Friday Group Ride #463

Friday Group Ride #463

Because the FGR is a casual conversation among like-minded folks and because I’m more of a humanities guy than sciences, I’m going to make a bunch of sweeping, general statements, any of which you’re welcome to take issue with, and then I’m going to do that thing where I ask a mostly open-ended question. I will try to betray my biases when I’m aware of them, and you can point out any I miss. Cool?

So as part of my job I try to keep track of what IBDs (Independent Bicycle Dealers) are selling. What’s hot? What’s not? Where is the industry, at least in this country, going? I also pay some attention to the Euro market, but I’m pretty far out of my depth there.

The other day I was reading BRAIN (Bicycle Retailer and Industry News) and reviewing a series of articles about the decline in IBD revenue and units sold for the year to date. Overall, bike shops are down, although good luck really figuring out how much, and also interestingly, nearly all the individual categories are down, too. E-bikes are growing, but the picture is skewed a bit by the fact that widescale adoption of e-bikes is still nascent. It’s not hard to grow a very small number.

The category of the moment, gravel, is also down in 2019, despite also being a small overall niche and holding the best promise for growth for a large number of existing shops. It is true that, over the last three seasons, the dirt categories have replaced road in leading units and revenue, but they’re all down this year, so…make of that what you will.

Before I deliver my pet theory for what’s going on, I do want to say that bike sales SHOULD be up in 2019. They should be up every year. The simple (and quite possibly naïve) reason is that bicycles solve several of our most pressing problems. Cars fuel global warming. Bikes don’t (or at least not nearly as much). Bikes provide exercise that an increasingly obese populace needs. And bikes also reduce traffic, congestion, and pollution. Don’t waste time commenting on this paragraph. These are just a few of the sweeping generalizations I like to make, because at root I’m a sanctimonious denizen of a privileged class who thinks he has all the answers to life’s challenges. In fact, these may not even be life’s challenges. I’m open to accusations of velo-delusion.

My pet theory for this year’s industry decline is this: Currently, enthusiast cycling lacks a collective inspiration. By that I mean that there is no one inspirational or revolutionary idea animating the cycling community. In the ’70s we were throwing our legs over 10-speeds or flocking to BMX. In the ’80s, the mountain bike arrived. In the ’90s and early ’00s, we got Lanced, affecting Euro-style and posing as connoisseurs of complex stage race tactics. I would argue that the things that came after, gravel bikes and even disc road bikes were only really technological advances or refinements of purpose that gave shops a small bump, but didn’t draw together every member of the larger cycling family into a collective drive.

Some of you will rush to point out that you can buy bikes on-line now, and that will skew the IBD numbers, but I have considered that. Fewer than 10% of bikes are sold on-line still, AND part of my assessment of this year’s numbers includes declines from manufacturers, not just sell through at retail. The trend is real, and not internet warped.

This week’s Group Ride asks, what do you think is going on? What is animating your bicycle enthusiasm this season? Do you feel a sense of the whole culture drifting? Or am I completely imagining that? I may have done a second non-scientific thing, of course, coming up with and explanation and working backwards to the problem, but I don’t think so. Ten years ago we were writing about racing and reviewing road bikes, but the zeitgeist has moved on, as it, by definition, will. But where is it going?

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  1. Steve Courtright

    “… enthusiast cycling lacks a collective inspiration.” I think you’re close here. Enthusiast cyclists will always be steadily supporting cycling sales. It’s the other folks that make a movement or bump in the market. And what a movement takes is a Champion. Someone has to grab the general population’s attention and let them in on our little secret. And that same person has to be able to instill in a non-enthusiast the excitement or sense of adventure or whatever to make the non-cyclist or sometimes-cyclist get up off the couch, spend some of his or hers hard-earned cash, and cancel the golf club membership in order to experience the wind-in-helmet thrills we all know and love.

    What we lack in the US is someone to tell us why we should still be excited about cycling.


  2. Jeff vdD

    I see two important classes of riders:
    1. Recreational
    2. Commuter/commercial

    It’s not clear to me why the number of recreational riders isn’t growing. Equipment too expensive? SOME equipment is expensive, but there are enough affordable options (<$1k). Sport viewed as too dangerous? Part of that is true, whether road endangered by cars or off-road endangered by tech. And part of it is perceived. Maybe there needs to be a concerted industry effort to help people feel safe on <$1k bikes.

