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Interbike Trends: Where is the road less graveled?

More and more riders are heading off the tarmac and onto the gravel, but road bikes are not dead. Not even close.

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While the overall presence of vendors at Interbike 2018 was down, it’s clear that for the second year in a row (at least) that the road category is lagging far behind mountain, gravel, and e-bikes. In fact, Basso Bicycles seemed to be the only brand showing off new road bikes. But there’s hope outside the trade show for lovers of the black top.

Just about all the big road category releases this year took place in conjunction with major European races. That’s notable for a few reasons. First, it indicates that manufacturers have identified the most significant market for these types of bikes, and that market isn’t in the US. It’s in Europe.

Second, it points to the notion that road bicycle sales are still strongly tied to racing and the racers piloting them. While the influx of endurance bikes and price-point models seem to have flooded the overall market, road bikes still largely depend on the idea of going fast, riding aggressively, suffering, and crossing the finish line first.

That’s counter to the riding trends in the US. More and more riders are heading off the tarmac and onto the gravel, or further onto the trails. And racing has become less of an anchoring activity, while adventure-style rides are growing in popularity.

Couple that with the woeful state of cycling infrastructure on and around American roads and you’ve got a hurricane of doom for road bikes. Let’s be honest: People who don’t feel safe riding on the roads won’t ride on the roads. And since there’s almost no accountability for drivers who injure or kill cyclists, the problem persists. Compare that to many European countries in which drivers are always on the hook if they strike a cyclist. (Go ahead and Google “Stop de Kindermoord.”)

The industry response to this problem has been inadequate at best, lazy at worst. Hi-viz clothing and flashing lights are nice and all — and boy were they everywhere at Interbike —  but they won’t stop a texting driver from mowing a cyclist down. The best way to increase the road cycling population in the United States is to protect riders from drivers. That means infrastructure, not bright, goofy-looking clothing with embedded crystals and wiring for flashing red LEDs. It’s going to take some real, coordinated effort and a lot of heavy lifting to make real headway here.

But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Road bikes are not dead. Not even close. While they’re certainly not as profitable as they used to be during the halcyon-yellow days of Lance Armstrong’s dominance, group rides still roll out on Saturday mornings. Lunch riders abound around noon. A culture as long and storied as the roadie culture isn’t likely to die a swift death.

So are road bikes cool anymore? Who cares? If it’s fun, ride it. It’s clear we’re in a downtrend heading toward a trough, and road bikes could even be considered a small niche. But the bounce will come. If you’re not convinced, take a look at the data.

Millennials — and the generation that follows them — have far less interest in automobile travel, opting instead for public transportation and other non-traditional modes of transportation like scooters and — gasp! — walking. The controversy surrounding bike shares and scooter shares in large cities appears in the news frequently for good reason: We’re in a transition period in which one generation is attempting a coup against the ingrained transportation practices of the generations that came before them. That’s problematic because so many urban and suburban areas have been built exclusively to accommodate cars. It’s a period of growing, and the growing pains are evident.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean millennials like bicycles more than other generations, or even do it more. It means, instead, that millennials are more bound to financial constraints (like student debt, lack of affordable housing, etc) and proximity concerns. No one wants to sit in traffic, and the suburbs, with its high housing costs and car-centric structure, seems far less appealing to millennials who would rather look at their phones on the train or bus than sit behind the wheel of a car in traffic. So millennials have moved in droves to urban centers, where it is perfectly reasonable to forego a car in favor of a bike or scooter.

So in this sense, while millennials may not actually ride bicycles more, there is an opportunity here for the bicycle industry that requires us all to re-learn what the road bike is capable of, and in what conditions people are likely to use them. So far, people who ride for fun have addressed the lack of safe infrastructure by heading to gravel roads, which has led to the growth of an entirely new segment of riding. This is a band-aid. There’s nothing wrong with gravel riding, but it is not a solution to the infrastructure problem. And it will not save road bikes.

Go ahead and put on your hi-viz jersey and blinky lights. But perhaps it’s time to ride that stuff to the ballot box. Perhaps it’s time to think bigger so we can save road bikes, and lives.