As coronavirus cabin fever sets in and the sun comes out, bicycles have become nearly as hard to find as hand sanitizer and toilet paper.
"Kids' bikes for sure are gone," said Mike Skiles, the owner of Suck Creek Cycle on Chattanooga's North Shore. "What we've got is what we've got left to sell, and it's not a lot."
Manufacturers' supply chains are stressed, leading to long waits for new bikes, and demand for repairs has outstripped the ability of local shops to keep pace. For a while, East Ridge Bicycles just started turning that business away, owner Garth Mansfield said.
"We were so backed up three weeks ago that we quit taking in any more repairs," he said. Mansfield temporarily cut back the hours the store in East Ridge was open to the public so technicians could focus entirely on bike repair for part of the day, he said.
"People were dragging out bicycles that have been in the basement for 10, 15 years and getting the cobwebs off them," he said. "We saw a tremendous amount of people who have not been on their bikes in five-plus years or longer want to get outside."
East Ridge Bicycles is back to normal hours now, and the wait now for bike repair work is about two to three weeks, Mansfield said.
Suck Creek Cycles has also had to stagger repair work to make sure they have enough room in the shop to store the bikes they're working on, Skiles said. He has hired two additional people to work part time and help out his usual full-time staff of three to try to get a handle on the demand.
"Every shop has limited space to store repairs, and we've started staging more, saying, 'We're not bringing any more repairs in today until we get more out,'" Skiles said.
No one saw this spike in demand coming, so suppliers were caught off guard, Skiles added. He has been hanging around bike shops since he was a kid in the '70s, and hasn't seen anything like this surge since the oil crisis of that decade, he said.
"I've never seen more zeros on inventory lists from my bike suppliers," he said. "What my fear now is, come June we won't have anything to sell."
Mansfield has seen the same thing at East Ridge Bicycles, at least for the next several weeks until manufacturers can ramp up a bit, he said. The bike industry has been flat for years, and no one anticipated needing to boost production, he said.
"The inventory of our suppliers has been decimated," he said. "The pipeline is empty as far as what's coming."
REI, despite having all stores closed since mid-March, has seen four times the normal volume of bicycle sales, spokeswoman Alisha McKinney said. Those sales have all been online, where the REI site notes there may be a three-week wait for orders to ship.
This week, REI's Chattanooga store started no-contact bike repair service, McKinney said. Customers can call the local store to schedule an appointment for maintenance or repair services, drop off the bike outside the store, and an REI technician will service the bike, notifying customers by phone when it's ready, she said.
The desire to go out for a ride makes a lot of sense in an environment where people are cooped up and more than a little anxious, Skiles said.
"Remember your first bicycle, how much freedom that gave you," he said. "Now all of a sudden you can do that to escape the COVID because you can do it and still be socially distant somewhat."
Contact Mary Fortune at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6653. Follow her on Twitter @maryfortune.