    I can totally understand why commuter/commercial ridership isn't growing enough. SImply put, in far too many places in the US, the infrastructure simply isn't bike-friendly enough. So, we need to keep working to create better infrastructure.

    1. Steve Courtright

      Good point, Jeff.

      “From 2000 to 2013, bicycle commuting rates in large BFCs increased 105% — far above the national average of 62% and more than double the rate in non-BFCs (31%).”

      Here in Chicago (where I ride) the city government has invested in hundreds of miles of bike lanes at least in part responsive to very powerful activists (e.g., the Active Transportation Alliance). Commuters here have exploded in numbers. According to my hypothesis – the ATA, and maybe even the government, is our champion here in the Windy City…

    2. AG

      I agree with Steve and Jeff here. Perhaps it’s a synergistic problem? Cycling benefits from having a champion of the sport on the level of Armstrong (putting aside the doping and lying for a moment). No one since has filled those shoes, nor is anyone really up and coming with that kind of presence and commercial potential. I think also that cycling is perceived as dangerous is not helping. Parents are not likely to let their kids ride around on urban streets and then by extension the kids become wary of cycling as a pursuit. All of that translates to lower future bike and gear sales.

    3. Jeff vdD

      It’s too bad that it takes TdF winning talent for a cyclist to get mainstream attention. There are so many GREAT, compelling, personable cycling athlete ambassadors out there: Katie Compton, Kate Courtney, Phil Gaimon, Ted King, Adam Myerson, Ellen Noble, Jeremy Powers. And what’s best about these people is that they’re approachable. They’ll do almost anything to make cycling accessible to anyone. There’s just no real platform from which they can do so.

  3. Lyford

    This year I’ve been excited by my new gravel bike, except for the name. It’s really a road bike that makes sense for most of the roads here in rural/small-town New England: a mixture of frost-heaved asphalt and fairly smooth dirt. “All-road” or “mixed-surface” would be much better marketing terms for the general public than “gravel”.

    I’ve also been happy with my new subcompact(46/30) gearing. I think I first saw subcompact cranksets mentioned here a couple of years ago in a review(Felt VR series?), and remember your argument that they made sense for the general public. With experience I have to agree. I almost never used my 50×11, and the smaller rings give me a more useable gear range.

    Here in central NH/VT there seems to be a LOT of cycling. MTB trail networks keep expanding, and a lot of the local road rides are now multi-surface. “Gravel” events are booming. But I don’t know if they’re attracting new people or the same core enthusiasts on different bikes.

    One problem I see is that cycling events often seem to be competing to be the hardest/toughest, which is not a great way to attract newcomers. I’d like to see more emphasis on fun rides for novices, but that’s not a demographic that will pay big entry fees or travel far for a ride.

    Long-term, we need to figure out how to make cycling thought of as viable transportation instead of mainly as recreation. I think it’s still largely seen as something for kids and rich skinny white folks instead of as something for everyone.

    1. Jeff vdD

      I TOTALLY agree re: “gravel.” I first heard about gravel back in the 2009 time frame. It sounded like a horrible experience. I mean, riding on small crushed rock? I wouldn’t even have known where to find such roads–the person I heard about it lived in NE (Nebraska) and I live in NE (New England). “Mixed terrain” is meh but much better. “All-road” isn’t quite right, as it seems to exclude the mildly technical surfaces. I like “Adventure,” but it isn’t really descriptive in the right way (it might put off new riders who don’t think of themselves as adventurous … and let’s face it, the folks still doing pavement bicycling are the adventurous ones!)

      Side note: I’m also on 46-30f with 11-34r. Great for New England climbs AND flats AND descents.

      Regarding ride toughness, I’m with you there too. A friend just rode the Irreverent Road Ride 8.0 in VT. 140+ miles, close to 15k climbing. He’s strong and it took him 12+ hours.

