Pete Lilly of Sweet Pete’s Bike Shop poses in front of his store in Toronto on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Pete Lilly of Sweet Pete’s Bike Shop poses in front of his store in Toronto on Tuesday, May 19, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

Bike shops busier than ever, but owners worry about stock supply issues

Uptick in cyclists brings new challenges for shops

Hundred of bikes once hung from the vertical racks at Sweet Pete’s. More bikes stood side-by-side on the floor.

Now, there are a lot of empty hooks and plenty of floor space.

It might seem as if business is booming at the store amid COVID-19. After all, more and more Canadians are looking to pedal power over public transit during the global pandemic, and parents are buying bikes for their cooped-up kids.

But owner Pete Lilly, who has three Sweet Pete’s shops in Toronto, is concerned about the company’s future. Because while bikes are leaving the store, few are coming in.

“It looks and feels like we’re going out of business,” Lilly said. “The cupboards are bare.”

Lilly’s store in west Toronto has stocked as many as 700 bikes at a time. Now, he has about 300. He’s closed his other two Toronto stores both due to staffing issues and a lack of merchandise largely caused by the global manufacturing lockdown.

“All the factories are back online now, but the lead times are so long that whatever we have right now is as much as we’re going to have until July,” said Lilly, who has owned Sweet Pete’s since 1997. ”So it’s a little bit grim when you look up and down the row, and you’re like, ‘Wow, I’m used to seeing this stuffed with bikes and having a basement full of backup, and being able to call a supplier and have something here tomorrow, or two or three days if it’s coming from Vancouver.’

“Now, you go on all these business-to-business websites, and all you see are zeros. They’re out of bikes, and we’re getting close to being out of bikes.”

READ MORE: B.C. employers worry about safety, cash flow, second wave in COVID-19 restart

As experienced riders drag their old wheels out of storage to the shops for repair, and novice cyclists desperately search for a new bike with the perfect fit, some bike shop owners say customers may have to be patient as stock issues get sorted.

Will Arnold has owned Experience Cycling in Duncan, B.C., 60 kilometres north of Victoria, since 1995. He said he’s never been so busy.

“When COVID first hit, for two weeks we were very quiet. And then it just came unglued,” Arnold said.

His store averages about $177,000 in April. Last month? Sales topped $287,000.

“This is the best I’ve ever seen our cash flow and I hope it continues,” Arnold said. ”The bike business, don’t get me wrong, it’s profitable but the margins are slipping every year.”

But bikes, he said, are scarce. He’s down about 300 bikes from the usual 800 he normally carries, and he’s had to turn some customers away, including a long-term patron who he referred to a store in Victoria.

“All the hardtail, entry-level bikes and kid bikes are sold out,” Arnold said. ”We have some kids’ bikes coming next month, but our hardtails that we rely on are not being shipped into Canada until August.”

Olympic wrestling champion Erica Wiebe joined the bike brigade a couple of weeks into Calgary’s lockdown. The Tokyo Games were postponed to 2021 shortly after Wiebe locked up her Olympic berth, and with no events to train for, or access to training facilities, Wiebe bought a white Liv Avail SL performance bike off Kijiji.

“Biking outdoors on a road bike has always been something that was a little bit scary for me,” said Wiebe, who does a lot of indoor training on a stationary bike. “But I thought, you know what? I’m not wrestling right now.

“And there’s a lot of fun aspects of road cycling, like the adrenaline of hitting a bump and thinking you’re going to die,” she laughed. “I’m all in… this summer is dedicated to just building my aerobic base and having fun on the bike.”

READ MORE: Cycling advocates say a different mindset is needed for people taking it up

The 30-year-old Wiebe, who’s been logging about 100 kilometres a week, stood in a long lineup outside a Calgary bike shop recently. The mom in front of her told sales staff she was interested in bikes for her two kids. The sales person brought out two bikes. Sold.

Shop owners say kids’ bikes, and entry-level commuter and mountain bikes are among the hottest sellers.

And with much of the manufacturing done in Asia, where COVID-19 brought the business to its knees, the distribution channel is churning in slow motion. Delivery, whether it’s by ground, sea or air, has slowed to a virtual halt.

How long would it take a bike coming off the assembly line today to arrive in a store in Canada?

“It could be as long as six months,” Lilly said.

Ben Cowie, who owns London Bicycle Cafe, said even getting bikes from companies outside Asia is difficult.

But he has a company mantra for this unique coronavirus sales season: “Bikes aren’t cancelled.”

While he’s had to shut down the cafe side of his store, he’s optimistic about his bicycle business, despite the void of stock.

“We’re a little smaller, and through a fluke and happy accident we did a lot of our ordering early this season. So we’re actually in pretty good shape in terms of inventory,” he said. “I know I can’t reorder stuff, so basically, what I have is what I have. If I can’t get your size, it’s not here.”

All three shops are also swamped doing bike repairs. Arnold said he’s seen customers bring in bikes they’ve long neglected, including a man last week who hadn’t ridden his bike in 10 years.

