A look at the US cycling industry, part 2

By Matt Pacocha, US editor, in Boulder, USA | Thursday, August 25, 2011 1.40pm

In part one of this feature we looked at the US road bike market, where sales are flat – up in price but down in volume – and there are warnings of a price bubble. On the mountain bike side, things are looking rosier, with 29ers fuelling growth and riders buying multiple bikes for different types of riding.

Marc Sani, publisher of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, the leading trade publication in the US, expects big-wheelers to go global in 2012, as Europe seems poised to finally and wholeheartedly adopt the larger wheel standard. “It’s new, it’s different [in Europe],” he says. “It [remains] a talking point at retail [in the US]; 29ers did well this year and I think they’ll do well next year.”

The buzz for the big wheel remains, however, a boom within the industry. Sani's opinion is that “people who aren’t into mountain biking aren’t even going to know what a 29er is". He attributes the rise of the 29in wheel to existing riders building up quivers of bikes.

Another long-time industry insider, who asked to remain anonymous, echoes similar sentiments. “There are a lot of people swapping out their [26in] hardtails for 29ers when they hadn’t ridden their hardtails in a couple of years because they’d been riding trail or all-mountain bikes,” he says. “Among the real hardcore guys, they’re building quivers of bikes. They’ll have a hardtail [29er] for cross-country, they’ll have a 4in to 5in trail bike and they may have a downhill sled. It’s a finite market.”

So, what will the next trend be? Sani thinks big wheels will push into the full-suspension ‘trail’ segment, which is loosely defined as bikes with 4in to 5in of travel. “The people who understand that level of technology are going to gravitate to the 29er, I think,” he says. And he may be right – Specialized's 2012 line offers a whole range of 5in- to 5.5in-travel ‘trail’ 29ers under the Stumpjumper name. “Take a look at what Fox are doing with their forks [specifically the 34 29er model],” says Sani. “That’s a high-end fork and they’re pretty bullish on it, and if they’re bullish on it, I’d say that’s a segment.”

Is the US bicycle industry too snooty to grow outside of the enthusiast?      

In Europe, and the UK in particular, use of bikes for fitness and transport continues to grow, but America has been slow to follow suit, especially outside of major cities. “The motivation to get out of your car and onto a bike [for transportation] is tied 100 percent to the cost of oil,” says the industry insider we spoke with. “It’s a short-term decision. What happens to oil prices, historically, is that they go up for a while, people scream and bitch and moan, and then they go down part way and people feel good again – never mind they’re paying a quarter more per gallon than they were before.”

A core group of riders centered in the country’s metro and urban areas is using city bikes daily for transport. But usage as a whole is limited due to a lack of cycling infrastructure and the fact that a large number of Americans live more than five miles from where they work, shop and recreate. “These are young, hip, urban people who realize that if you live in San Francisco, Manhattan or Chicago it’s just as easy to do short runs on your bike, use public transportation for slightly longer trips and if you’ve got to go out of town, heck, you rent a car for the weekend,” he says.

“Americans loathe to give up their cars,” says Sani. “If you analyze who buys these kinds of bikes, and I say this in glittery generality, it's somebody who already rides a bike and they’re adding [a commuter bike] to their quiver. We’re not seeing an explosion of Americans saying, 'I need to get a commuter bike so I can ride it to work'. It takes effort and planning… and people will find an excuse not to ride their bike, just as I do, occasionally.”

There’s a compounding problem, according to the statistics. US cyclists are becoming more and more affluent, and this means they're prepared to pay more for bikes. This – along with economic factors such as the rising cost of raw materials and currency fluctuations, and a decline in the number of bikes being sold – has led to price rises, which mean bikes are becoming less relevant to the mainstream American public by the year, especially to those in lower income brackets. “Bicycle riding has become an activity of wealthy Americans, higher income Americans," Jay Townley, of market research firm Gluskin-Townley Group, tells BikeRadar:

'Bicycle riding has become an activity of wealthy Americans'

Townley feels this is a big mistake, especially at a time of increased investment in cycling and walking infrastructure as a way to improve public health. He cites the example of Brown County in his home state of Wisconsin, which he describes as "one of the fattest states in the Union", where something like a third of people are overweight.

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"The silver bullets [for a bike boom] – that's the leadership of the industry’s terminology, not mine – are obesity and the onset of diabetes," says Townley. "Those two health issues are going to lead us to a bike boom, we're told. But if you’re not relevant to the people who are obese or have diabetes, they’re not going to buy your bike to solve their problem.”

Townley suggests the industry should put some money into marketing bikes to those groups: “Be relevant to the people that have the health problems that can be helped by bikes." He also says the attitude of many bike shops in the US needs to change, because while staff are good at dealing with cycling enthusiasts, they virtually ignore minorities and women are often shut out.

“We’ve got to get more women on bikes and they want to ride bikes,” he says. “Shimano made a $5 million effort in researching their automatic shifting system to figure out what it was going to take to sell more bikes to middle-aged women in this country, because we don’t – we’re still 80 percent white and male. We don't represent the multicultural diversity of the nation or the gender aspect [of our population].

“Shimano did the industry a great favor, they exposed and gave away a lot of the research when they launched their Coasting product. The big issue is that women who want to get back into cycling don’t want to shift , [some] may be afraid of it. Shimano gave them an answer but the shop rats dissed it. Even Trek couldn’t force it through.”

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