      For me, I try to limit myself to 50 miles if climb-y and 70 if flatter. And even that’s more than a lot of people are up for. The D2R2 in MA has a 40 mile, very flat option, but even that might be too much. The DK has 25, EVERYONE should have 25..

  4. California Pete

    Perhaps the issue is not that the sport/industry is lacking a fresh source of enthusiasm but that today’s fresh source of enthusiasm is located indoors. How does the rise of the likes of Zwift and Peleton correlate with what’s going on for old-fashioned outdoor riding? Is there a shift from riding outside to riding inside comparable to the last generation’s shift from riding on pavement to riding on dirt? Road cycling has found ways to co-exist with the fat-tires-on-dirt crowd by riding waves of popularity led by the likes of Lemond and Armstrong, as well as by finding middle grounds in cross and gravel. The challenge now for outdoor cycling, both on and off road, seems to me to find ways to allow the indoor, video-gamification to supplement and feed into the old schools rather than to cannibalize them.

  5. Lyford

    On the plus side, NICA is booming for high-school kids. If we could get a fraction of the enthusiasm for the recent Women’s World Cup focused on Kate Courtney and folks like her, it’d be huge.

  6. Neil Winkelmann

    No accusation of velo-delusion from me. If people don’t ride bikes, people die. They die from the diseases of inactivity, they die from traffic violence (more cyclists means more motorist awareness and greater socio-political support for safe infrastructure leading to better safety outcomes), they die from pollution, and, increasingly they are dying from the effects of climate change.

    I’m not close enough to know what’s going on in the industry right now, but I’m confident that the catalyst for the next golden age of cycling will be the recognition of these truths. I am excited by all aspects of cycling, but in particular I am animated by the potential for cycling to be part of a revolution in how we live and travel.

  7. Michael

    How much of it is that the market is saturated, like Apple’s problem with their phones? People have bikes, and not that many people are willing to have more than one bike. I am not sure I know anyone who doesn’t have a bike. I imagine I do, but am not aware of it. The folks who only ride occasionally have a bike already. So, those folks are not buying a new one. The bikes I have – I have a few of them – are all nice bikes. Why would I replace them? They’ll last me several decades each. Several of them already have. My point is that maybe the bike industry is experiencing a trend that might be a good thing for society – less merchandise churning so less resource consumption. I would like to see more people riding, but am not sure that an increase in ridership is limited by who has a bike. The folks with bikes need to get out on them. That will come from personal and infrastructure changes, not selling more bikes.

    To answer your questions, I don’t see a drift in bike culture. People where I live who ride are riding as much as ever, and perhaps more. I ride every day, and have for fifty years. The local bike shops seem to be doing well. Perhaps they are selling fewer bikes – I don’t know – but ridership always seems to be going up, according to our cyclist counts on the streets. Those are commuter focused, though.

    1. Shawn

      I agree with @California Pete’s indoor cycling comment, and I also agree with this comment by @Michael. Most people ride the best/most expensive bike they are comfortable purchasing. And bikes are really good these days in all quality/status ranges likely sold in IBDs. For reasons discussed in the main article, a bike that was new in 2015 or 2017 is not a noticeably lesser ride than a new one in 2019. So how much value is there in shelling out again so soon?

      Maybe on a related note, I have invested more time learning how to maintain bike equipment and purchased more quality tools in recent years than I have purchased new bikes (for me, anyway). It helps that most of my equipment is easily serviceable (King/Hope hubs, SRAM drivetrains, etc.)

  8. MattC

    Maybe the LBS needs to be more involved in creating future sales. My LBS here in the CA Central Coast has a weekly Saturday Morning group ride, put together and shepherded by the owner. He not only sells you a bike but provides a safe place for new riders to learn how to ride w/ a group and get “bitten” by the biking bug. It’s a no-drop ride (w/ multiple regroups over the weekly changing route). Each week the ride has something for everybody…bigger climbs and descents are game-on for the speedier folk, w/ regroups at tops and bottoms. The flats and rollers we work to keep the newer folk in the group, occasionally doing a split group if there are enough to warrant the split, and there are always bailout-options for newer folk who can’t do a 50 mile ride yet. It’s actually a fun ride for nearly all abilities, and financially it’s very smart for the shop as the newer riders learn the sport and grow, and when it’s time for a better bike they know where to go. He creates not only the first sale but all the follow-on sales…it’s a really great shop, and after the rides there’s even beer in the refrigerator…so it’s way more than just an LBS…it’s a hangout. IMO I think it’s a great model of what’s required to stay afloat in this tough business (selling bikes).

