Off the beaten path: Albertans buying more off-highway vehicles during pandemic

COVID-19 has more people in the province taking the road less travelled, and they're doing it on ATVs and dirt bikes, if they can find one.

'This year is absolutely the craziest I've even seen,' one dealer says

David Grummett, director of communications for the Motorcycle and Moped Industry Council, heading out for a ride. (Submitted by David Grummett)

With most sports shut down due to COVID-19, Albertans are looking off the beaten path for a little fun and action.

Industry figures show sales of all-terrain vehicles were up 19.5 per cent in 2020 compared to the previous year, and that number doesn't include the sale of side-by-sides or dirt bikes.

The trend continues in 2021, with March sales of ATVs up a massive 190 per cent compared to March 2020. 

The motorcycle segment, which includes off-road recreation bikes, isn't far behind with a 177 per cent increase in sales for March 2021 compared to same month in 2020. On a yearly basis, 2020 sales were up 16.8 per cent over 2019.

Sales jumped in June of 2020 when some health restrictions were lifted, said David Grummett, director of communications for the Motorcycle and Moped Industry Council and the Canadian Off-Highway Vehicle Distributors Council.

"It was just crazy," Grummett said. "Sales up triple-digit, dealers going from panic mode about having been closed to panic mode, 'I haven't got enough stock.'"

Grummett believes the draw to motorcycles and ATVs is the freedom they provide without the risk of breaking health restrictions.

"We social distance, that's the way we sort of live," he said. "You watch a group of bikes and they're in a staggered pattern going down the road. We knew about personal protective equipment long before it meant a mask."

Grummett also thinks it's good for mental health.

"It's such a stress reliever, and I think people are just catching on to that."

David Grummett and his family have enjoyed off-road activities for many years. Grummett says more Albertans are doing the same during the pandemic. (Submitted by David Grummett)

Sales of mini bikes and dirt bikes for kids are particularly strong, something Grummett also attributes to the pandemic.

"Parents are like, 'Oh my God, this kid is driving me crazy, let's get him a dirt bike, send him out in the field, let him play with his buddies and have fun,'" he said.

That's certainly something Jason Schrage can attest to.

The Lethbridge paramedic-firefighter competes professionally in enduro racing and also teaches children aged six to 122 how to ride through Alberta Rides, part of Honda's Junior Red Rider program.

The program travels to various locations across Alberta and provides kids with all the gear they need to try out the sport, including the dirt bike.

Jason Schrage competes professionally in enduro racing and runs the Alberta Rides program for kids. (Submitted by Alberta Rides)

"We saw numbers last year throughout the summer that we've never experienced before," Schrage said.

He also cites COVID-19 health restrictions as the cause of the growing interest.

"People can't travel … sports, especially group-type sports, aren't happening," Schrage said. "So it's bringing them to the woods and the off-road areas."

Still, those restrictions are creating some challenges for the program.

"This year so far, we're not able to start up again due to the outside gatherings less than 10 and so we're on hold right now," he explained. "We need gatherings to increase to about 40 before we can get going but we're hopeful that this is going to start up soon."

Some youngsters hit the dirt for a lesson with Jason Schrage, who runs Alberta Rides, a program that introduces kids to dirt biking. (Submitted by Jason Schrage)

Jay Padilla works in sales and is a partner at Cycle Works, which sells motorcycles and ATVs at its stores throughout Alberta.

"It's been a year like no other year I've seen before," Padilla said. "We've been around for 42 years and this year is absolutely the craziest I've even seen."

That's not necessarily a good thing, Padilla told CBC News.

"It's amazing that we have very little to no product at all," he said. "That's really not so much because of demand, but the manufacturers."

He blames parts suppliers, which have also been impacted by COVID-19 shutdowns.

"So we're seeing a huge backlog of orders and people have to wait for the product," he explained.

'Normally we'll have 200 ATVs in stock'

"The days of coming into the dealership and going, 'Hey, I'll take that one in red, and that one in blue,' that doesn't exist anymore. If we have one machine in green, that's the only option."

Padilla said it's been a struggle to keep the showroom from looking like an empty dance floor.

"We've had to put some of our used inventory inside the showroom right now just to occupy space," he said. "Normally we'll have 200 ATVs in stock, and we have three."

Padilla said most of the summer stock is sold and pre-orders take at least 30 to 130 days to fill. He's hopeful inventory will eventually return to normal so more people can get out and enjoy the activity.

"The trend from the manufacturers, it doesn't look like anything is going to be back online for at least another eight months," he said. "We hope to see things improve early 2022."


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