Fatbikes, last year's prom queen but this year’s Carrie, were off by 30%. Though I still love them. Wikimedia Commons photo.
The weather is turning cold. Some of us will fat bike or hit the gym with hopes of being light and fast when spring shows up. Others will put on a few pounds, enjoy life, and not worry about any of it.
But the bike industry soldiers on—a never-ending hamster wheel of R&D, technology, sales, supply chain, marketing, consumer trends, pricing, dealer relations—and unfortunately all is not well.
The industry is down 9 percent year over year. Companies suffered layoffs, suppliers and stores went under. Mergers were up.
Lower-priced men’s and women’s 27.5-inch bike sales did grow a bit, but that was mostly trade-out from other wheel sizes. E-bike shipments grew 75 percent. So, they'll still be a thing in the coming year.
I speak to many people in this business, most consider themselves lucky to have merged their passion with how they make a living. But they all agree the industry needs to adapt for it to thrive.
The industry needs to adapt for it to thrive.
More than likely massive industry change will affect how, where and what you, the consumer, buy. Below are four trends to keep your eye on.
1. Less local bike shops vs. more online outlets.
We'd all like to hang out here, right? Wikipedia commons.
I love local bike shops. They are friends and neighbors. But it seems inevitable that all but the most high-functioning stores will go the way of the phone booth. What's driving these stores down is Amazon and endemic online shops more than each other, but less competition still lowers available choice and incentive for reasonable pricing.
Amazon makes Tony sad. Ridgefield Bicycle photo.
Giant recently launched their online shopping platform, joining Trek and others. Online sales from these sites are not designed to hollow out stores as much as they are to keep up with times and maybe even help their shops a bit. Bikes bought on manufacturer platforms are (for now) only available for pickup at local retail partners. But it’s hard to imagine fewer people making purchasing decisions while actually in shops can be good.
My local bike shop (a Trek dealer) said, of the few omni-channel orders they've fulfilled, customer buying decisions were usually rather uninformed (i.e. XL frames built with 26-inch wheels). But that genie's not going back in the bottle.
Fewer stores and more online purchasing could mean more mobile repair trucks; because parts will still break or wear out at the same rate, but shops won't be around to fix them. You might see 'taco trucks' parked at trail-heads (bonus if they sell food and beer). Services like Uber for bike mechanics may also pop up; break something and send for a wrench to help. LBS' could have like-branded repair trucks to help shore up their bottom line.
As sales and service verticals move apart, bike shops may start to operate like Tesla dealers. A nice showroom where you can see models, get info and fill out an online order form–but you can't buy a bike and ride it out of the shop.
Or stores could pivot to other revenue streams entirely. Topanga Creek Bikes is now Topanga Creek Outpost, specializing in experiences and things you can't find on the internet.
Regan Christian Frederick (of Next Stop Mountaintop), one of our Big Sky bike testers and all around awesome guy, turned us on to The Brothel bikes (no website). It's an amazing bar, and oh, yeah, a good bike shop too. If you're in Big Sky, MT, go there.
Yes, The Brothel looks like this and is a damn solid shop.
Pedaler's fork in Calabasas, CA is a fine eating and drinking establishment. I've got no beef with that (somebody stop me).
Pedaler's Fork photo.
Start to think of bike shops as a social hub as well as a place to go when you break something or maybe want to buy a bike. Cycling is about community, so this evolution fits in well with our sport.
2. Fit: The Contact Point Package (sounds a bit dirty, I know).
I always make this face when guys touch my saddle. Halter's Cycles photo.
Most bike reviews, including my own, complain about handlebar width, stem length, and the comfort of saddle or grips. It's as hard for folks to get a bike that fits as it is for manufacturers to make a bike that fits all people.
A win/win/win for companies, stores, and consumers, could be to ship all bikes without stems, handlebars, saddles or grips (they’re already sold without pedals). Make those things customizable add-ons, like car packages.
So much of how a bike performs, regardless of price point, depends on personal fit. Moreover, fitting bikes is a huge relationship builder for shops. It’s bike sale tinder. So the process should be encouraged. Selling bikes without contact point accessories will also lower a bike's starting sticker price a few hundred bucks, reducing initial buyer shock.
Customer relationships should start by customizing ‘Contact Point Packages’ (let’s call them CPPs, shall we?). We throw a leg over a frame in a fit area and start a dialog with the salesperson/fitter while engaging with different handlebars or saddles. Doesn't mean a person has to buy the bike or the package, but it will build trust. Not to mention allow customers to control price a bit.
Bike companies won’t have to try to fit everyone’s shoulders, butt, arms, hands and torso with one OEM choice. Stem length, handlebar width, saddle width, grips and pedal type can all get sorted on the bike a customer is actually thinking of buying.
Your bike will fit you, working as the bike company designed it to. And you'll build trust with the shop.
3. Ever-changing standards.
How I feel sometimes. Pixabay photo.
