Interbike Blog

Is More Bike Culture the Answer?

I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that the last couple of posts here that dealt with the rise of bike commuting have generated so much interest and feedback. I guess this isn’t surprising considering the attention to commuting by bike that I’m increasingly seeing in all areas of the media (and the huge increase in bike commuters I see on the roads).

One particular comment from Justyna on this recent post made some great points about where she sees the problem with getting more people to commute by bike – and it’s “not about the stuff”, as she puts it. She linked to a post she wrote following her trip to Interbike last year where she caught an interview we did on our “Good Morning Interbike” show from the Media Center with Tim Parr and Sky Yeager of Swobo. (Here’s a link to the video – you’ll have to sit through Ned Overend and John Tomac, Lennard Zinn and Jonathan Vaughters…lots of enthusiast candy in there).

This discussion of what it is that is keeping more Americans from cycling is complicated and very interesting at the same time. Same goes for the issue of why people do cycle already. I don’t want to go through the whole Coasting thing again, but Shimano has spent a lot of time and effort trying figure this out (yes, so they can sell these people more stuff, I know…) and, among many insightful observations from their research, determined that the culture and environment of bike shops is off-putting and intimidating to many non-cyclists.

Justyna wrote that what is needed is more of a “bike culture” here in the States. While more awareness and acceptance of cycling and cyclists by society is always welcome (and what I guess she really means), I would hazard to guess that the nature of the existing bike culture (that most shops are great at nurturing) is one of the reasons that many don’t currently ride. As a commenter on blogger BikeSnobNYC’s great post today, “Get Over It: Surmounting Obstacles to Cycling”, mentions:

No “culture” is as inclusive as it thinks it is. It’s only a few individuals that make it inclusive.

It could be the fear of looking silly in lycra, of complicated bikes, of fixie hipster attitudes, of riding in traffic, of small hard bike seats, of confrontational critical mass’ers, of the arrogant racer shop clerk, of expensive bikes, of not being accepted by experienced cyclists – all these are bike culture components whether real or perceived. What needs to happen is a lessening of some of these cultural components from the general image of cycling held by society at large. As the Snob himself writes:

If I’m hard on the fashionistas and the gear whores, it’s because I think one of the greatest obstacles to new cyclists is the uniform and equipment it seems necessary to own in order to join in the fun. From the outside you’d think you can’t own a fixed-gear bike without having full sleeves and a HED tri-spoke, and that you can’t own a road bike without having an SRM and a pair of wheels that costs over $1,000.

As the Coasting project determined, we (as an industry) have done such a great job of framing cycling as a sport or fitness endevour, that people who just want to ride feel intimidated, or worse, don’t even give cycling a moments consideration. My point (and Bicycle Retailer’s in the article I discussed in my post) on the question of whether bike shops are selling the right bikes, is that (most) bike shops are set up to service the enthusiasts (think the “Lance Effect”, etc.) very well and cater to that culture and as a side effect, turn off many of the non-cyclists who aren’t part of the clique. To these people, a skate shop, fashion boutique a friendly website or even (gasp!) a Wal-Mart or Target could provide a more welcoming environment to take the plunge into cycling. They just want to buy a bike and ride, right?

A final note: I know there are many great shops out there doing a wonderful job at encouraging new cyclists. In my work in the industry, I calculated once that I’ve visited about 350 of the best shops around the country, and have seen many awesome shops and met many passionate cyclists. By no means is this an indictment on all bike shops, but a critical look at ways in which we as an industry can take feedback from a group of outsiders newly interested in being “one of us” and ways we can encourage them.

Enjoy the ride!

Posted In: Interbike

11 Comments

  1. We have to make cycling easy and accessible to those that are not a part of it now. Once that happens, the culture will grow. None of the sub-cultures (trends, really) we have today are enough to draw the masses in. Those cultures have been there. BMX died and came back, then we had MTB, Road (Lance effect), the fixie thing and now commuting/replacing car trips seems to be getting the attention. We have sold the same 18 million bikes a year from a peak of 22 million in the late seventies – its just the catagories that shift.

    Better suited product (60% of adult bikes sold in US are heavy mass MTB’s) and safer places to ride are two of the first steps we should take. Ramming the positive benefits of anything down peoples throats has never been a way to engage someone to join you.

  2. If I was going to start any new sport or transportation method, I’d google it, do some research, check the blogs, etc. I think because we’re immersed in it, we get lost in it. Compare that to the person that wants to reduce their gas bill and just needs a bike. Bike culture should flourish as is — we get all types at Bike Hugger — and the enthusiast, those new to cycling, will either check it, dismiss it, and learn from it to suit their needs.

    One thing I think we definitely should do is talk about bike transportation v. “commuting” because that itself entails special gear, equipment, panniers, and geekdom. Being a commuter is ever bit as cliquey as a being a roadie or into fixed. And the commuters are just as competitive on their daily commutes as a masters racer at the Tuesday Night World Championships.

  3. Maybe it’s a PacNW thing – not many commuters in the geek mold here in SoCal. For me, biking as transport, commute or sport involves only minor differences. When I ride for sport, I put an energy bar in my pocket and some sugary powder in my water bottle. When I commute, I carry a backpack with clothes, shoes, maybe my laptop. When I bike for transport (rare at the moment), I carry my larger messenger bag. Same bike, same clothes. Not a whole lot needed – just use what you got. That’s the point we need to get across to prospective new riders. Can’t say I see many panniers here in SoCal – just a lot of backpacks and all sorts of bikes. I guess I do benefit from a shower at work and California’s casual attire culture. If I had to wear a suit everyday (does anyone still wear a suit?), I suppose my bike commute gear needs would change.

  4. Great post. There is no doubt that many people who work in the bicycle industry are there because they absolutely love bikes. It is great to love the products that you produce and sell, but I think that some of those people have a hard time putting themselves in the shoes of potential customers without that same level of passion for bikes. For that reason, they end up preaching to the choir in their design and marketing efforts. I don’t think it is that they don’t want to get more people on bikes, it’s just a failure to understand what it takes to do so in some cases. It is a lot easier to sell a 3rd or 5th or 10th sport specific bike to a fellow cycling enthusiast than it is to lure a noncyclist out of a car by offering a product that offers them a better user experience. The latter is where the greatest opportunity is, but is requires a different way of thinking.

    I am happy to see that starting to happen in the bike industry these days. Whether you like Coasting or not, it is a great example of industrial design rather than just styling in the industry. I look forward to seeing more products that attempt to make a connection with those people who don’t yet ride. Personally, I love high-end road and mountain bikes, but from a design standpoint, bikes that have potential to appeal to the masses interest me the most. In that regard, I think the bike industry could learn from the auto industry. It’s all about making an emotional connection with the user with a product that fills a need. Simply filling a need is not enough to get anyone to change deeply ingrained habits. You have to sell them on the idea that you have something that makes their life better, not something that they need to conform to.

  5. Great post. There is no doubt that many people who work in the bicycle industry are there because they absolutely love bikes. It is great to love the products that you produce and sell, but I think that some of those people have a hard time putting themselves in the shoes of potential customers without that same level of passion for bikes. For that reason, they end up preaching to the choir in their design and marketing efforts. I don’t think it is that they don’t want to get more people on bikes, it’s just a failure to understand what it takes to do so in some cases. It is a lot easier to sell a 3rd or 5th or 10th sport specific bike to a fellow cycling enthusiast than it is to lure a noncyclist out of a car by offering a product that offers them a better user experience. The latter is where the greatest opportunity is, but is requires a different way of thinking.

    I am happy to see that starting to happen in the bike industry these days. