Guest post: The cycling industry’s elephant in the room

Editor’s note: Today I’m excited to share the work of one of my favorite industry insiders. Jill Missal is the founder of GearGals.com, a site dedicated to the (sadly) often marginalized population of women who love the outdoors. The site is essential reading for women, and guys, you might learn a thing or two. Hopefully this will be the first of many of her contributions to Bicycle Times.

By Jill Missal, 

The venerable Rick Vosper wrote about the elephant in the industry – the cycling industry that is. You know what it’s like having an elephant around; it’s that thing that is glaringly obvious yet has no immediate solution so everyone just ignores it. The cycling industry’s elephant is that the industry has undergone essentially zero net growth in the last twenty years.

Zero. Small ups, small downs, but essentially has stayed exactly the same. It was a 6 billion dollar industry in 1990 and it’s a 6 billion dollar industry today. That’s right, every company out there is just fighting for a share of the same dollars. No blue oceans, no new markets, no innovation, nada, nothing.

Depressing, eh? If you’re a bike retailer or bike shop owner or have any ambition to make it big in the bike industry, you bet it’s depressing. You’d have to steal market share from either another small retailer, or battle it out with the Big Guns of which there are only a few. You’d have to beat out an enormous juggernaut of a company like Specialized to get any of their market. Good luck with that.

The reasons behind this lack of growth seem mystifying to some. To me, they are fairly obvious. The bike industry never changes, never evolves, never involves new markets or offers anything different than what it’s got. Consider the outdoor industry, which has grown and expanded to provide something for just about everyone. Not the bike industry – it struggles to change the consumer, not offer the consumer what she wants. So it doesn’t grow.

What, specifically, do I mean? Here are the biggest factors in the bike industry’s stunning lack of growth in my opinion:

1. The bike seat problem. I’ve been riding seriously for about seven years now and recreationally for a while before that. I have yet to find one bike saddle that doesn’t cause severe chafing, pressure, numbness, or flat out horrible pain. When I try to get help for this problem I’m met with the same old set of worn, useless pieces of bike shop advice: “Get good shorts.” (Done.) “Use chamois cream.” (Done.) “Get a bike fit.” (Done.) “You just have to get used to it.” (Done, and served up with a healthy dose of STFU. Are men told “get used to it” when they complain of saddle sores? I have to wonder. Any men out there care to report?)

It just doesn’t work. Bike seats are terrible and bike seats for women are inexcuseably bad. It takes a very dedicated person to keep doing something that causes pain, chronic issues, and potential disfigurement. For normal people, if it hurts, they stop. And cycling hurts the most sensitive parts of our bodies. So they stop. And the bike industry just keep churning out the same old seats. Any innovation in bicycle saddle technology is met with some variation of “oh my god, that won’t possibly work, and it looks different so we want nothing to do with it.” Which brings me to the next issue with the bike industry:

2. Form over function AND fashion. The cycling industry keeps telling me I want to wear garish, skin tight, unflattering and horrendously ugly spandex clothing covered in company logos. It tells me I want tall socks and shirts with insane pocket configurations and zero sex appeal. It tries to convince me that arm condoms make more sense than long sleeves.

It tells me that full-length bib pants are practical and I shouldn’t mind stripping naked on the side of the road to pee because my cycling pants are basically overalls. It tells me that the very things that can make riding easier and more convenient are so hopelessly uncool that I should be snubbed, made fun of, ignored, or practically shot dead for using them. Think hydration packs, flat pedals, non-spandex pants, loose-fitting clothing, shoes that can be walked in; you name it. If it improves the experience, you’re a shameless nerd and the cycling industry doesn’t want you.

Again, if it sucks to ride a bike because it’s uncomfortable, and, say, you don’t like dislocating your shoulder trying to get a snack out of the pocket inexplicably located at the small of your back, you won’t continue. If you are snubbed by other participants in the sport and urged to do things that make your experience not as enjoyable, you’ll find something else to do.

The cycling industry just cannot accept that the bulk of the potential market does not want to look like they’re wearing a sponsored sausage casing. They want easy access to food and water. They want to wear what they’re comfortable in. They want to do it the way they want to do it. Instead of finding ways to embrace that market, the cycling industry keeps churning out ugly and nonfunctional clothing and actively ridiculing those who would dare to alter the “look” of cycling. There are only so many people who will wear stuff that looks like that, and that’s the current limit of the cycling industry. The industry puts more energy into convincing me that I want to wear long socks than it is in making the socks I would want to buy. It’s backwards. You can’t control the consumer, you have to give the consumer what she wants.

3. Women. Oh, the legion of ways the industry excludes women. My recent favorite example is this article published by Canadian MTB powerhouse web site pinkbike.com, in which the writer manages to alienate female riders everywhere by at once disregarding them (did you know that NO women ride mountain bikes? None at all?

If you do happen to ride a bike, you evidently don’t count, because there are none of you in the sport), objectifying them (using a highly airbrushed, pouty glamour shot of a rider NOT riding a bike to illustrate the article), and displaying a forehead-slappingly appalling lack of knowledge of chromosomes (“Why No Y?” Oh my god. And it was published with that name. Shameful). The article wraps up with a condescending “To all the girls, sorry a guy had to write this” as if women like me haven’t been writing about this very issue for years (also, to author Mitchell Scott: We are not “girls.” We are women. If you want “girls” in your sport maybe you should target your article to kindergartens everywhere).

