Friday Group Ride #420

Friday Group Ride #420

After I finished last week’s Group Ride I wondered to myself whether I’d been too dark. I was in an odd place, having just visited my father, who is confined to a chair, and reflecting on how things might be the same, or possibly different, for me. The responses to the post were very hopeful though, and that cheered me up. I often thank my friends for, essentially, working on the same project I’m trying to work on, which is to live a good life, make the right choices, and set a reasonable example for my kids.

The RKP community gives me a bit of that as well. It feels as though most of us are moving through life with the same challenges and using the bike as a tool for improvement, adventure, and connection. I am grateful for it.

This week I want to talk about what cycling is and what it will become.

Cycling as I understand it has been up to this point a narrow sport, by which I mean the people buying bikes and riding them are people who like to pedal. They are mainly active people. In as much as some use the bike for transportation, more often than not, those people are also active cyclists. This isn’t universally true. Some folks just ride to get around, but the bicycle as transportation exclusively is a narrow slice of the total cycling picture, I think.

That seems to be changing now. Bike share programs abound in city centers and on university campuses, and as planners continue to grapple with alternative transportation solutions you can see the first strong signs that the bike is being decoupled from the bike industry. Up to this point, we cyclists have reacted to e-bikes as though they live within the context we’re familiar with, but with players like Bosch, Ford, Honda, etc. talking about electric transportation solutions, the way we think about the bike will likely soon be dwarfed by the bike as mainly transport.

And to be clear, I think that’s a great thing. As a city dweller, the promise of less pollution, less congestion, and fewer square feet devoted to large vehicles is exciting.

But what does it mean for cycling, the sport? We’ve seen over the last generation that participation has dropped off. Young adults aren’t riding, at least not for sport. Aging cyclists are turning increasingly to e-bikes as a way to stay connected, but I also see that the slope is slippery. Humans are lazy by nature (that’s a harsh way to put what I mean). If they don’t need to pedal, they won’t. And so I fear a little for the sport side of cycling, that it’s in a decline that will gain speed as technology makes it less necessary and new cyclists aren’t coming into the fold.

This week’s Group Ride asks, what do you think the future of pedaled bicycles is? Let’s not go down the rabbit hole of whether e-bikes belong on paths, trails, etc. Let’s just stick to our own business, our sport. Does it have a future? And if it’s going to grow, how will that happen?

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14 comments

  1. Ron

    Well, to me the e-bike marks the passing of a golden era in bicycle frame and component design and production. We can already see that manufacturers are developing e-bike specific components, which are increasingly unsuitable for human-powered bikes.
    The power source is the most important aspect of the bike. Given the puny ‘motor’ that propels a bicycle, that obviously means very light parts and frames. If you add an electric motor to the bike, the motor becomes the star of the show. The need for super-light components diminishes as motor power increases. Given that cycling, because it’s hard and humans are indeed typically lazy, is already relegated to a fairly small market footprint, the possibility exists that e-bikes could rapidly dwarf the bicycle on the roads and in the marketplace. Regular bicycles could become quite a niche product. Less bicycles being purchased = less production of, and less R & D for nice light drivetrains and frames for human-powered bicycles. How much less? Who knows, but when manufacturers can make a lot more money on motorized bikes it must surely cause a shuffling of priorities. I’ve seen it written in articles on sites more closely linked to manufacturers that one of the many great things about e-bikes is that they can bring more riders into the sport. It seems extraordinarily unlikely to me that someone who was not interested in bicycles per se but enjoys a powered e-version would then opt in for an unassisted bike that is slower, and harder to make go. I just don’t see that happening.

    1. Neil Winkelmann

      Oh I don’t know about the component thing. The market for high-end components is already very small, but there’s still R&D investment there.

      Yes, switching from e-bike to non-powered bike might be rare. But if that person wasn’t going to cycle anyway (drive everywhere instead), then we’re already ahead.

  2. scottg

    Except for my first adult bike, I don’t buy industry bikes. The internet
    allows niches to flourish. These are the good old days.

    I was in Geneva a couple years ago, E-bikes where everywhere,
    even locked up on the street. (batteries removes for charging and
    security) Utility cycling is common, seeing a sport cyclist was rare.

  3. Jeff vdD

    Is “young adults aren’t riding” more true now than in the past? It’s an expensive and time-consuming sport, neither of which aligns well with twenty- and thirty-something-ism. I didn’t start riding seriously until my 40s, and I’m now all in.

    I’m not worried.

  4. Aar

    I think the future of pedaled bikes is bright and diverse. E-bikes expand the game for pedaled bikes. They don’t encroach upon it. Likewise with soft road bikes and bike share schemes. The more accessible the sport is the more people will get hooked and participate at the level that works for them.

  5. Jim

    We have several bike racks at my company and this summer, they are all full. The investments made by the local city, Redmond, have paid off. People feel safe biking on the paths and lanes. People who live within 8 miles or so bike in pretty regularly.
    I did local centuries on back-to-back weekends this summer and both rides had huge attendance.
    I’m going to the “Gigantic Bicycle Festival”, (bikes, music, and film) next weekend.
    My perception is that lots of people cycle, probably more than ever in my lifetime.

    1. Lyford

      Agree that we should be encouraging bikes as transportation as part of the big picture. I was just listening to a story about the time spent commuting by public transit, and one of the subjects had a 15-mile commute that took 3 hours with all the changes and waits. I wanted to send him a bike…..

      On the sporting side, as long as people enjoy self-propelled speed and exploration, there’ll be cyclists. I’m not worried.

  6. David Arnold

    My personal thoughts are bike riding and racing will always be with us. The idea of racing with the wind and being able to travel on roads both paved and unpaved are ideas and adventures that start within us as kids. Gravel grinding and Belgian Waffle type rides allow us to do on 2 wheels what most can only dream about….just ride all day long in an epic slugfest with nature and the elements. A big breakfast of pancakes, some extra spare tubes, ride money and just RIDE. The majority of the competition is within us and the connection with our bodies being able to propel us to places outside. keep it simple…more bikes, more rides, better bike paths= more fun. Make the wheels go round and breathe fresh air.

  7. Tominalbany

    If Honda and Ford are getting into it, you can bet that e-bikes will be electric motorcycles that are fully intended for transportation. And, that’s OK. They’ll ultimately require licenses, insurance, etc.

    There will always be bikes though. Because, they’re liberating. And fun. And painful. And they remind us of who we are, how far we’ve come, and how we need to keep going.

  8. Shawn

    I raced an mtb time trial at the local park. I was shocked to see how many Juniors and young adults were there compared to five years ago. Here’s to the future of pedaling 🍺

  9. Neil Winkelmann

    I’m not worried. I think e-bikes will tend to replace cars, rather than replace sport cycling. A person is no less likely to be interested in “proper” cycling just because they use an e-bike, rather than a car, for commuting and errands.

    Counterpoint: Someone who does regularly use an e-bike might find a non-powered bike to feel unbearably sluggish, and therefore unenjoyable in a way that a motorist trying cycling wouldn’t..

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