In the early days of the pandemic in Southern Nevada this spring, people were rushing to stores to buy things like toilet paper, canned foods and household cleaning supplies.
That type of panic-buying—which led to long lines, empty shelves and senior-specific shopping hours—eventually gave way to other changes in consumer purchasing habits, one in particular that centered on recreation.
“Bikes became the new toilet paper,” said Heather Fisher, president of Las Vegas Cyclery, a bike shop in Summerlin she owns with her husband, Jared Fisher. “It’s been a nationwide phenomenon. We’ve seen that it’s been mostly entry-level interest, which is really encouraging because that means more people are getting into the sport. The sport is attracting people who don’t want to go to gyms or do activities with lots of people.”
Across the Las Vegas Valley, bicycle shop owners and operators are saying they can’t keep enough product to keep up with demand. From actual bikes to parts and nearly everything in-between, manufacturers around the United States and beyond echo the sentiment.
Because of the transportation nature of the bicycle business, Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak never ordered bike shops to close. He directed nonessential businesses—casinos among them—to close in mid-March.
Barry Winter, co-owner of two Giant Las Vegas bike shops, said that helped the industry, but that it was more of a grassroots movement that took hold in the early days of the pandemic.
“People realized the gyms were closing and they needed an alternative,” Winter said. “We saw a lot of families, too. You can only go on so many walks and hikes with your family. People started buying bikes at a brisk pace. The bike manufacturers sold 10 months of supply in eight to 10 weeks. That’s why there’s been such a shortage.”
Winter said his Giant shops ran out of bikes May 17, two months to the day after Sisolak ordered nonessential businesses to close.
At most, if not all, shops around town, the more inexpensive starter-type bicycles are long gone. Bikes can still be had, but it’s mostly models in the higher price ranges that are available.
Winter said one type of bicycle that is growing in popularity is of the electric—or e-bike—variety.
These hybrid bikes have built-in electric batteries that can assist a rider. The electric assist, though, only comes when a rider is pedaling, which can make a rider’s legs feel supercharged when riding up hills or at certain intervals on long treks.
In most cases, a customer will have to pay at least $1,000—and often around $2,000 or more—for an e-bike.
“What we’re noticing is while the cheaper bikes might not be available, people are buying the more expensive ones,” Winter said. “Electric bikes are kind of the next big forefront that people are discovering. It’s been pretty unbelievable how sales have gone for e-bikes.”
It’s not just new bikes that people have been interested in.
Winter and other shop owners said many people have been busy reviving bicycles that they may have had for years, but that have been out of sight and out of mind.
“When we ran out of bikes, people started bringing in bikes from their garage or their backyard that they wanted to get fixed or tuned up,” said Jimmy Martinez, general manager of Bike World, a longtime Vegas bicycle retailer, which has two Valley locations. “There were so many bikes sold here in the Valley. Walmart was out, Target was out. Either people will continue to ride, or there will be a lot of bikes for sale online at some point.”
Martinez said the industry probably hasn’t witnessed an uptick like the one seen this year in several decades.
“We haven’t sold this many in years,” Martinez said. “You’d have to go back to when there was a huge bike boom in the 1970s. Not only bikes, but anything to do with the bike industry—grips, tires, tubes, you name it—we can’t get right now. Interest has slowed a little, partly because of the heat, but we have people calling us every single day.”
At Pro Cyclery at Village Square, April, May and June were three of the most profitable months the business has ever had, said Mike and Cheri Tillman, who have owned the shop for nearly a decade. That’s upside-down from what happens in Las Vegas during a normal year, when the summer months are typically slower for bike shops due to the unrelenting desert heat.
“It’s not just Las Vegas and it’s not just the U.S.,” Cheri Tillman said. “For the bike business, the pandemic has been great. We were doing curbside business for six weeks right after the governor’s announcement in March, and there were always, I’d say, eight to 12 people waiting outside. Right now, for service and repairs, it’s about a 10-day wait. Usually, it’s 24 to 48 hours.”
An avid bicyclist, Henderson city engineer Scott Jarvis tends to ride a lot on the many miles of trails Henderson has to offer. He said he’s noticed first-hand how many newcomers there are to the sport lately.
“We’ve seen an incredible increase in not only cycling, but in all forms of active exercise,” Jarvis said. “With cycling, is very noticeable. We have about 180 miles of trail [in Henderson] and you would always see people out. But during the pandemic, I’d say the number of people has doubled or even tripled.”
The trick, of course, for bike shop owners is to keep customers coming back over time. If only a small percentage of those newcomers participating in the COVID-19 bicycle boom remain practicing riders, though, it will bode well for the industry.
“It’s a great way to have an outlet and to keep your mind and body strong,” Fisher said. “So many new people are trying out the sport and finding its benefits, which is great. I think [ridership] will eventually go down because people will get busy again, but overall there will be an increase.”