Aside from all of the usual fun, anticipation, and gossip around Kona race week, about this time each year, we’d be talking about a long laundry list of new gear announcements. There would be parties and unveilings on the Big Island; there would be group rides with reluctant and dour pros who didn’t make the Kona start list; there would be demos and leaked announcements, exhausted and overworked PR people, and gear editors taking pictures of things they shouldn’t be. In the absence of the Ironman World Championships in 2020, for the first time since probably the early ‘90s, there is an audible lack of gear announcements in the second week of October, but there’s more than a missing race to blame for the silence.
“This year has been tough,” said Jordan Hukee, the creative director and area marketing manager for Orbea USA. “First, there was the question mark of, ‘Will there be a global recession?’ Then the U.S. market did a funny thing where bike sales sped up while the rest of the world was on lockdown.” Because the U.S. saw a “mild quarantine” situation where people were not at work, but still wanted to get out, bike sales went through the roof, while bike sales in other more harshly quarantined areas plummeted to zero.
Then, the rest of the world went back outside and did what the Americans had been doing—riding more often than ever. “It was a curiosity,” said Hukee. “Other markets outside of the U.S. opened up and did the same thing. We can’t get enough bikes [where Orbea is based, in Europe], and now it’s catch up.”
And if that situation wasn’t enough to disrupt the bike world—albeit in a good way, as according to an online Bicycle Retailer story August saw a 24% increase in bike imports to the U.S. compared to the same period last year—things got even weirder. While the pandemic affected areas where bikes are made and assembled, like China, those factories were actually up and running at max capacity fairly quickly. However, another Bicycle Retailer print piece from their September issue noted that parts of Asia where bike components are made—like Shimano, headquartered in Singapore and Malaysia—were backed up far longer with orders. “If you can’t get your tires, you can’t sell a bike,” Hukee said.
Those seemingly minor pieces and parts of your new complete bike are actually essential. When was the last time you went to a bike shop and they said they had bikes in stock, but none of them had brake pads?
In addition to supply chain disruptions like closed factories, companies have also been hit by warehouse closures, reduced staffing, overworked shipping routes, and even shop closures at the local level. And yet for some brands, like Orbea, so much was already in the works far before the pandemic hit, a Kona-centric release was still possible—even without the event itself.
“The timing was that we were always launching around Kona,” Hukee said of their new long-awaited Ordu update that was announced on Oct. 1. And of course bike production cycles often stretch years out in advance, so once that ball is rolling there’s no real stopping it. “And while we wanted to debut at the race, this was a product that we wanted to launch, no matter what.”
It had been five years since Orbea last released a new version of the Ordu, and this new disc version (which we’ll be taking a look at soon) didn’t fall victim to the perfect storm of supply chain chaos. Because Orbea is in the unique position of painting and assembling their frames in Spain—combined with the fact that they don’t sell a lot of the less expensive bikes that flew off the shelves worldwide—they were actually able to start shipping their new bike soon after the launch. “That missing step in the supply chain meant that things were still happening for us,” Hukee added.
Of course in the absence of a big Kona launch, the usual media attention hasn’t been as much as they’d hoped, Hukee said, but he was excited at customers’ positive responses nonetheless. Two of their top-tier pros, Andrew Starykowicz and Åsa Lundström, have been leading the charge and sharing social media duties to spread the word instead.
Elsewhere, softgood brands like Zoot have felt the impact of the pandemic as well. “Over the past six months we have seen the sales of race day tri suits slow with the cancellation/postponement of races,” said Zoot’s president, Shawn O’Shea. “On the flipside, we can barely keep swim, bike and run product in stock.” In fact, according to O’Shea, Zoot has seen double-digit growth over the last six months and record-setting sales on their website.
On the tri side, he added that as a result of Kona’s cancellation, Zoot had to push back the release of a much-anticipated tri suit—one with features so secret that Ben Hoffman had wanted to keep his own suit under wraps last year in Kona. (Don’t worry, we’ll see it in February 2021 when racing starts to resume, O’Shea said.) Though it’s important to note that these are simply postponements, and O’Shea is optimistic about next year, even without a big Kona gear buffet this year.
“Triathletes are resilient by nature and I have no doubt the sport of triathlon will come back stronger than ever,” he said. “Triathlon might look like an individual sport but this year has proven that our community loves to train together and live a healthy lifestyle without the reward of race day.”