There's been mighty brouhaha around new hub widths, rim widths, handlebar diameter, 12-speed drive trains, the electrification of shifting and dropper posts, wheel sizes, direct-mount chainring standards and a few more things I’m sure I’m forgetting.
It's probably annoying for prospective customers to read about all this and wonder if what they buy today might be obsolete tomorrow. Should you buy a 12-speed drive train? Will your old wheels fit on a new frame? Should you get a plus bike?
If manufacturers keep on innovating, it’ll mean even cooler stuff, and that's great for marketing to consumers. Advances HAVE made bikes a ton more capable than they were 3 years ago, no denying it. But I worry only the 1% will keep up with constant upgrade expenditures. I DON’T want to see mountain biking go the way of skiing.
Companies like Wolf Tooth and One Up make parts to help customers cope with premature obsolescence. Extended range replacement cassettes get you the gear ratio of two chainrings without replacing your whole drivetrain, hub spacers allow older wheels to work on new frames and forks, hold onto derailleurs by using cage extenders. This helps you keep what works and only replace/upgrade what breaks.
Some companies also offer retrofits. IBIS sold rear-triangle upgrades for their bikes when they went to boost spacing. More will follow suit, I'm sure.
Also, third-hand scuttlebutt from Taichung bike week leads me to believe there isn't too much mind-blowingly different technology for 2018, so you can buy now.
#4 The 800lb e-gorilla in the room
Scott's Bosch drive e-bike. Scott photo.
I actually don’t think e-bikes are bad; in fact I kind of want one. For the sake of this article, we're only talking about e-bikes on dirt.
E-bikes and trail access WILL come to a head. Some Fred will either kill himself or a hiker with an over-powered, ghetto-throttle e-bike he/she can't control. It’s going to happen. Not that people don't die on regular bikes, but this will be a more sensational news story and used as a weapon to keep mountain bikes off trails.
State regulations for power-assisted two-wheeled vehicles vary wildly—most were created with only road governance in mind. So even if your state classifies electric vehicles below 750w as bicycles, it doesn't automatically mean you can ride them on trails which restrict motorized vehicles.
Also, there are subtle, but important, differentiations in e-bike classes regarding throttles and motors:
Level 1, or pedal assist: You pedal, the bike’s motor adds power, below 750w, to your own power, helping you with hills and straight-aways.
Level 2, throttle on demand: Like a motorcycle, you twist the hand-grip and the motor pushes the bike, no pedaling required (again, up to 750w). Twist throttles may also blend in some pedal assist as well.
On both L1 and L2, any electric motor must cut out at 20mph.
There are also levels 3 and 4, but those can be powered to 28mph and are all defined by federal DOT and NHTSA standards as motor vehicles requiring plates etc.
E-bikes from bigger, reputable manufacturers only spec Level 1 (pedal assist). Twist throttles are illegal to ride on trails in Europe and bike companies selling in both markets also want to be sensitive to heated trail access issues here in the US.
Level 2 twist throttle e-bikes are not illegal to sell here but, again, most likely you can only ride them where motorized vehicles are allowed. There are some US companies making them for both road and possible trail use.
A dozen or so small companies are rolling out Level 3 (over 750w) twist throttle e-bikes for trail use. Their marketing materials make no mention e-bikes shouldn’t be ridden on trails. In fact most feature some form of video with riders getting ‘rad’ somewhere in the backcountry. They usually tell you their ‘bikes’ are more powerful than competitors and you can easily hack the limiter. Like gun manufacturers that sell AR-15’s and point you at full-auto modifier kits with a wink.
These are the motorcycles which could ruin even the possibility of well-managed e-bike trail access going forward, not to mention jeopardize access for all mountain bikes.
Again, I love the idea of e-bikes for commuting, shopping, or bar-hopping around town. Any company selling any e-bike for that is awesome and has my full support.
My. Full. Support. SPA Bicicletto photo.
But we may have to dial back our enthusiasm to ride e-bikes on trails for a bit so waters can settle for regular mountain bikes in Wilderness protected areas. The mountain bike community needs to be super nature-friendly and environmentally correct so we can ride where we have every right to be.
Nobody in charge of land will split hairs on what sort of throttle or limiter a bike has. People are just up in arms about the electric motor, period.
What to do:
Market forces might sort this out for us. E-bikes are a small category right now. They’re heavy, expensive, and not a great choice as your first or only mountain bike. You have to charge them. They're less good for fitness. If you get one eight miles into the woods and run out of battery, they’re too heavy to pedal home. Not to mention you could burn out the electric motor by gunning poorly made ones up hills repeatedly.
I think they'd be great for forest service, smoke jumpers, journalists covering long bike races, and folks over 60 etc. Certainly, they won't boom like Fatbikes did. If we don't see them for a couple years, everyone will probably stop talking about them.
If you want one, fine. Test it, do your homework, look at big manufacturers first because they'll actually be in business, standing behind the product, for years to come.
Don't ride it on trails which expressly forbid motorized vehicles. And get some slick tires and use it to go to work every day.