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?