Just before Christmas, social fitness platform Strava released its annual Year in Sports report, which looked at how people used the service to track their workouts in 2020. With Strava having millions of active members, this is always an interesting prospect. But this year, COVID-19 has shaped the data in remarkable ways.
By now, you probably know that the pandemic has sparked a huge exercise boom in the US, with bikes taking center stage. New bikes have been in short supply for months and some stores are completely sold out. We wondered if this was just another 2020 fad or if this will lead to permanent change. Strava’s report and the NPD Group’s general sales, which collects data from thousands of American bicycle stores, suggest one answer: the newfound popularity of cycling may continue.
Where activity was booming, where it wasn’t and why
One of the most striking pieces of information in Strava’s report was the variation in activity levels among residents in different countries. Last spring, nations like Spain and Italy largely banned most people from going outside during the initial COVID lockdowns. Even when the Strava indoor activities such as trainer rides and treadmill runs jumped in those countries, the outdoor activities – at least those published in Strava – fell by around 66 percent compared to normal times. In countries like the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom, which allowed outdoor exercise during the lockdown, Strava activities increased significantly (up 28 percent in the United States, 45 percent in Germany and a whopping 82 percent in the UK).
After the locks were lifted, something strange happened. In severely restricted countries, Strava activity predictably rose to high levels, then stuttered, and stayed at or below the normal trend line. In countries with milder bans, the number of drivers decreased somewhat, but remained consistently higher than the expected average.
(Photo: Courtesy Strava)
According to Simon Marshall, an exercise psychologist and former associate professor at the University of California at San Diego, the science of how we make habits offers some insight. “When you recover from your habituation, you really want to get out of there,” he says. Marshall compares the phenomenon to the New Year’s dissolution patterns. “We always exaggerate how much we can do and these habits are unsustainable,” he says. In addition, habit development usually takes around eight weeks. As the context of our daily life changes, “we almost have to relearn our habits,” says Marshall.
Unsurprisingly, Strava activity data is ubiquitous for hard lockdown countries, with rapid peaks followed by equally rapid downturns throughout the US saw much more sustainable growth. Marshall attributes this to people in closed lands lashing through periods of activity and rest while trying to find exercise balance. (This is not to say that lockdowns were a bad idea; they were and are an essential tool in fighting the pandemic.) In the US, because they could still ride outdoors, cyclists were more likely to develop new cycling habits.
Which bicycle markets were booming and when?
According to Dirk Sorenson, executive director of the sports division of NPD Group, home fitness equipment sales flourished at the height of the initial COVID lockdown. But the increased interest in bicycle equipment and the historic sales boom that followed in that country were like nothing Sorenson had ever seen before. “It’s unabated,” he says. “Just crazy interest, and it doesn’t seem to be really slowing down.”
Interest in casual bikes rose first
In the early months of the pandemic, demand was driven by what Sorenson calls family riding. Leisure, fitness and children’s bicycles flew off the shelves. In the months of March and April things really started to fluctuate. Sales of children’s bikes rose by 100 percent, fitness bikes by 125 percent and lifestyle bikes like beach cruisers rose by a whopping 200 percent year-on-year from April 2019. Rod Judd of PeopleForBikes told Outside last spring, “Anything under $ 600 is just a waste of time. “
(Photo: Courtesy of the NPD Group)
Then Enthusiast Bikes started selling quickly
Just as the leap into the casual categories subsided, the higher priced enthusiast categories began to rise. Gravel was already one of the hottest segments for the bike industry, but the pandemic accelerated it, with sales jumping 144 percent in June 2020 from 2019. In August and October, sales rose 94 percent and 110 percent, respectively, compared to the previous year. Mountain bikes and urban / fitness bikes, which recorded a double-digit increase in June, increased by 116 and 126 percent compared to the previous year.
(Photo: Courtesy of the NPD Group)
With all the ups and downs, one category remained strong: electric bicycles, whose sales rose 190 percent year-on-year in June, 142 percent in August and 179 percent in October. “What you are seeing is the maturation of the e-bike market,” said Sorenson. Technology is far more sophisticated than it was a decade ago, and prices for midrange bikes are falling. There is also a lot more variety these days – and not just with e-bikes. Whether it’s an e-commuter or a versatile quiver killer, the bicycle industry meets many more requirements, much more specifically than before.
Indoor cycling was becoming increasingly popular
Along with e-bikes, stationary / indoor riding led the boom as people looked for socially distant training options during lockdown. Sales of indoor bikes and trainers increased 275 percent in April 2020 compared to the previous year. “Usually products like sneakers sink in the summer,” says Sorenson. Not this time. When the spring of COVID came, companies like Saris, Stages, Tacx and Wahoo ran out of peak stocks and sold out quickly. Many models are listed as out of stock until February at the earliest.
Where is this trend going?
At this point your big question is probably: When can I buy a damn bike again?
The data Sorenson looks at shows little evidence that the boom is slowing, although it may of course be easing in the US Winter. One big unknown affecting the future is what sales would have been in 2020 if anyone who wanted a bike could buy one. Some stores sold out entire product lines in the spring, and many customers who had neglected to pre-order for later delivery. “We’re at a stage where retailers are replenishing their stocks, but in many categories a bike disappears once it hits the ground,” says Sorenson. If these potential buyers are patient, the sales boom could continue on a similar path.
Blair Clark, President of the US Division of Canyon, believes the increase is permanent. “Two big trends we’re seeing are people who have either returned to the sport or discovered it for the first time and really fell in love with it, coupled with an ever-increasing acceptance of the bicycle as a means of transport,” he says. Americans, he adds, “are finally awakening to the transformative power of bicycles for transportation, not just recreation.”
In fact, Sorensen says utility bikes could see sustained growth. When workers return to offices, they may still be most comfortable with socially distant commuters than with public transportation. In general, he expects more additional sales from these new drivers. “How big, I don’t know,” he says. “But I don’t think it will go back below 2020 levels.”
When can you buy a bike again? It is possible to grab one now, but you will do a search. An unusually high number of 2021 models are already sold out online and may be difficult to find in stores too. Bike manufacturers have tried to revise production upwards, but it’s not easy, in part because production quotas are set many months in advance and because building complete bikes requires a multitude of parts that come from companies that may are also affected or not. “We have raised our supplier forecasts to achieve record levels of inventory,” said Nick Hage, general manager of Dorel Cycling Sports Group (CSG) North America, which includes Cannondale and GT. “But that doesn’t mean there won’t be any challenges in the supply chain.”
Most bike brands don’t have their own frame factories. You sign contracts with producers in Taiwan and mainland China. (Specifically, Giant owns a few factories.) These facilities often serve multiple brands, which means companies in the same facilities compete for additional capacity. They also compete for parts such as drives and wheels from other partners. “Obviously we struggled when other brands were simultaneously increasing their sourcing and production line requirements,” says Clark of Canyon. He adds that Canyon was prioritizing manufacturing difficulties in areas like gravel and e-bikes, where it struggled to meet consumer demand in 2020.
Conclusion: According to Hage from CSG: Although brands are working hard to increase supply, “there will be shortages in certain categories and models in the next year. We won’t see ‘normal’ until 2022. “
On the plus side, there are plenty of new friends to drive with.
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Main photo: mediamasmedia / iStock