Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Market Trends for 2023 and beyond: Race Bikes are for Racers, Fun Bikes For the Rest of Us

 Where is Cycling headed in 2023? 

    I can remember a time in 2007 as a young twenty something feeling pumped after buying my first bike shop bicycle. It was a 2007 Raleigh Sport from a mom and pop store that has since closed down. It was about two sizes too small for me but it was the only bike on the shelf that I could afford. The store owner swapped the stock stem with an adjustable one so that I could raise the handlebars a few degrees higher. I remember why I bought that $400 bicycle, what led me to maxing out my early line of credit for it. It was an autobiography that I read by a now infamous figure in the world of cycling titled "It's not About The Bike". His experience and watching the Tour De France on TV led me to believe that cycling was something doable, something that could be a long term plan for a healthy way of life. A lot of my friends that I grown up with had disappeared during this point in my life. Those that remained were getting married and gaining tons of weight. Many had an unbalanced view of alcohol and I had yet to understand the damage that consuming two six packs of beer and two bottles of wine a week could do to the body. The point is, I was trying to find a solution to not becoming part of a status quo of unhealthy people in society, which seem to be a majority of people these days. I felt like life was just beginning for me, that I was at the start of adulthood and many good things to come. I didn't want to say in my mid-twenties, like many people do today that "I'm feeling old" where I was nowhere near being old.  Up to this point I was a regular runner, but dealt with nagging knee pains after runs that I plagued me since I was a teenager. I had no intention of slowing down, but I needed a new outlet for my exercise routine. For many years, cycling became that outlet. 

My first bike in 2007. I miss the days when I looked like this!

Fast forward to the year 2023. There are no more heroes in the world of cycling. No more inspirational characters to lead the masses in the spirit of sport and competition. Gone are the days where racing aspirations once existed. No one seems to be interested in riding crits or doing road racing, where there can only be one winner and the rest won't get compensated for their entry fees, travel arrangements, broken collarbones or trips to the ER.  Many people are leaving the once burgeoning group ride scene. Roads are getting more dangerous as drivers are more dependent on technology and in turn more careless and reckless. Many friends have since hung their road machines in the garage, swearing that surely one day they will take them down and dust off the cobwebs. The truth is many don't have the time or the circumstances to ride like they once did, with the cost of living going up and other life priorities taking the place of an afternoon once reserved for riding. COVID did a number on all of us and many have lasting health limitations as a result of that virus. All of the Lance-era cyclists have gotten older and are becoming a fading demographic, with a shrinking share of the market supported by them. E-bikes are a thing now and many are whizzing away on them into their golden retirements.  All of these things point to a massive inflexion point, one that the majority of the cycling industry fails all too often to grasp. Many cycling companies are still dug in their heels, charging a premium for what essently should just be an exercise machine, basic transportation or fun on two wheels. 

When referring to people in general, this is what most associate with a bicycle. To most people, a bicycle is just a tool. It's a means of achieving weight loss, a means of getting from point A to point B, or something to take their mind off of their problems and offer healthy and wholesome recreation. That doesn't mean that people will just use any tool for the job. People are willing to invest in good tools that are durable and effective at getting the job done. That is why I think there will always be a market for good, quality bicycles. There's nothing wrong in having nuanced tools for specific jobs. However, when money is tight, sometimes a crescent wrench does the work for a few missing sockets. Meaning, when all bikes are nuanced, none will sell effectively in a tight economic market. Genres have to be mixed or combined to retain the interest of people to buy their first, or next bicycle. The next generation of cyclists won't have a garage full of bikes meant for different disciplines. The next cyclists need crescent wrench bicycles that cover an array of different uses.

Enter the gravel cycling scene. A few months ago I bought my first gravel bike I have owned in a long time, after swearing that I would never own one again. Now that I am older (not just feeling older, but actually getting past my mid thirties), out of shape and living in an area where bad roads abound I see the usefulness of a gravel bike in ways I had not seen before. Here is a bike that I can ride anywhere; on pavement, on singletrack, on a shoulder full of debris, on a bike path and of course, on gravel. The bike itself is heavy, but in all honesty so am I, especially compared to my photo from 2007. While it is not a race bike, once resigned to it's slowness that is when the fun begins. This bike just works and just keeps going. 30 mile ride? No problem. 50 mile gravel event? Also, no problem. Riding with your buddies on an XC trail while they ride their full suspension bikes? No problem and very fun! 

It's 2023. What's important is, I'm still riding!

At the Texas Chainring Massacre Gravel ride. My bike is the green one pictured lying on it's side.

Even at the local mountain bike trail, it still gets the job done.

So if I were to take a guess at where cycling is headed in 2023 and beyond, I would guess that bikes will be designed not around a specific discipline, but around multiple and the aim of such designs will be to increase the functionality, utility and fun factor that the bicycle has. After 15 years taking cycling seriously, for me anyway, it is time to have fun and share that joy with others. The cycling community cannot continue to exist in the form of what the Lance-era cyclists left us. We have to go from being an old, archaic, disapproving, elitist group of insufferable individuals with narcissistic personalities to one that is inclusive, supportive and looks to expand beyond the racing scene. This not only goes for the cycling community but for those whose job it is to brand cycling to the greater audience. Bike shops, manufacturers and online retailers could all do with a makeover in their messaging, branding and pricing. It is my belief that most of these things will happen organically due to changing demand. So keep an eye out for deals on full suspension trail bikes and road bikes, there will be a lot of them going on sale this year!

What about the racers, you might ask? The ones getting paid about $100k a year even though they are global superstars? There will always be race bikes. Race bikes are for racers, who get paid a peanut wage for being professional athletes, who have to be near bulimic to stay at 3% body fat, who have to ingest all sorts of questionable substances to stay on the team. There will always be bikes for them. They are the disc jockeys of our sport. They are not having fun. They suffer for our amusement. It is alright to pity them, that doesn't mean we have to buy the bikes they race on. A $1k bike made of steel will be more enjoyable than a $10k one that isn't designed to take a normal human's weight and will crack in half at the slightest abuse.  Think of it this way, as this is a paradox that only exists in cycling; if you like to watch Lebron James play, would you buy his gym, or would you just buy a twenty dollar basketball and maybe his jersey? We don't need to buy the workout equipment of professional athletes in order to be like them. They will not benefit from any promoting we give them either. They get paid with or without us. Again, for the amount of money people spend on cycling, the cyclists themselves are among the lowest paid athletes in any sport. This to me is a glaring irregularity and the reason why I don't spend over my budget on any new bike, as well as why I seldom buy new bikes anymore. 

2023 will bring about a changing of the guard as to who the next new cyclists will be, as well as an economic reset for the industry as they re-adjust their expectations about their products to the reality that is on the ground. Maybe if they succeed at distancing cycling from it's competitive roots to something broadly enjoyable and fun, more efforts will be made to include cycling in city infrastructure planning. One can dream right? Thanks for reading this article.