Naturally, the article was followed by a barrage of revoltingly sexist and demeaning comments, which are par for the course on mountain biking sites and events and seemingly not subjected to silly things like “moderation” from the site admins and event organizers. Go to a bike industry event and you see women all over the place – stuck out in front of booths like 3-D billboards in thongs and lucite stripper heels. Is that the way to sell women with money on the industry? (Hint: No.)

Well guys, there are plenty of women riding, we’re just not riding with YOU. Go read a forum or look around at a bicycle trade show to figure out why not. Professional women over thirty are a fast-growing consumer market because we have money to spend on ourselves. Lots of us ride bikes and have great careers so why would we spend time with idiots who talk down to us, demean us, and condescend to us? Which brings me to the next factor in bike industry non-growth:

4. Catering to the wrong base. I love this humor piece about types of riders, especially the part about The Racer who “works part time.” Amateurs do get obsessed with bike racing and basically give everything up to do it to try to get sponsored to get free stuff. They even give up their jobs and then they don’t have money to buy cycling stuff. One prominent cycling industry CEO told me bluntly “racers just want free stuff.” Yet the industry falls all over itself making things for racing types while ignoring a huge potential base of customers practically waving cash around and trying to spend it on bike stuff. Meanwhile the industry is kissing the ass of racer types who don’t want to spend money on anything. Again. Backwards.

5. Back to women. Like I said, we have money and we want to spend it. But the bike industry seems to really just not want our money. Go to a bike shop and you’ll see tons of dude stuff and a tiny selection of women stuff. Two saddles for women, one of which is bound to be the Terry Butterfly because bike shop dudes figure that’s the one we all want (no!). Most of the time, zero demo bikes in women’s sizes – usually shops stock M and L frames and that’s pretty much it.

So, what, we’re supposed to drop two grand on something we can’t even ride around the parking lot? We have to “special order” our frame size and sit around for six to eight weeks waiting for the mystery bike to arrive and hope that we like it? We’re supposed to be happy with one of the two options for bike seats you give us, or the single pair of shorts you have hanging on the rack? Even if a shop has more than that, it’s all gonna be in the same style and go re-read item 2 if you don’t know why that’s a problem.

6. Buy before you try. I’m pretty gear savvy but even I glaze over after thirty seconds of monologue about the details of component groups. When I buy a bike, I want to go try a bunch of bikes to see what I like, and then pick one and buy it and the bike industry just does not have things set up that way. The buy before you try thing is really damaging to potential market growth. Most people simply cannot and will not (and SHOULD NOT in my opinion) drop thousands of dollars on bikes they can’t try first. You’d never buy a car without a good test drive. Why should you buy a bike without a good few test rides? But since bike shops are just barely scraping by trying to make a living, they can’t afford to keep a fleet of demos. So you can’t try before you buy. So a lot of people don’t buy. Hello! Backwards!

7. Lack of innovation in marketing. The bike industry keeps marketing to itself in a fantastically nonsensical endless loop. Ads and marketing are focused on people who already ride bikes. Companies buy ads in bike magazines and go to bike events. That’s great, but it’s completely ignoring a huge number of potential markets.

A few years ago I was negotiating with a high-end boutique bike manufacturer for some consulting work. I tried to convince them of some marketing strategies that would open up new markets and sell more bikes. Instead the company opted to stick with standard bike advertising strategy: a dramatically shadowy studio shot of the bike, placed in a few bike-specific publications. And that’s it. People who already want that bike might like that ad, but people who have never heard of that bike or are just getting into bikes just see a picture of a bike. Or they don’t see it at all, because if they’re not already into bikes they’re not going to buy a bike magazine. Backwards!

There are so many untapped markets out there for the bike industry. I’m not going to list them because, frankly, as a consultant that’s what I get paid to do. If you’re interested in hearing my strategies, hire me to create one for you. It’s so frustrating, though, because when I point out a lucrative market for cycling companies that NO ONE is marketing to, it’s a golden opportunity: fresh meat, free money, no competition – but the bike industry says “no, no, that might set us APART!” And the LAST thing anyone in the bike industry wants to do is to set oneself apart from the norm. Sigh. Backwards.

One client turned down my marketing strategy because, though it demonstrated increased profits, the company was afraid of looking uncool to their current base, even though said current base is not buying more bikes from them. A base which, by the way, consists of internet forum-type douchebags. The company turned down a way to make actual money because they wanted to look cool to the crowd that doesn’t spend money. Needless to say this company has not increased its profits in several years.

Sigh.

There’s a reason bike shops are barely scraping by trying to make a living. Seven reasons, actually, so far, if you have a look above. I’m sure there are more. But I think it comes down to an absolute lack of innovation and a culture of exclusion. The bike industry would rather make fun of someone in a backpack than make a backpack that person would buy. It’s the worst business model ever and if the cycling industry keeps on like this, it deserves to not grow.

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