Sunday, February 02, 2020

When things go boom

When I stumbled back into the bike business in 1989, the shop was selling a mix of road and mountain bikes. There was a citizen road racing series around New Hampshire and nearby Maine. Mountain bikes were a strong and rapidly rising category. Local riders seemed to be open to both. The last fade of the 1970s bike boom was dwindling away, while the roar of the onrushing mountain bike boom was winding up like a big jet on the runway.

By the early mid 1990s, the citizen road series was basically defunct. Customers would take ridiculously low trade-ins for the road bikes they were dumping. Mountain bike sales amounted to a feeding frenzy. Not everyone dumped their road bike. Some of them just gathered dust in basements, garages, and sheds until their time might come again.

The shift away from mountain biking locally followed a similar pattern approaching the turn of the century. Our local mountain biking ride group had shrunk to about three people. One of our former riders finally sheepishly admitted that he had been riding on the road.

"I just got tired of cleaning my bike all the time," he said. He liked riding on the road, and was afraid that we would harass him because we were all dedicated mountain bikers. We assured him that we loved road riding, and started a weekly road ride. One rider did try to keep the weekly mountain ride going for a couple of seasons, but it ultimately petered out. It recurred in irregular flickers, like a loose wire sparking, until the last year or so, when a mountain bike resurgence of sorts attracted a fairly regular group again.

From the end of the 1990s until the second decade of this century, the mix of bikes on the floor shifted almost completely to road bikes. A sale of a high end mountain bike became rare. But sales volume also fell, year after year. We were having a little road bike boom, as the nation experienced a similar blip. The average price per bike went up, because there was -- and is -- no real low end in road bikes. The real low end still belonged to wide, knobby tires.

Mountain biking didn't die, of course. It has never come back to its former commercial glory, but its devotees will never abandon it.

Bike sales figures overall have been steadily declining from the high marks of the late mountain bike boom. Categorization offers lots of choices, but deprives the industry of high volume in any category. This means that they can't offer as much price range and variety to customers. The number of units sold is down, while the average price goes up.

Electric bikes spark a lot of consumer interest, but their lowest unit price is at or near four figures, and it goes up quickly from there. Worldwide they are viewed as a strong growth category because so many of them are suitable as a car replacement.

When average price goes up it automatically erects a barrier. There will always be a market for used bikes, but the used bike shopper is limited to bikes that someone else already was willing to buy new. And in most places you can't just walk into the used bike store and browse the racks. There's always eBay and Craigslist, but many of us aren't comfortable with that style of commerce. Hunters and gatherers are different from traders. All three qualities might occur in an individual, but it's not a given.

In a bike boom, people buy machines that they have only considered superficially. They're met by bike enthusiasts who have been thinking about little else for years. Some of those enthusiasts are lifers. They got into it young and never left. Others are well-informed, but just passing through. They'll outgrow it and move on to either real adult motor vehicles or completely different interests. Among the incoming wave in any boom, some will get hooked and stick around. Others will become well-informed during their era, but lose interest by the time their first bike wears out. Or maybe their second.

When booms occur now they're more like pops, or premonitory rumbles that go nowhere. There are too many choices, and most of them cost too much. Among the local fat bikers, for instance, perhaps as many as half of them bought their bikes used from someone else who had forked out the coin for it new. This appears to be somewhat less true for three-season mountain bikes. The road category is virtually dead again.

All riders agree that the roads are not much fun to ride anymore. Even in the 1970s it could be intimidating. Now there are about 100 million more drivers on the roads, in actual trucks, or vehicles built on a truck chassis. People are more distracted, more irritable, and generally more hopeless. The lure of separated bike infrastructure of all kinds is strong. But you won't do much riding if you insist on riding only where it's "safe." The answer to that is, "Okay, I won't ride."

The bike industry is not cycling. What's good for the bike business in any given year may be a bad sign for biking overall. The bike industry is perfectly satisfied if you buy a bike, hang it up and never use it. They do like to see actual participation, because it means that people are wearing things out and breaking them, but just from a bean counter perspective, sales are all that matter. Use drives sales, but sales don't drive use. So when new bike sales drop it only means that people aren't buying new bikes right then. You have to dig deeper to find out why. That opens up a whole world of variables. It sounds expensive and open-ended. In the meantime, a bike economist can only look at category sales and extrapolate consumer interest based on who is opening the wallet for what.

Actual census data would be hard to collect. You would have to send a big team to observe every conceivable cycling venue to count users by type. Almost no one cares anyway.

Individual riders might wonder who their allies are, and where they are. For instance, around here I doubt if there are a dozen dedicated bike commuters, especially over longer distances and open roads like the route I run in commuting season. I didn't choose the route, I simply adopted it as the shortest distance between me and a paycheck where I happened to be employed. For many reasons, I would have been better off to buy a house in a different town, closer to where I work. But most of life is improvised. All this simply means that improvements in riding conditions in one area do almost nothing to make riding better in another area, except perhaps to raise public awareness overall.

Anyone in the middle of their bubble will believe that they're in the middle of a boom. People in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont probably feel like the world is being overrun with off-road riders, because their area is being overrun with off-road riders. But by creating a magnet for a certain user group, the popular area draws riders from far, far away. Those riders may travel through long stretches of country where their kind is little known, and not missed.

Certain categories of enthusiast have to be very enthusiastic indeed to keep up with the related expenses of participation. Cycling is at its most affordable when you can throw a leg over the machine outside your own domicile and start pedaling right from there. I kept waiting through all the long years for more people to catch on to the many benefits of that kind of riding, but it seems to have the least appeal. As a result, conditions have deteriorated because too few people have demanded that they improve.

Our accumulated bad decisions will soon force change upon us. The big question now is whether our species is basically terminally ill -- and therefore might as well just focus on pleasure in our swift decline, or whether we are treatable if we accept a stricter regimen than several generations have so far been willing to adopt. In other words, is it worth bothering to try to create that better world?

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