Culture

Commentary: A tipping point for bicycles in the U.S.

Bicycle sales are surging as Americans seek alternatives for transportation and health. Industry veteran Peter Abraham examines how the cycling industry can keep its momentum going.

The coronavirus pandemic has led to a surge in the demand for bicycles, as Americans seek transportation alternatives and exercise during the shutdown. Bicycle industry veteran Peter Abraham writes about how the U.S. cycling scene can continue this momentum in the coming years. 

Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, there were probably more bikes on the road in the U.S. than ever before, when you count bike shares, eBikes, road bikes, kids’ bikes, gravel cycling, MTB, BMX, triathlon, commuting, and everything else. I’ve spent the last three months riding 100 – 150 miles per week all over Los Angeles.

In 35 years of living here, I’ve never seen so many bicycles on the road. And it’s clear that a lot of these people have not been aboard their bikes for long: I’ve seen many riding on old and ill-fitting mountain bikes, ridden with basketball high tops and cargo shorts.

And I am inspired by this. You’d have to go back to the 1970s oil crisis to see an influx of new cyclists even close to the current boom. Due to the pandemic, we have an opportunity to rebuild our cities, reinvent how people get to work, and massively expand all bicycle-related businesses. But to make these things happen, we need to pay attention to some very important trends.

The rebirth of bikes is due to three factors:

  • During the lockdown we’re desperate for a taste of freedom and the outdoors. More people than ever are walking, running, and riding their bikes, especially in the absence of gyms, fitness classes, school attendance, and organized sports. Moreover, being outside with others, even socially distanced, makes one feel part of their community.
  • Because so few cars are on the road, particularly on weekdays, cycling is less threatening than it was pre-COVID-19. The air quality has also improved in a meaningful way since lockdowns started.
  • A fear of public transit due to the pandemic is motivating people to commute by bicycle.

Here are the elements that will prolong this bike boom for the next 10 years:

Diversity and inclusion

Justin Williams

I’ve been participating in cycling events since high school, and I’ve often felt uncomfortable with the lack of diversity. Group rides are overwhelmingly male, and the sport desperately needs to reflect the ethnic breadth of this country. Cycling is much too white. While I’ve been inspired by black Dutch world cyclocross champion Ceylin del Carmen Alvarado, LA-based bike racers Justin and Cory Williams, and female-owned gravel event Rebecca’s Private Idaho (owned by pro cyclist Rebecca Rusch), the sport is nowhere near integrated.

The tragic murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the ensuing global protests have now brought discussions about race to the forefront. I’m encouraged by the statements of support for diversity that I’ve seen from many brands and events in the bike business, but only a longterm commitment to action will tell us if all these plans for inclusion are credible. I’m cautiously optimistic that the overall bicycle ecosystem (cyclists, bike business leaders & employees, media, events and participants, governing bodies, non-profits) will make progress on this issue. The entire industry and our country will be healthier if we get there.

City infrastructure

More cities are creating dedicated lanes for bicycles. Photo: Photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

Bike access and safety in cities has not kept up over the last few years with an increasing number of bikes on the road. In some cities (Portland, Washington D.C) bike commuting grew over 400 percent between 2000 and 2017. Between 2010 and 2018, bicycle-related deaths on the road in the U.S. grew by 37 percent. It’s long past time for ambitious and progressive government policy to make our country safer for bicycles.

While initiatives like Vision Zero are a good start, we need better and more decisive leadership, particularly in cities, on this issue. I’ve been inspired by what Paris and London have done during the crisis: they’ve made huge investments to accommodate bicycles, even permanently closing many roads to cars. It’s disappointing to not see even a fraction of this commitment in American cities over the last three months. But I believe citizens will start to pressure their local governments now that they’ve gotten a taste of how great bicycles are.

Bicycle retail

The bike aisle at a Target store in California. Photo: Photo: Craig Moss

There are two seemingly opposing forces going on right now: more online purchasing of almost everything, and also a rush to buy and service bikes at retail locations. Target and Walmart are selling out of kids’ bikes, most specialty bike shops are doing brisk business, and people are bringing in their old bikes to get fixed up and ready to ride. While the pandemic will provide a temporary sales bump to brick and mortar bike shops, the trade winds are still blowing in the direction of direct-to-consumer brands. Bike companies that sell direct, like YT, Commençal, and Canyon Bikes, will continue to explode, and new DTC bike brands will enter the market (full disclosure: I do some consulting work for Canyon).