  9. TomInAlbany

    So my ‘this year’s goal’ is to convince my kids to sign up for the local cycling club’s 25 mile ride and do it as a family. My 13-year old son loves to ride his bike as a means of clearing his mind. May daughter sees it more for transportation. The longest ride for either of them is about 12 miles so, I think they can do the 25 no problem but, I’d like to stretch them to 15 or 18 before hand just to make sure they can be comfortable on their bikes for that long.

    My reason for mentioning this is, I’ve started with my kids at very young ages to instill some of the cycling culture and, I’m hoping, that getting them to do the club ride in September will convince them that it can be fun to do it with like-minded folks.

    Also, professional cyclists, Curtis and Emma White are the children of my daughter’s 3rd/4th grade teacher. I always point out their results to my kids and show them that racing bikes could be fun and is attainable as well.

    The next big thing in cycling? I don’t know. If I did, I’d invest and get rich off of it!

    1. Jeff vdD

      Tom, I’m with you on the investment front. What about car-bike communications? I’m not talking about people talking to each other, I’m talking about the various safety features of a car (lane avoidance, etc.) being aware of a signal I’m broadcasting from my bike, and vice versa.

      Garmin’s Varia is a start … it lets riders know about cars approaching from behind. Make that information more reliable (and not just from behind), and I’m a better informed rider. Now do the same so that the driver is made aware of bikes, and they’re a better informed driver.

      Would the alerts get to annoying? Not as a cyclist. As a driver? Maybe. But maybe the driver doesn’t even need to be alerted … maybe having the car know is enough.

    2. TomInAlbany

      @Jeff: I don’t think that the car-bike communications is the next big thing. It’s a smallish blip on the self-driving car/safety protections map maybe. I’d believe Garmin, among many others, will make money off of this.

      Maybe simple town road bikes. The miles of bike lanes in cities is increasing and the intended use for those miles is transportation. What is the US equivalent of the Chinese “Bird” bikes?

  10. Jan

    I think stagnant wages and massive student loans probably play a part in the US. Those of us who have bikes may be keeping them (rather than getting new ones), and new folks may be buying used or holding off because of wages/debt.

    I’d hazard a guess that kids aren’t riding as much as kids in, say, the 70s did, for a variety of reasons. So folks who didn’t grow up riding aren’t as likely to want to take it up in their 30s or 40s again. (Maybe that’s just me? I ride because my inner 12-year old loves the feeling that I had when I really was 12.)

  11. Aar

    When I travel to cities with a thriving commuter culture with new bike infrastructure, I see all kinds of very old bikes locked street side. So, my opinion is that the commuter market is a used bike market. Bike commuting could be the fastest growing market in the world but it would not make a dent in new bike sales until every Schwinn Traveler III has rusted through.

    Like many others here, I believe cycling has a perception problem. Due to US cycling’s Voldemort, it will be a long time before any competitive cyclist has any cred. Further, most mainstream cycling sites and publications always have something about the mortality and morbidity rate of our beloved sport. From “news” of the most recent cyclist crash/death or a rant about the state of riding on roads with cars, people who are casually interested in pedaling can’t avoid reading about the extreme dangers of cycling. Then we all go out and see herds of hipster wannabes ignoring sanity and the law as they annoyingly weave through traffic. To the US public, I suspect cyclists are probably perceived as doping, cheating, lying daredevils with a death wish if we’re considered at all.

    Then there’s the popularity and expense of fake cycling. Peloton has done a great job of enticing addlepated couch potatoes raised on video games into their exciting world where metrics probably deliver a sense of daily achievement in the same way their PTA provided participation trophies. Further, smart trainers are as expensive as bikes. Monthly subscription gamification tools soak up much remaining cycling spend.

    So, my question is whether sales of indoor riding hardware and services are canibalizing sales of real bicycles for outdoor use?

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