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The Covid-19 Pandemic and Cycling

by John Neugent

Tech articles | Commentary articles |

John Neugent probably knows more about bicycle wheels than anyone else alive. Maybe more about bikes as well. He's spent his life in the bike business, at every level. He now owns Neugent Cycling, a firm devoted to delivering world-class equipment at the lowest possible price. If you are in the market for a set of wheels, please, check out John's site. He really knows his stuff. —Chairman Bill

John Neugent

Author John Neugent

If you haven't already read it, cycling is going through a little mini-boom. When the pandemic started I was concerned that it would really hurt my business. My business, although small, still generates a decent income that helps me pay the bills in my semi-retirement. I immediately checked into the various options I might have as a gig worker. For those who aren't sure what a gig worker is, the term comes from musicians who play gigs – or shows – and are essentially contract workers who are self-employed. It would include Uber drivers and similar professionals who operate on a free-lance basis.

But as luck would have it, the virus became a boon to the bike business. Although industry figures point out that 20-30% of the shops in the US are closed, many who are open are doing a lot of business. When business is unexpectedly good it's a nice surprise but looking back through my time in the industry there seems to be some basic commonalities from prior booms.

In the early '70s there was a gas crisis with prices rising and quantities limited.  People bought up more bikes than the industry could manufacture. AJ Spokes in Providence Rhode Island sold a 40-foot container of 10-speeds right out of the container they came in. That's about 350 bikes in one day. And you know if the demand is that high, the profits are too. People saw bikes as a true alternative to the automobile, lured in by promises of 10-speeds which effectively had less gear range than the 3-speeds of the day. But they were 10-speeds. As abruptly as it started, it ended. In July of 1974 to be exact. Wholesale sales in 1975 for many distributors were off 40% from 1974. But the thing in common was the need to get out of the car, for one reason or another.

Raleigh Record bicycle

During the 1970s bike boom some European companies like Raleigh were able to sell bikes like this Raleigh Record as fast as they could make them.

Through the years another constant is that when people stay home for vacations instead of travel, they tend to ride bikes more often. It's an inexpensive vacation you can do almost any time and at a relatively low cost. For that reason, the bike business tends to run a little counter to the economy in general. Cycling is inherently an inexpensive sport. You can make it expensive but it doesn't need to be. 

I remember going to an industry presentation made by someone in the golf industry. He said "You don’t need to figure out a way to drive the kids to the golf course." For most of us, most of the time, the ride starts in front of the house. This simplicity, and as a result, its economy, have continued to make cycling popular since its inception in the late 1800s.

Whether this mini-boom will keep going after the pandemic is over is anyone's guess. Many people will have developed new cycling habits, and habits have a way of staying with us.  Maxwell Maltz in his best-selling book of the '70s, Psycho Cybernetics, claimed that habits can form themselves within 21 days. He bases this on pure guesswork with no scientific support; however habits, by definition are addictive. Hopefully some of it will rub off. There is an enduring wish in the hearts of devoted cyclists that Americans will be awakened to the beauty and simplicity of cycling. If the pandemic can contribute to that, it's not all bad.

John Neugent was was one of the first to establish quality hand building in Taiwan around the turn of the century. He now owns Neugent Cycling, a firm devoted to delivering world-class equipment at the lowest possible price.