Sometimes the bike industry has no chill.
Case in point: In 2016, you couldn’t walk two feet through Eurobike without stumbling upon another fat bike. Big 5-inch tires, big frames, big Q-factor … and now, a big disappearing act. Sure, there were still a few kicking around the halls this year, but it’s a good reminder that when a trend catches fire, it burns hot. Fat bikes were supposed to be the next big thing, but they simply became the next other thing.
I went to Eurobike 2018 with the intention of spotting what’s next in the industry — not just the temporary fads, but the long-term trends. After spending two days walking the massive zeppelin hangars full of bike wares from around the world, it seemed clear there were five trends steering the cycling industry’s ship: E-bikes, the “road bike question,” gravel, bikepacking, and of course, mountain biking.
Put a battery on it
While there was more than one trend taking over the halls this year (more on that in a moment), it was clear that sticking a battery on your bike is the new hotness. Commuters, mountain, road, and even gravel e-bikes littered the show floor with batteries affixed, integrated, and otherwise advertised.
Cue the lack of chill. (Read: extreme enthusiasm!)
Just about every booth had an e-bike in it. Have you heard? E-gravel is now a thing! While some companies approached the trend with a “stick it on and see what happens” attitude, others truly took the time to consider integration, weight, performance, and all the other factors that could make e-bikes stick. Lapierre’s eZesty was one of the better executions: its battery capacity is much smaller than its competitors, which means it’s probably intended for shorter rides (or longer rides with less assistance). The motor and battery can also be removed, and you can ride the bike normally. Pretty nifty.
The question is, will the battery thing be the future of bikes, or is this the industry’s most recent fat bike moment? My guess is the former. Batteries are coming, and while it’s easy to turn your nose up at it, there are plenty of benefits to our forthcoming battery-operated overlords.
For starters, there is the potential to get more people on bikes. That, generally speaking, is a good thing. We’ve waited for the “If you build it, they will come” paradigm to play out regarding bicycling infrastructure, and the results have been tepid at best. Perhaps if they come, then someone will build it. E-bikes will undoubtedly encourage bicycle use.
Of course, the e-bike revolution brings along its own baggage. Trail access, existing infrastructure, and bike weight are all big concerns. And don’t forget to ask yourself: where do all those batteries go when they’re used up? While e-bikes have massive advantages, the drawbacks are also more problematic than, say, the advent of 29ers or fat bikes, or mid-fat. Will the fad become a trend? I think so, but the road winds uphill.
That analog sound
What about the sans-battery bikes, which have (somewhat annoyingly) gained the industry-ism of Analog Bike? Yeah, there were a few of those, but there weren’t a lot of skinny tires to be found. That’s not too surprising, given the litany road biking eulogies we’ve seen over the last few years.
Let me state this clearly: Road bikes are not dead. I repeat: Road bikes are not dead. The lull is undeniable and the problems are real. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking the road bike is going away.
First off, the road bike is classic. There will be demand for skinny tires as long as paved roads exist. Even if those paved roads crumbled, the road bike will survive. There’s romance to it. There’s history. Sure, roads can be scary places to ride these days. Cycling deaths are up significantly in the United States according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Yet brands like Trek are collaborating with Ford to create safer roadways (despite ignoring the fact that we could simply be building separated bike lanes, but I digress…). Trek is also one of the few companies claiming growth in the road bike category.
Second, Europe exists. It’s easy to forget that over here in the U.S., where road cycling peaked during the Armstrong era and has been erratic at best ever since. But in Europe, road bikes are alive and well. The lull in road bike enthusiasm in the United States seems most significantly tied to the lack of infrastructure that protects cyclists from increasingly inattentive drivers. That problem can be solved.
Third, there are some darn cool road bikes out there. While neither Trek nor Specialized had booths at the show, both companies released cutting-edge aero bikes shortly before the Tour de France: Trek with its updated Madone and Specialized with its totally redesigned Venge. Ridley got in the aero updates game too with its new Noah Fast. There’s reason to be excited about road bikes because, while it may seem there’s not much revolutionary technology coming down the pipe, it’s fair to say we’re currently experiencing the best road bikes that have ever existed. From here on, small refinements will make big leaps.
In the grips of gravel
I’m just going to go ahead and say it: Gravel is just road riding by a different name. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Road bikes aren’t dead; they’re just getting dirty.
Need even more proof that gravel is the next big thing? Look is launching an e-gravel bike, combining two of the biggest themes at the Eurobike show. Fad or for real? When you compare gravel to fat bikes, it’s easy to see gravel has more staying power, largely due to its versatility. Ride it on the road, ride it on dirt, ride it to the coffee shop. Load it up with bikepacking gear and head to the woods. Ride it year-round. Even smaller brands like Voodoo and Parlee are investing time and resources into the gravel segment, indicating that gravel is, in fact, a response to consumer demand.
Take it with you
In keeping with the broad explosion of the gravel category, bikepacking bags are in high demand as well. This is perhaps the biggest indication that there’s a shift in what consumers want: less racing, more adventure.
What do racing and adventure have in common? They’re often both aspirational. In other words, the vast majority of consumers won’t actually do either, but they do often want the gear to be able to do it.
That means brands you’ve heard of — but not in the bikepacking context — are now in the bag business. Take Birzman, for example, a company most known for its tools. It showed off a full array of bikepacking gear in the Birzman booth this year. Zefal, most known for its pumps, also has a line of bikepacking bags. Even big boys like Shimano have caught the bikepacking bug.
So is it a fad or a trend? Given that bikepacking has been around for a long time, it’s fair to say it’s not going anywhere. The recent explosion of bikepacking enthusiasm is likely to wane over time, but it’s once again an opportunity to get new enthusiasts on bikes at a relatively low price point: Get an inexpensive steel bike, a few bags, and go. This is one more opportunity for new cyclists to get a sense of the fun and adventure without the fear of car traffic nipping at them.
Only the strong survive
And boy are mountain bikes ever strong. Knobby tires abound. WTB released updated tread patterns and sizes on its mountain bike tires. Scott Bikes showed off Nino Schurter’s XC bike whenever the opportunity arose. Kona Bikes was on hand with its updated range.
And perhaps most exciting, the crowd got its first real up-close look at Fox’s Live Valve system. While details are still scarce and Fox isn’t talking yet, the system essentially dictates shock movement electronically. Strategically placed accelerometers help the electronic system open or close the damping, which hypothetically means you should be able to truly live the proverbial “firm on the climbs, supple on the descents” paradigm. The system senses bumps and reacts within milliseconds to prepare the shocks to react.
Marin has taken a different stab at the same problem with its Wolf Ridge, which features Naild R3act 2 Play suspension. The idea is once again to limit suspension movement when it’s not needed and make it as plush and long as possible when it is needed. But the Wolf Ridge aims to do so without electronics, relying instead on the kinematic movement of the rear suspension elements entirely.
So it’s fair to say that mountain bikes have remained extremely popular, and much of the technological advancement we’re seeing in the cycling industry is taking place on the dirt side. That’s once again an indication of the shift from race to adventure.