more than $10,000.
“All the shops are getting some bikes, but we really don’t know when,” says Mr. Long. “We normally have them all by now.”
Bike businesses are facing similar supply-chain problems to the home-building and automotive industries, which are experiencing materials shortages due to pandemic-related border closures and factory shutdowns, notes Brian Pincott, Winnipeg-based executive director of advocacy group Vélo Canada Bikes.
“Generally, all bikes are in short supply. Pretty much everything from second-hand bikes to community-built bikes to Canadian Tire bikes and e-bikes – everything is selling right now.”
He says the pandemic has created “a perfect storm, in a good sense, for cycling and active transportation.”
Over the last five years, Canadian cities have become more aware of the need for cycling infrastructure, like bike lanes, he says.
“In the last three to four years, climate change has really escalated to the point governments are saying, ‘We’ve got to do something about greenhouse gases and cut down on car use,’ " he explains. “Then we had COVID, where the immediate response was, ‘People need to get out, and we need to create space for them and open streets,’ and people rediscovered cycling.”
Mr. Pincott, a former Calgary city councillor who was instrumental in building the Alberta city’s cycling network, says bike manufacturers have told him that retail orders for 2021 were four times higher than for 2020.
Earlier this year, he attended a virtual conference from Finland, where a representative for Eco-Counter, which makes products that count pedestrians and bikes, reported cycling rates during Canada’s cold-weather months in 2020 rose by 28 per cent over 2019. Mr. Pincott says that indicates “people are choosing to ride their bikes as a tool for transportation and not just for recreation, and that’s the difference.”
Since the pandemic began, cities including Moncton, Ottawa, Montreal, Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary and Winnipeg have extended their bike lane networks, according to Vélo Canada Bikes.
In Europe, cities reconfigured their streets for social distancing purposes, with an estimated $1.7-billion spent on COVID-19-related cycling measures.
Urban data service Strava Metro figures released in September 2020 that showed cyclist numbers in London, England, rose nearly 120 per cent, at the height of the pandemic’s first wave, over the previous year.
In Thunder Bay, Ont., the buying craze hasn’t led to additional cycling infrastructure. In fact, the city shelved a multi-use bridge plan that would have allowed cycling over a river.
But Community Spokes owner Ian Cameron says the explosive demand for bikes allowed him to move his Thunder Bay bike-selling and repair business to a storefront and employ workers.
“Two years ago, it was just me and I had volunteers,” including a 20-year-old First Nations resident now on staff part time, says Mr. Cameron, 30.
Currently, Mr. Cameron has virtually no inventory of bikes, which generally sell for under $900, and is scrambling to get parts to repair customer drop-offs. Mr. Cameron opened his own do-it-yourself location seven years ago and is now preparing to also sell his bikes online.
“This business is getting bigger and bigger … I’m a lucky guy who chose the right industry, and now I’m just trying to keep my sanity.”
But the pandemic has also thrown group and club cycling for a spin.
With bikes a hot commodity, there’s also heightened concern over thefts, so Ms. Robertson isn’t taking any chances. “People tend to put their bikes in their garages, but I keep mine in my house.”
Garage, a Portland, Ore.-based company that offers its Project 529 bike-recovery app, estimates two million bikes are stolen in North America annually. The Toronto Police Service alone reported nearly 4,000 bicycles were nabbed in 2020, three times more than in 2014. Police forces across Canada encourage residents to insure and register their bikes, and use sturdy locks and recovery apps like Garage’s Project 529, which comes with a tamper-proof sticker with a unique code that’s affixed to the frame and can be registered online.
The cycling frenzy isn’t expected to dissipate any time soon.
In fact, the Canadian government recently announced a National Active Transportation Fund, pledging $400-million over five years for cycling paths, trails and other projects.
“It’s definitely not a COVID blip,” says Mr. Pincott.