Bullish on Bikes?

A recent article on Wired’s Autopia blog cites high gas prices, the obesity epidemic, a failing economy, and environmental concerns as the drivers behind recent record sales in the bike industry. Industry insiders can hardly contain themselves over the amount of cash flowing into the industry right now. Here’s Tim Blumenthal of Bikes Belong at the Interbike trade show:

“You can feel the collective buzz,” a smiling Tim Blumenthal, executive director of the bicycle advocacy group Bikes Belong, says from the middle of the bustling show floor.  “It’s a really, really heady time for us. This show feels very optimistic and that bucks the general economic trends. There doesn’t seem to be many businesses that are thriving, but the bike business is doing very well.”

Some manufacturers are even openly hoping for higher gas prices, with the idea they’ll further drive up bike sales:

“The gas prices are the best thing that ever happened to cycling,” says Kevin Menard, whose year-old bike business, Traitor Cycles, is thriving. “I hope they go up even more.”

This is a case of “be careful what you ask for.” Sure, high gas prices will continue to spur along bike sales for a time, but if the economy tanks badly enough, even high gas prices won’t ensure long-term bike sales.

The article states that “Electric bike manufacturers are particularly bullish…”, but despite what producers are saying, that’s a promise that has yet to be fulfilled here in the U.S. It will be interesting to see if electric-assist eventually catches on as it has in Europe.

I’m thrilled that the bicycle industry is doing so well, but I hope that we’re not looking at a flash in the pan that disappears as soon as the economy settles and people get accustomed to $4 per gallon gas. If it is, we’re going to see an awful lot of bikes hanging in the rafters come next year.

Read the full article at Wired →

15 Responses to “Bullish on Bikes?”

  • Thom says:

    Take heart, I think, for the faddies will undoubtedly eschew their bicycles for the next big thing, but people who really discover bicycling as transportation (and I believe there are a lot of them), will continue to be advocates and daily riders. Honestly, I’m less concerned about “the industry” than I am about making sure people get on their bikes, even (especially) if it means dusting off an old bike from the garage, or haunting thrift stores, rather than shelling out for a new one. After all, I think the economic waters are only going to get rougher, and even the bicycle industry is going to suffer when folks just can’t pay for new production bikes over $1,000. If it’s getting people on bikes that motivates us, we should be less concerned with the health of “the industry” and more concerned with teaching people the skills to maintain and upgrade the bikes they already have.

  • Alan says:


    Hear, hear!

  • Dave Kee says:

    Sorry to invoke your former life, Alan, but unless the mainstream bike industry addresses the reality of the sore arms, necks and butts that new riders will experience as a result of this increase in sales of standard bikes, these new bikes will soon end up hanging on garage walls. Guess what, I am not pushing recumbents as the solution as that would be a bridge too far, but I do believe the major bike makers need to move quickly to bring affordable comfortable crank forward type bicycles to this expanding market. I own a RANS crank forward bike and it provides near recumbent comfort with the ease of handling and visibility (both seeing and being seen) of an upright. The automobile industry now knows that it will have to undergo revolutionary change if it is to survive. Too bad the bicycle industry does not also see the need for change to take full advantage of this opportunity.

  • Alan says:

    Electra is probably doing the most within the “mainstream” industry in this regard. Their “flatfoot technology” is essentially a slightly toned down version of the crank forward concept, packaged and marketed to the non-cyclist consumer. In some of their marketing materials they even describe their bikes as “a cross between recumbents and uprights”. They’re not performance bikes for long distance riding, but they’re plenty comfortable for getting around town.

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    I find it hard to see how people won’t be able to afford $1000 bikes. As you know, these bikes are car replacements, not toys. They do not fall under discretionary spending. Even if people can’t do entirely without cars, they will use fewer of them, perhaps renting and doing carsharing schemes. That’s where people will cut their spending, not in transportational cycling.

  • Thom says:

    Erik, a couple points in response: There are a lot of people who already don’t own cars because they can’t afford them and who also can’t afford $1,000 or more for *anything.* These are the people who need to use bikes for transportation the most. All I’m saying is that there are more cost-effective ways to obtain and maintain a bicycle than to shell out big bucks for new models and a lot of people who want or need to ride who have other spending priorities, and simply can’t buy a brand new, top-notch bike. My point is that the reconditioning and reuse of old bicycles, together with a strong DIY ethic of maintenance and repair, is going to get more people on bikes than the latest showroom models.

  • Karl OnSea says:

    Of course, the beauty of buying a second-hand bike as your first toe in the water is that:

    a) Spending $1,000 (£500 or so) would probably buy three or four great bikes ;-)
    b) It’s financially risk-free. Uh-oh do I mean like giving mortgages to people who can’t afford them, but that doesn’t matter ‘cos house prices are going to continue rising for ever? No. What I mean is that second hand bikes have an intrinsic market value. So if you buy one for $300, it should be road-worthy & need no further expenditure, but then if after a few months you decide that cycling isn’t for you, you can sell it to get your money back.

