Commentary

The Tour De What?

The Tour de France finished up last weekend with the maillot jaune going to Italian Vincenzo Nibali. Did you know that? Do you know what the yellow jersey represents. Until someone told me yesterday, I had only a vague idea. Which riders were from the U.S. this year? I don’t know. I wonder if people in the U.S. are too disenchanted that the American who used to win the race over and over, singlehandedly driving U.S. interest in the second-most popular sports event on Earth, amounted in the end to “an insubstantial pageant faded.” 

Even beyond the Tour and who rode it and why Americans aren’t sure, there are structural problems in the bike market here. As one marketer explained, kids ride bikes until they're tweens, then quit because it's not cool. Some pick it up again when they're older, but as every marketer knows, it's way harder to get someone to try a brand or lifestyle, or to return to it once they've abandoned it than to keep them there in the first place. You have childhood, then an empty sea of “bikelessness,” and then an island (not growing too much) of older amateur racers, club cyclists, triathletes and weekend warriors of various Spandex-wearing stripes. 

The marketer told me that before brand-building comes enthusiasm building -- increasing the number of people who are interested in the first place, and that’s a challenge. People with a deeper interest have a deeper commitment to products for a sport or recreation, and therefore are willing to make a bigger commitment to a brand and its higher-end machines, and they are going to buy them at a bike shop, not K-Mart. 

The latter point is critical because if you get a bike online or at a Big Box for a steal, there's a good chance you'll ride it for three weeks and never again. It will weigh a ton, won't really feel right, hurt your butt, shift weirdly and make you feel miserable. That doesn’t happen at a bike shop. Unfortunately, most people fall into the big-box category, and therefore don't look too much at brands: they are just in for "a bike" and don't know or care too much about which bike they get as long as it's cheap. That's harsh, but there you have it. 

All of this is a problem -- and not just for the bicycle business, but for the health business. Bicycling is obviously good for your health, your outlook, your mood, and the quality of the air if you happen to live close enough to work or shopping that you don't have to drive. New York and other cities have proven that if you build the lanes they will come, but it has to be a community effort. Bicycle riding has increased a lot in New York City largely because of infrastructure changes. It's also incredibly hip to ride in New York: It's nearly as hard to find a place to lock a bike in Williamsburg as it is to find bicycles there that have more than one gear, but fixies (one-speed track bikes) are a fad. I hope. 

Also, amateur competitive riders at local parks are often the most important potential advocates for recreational cycling. In my local park there are dozens of them, riding in packs, riding solo. But they are, by and large, about the worst advocates for the sport imaginable. I think most people reading this know exactly what I'm talking about, and I'm an avid cyclist. 

Clubs can be two-wheeled cliques steeped in alpha-male attitude and an often-dangerous sense of roadway entitlement. What a turnoff. And even though these clubs hold competitions and events, they are exclusive; they do nothing to make anyone want to watch or learn more. Major bicycle brands need to do a lot more outreach themselves and through their retailers to get people interested. Who knows -- one of them could win the Yellow Jersey some day!

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