Thursday, May 31, 2012

Missing the point. The four-headed boogeyman of the bike industry.

After Monday's post, where I interviewed Gil PeƱalosa, I found myself staring at the wall for a few hours. This is not unusual for me, as I often have little else to do with my time. But unlike previous sessions of wall-staring, this one actually managed to bring an interesting and perhaps correct thought to fruition (unlike that one time when I decided to go into business selling ample amounts of buttons to comedian Steve Harvey for his line of finely tailored, button-happy suits while staring at said wall). Here it goes.

The boogeyman
First of all, I willingly admit that I'm not an expert in the bike industry or the trends it cycles through. Not even close. But as I've said before, not knowing about a subject has never stopped me from writing about it, much in the same way that not knowing about men's suits didn't prevent me from going into business with Steve Harvey, and not knowing about fine scents never prevented me from wearing Brut cologne as a preteen.

You see, I think that if you've visited bike shops over the last few years, read websites about bikes or kept an eye on the whole notion that bikes can save the planet, you may have noticed a rising trend as I have. A fair amount of time, effort and subsequent marketing dollars have been spent over the last few years trying to make cycling more appealing to the masses. Makes sense. Bike companies are trying to sell more bikes, and happily try to cash in on the fact that talk about bikes is once again on the rise. Why shouldn't they?

But within all this talk, there's an ongoing message that I keep hearing from those connected to the bike industry (and those outside of it) over and over again. That's the fact that potential cyclists who might enjoy the benefits of riding a bike to work or to the store are simply scared off by things like tight lycra, and high viz/dayglo jerseys and jackets. Loud, race-inspired paint schemes on bike frames are also culprits. But perhaps the most interesting offender that is often named is gearing. Yes ladies and gentlemen, gears and derailleurs (both of the front and rear persuasion) are what's scaring people away from riding a bike as adults. This, I would argue, is the bike industry's four-headed boogeyman. The make-belief monster that's keeping potential customers at bay.

Though not as finely tailored as a Steve Harvey suit, this Brompton jacket attempts to look less cycling-y but still keeps it real by using a healthy amount of hiviz fabric.

With this in mind, people have set about correcting these issues. Less cycling-y, more free flowing attire attire is now available. Helmets come in fun colors, as natural fabrics become more common in clothing lines that appeal to the city and commuter crowd. Simple paint schemes are used in bike frames to differentiate them from the carbon fiber things that people in tight clothing and bright jerseys ride, all with a certain air of pseudo-European sophistication. Lastly, internally geared hubs, and single speed bikes (both of which are perfectly fine in my book) have been called upon to ease this horrendous fear that grown adults seem to have of gears.

Getting back home in one piece
But these so-called solutions while positive are flawed, because they are based on an incorrect premise. They ignore the fact that the reason why more people (adults in particular) don't ride bikes is not because they are scared to death of neon. No. Most people who don't ride bikes are simply scared to death of...well...death. By this I mean that they are obviously scared of riding their bike in traffic. And who on earth could possibly blame them?

Do you honestly think that your father, uncle, sister-in-law or whoever in your life you'd like to see riding a bike to work or to the store doesn't do so because of their unbelievable fear of synthetic fabrics or the bright paint jobs on bikes? Have you considered that perhaps they are frightened by the thought of riding on a four lane road as cars go by them at 45 miles an hour? Are earth-tone paint jobs on bike frames really going to make a difference? People are not scared of gears, getting sweaty, or wearing tight shorts. I mean, they might be, but their fear of death (however real it may be) is far more prevalent. Parents want to know that they'll get back to their kids in one piece. This may be easy for some cyclists to negotiate, but is difficult for the first-time commuter to wrap his or her head around.

Gears, gears, gears
Some years ago Trek paid design consultancy and media darlings IDEO what must have been a massive amount of money (I know from experience) to help them figure out how to reach an untapped market, namely the 65% of Americans who don't own bicycles. IDEOs insight? Easy, do away with gears. Yes, those damn gears once again. Of course, IDEOs research sought to answer the question, "How do we sell more bikes by tapping into those who don't own one", not "How do we get those people who don't own bikes to actually ride them". This, I think, is exactly how most bike, component and clothing companies have chosen to approach this issue: as a way of selling more products, not as a way of getting anyone to use their products on the road. And really, who can blame them. They are for-profit entities, ones concerned with selling goods. This doesn't make them bad in any way. It just seems to me that they, and in turn many others, have chosen to overlook the obvious. And perhaps many such companies invest money and time dealing with the actual issue (making riding safer by creating the necessary infrastructure)...but the rally cry against the non-existent boogeyman continues. So yea, death to hi-viz, lycra, and while we're at it, let's do away with gears.

 No, this is not a picture of Italian excess in color coordination. It's a picture of the boogeyman himself. Who knew that the boogeyman had an Italian accent? (Photo: Cyclingnews)

Build it and they will....well, you know
With this in mind, valid points continue to be made, but the greater question is still ignored. Yes, Grant Petersen is right. Racing, and all that comes with it, has influenced the bike industry too much for far too long. Most people simply don't need to look like they're going to race while riding, and neither do their bikes. This is probably a turn off to many. That's true.

But if you think that everyday people are scared to ride their bikes solely because they are intimidated by clothing or gears, you're missing the point. Some problems can't be solved through retail, by simply altering the colors in the Fall '13 line. Sadly, some problems are bigger, and can't be fought at the cash registers. Crazy, I know. But if people have safe infrastructure that takes them to and from the places they care about, they will ride their bikes...regardless of what the paint schemes on their bikes look like.

