Originally published in Issue #42
Imagine you’ve never ridden a bike. You don’t know a bottom bracket from a bowling ball and you certainly don’t have an opinion on the latest and greatest thru-axle hub spacing. But cycling looks fun—wind in your hair, freedom to explore—so you wander into the neighborhood bike shop to poke around.
Bikes are stacked floor to ceiling, and while they generally all have two wheels and look the same, the (already intimidating) prices and descriptions are all over the map. A friendly salesperson approaches, and asks what kind of riding you are interested in. “ Well,” you say, “maybe around town and sometimes some longer rides.” They smile and nod, knowing they have their work cut out for them. Suddenly you are drowning in a biblical flood of acronyms, vague product categories and specifications like “105.” One hundred and five of what?
Shocks! Gears! Seatposts that move and tires that range from toothpicks to larger than your car’s. You drift back outside and reconsider. Maybe running isn’t so bad after all.
This is the dilemma we are all facing as cycling enthusiasts and in the bike industry at large. The products we develop and consume have improved at a staggering rate and show no signs of slowing down. Rapid prototyping, overnight shipping and fickle consumer tastes have led manufacturers to rush to develop the latest and greatest in an effort to grab an ever-elusive slice of the bike sales pie.
But here’s the thing: That pie isn’t expanding. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, complete bike sales were up only 2.4 percent in terms of units from 2014 to 2015. The average price for a complete bike? $271. There’s a good chance that if you’re reading this magazine you’re standing well at the edge of the bell curve. We still haven’t caught up to the 15 million bikes sold during the oil crisis in 1973.
It’s not just cycling that’s struggling. Participation rates in other sports like golf and tennis are in freefall. The fact that the numbers for bikes are holding steady is a sign that there is actually growing demand out there for cycling, and that the bicycle has the power to transform itself from “outdoor sport” to “ just a part of life.”
Think consumer-direct online sales will be the magic bullet? Don’t count on it. Sure, we’ll probably get better bikes for less money, but just as likely is that a few big brands will pad their profits while local bike shops and brands without the infrastructure to compete will wither on the vine. The main roadblock to putting a bicycle in every garage isn’t consumer access.
Standing in the way are complacent bike companies (and the bike media, we admit) that are filled with people who are passionate about cycling. We have garages full of bikes and the knowledge of how they tick. When the new hub axles are 10 percent lighter and just as stiff, we convince ourselves that we couldn’t live without them.
But if we ever want to grow that pie, to truly make cycling an approachable, mainstream mode of transportation, we need to forget trying to recruit new members into our eccentric club and instead make the output of our passion more applicable to non-enthusiasts.
For the vast majority of these potential new cyclists, a bicycle is a commodity, an appliance. (We’ve dubbed them “Toaster Bikes.”) Think about it: How many of us drive a car but don’t give a rat’s ass how it works? We need to sell bikes to people who don’t care about sponsored athletes or vertical compliance. We need to sell to people who just want to get around, cheaply and easily.
Now imagine if instead of the low-quality “bicycle-shaped objects” found in big-box stores across the nation, there were only simple, sensible singlespeed townies made with actual cycling components that didn’t fall apart before they even left the store. If manufacturers and retailers could resist the urge to race to the bottom and squeeze out every dollar of profit possible, and instead focus on holistic, sustainable growth, consumers would learn that bicycles are not just children’s toys, and the adults that ride them are not eccentrics.
But what good are these bikes if there is nowhere to ride them? Supplying the latest Tour de France team might sell more widgets, but the the hundreds of millions of dollars that pour into professional racing aren’t helping the average cyclists in the street. The manpower and dollars invested should be going to continue to push for Complete Streets policies across North America until they are mandated, not just recommended.
I invite the bike industry to look past the pet projects and do more than give lip service to commodity bicycles and focus on the sales channels that foster the inclusive, rather than exclusive, atmosphere surrounding cycling. We don’t need to keep building better mousetraps when there are not enough mice.