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Working in a bike shop during Covid Part 1 The Tube Shortage

 Bikes are so hot right now! The global pandemic has brought massive popularity to a thing that many of us already knew about. Bikes are cool. Riding Bikes is fun. It's conceivable that social distancing has killed many sources of recreation that people had come to rely on and enjoy. Obviously bowling isn't a sport, but it did provide entertainment to many people, and now bowling alleys are closed. 
  It would have been great if bowlers had taking the sport back to it's rough and tumble roots. I'd be interested in watching some gritty, underground 'street bowling.' I picture it in an abandoned warehouse run by bowling gangs. But that didn't happen. Instead everyone in the country said, "Hey don't we have some bikes still in the garage? We should ride those." or even better, they said, " You know, I think I'd like to try mountain biking, that looks fun!"
  And so the Golden Horde was unleashed on an unprepared cycling industry. By April of 2020, bike shops had sold out 90% of their rolling stock. Kids bikes were gone overnight. Then the adult bikes started going tier by tier, until nothing was left but the $9,000 ultra high-end bikes. The first monthly restock arrived into a frenzied market. By now more people had realized how hard it was to find a bike. The new bikes were sold as soon as they were unboxed. By the end of May, manufacturers were out of stock. Even at megamarts, the racks were empty.

So why are people buying up all the bikes?, My local Walmart is ...

  The horde turned to the used bike market. This proved lucky for me, I had a bike to sell. The 2006 Kona Dawg Deluxe was a great bike... in it's time. Several factors had since converged to make it virtually worthless. 1.Full suspension linkage had not been optimized by '06. It still bobbed going uphill, and chattered going down. 2. It was a heavy mofo. 3. It had 26" tires. After decades of loyal service, the public has decided  26" mountain bike tires are obsolete
  Well, nevermind all that, I brought the Dawg into the used bike shop, a deposit went down on it that day and it was sold the next for $600. I feel like I just sold a flip phone that I'd been hanging on to. I couldn't sell it last year, and it's possible it wouldn't sell next year. People come into the shop everyday and say, "I've been all over town, do you have any bikes?" I saw a guy try to buy a used bike without even test riding it. We forced him to at least sit on it.
  So, all the functional, used bikes were sold, but the need was still there. Bikes were pulled from garages and barns, or worse, from leaning outside against garages and barns. Right about then is when I fulfilled my lifelong ambition of becoming a  bike mechanic! Nulife Cycles is a used bike shop in Longmont that's right in my neighborhood. The timing worked out, and soon I was wrenching bikes in the stand with Ryan the owner and his trusty partner Roscoe the dog.
  As any intelligent Longmontster knows, our city is littered with goat heads. Goat heads are small thorns shaped like caltrops, however they drop, a point is always sticking up.
Stupid, Evil Goat Heads and Sticker Wars
 Keeping them out of bike tires is a challenge for every bike owner. They also have a sneaky trick to pull on the unsuspecting rider. See, first you ride across a dirt patch and get them in your tire, your tire goes flat. Then you pull the tube out and either replace it or patch it and reinstall it. Now the tube is punctured by the broken goat head points left in the tire. The wheel goes flat again, and now you realize you need to scour the tire with a picking tool, and pick all the broken thorn tips out of the rubber.
Flat Bicycle Tires by Goat Head - Free for All - The Patriot ...
  About half of the service work in local bike shops is replacing tires and tubes. And all those bikes that were leaning against the barn had flat tires. By a funny coincidence, most tubes and tires are made in the far off land of Taiwan. This is a place that shut down all production for about two months in early 2020 as the pandemic crippled it's workforce. No one could have predicted the results of this.
  The tube shortage started sometime in May. We could see other supplies running low about the same time. Grips, seats, tires, helmets. I had been talking with other bike shops, so I knew it wasn't just us. First the thorn-proof tubes were wiped out with no chance to restock, then we started losing certain sizes of tubes. It turns out the 26"  1.95-2.125 schrader valve tube is by far the most popular tube, it fits comfort bikes, cruiser bikes, older and crappy mountain bikes plus tons of other stuff.
  At one point Ryan got an email alert from Quality Bike Parts that a shipment of tubes had come in. QBP is the largest wholesaler of bike parts in the US. Ryan quickly logged on to place an order. At the start of the session the site showed 10,000 tubes available. But, the email alert he got wasn't on some secret list, every bike shop in the country got the same alert. He placed his order and then refreshed the quantity page, it showed 677 remaining. He ordered some other things and then checked again, it was down to 42. He theorizes that this situation is playing to the strengths of the large bikeshop chains and sporting goods stores who can purchase and stock 5,000 tubes. Even if Nulife had the cash to place that order, we don't have a place for it. And then what do you do if the demand fizzles?
  We tried to picture the supply chain for bike tubes. In Taiwan, they must have reorganized for corona precautions, this took time. Then the rubber industry came back online and started producing bulk rubber again. Probably glove makers and other medical supplies got priority over bike tubes. Even at the manufacturing plant, it's possible other departments were more valuable. But eventually one person flipped a big 480 Volt industrial switch and big machines started humming again. Maybe they only had enough workers to fill one shift? Maybe they ran limited hours and disinfected all the equipment daily? What ever happened, it allowed the tube manufacturer to start producing tubes again. 
 Did the email mean that a shipping container had been off-loaded in some Long Beach port? Somewhere a forklift operator was moving pallets of boxes, each box containing smaller boxes of tubes? 
The manufacturing and supply chain is an intricate and fragile web that is difficult to fully understand. Sadly, some people don't even make an attempt to understand it. Hardly a day goes by that a disappointed customer doesn't look at blanky at Ryan and ask, "Why?... why don't you have a tube for my bike?"
People have gotten angry. "You're a bike shop, how do you not have a tube?"
It's a challenge to try to explain this time and time again.
Interesting side note, most tubes all come from one manufacturer, KENDA. You can open a box with any brand name on the label, but if you look at the actual tube, it will say KENDA.
Bicycle Tire Tubes, Bicycle Tubes, Bicycle Inner Tubes, Bike Tubes ...


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