And now, without the benefit of even attempt to segue smoothly into these three topics:

Can you imagine that there was a time when someone would walk into a bike shop and utter the words: "Can I please have one of those new Shimano rear derailleurs? I read about them in the new issue of Playboy".

How times have changed. Today, Shimano can't afford to advertise in the pages of Playboy. Hell, even MicroSHIFT can't afford to advertise in your most lowly porn website. To be fair, however, they do sell their products in Wal Mart, so I guess it all evens out in the end.

In response to this Italian journalist, who said that Rigoberto Uran was born in Urrao, Antioquia, a mountainous region in Colombia with "great poverty and misery", Rigoberto responds: This poor guy, he's lost as sh_t. People who have no idea what they are talking about, but talk to hear themselves talk..." Tell 'em Rigo!

Gadret and b-movie actor Michael Berryman. Am I right, or am I right?


  1. Great article and very interesting read...I think you've really nailed it on the head: "Racing, and all that comes with it, has influenced the bike industry too much for far too long." When we're talking and thinking about bike commuting as a widespread and general mode of everyday transportation, suddenly the bike racing crowd becomes a very inaccessible minority, but one that has an overwhelming influence on the entire industry. Racing will always be a critical piece to the larger cycling world, but I'm encouraged by the efforts being made to make this larger cycling world more accessible to riders of all types. Great article!

  2. I agree entirely with your premise of safety being foremost in the novice cyclist's mind. I remember in my early 20's attempting to ride my sister's Puegot "10-speed" on a busy Vancouver street. I barely managed half a block and gave up, scared to death. It wasn't until years later that a friend lent me his spare road bike and I had a safe stretch of road several kilometres long to learn again as an adult how to ride. Now I ride to work frequently and can negotiate busy streets with confidence. If I had not had that safe stretch of pavement to practice and gain confidence I would never have relearned how to ride. Thank you for this insight, it had never occurred to me.

  3. 100% agree. when ppl at work, for example, find out i commute on my bike, it NEVER fails, the first thing they say is something like "you ride your bike on the street? that's so dangerous!"

  4. the day will surely come that driving a car will be viewed as an anti-social behavior, no different than lighting up a smoke in a fine restaurant, or farting in a crowded church. the automobile is a false panacea. the "freedom" that it supposedly provides us comes at a great price indeed. Senor Penalosa hit it right on the money; and said to me in a very intelligent, eloquent manner (and quite rightfully so): "cars suck."

    how very refreshing, indeed. we could do well with several hundred like-minded politicians running the show here in the U.S., rather than the typical paranoid types that want us to believe that "corporations are people, too" and that bike share programs are a United Nations conspiracy to steal our "freedom". see what i mean:

    vote this november for the party that did NOT cut federal funding for public transportation alternatives (Safe Routes to Schools cut? are you kidding me?!) for any person calling themselves a "cyclist", be it competitive or commuter, this is a no-brainer.

    thanks again Klaus. your interview with Senor Penalosa was one of my favorites thus far- please keep the discussion going.

  5. Berryman's better looking.

  6. Copenhagen makes it look so simple. It didn't seem to take them more than a couple of decades to get, what 20-30% of people to move around their city on bikes. The weather there kind of stinks, too. It would be great to see Shimano, for instance (can't think of another company big enough), get involved in advocacy for bike access and cicclovia's worldwide.
    From now on when I feel bad about myself I'll check out those pictures of Gadret and Berryman and remind myself that no amount of fame and talent can compensate for what they must feel when they look in the mirror.

  7. I think you are right on the money- the big deterrent to cycling is dangerous roads. Its really not an equipment or gear issue. One other thing I think about: While I've never been to Europe I know that those cities were built before cars existed. In the United States, most of our cities were built during the automobile era with the idea that the automobile is the main source of transportation, so it is just that much harder to get around on a bike. So Dutch bikes are dandy when you live in Amsterdam and everything is flat and within 1 km of wherever you are. That would be awesome, I wish our cities were more like that. If you have to commute 20 hilly miles to work though, maybe a racing bike with fenders isn't such a bad thing.
    Go easy on Gadret- I love anybody that races at that level on the road and still dabbles in cyclocross.

  8. motorists seem to be giving a lot more respect and a much wider berth when they pass me while i am riding. i attribute much of this new trend to the very stylish Cycling Inquisition team kit i have been wearing lately. thanks Klaus!

  9. Klaus, spot on as usual, except I don't think the companies are really aiming at new cyclists, it's just a way of giving people a warm fuzzy glow. Many people wish cycling was more accessible, and tasteful clothing and bikes are a bit of wish-fulfilment that's largely irrelevant to most non-cyclists, but makes those who already cycle less of an "out-group".

    When I flick through the Muxu or Swrve websites I know I'm partly motivated by an urge that wants people accept me and my mode of transport, and thinks this can be achieved if I dress more like a "normal" person in understated but expensive clothes. Personally I like the kit, but the price alone means it's not aimed at beginners.

    Perhaps it's a bit much to expect bike companies to take on the car-centric transport system that prevails in the US and other countries. Apart from anything else it forces you to confront some pretty depressing facts about the numbers of people who cycle and the political will to change this.

  10. On another note, what the hell are Brompton playing at with that jacket? It looks like it was run up out of potato sacking for a pantomime. And then a Predator was sick down the back of it.


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