It all started late in 2020. The cycling industry was one of the lucky ones during the early stages of the COVID pandemic. With most of the usual leisure activities off-limits and lockdowns forcing people to entertain themselves close to home, people took to cycling in a big way. The bike business was booming.
On the back of great sales early in 2020, we raised some money and launched into our biggest ever single order of steel Kevins. We planned for a six-month delivery time for hundreds of bikes, which was very conservative at the time. There are a lot of components that make up a complete bike and we meticulously select them and order them individually and carefully. We high-fived each other when we finished the complicated ordering process, happy that our biggest batch of bikes would soon be on the way. Two weeks later everything changed.
In November 2020, without much warning, the largest bike saddle manufacturer in the world announced their lead time was no longer 90 days. It was now 180 days. In a panic, the big brands boosted their orders. You can't sell a bike without a saddle and they didn't want to miss out. Suddenly that 180-day lead time became a year. In a squeeze, who do you think the big manufacturers are going to look after? Big brands or smaller businesses like Curve? We didn't stand a chance against the big brands. This was the toilet paper hoarding we have seen during lockdowns. Who would have thought that saddles were the toilet paper of the bike industry?
With saddles suddenly hard to get, cycling brands started worrying about other components. If saddles were a problem, what about all the other parts? You can't have a bike without a chain, without tyres, without handlebars. The big brands with their big wallets started placing huge orders to secure their supply. The smaller brands like us got bumped to the back of the queue. Suddenly lead times blew out across the board. You want a chain? That's a year. You want another run of bars? That'll be 500 days. Groupsets? Place your order now for 2023 stock - we don't know what you'll get but it will be as close as possible to what is currently on the market.
With years of moderate growth in the industry, it was clear that excess capacity in the factories was limited. Building new factories takes a lot of capital and a lot of time. Aside from that, building new factories would be a risky move without a crystal ball to see what the post-COVID cycling industry looks like. Who knows if all these additional COVID-world sales will vanish?
With factories under extreme pressure, quality started to drop. We saw more fork recalls than we have in a while, presumably because factories were cutting corners to get products out. Product finishing quality slipped as well, with many products requiring second runs to fix earlier errors. With global travel impossible, brands have had to put new quality control processes in place and get creative about enforcing them as the factories buckled under the unprecedented load. Global freight became problematic, with large shipments held up in major ports due to new COVID checking requirements.
All this amounted to delays. Huge delays. Longer than we have ever experienced. Without components, we were worried about becoming a bike brand that couldn't sell bikes. A pub with no beer!
For each component, we got in touch with our plan B, C and D options in an attempt to secure parts. We tested new saddle, tyre and hub options, all in a desperate effort to get bikes out the door. In some cases, we were able to scrounge some parts, only doing so if it wouldn't impact on the final product quality. We only sell the stuff that we want to ride ourselves.
It has been a roller coaster ride that all brands in the bike industry have been blasting around on. It's frustrating when there is huge demand but getting stock is impossible. The pressure on the factories still hasn't normalised. The big brands have a regimented order process spanning more than a year and so we don't expect supply constraints to ease for some time yet.
The pressure has been felt by bike shops too. The big bike brands, in some cases, have asked shops to put down money for stock that won't be delivered for almost two years. That's tough for a small business. Where do they find the extra money for the additional stock they need to buy? Almost overnight their working capital requirement more than doubled. That's not something you can just absorb.
For those shopping for particular bikes, the wait times can still be huge, beyond nine months for some products. For particular models the wait time is over a year.
At Curve we have been lucky. We placed some big component orders that will see us through, but sadly our lead times are still much longer than we would like. Larger orders and longer lead times demand more cash. With bikes taking longer to be delivered there is less money coming in. The day-to-day bills to keep the lights on don't stop. This has pushed us right to the brink. I'm sure a lot of other brands have been in the same position over the last nine months. It has certainly been a tough ride.
We do have a great range of products in stock right now. Products that will immediately improve your ride. We have a huge amount of wheel stock and new Walmer Bars! We dream of a day when can start to build stock again. Unfortunately, we're at least six months away from that happening with the latest industry upheavals. We're doing our very best to keep the new-bike-days happening as frequently as possible.
Thanks for your patience while we navigate this new way of doing business. We know it has been tough waiting for new bikes. It has been extremely tough on our whole team. We look forward to life, and business, getting back to something closer to what we're used to!