Shops will still do decent business in service, but even there they have competition from VeloFix and other mobile service setups. The exception in bicycle retail will be shops that are ambitious about creating community with events, rides and in-store programming. District Bicycles in Stillwater, Oklahoma is a good example of this. Owner Bobby Wintle also runs the wildly popular Mid South Gravel race. This combo business is an interesting template for other shops to emulate if they want to thrive after the pandemic subsides.

Events and competition

California’s Belgian Waffle Ride, referred to as the “Hell of the North County San Diego.” Photo: Jake Orness

When mass-start cycling events do come back, gravel races will grow even more quickly than they had before. As I wrote about previously, gravel has both a sustainable business model for race promoters and tons of demand from participants who love the fun community that goes along with challenging events.

The Grinduro event in California (tentatively scheduled for this September) recently sold out in record time in spite of the uncertainty created by the pandemic. This is a positive sign that gravel races will come roaring back to life whenever they’re permitted to happen.

While traditional road racing in the U.S. has been in decline for a variety of reasons, I’m hopeful that the pandemic will force a rethink of the grassroots racing model. With more and more high school kids coming through the booming NICA mountain-bike system, there will be demand for all types of bike racing, including the paved kind.

What we need are more low cost, fun, weekly races like the Driveway Series in Austin, Texas that allow participation in an inclusive environment. I hope organizers step up to make this kind of thing happen all over the U.S.

Brands

Woom makes kids bikes lighter-weight with aluminum frames. Photo: Dan Cavallari | Velonews.com

All kinds of bikes are selling right now, including kids bikes and entry-level bikes. What’s important is that more people are getting on bikes. While they may not all stick with it, many will. As folks keep riding, some will discover the “sport” part of cycling.

I expect this group to start buying entry-level versions of mountain bikes, road bikes, and gravel rigs. This trend will start with teenagers, as NICA and college cycling keep growing. But manufacturers will double down on lower-priced versions of every kind of bike. The skyrocketing unemployment rate and recession will mean that inexpensive and second-hand bikes will be at a premium.

Expect used bikes from Craigslist, eBay, and The Pro’s Closet to impact bike shop sales. And look for direct-to-consumer brands like Woom, Evil, and Canyon to leverage their strengths against legacy brands. The consumer-direct brands have three structural advantages over wholesale bikes:

  1. Lower prices
  2. A direct relationship with the customer (and the data that comes with that)
  3. Availability anywhere in the country regardless of proximity to a bike shop

This gap between legacy and direct businesses is only going to widen moving forward as consumers become more and more comfortable buying bikes online.

Trails, access and bike parks

Valmont Bike Park opening 2011: Choose your adventure
Boulder’s Valmont Bike Park has trails for beginners, intermediate riders, and experts. Photo: Valmont Bike Park

With more and more people on bikes, access to trails for both mountain bikes and gravel bikes will be in high demand. Expect some conflict with hikers and horses as different users compete for the same space. Smart municipalities will create bike parks and pump tracks to give people a place to ride off-road in urban settings.

The 1990s and 2000s saw a boom in city skate parks. We’ll see the same infrastructure committed to bicycles in the 2020s. Hopefully, someone will start a bicycle equivalent to the Tony Hawk Foundation, which has funded over 600 skate parks in all 50 states. Imagine a similar movement in bicycles, where maximum energy was put into getting more kids on bikes, in more neighborhoods, as early as possible. We need fundraising, advocacy, and storytelling to move access issues forward.

Public health

The health benefits of cycling are well documented. Expect the bike boom to have a measurable positive effect on mental health, obesity, and fitness. At the same time, more and more businesses will see the upside and start compensating employees for riding to work. Bike clubs will start at businesses (like the ones from Matt Construction and Honda Motors that I see around LA), and lunch rides will become a bigger thing. Bike storage rooms and showers for commuters in urban areas will get popular. And the work from home trend, which will continue after the crisis ends, will make it easier for people to ride bikes for recreation during their workday.

Virtual and indoor cycling

USAC Project Echelon Zwift
Zwift racing has gained major momentum throughout 2020. Image: USAC Project Echelon Zwift racing

The move to digital has been accelerated by years during the crisis. What was going to happen anyway in three to five years is now happening in three months. Peloton’s stock is headed up, more people than ever are on Zwift, and Strava passed 50 million users in February. These digital platforms will work alongside outdoor riding, not in competition. More people riding, even indoors, means a healthier ecosystem of fit people who are more likely to purchase and ride a bike outdoors. It’s ok to support all kinds of cycling, even the indoors kind. The closure of many, even most, spinning studios due to the pandemic will even further speed up the movement to digital platforms.

My hope is that we look back on the 2020s in ten years and call it “the bike decade.” It absolutely can happen if we make the right choices to grow the entire ecosystem for the benefit of everyone.