Cowie’s London, Ont., shop pivoted by developing a mobile bike station that allows his staff to fix bikes in customers’ own driveways, “so we’re not sharing tools, we’re not working in the same space, people aren’t coming and going in and out of the shop… really trying to use this as an opportunity to do things better.”

With demand at an all-time high, and incoming stock almost non-existent, owners also say some customers’ tempers are flaring, making their jobs all the more difficult even though they’re working harder than ever.

Arnold said a man in his store “tore a strip off” him last week. “I said ‘Sir, I’m sorry, but I’m human and we’re trying.’ We’re so behind and the phone’s ringing off the hook. You’re saying to them, ‘Look, we’re trying to get to your bike, but it’s just a no.’ So that’s hard when they hear that.”

His staff, Arnold said, is working late and skipping lunch breaks.

Lilly said he hasn’t taken a day off since it started.

“We’re pleading with people,” Lilly said, “to be patient with us during a pandemic because we’re doing our best.”

Lori Ewing , The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

BikingCoronavirusCycling

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Veteran Vernon radio announcer Frank Martina is returning to the local airwaves with his popular Saturday Classics show, which will run from 1-4 p.m. on Vernon’s new community station Valley FM, set to launch in the fall of 2021. (Morning Star - file photo)
Vernon radio announcer returning to airwaves

New community station Valley FM reaches deal with Frank Martina to air his Classics show

Calls for potential overdoses in B.C. spiked in 2020, especially in the Okanagan - Shuswap. Pictured above is a BCEHS re-enactment of paramedics attending an overdose. (BCHES photo)
UBCO program increases drug checking availability in Kelowna, Penticton, Vernon

January 2021 data shows of 95 opioid samples tested across Interior Health, 93 contained fentanyl

Vernon Morning Star Boomer Talk columnist says while we must use caution while dealing with COVID-19, we must also take care of the mental health of those who must live either permanently or temporarily in our care. (Evert Nelson/The Topeka Capital-Journal/AP file photo)
BOOMER TALK: Long term care is around the corner

Columnist recounts mother’s stay in local medical facility amid pandemic

Okanagan patients will benefit from the recent inclusion of the Medical Arts Health Research Group in a worldwide study with the National Institute of Health (NIH). The study will be a global collaboration for finding better treatments for COVID-19. (File photo)
Okanagan research group involved with finding better COVID treatments

Okanagan Medical Arts Health Research Group invited to collaborate in global study

Charlie, a chocolate lab/German shorthaired pointer mix, helps announce the Regional District of North Okanagan’s Join The Pack dog licence challenge, which wraps March 5. (Facebook photo)
Celebrity dogs announce North Okanagan licence challenge

Regional District of North Okanagan hopes to licence 1,500 more dogs by March 5

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature. (B.C. government)
B.C. reports 10 additional deaths, 395 new COVID-19 cases

The majority of new coronavirus infections were in the Fraser Health region

A new survey has found that virtual visits are British Columbian’s preferred way to see the doctor amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Unsplash)
Majority of British Columbians now prefer routine virtual doctor’s visits: study

More than 82% feel virtual health options reduce wait times, 64% think they lead to better health

Carolyn Howe, a kindergarten teacher and vice president of the Greater Victoria Teachers’ Association, says educators are feeling the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic and the influx of pressure that comes with it. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)
Stress leave, tears and insomnia: Island teachers feel the strain of COVID-19

Teachers still adjusting to mask and cleaning rules, pressures from outside and within

Larch Place is the first building to be built in the BC Housing, Canadian Mental Health Association housing project at the corner of Third Street SW and Fifth Avenue SW. This view is from the Shuswap Street side where it sits behind the Graystone East building. (File photo)
Opening of doors at new housing development in Salmon Arm welcomed

BC Housing announces opening of 32 rental units, with 35 more expected in summer 2021

Cory Mills, Eric Blackmore and A.J. Jensen, all 20, drown in the Sooke River in February 2020. (Contributed photos)
Coroner confirms ‘puddle jumping’ in 2020 drowning deaths of 3 B.C. men

Cory Mills, Eric Blackmore and A.J. Jensen pulled into raging river driving through nearby flooding

Castlegar doctor Megan Taylor contracted COVID-19 in November. This photo was taken before the pandemic. Photo: Submitted
Kootenay doctor shares experience contracting COVID-19

Castlegar doctor shares her COVID experience

Vancouver International Women in Film Festival kicks off March 5.
Women in Film Festival features two B.C. filmmakers

The 16th annual festival kicks off March 5, 2021

The booklet roots present day activism in the history of racist policies, arguing the history must be acknowledged in order to change. (CCPA)
New resource dives into 150 years of racist policy in B.C.

Racist history must be acknowledged in order to change, authors say

Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller, before she knew she would change literature. Photo Wikipedia
And Then There Were None

What book knocked your booties off when you were young?

Most Read