    Of course, b) might mean that we see more fadsters, just waiting for the fuel price to come down before they get back into their SUVs & act like “Supersize Me” was an advert from the Department of Health. But the more people try cycling as a means of transport rather than a toy, the greater chance there is that some of them will stick with it.

    Oh, and what Thom says is true – bikes are simple machines, so tinkering and fixing them up (without necessarily making ‘em fixed) is great fun, and a way to spend waaaay less than $300. Full instructions on every conceivable bike repair are of course available at the late Sheldon Brown’s pages: http://www.sheldonbrown.com/

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    I know there are a lot of people who can’t afford $1000 for a new bike. But I don’t think they make up a large part of the population. There are bike co-ops. These are two different market segments. One does not stop the other from thriving. And they overlap!

    For those who can afford it, and who already ride every day, I think a new $1000 bike is a very good deal. All the parts are new and will last many miles. A $300 second-hand bike will not last as long until it needs service and parts, which cost money and time.

    It’s a great idea to learn how to service a bike, but I think that’s a potential pitfall if you want people to ride more. What if I told people to learn how to service their computers? They would run a mile. People want their computers to just work. I know more than one former bike mechanic who avoids doing work on their bike. They would rather do other things.

    For those wanting to ride their bikes year-round, I would tell them to get two bikes. One can be repaired or serviced while you ride the other. It gives great peace of mind because you can do things in you own time. This works especially if you have snowy and salty winters, but is useful even if you don’t. The $300 bike could be the winter bike. And get a good mud flap.

  • Karl OnSea says:

    . . . but that’s the whole point – for $300, you get a bike that cost $1000 new, and the chances are that it’s spent the last 18 months in someone’s shed. But then again, I AM a bit of a geek about these (and may other) things!

  • beth says:

    I think it all depends on where you live.

    If you live in Atlanta or Miami the bike boom could definitely become a bust when folks get used to 4-dollar gas. Those cities are founded on car culture and car-based infrastructure. But if you live in a more bike-enlightened city (like, well — cue angelic background chorus — Portland), you are probably seeing the beginning of a paradigm shift in how folks get from place to place. 20 years ago I was virtually ALONE on the roads, especially in the rainy winter. Not anymore. I’m now regularly joined by 10 to 20 other bike riders on my morning commute, and a lot of those people aren’t going back inside when the rains come in November.

    Portland’s bike-friendliness is NO accident, but the result of over 30 years of careful, long-term vision and planning. We designed downtown Portland to be purposely less car-friendly and that is why you see so many people walking and bicycling here. (Portland’s city blocks are half again as long as blocks in other US cities — originally the result of greed because 1840’s planners knew that more corner lots made more money! — but those shorter blocks immediately rendered the city very walkable.) Add to that newer initiatives, such as a mayor-elect who wants to grow a Portland-based bicycle industry that includes retail, manufacturing and bike tourism, and a LARGE community of bicycle and pedestrian advocates who constantly make sure that we don’t roll backwards when we build new developments. What you have is a city where walking and bicycling matter to the overall livability of the place and where city leaders and activists know it. When people elsewhere see the results, they want their cities to become the “next Portland”.

    Just know that it takes a LOT of planning and work to get there. And it’s not too late to start the work now. Meanwhile, I know of a lot of bicycles that WON’T end up collecting dust in basements when gas prices stabilize again. Happy riding –B

  • Roland Smith says:

    As this article points out, for cycling really to take off, you need infrastructure, especially separate cyclepaths to make cycling safe and “irresistable”. (Thanks to David Hembrow for providing the link)

  • Ok says:

    Beth, I don’t see four dollar a gallon gas is something someone gets ‘used too’. They can either afford it or not. Plus, who is to say where the price will be. If it’s much lower then four dollars, then some people might migrate back to their ways. If it’s much higher then four dollars, then there will be many joining the cyclist culture.

  • Alan says:

    It would be amazing if all of our cities had bike-friendly local governments and multiple advocacy organizations working for infrastructure improvements as they do in Portland! I believe infrastructure and safety are key; still, the number one obstacle to transporational cycling cited in most studies is the fear of cars. We need to build more well-designed bike boulevards, separated bike lanes, and dedicated bike paths; in my opinion, doing so would do more to encourage bike use than anything. Portland is the model here in the U.S., with Amsterdam and other cities in Europe being the gold standard. (I know I’m preaching to the choir).

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    A failing economy results in lower tax revenues, thus less money for huge new highway projects. That should prevent sprawl from continuing unabated.

  • EcoVelo » Blog Archive » Golden Era or Flash In the Pan? says:

    […] witnessing such heady exuberance within the bike industry during last summer’s “bike boom”, it’s no surprise that few could foresee […]

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