I maintain and ongoing dialogue with the bike fitter community and this cohort is uncommonly honest with me. Throughout 2020 I felt the misery when reading bike fitters’ replies to my reachouts. I steeled myself to the replies from my latest emails to them, but was surprised by the replies. Which I should not have been as I proclaimed 2021 the Year of the Bike Fitter back in March. Nevertheless, I was shocked actually. And uplifted.
I’ll give you a taste of these replies below, and you’ll get a sense for how fitting has rebounded. Here are some of my top-level takeaways.
Bike fitting lagged behind bike sales throughout 2021
Bike imports from Asia for sale in the U.S hit 2012 levels, which was a banner year. While bikes sold at a good clip this was a stripped-down process. When I interviewed Mark Vatour from Landry’s Bicycles in metro-Boston last May, he reported the shop sold 610 bikes in one week but assembled only 350 out of the box. “Couldn’t build them fast enough,” he said. They established a “quarantine zone… where bikes come in and go out." (Shop person puts a bike in a vacant room and exits; consumer enters the vacant room and leaves with the purchased bike.) There were no parts & accessories sales, no apparel and, of course, no bike fitting during this time. This was really felt by the end user, as bikes were conveyed to the customer but the proper fit on that bike was not conveyed.
Metro-Boston is also the home of Belmont Wheelworks. “We spent a whole season handing new bikes to customers out on the sidewalk,“ Wheelworks’ Ed Sassler wrote to me. “At one point I was out riding when I rode past a guy on a Pinerello F12, his saddle was at least 5 centimeters too low. As I went past I looked back and saw the Wheelworks sticker. That hurt. I was doing fittings in the back parking lot before we reopened the shop to customers. We put the on-line scheduling back on our website, I have been booked solid for every hour I'm at the shop since June.”
It’s this story throughout the U.S., and in Europe, and in Asia. Bike shops got a taste of what it’s like to send out bikes without any bike fit process. Shops sold bikes at a furious pace. Now their fitting departments are working doubletime to get those customers properly fitted. Likewise independent bike fitters, who are booked up weeks and months out.
Bike sales during 2020 would have been higher had more inventory been available, and the complete drain-down of bikes during 2020 has severely impacted 2021. This will be a great year for bike sales if bikes are obtainable. Asian factories are now producing bikes at a good clip, but the slowdown in imports of all consumer goods during 2020 created a transit backlog that has clogged the supply chain. There are no shipping containers to put goods in. For the first time probably ever empty shipping containers are heading back to Asia from the U.S. This has crippled not only the import of bikes, but of parts.
Tim Ray of Maplewood Bicycle in St. Louis said, “When we got started again, I was worried about the in-store and supply chain for parts that we all use on a daily basis like stems, especially carbon compatible stems, road bars, aero bars, seats, seat posts. This has become an issue for many of my fittings, but I do my due diligence in informing them of this ahead of time. I've also experienced a major shortage in road and tri shoes, occasionally pedals and insoles.”
Neal Goldberg of Footworks in metro Seattle reported that he’s been open since September 2020 “with masks required” (more on that below). He is “busier than ever with bike fits far outnumbering physical therapy appointments. I am also selling a lot of bikes and “even considered dumping PT and opening a full service bike shop and coffee bar.” But he put that project on hold simply because of “the lack of parts to sell.”
Marty Miserandino of Fit Werx in Metro-Boston wrote that “Fitting has been very busy, but getting bikes has been nearly impossible for the Fit First business model. Some clients have been waiting for over a year for their bikes to arrive. No parts, no bikes, supply issues, etc. make the next two years absolutely unpredictable.”
Tom Lonzi from Tom’s Pro Bike wrote me, “We are back to our regular schedule. Overall since the pandemic we are up about 40 percent. Staffing is our biggest struggle.” This is a common theme. Pick your reason. Parents must remain home with kids not in school. Everybody in shut-down face-to-face service industries found other jobs. A nationwide labor shortage. Regardless, the reality is the same: There are more fit customers than fitters.
Brady Gibney of Philadelphia's Cadence Cycling wrote that “We are back fitting. Demand seems higher than what we can handle. No nights or weekends due to not having enough staff.”
Ryan Ignatz from Colorado Multisport in Boulder echoed all the above – the need for staff and the lack of product shipments – when he wrote that the shop “added more fit staff to increase revenue from services to help offset the lost revenue from lack of [available] bikes and equipment.”
I was surprised by how many fitters volunteered – without my asking – that masks are a part of their protocol. Masks were “mandated at the AEG-owned facility,” in which Jim Manton from ERO Sports has his studio, “due to Delta variant.” Neil Goldberg volunteered that it’s “masks required” at his facility. Mandatory masking of fitters and customers isn’t across the board, but the use of masks during a fit session was notably high. “Mask wearing has been something the rider and fitter are doing to stay safe,” said Ignatz from Colorado Multisport. “I do require masking at all times,” said Doug Baumgarten of metro-DC's SportFit Lab.
Phil Casanta, owner of Hypercat Cycleworks in Ventura, CA, listed a number of reasons why he, "is booked 6 to 8 weeks out all of 2021 with no slow down," and is, "at the point of hiring a second fitter." The increased demand of service department (taking time away from bike fitting); return of racing in various disciplines; riders moving from indoor to outdoor riding; increased participation of riders in gravel; local shops closing down during the pandemic or no longer offering fit services and are referring their customers to him.
In my next installment I’ll give you a sense of who’s up and fitting at a rapid pace, broken down by region.