COVID-19 Gets Israelis on Bikes, Creating a Shortage

With gyms closed most of the past year due to coronavirus restrictions, Israelis looked for alternate forms of exercise, leading to a spike in the price of bicycles

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People on bikes in Tel Aviv.
People on bikes in Tel Aviv.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Noam Levi has been cycling for years, going on trips around the country with fellow enthusiasts from time to time. But his pastime has become more difficult to pursue in recent months for him and other riders, not because of the repeated coronavirus lockdowns but because they can’t buy new bicycles or get parts for their old ones.

“I wanted to repair my bicycle and I went to the importer, but he simply didn’t have the part I needed in inventory,” Levi said. “It’s impossible to buy a new bicycle – you need to wait three or four months for a model that before the coronavirus you could find the same day.”

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The shortage Levi and his friends are experiencing isn’t unique to Israel. All over the world demand for all kinds of bicycles, parts and add-ons has exploded since the onset of the pandemic. It’s been made worse by the breakdown of supply chains and by the fact that plants in China, the leading maker, were closed during the first phase of the pandemic.

Demand has been spurred by fears that public transportation is a COVID-19 hothouse best avoided and by a desperate search for some kind of physical activity at a time when gyms and fitness centers have been closed by the authorities. New users have joined the rider ranks and veteran riders have brought their bikes out of storage.

Prices have risen in the face of the supply-demand imbalance. “A bicycle that I bought a year ago for 7,000 shekels ($21,000 at current exchange rates) today cost 1,000 shekels more,” said Levi. “Even if I succeed in finding the model I want, I can’t find the right size or color. You take what you can get.”

Sources in the local bike business says sales have soared and prices have risen between 20% and 30%.

“I finished 2020 with a 60% increase in sales, but it would have been more if I could have met all the demand. If we had had more merchandise, we could have increased sales a lot more,” said Tsiki Hirsh, vice president for marketing at one of Israel’s biggest importers, Matzman & Merutz.

Before the coronavirus, the company would get orders from overseas suppliers within 60 to 90 days, he said. Today, anything he orders now will only arrive in June 2022. “The demand is for all kinds of bicycles and at all prices. Everything we have gets sold. In January 2021 alone, our sales were equivalent to the entire first quarter of 2020 – and January is usually the slowest month of our year,” Hirsh said.

“We have long waiting lists. Everything we have ordered for delivery in March and April has already been sold in advance. I’m talking about thousands of bicycles. We have a 2,600-square-foot warehouse, and last month I was able to play soccer in it because we had sold off our entire inventory. The place was empty,” he added.

Rising prices for bikes are mainly due to the higher costs of shipping from China and the changing exchange rate between the Chinese yuan and U.S. dollar. Hirsh said a container cost $2,500 to ship a year ago; today, it costs $11,000. As much as Matzman & Merutz is prepared to absorb some of the increase, the fact remains that costs inevitably get passed on to customers when $50,000 worth of goods comes with an $11,000 shipping charge.

The supply-demand imbalance hasn’t passed the market for used bikes by. A check by TheMarker of Israel’s leading online marketplace, Yad2, showed a 73% jump in the number of searches for bicycles made in the second half of 2020, versus a year earlier.

Prices have risen, although not as dramatically. After falling for the previous three years, they climbed 4% on average. The average mountain bike in Yad2 cost 2,581 shekels in 2018 and 2,815 in 2020.

All these bicycles in use mean more need to be repaired, but it can often take time for a shop to do the work because of the lack of spare parts.

“Sometimes the bicycles displayed in our shop windows are bicycles waiting to be repaired,” said Hirsh. “We have no new bicycles in stock and the window needs to be filled with something.”

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