Bicycles are the new toilet paper

pic by BERNAMA

ERIC looked into the distance and sighed. He had been staring at the back wall of his bicycle shop for a full two seconds, which was when I had asked him the ice-breaker question: “How’s business?”

“Aishh! This Covid-19 is a real spoiler man,” he uttered under his breath, in a voice burdened by a thousand regrets.

I’ve been told that Eric, a closed-cropped 42-ish-year-old, was the most jovial bicycle merchant you can find on this side of the Tour de France, but today, he is curt and impatient to all my queries.

Like many other Malaysian business owners, Eric’s 2020 had been going along quietly with a predictable trajectory of making a little profit by the end of the year, until a little-known virus reached out and spoiled it.

But while many small businesses are suffering because there are fewer customers, Eric has a totally different problem. Demand has been so high that he has run out of bicycles to sell with new stocks impossible to get.

“Sorry boss, I only have these two bikes to sell, all others are already sold, not yet packing,” he said, waving his hand at his sparse shop floor.

Scores of other bicycle shops lament the same thing. The supply of parts and whole bicycles from abroad has slowed down to a trickle and is not expected to recover until October at the earliest.

“Who knows if people still want to buy bicycle in October?” said Eric.

The actual winners in this business have been people like Yozo Shimano, president of Shimano Inc whose name is on 65% of every bike in the world, and Bonnie Tu, the godmother of cycling and the name behind Giant Bicycles, one of the biggest bicycle producers in the world. Stocks in their companies have skyrocketed as people rediscovered bicycles.

According to reports, demand for entry-level (that’s me) and mid-range models has outstripped global inventories, while factories in China are reorganising to meet the new craze.

This has left people like Eric tearing their hair out seeing all those customers leaving empty-handed with money still burning holes in their pockets.

Bicycle showrooms had been cleared weeks ago by what can only be said as bicycle panic buying.

The two-wheelers have become the new “toilet paper” in a crazy pandemic world as people want to keep healthy, while avoiding other potentially virus-harbouring people on public transport and sweaty gyms like the plague.

I was at Eric’s after seeing his advertisement showing pictures of a well-stocked shop, but he told me that picture was taken in January.

I live in Cyberjaya where you can be middle-aged, shave your legs, wear skin-tight spandex and still be considered a respectable adult.

This is because cyclists are everywhere on any given holiday and weekend. The bike-friendly Cyberjaya/Putrajaya area attracts hordes of spandex-clad cyclists.

They descend on my quiet part of the world and have their way with the place — frightening little children and old grandfathers alike, drinking all our coffees and eating all our roti canai after their morning rides.

Cyberians never go to breakfast at the mamak during “spandex rush hour” when cyclists regale each other with riding stories over breakfast at the end of their morning rides. Curiosity led me to Eric’s. I needed to delve into this cult.

I already have all the other bike-riding accoutrements — shoes, water bottles, helmets and of course, spandex clothes. All that is wanting is a bike.

But that bike is not in Eric’s shop. He may have one or a dozen of those Cervelos or Santa Cruzes that cost as much as a car, but for my more modest budget, he has limited offerings.

“Boss, only this one and that one,” Eric said.

I bid Eric adieu and resumed my search for the elusive cheap pandemic-era two-wheeler with a little less hope, but as the saying goes, once you spandex, you never go back.

ZB Othman is the editor-in-chief of The Malaysian Reserve.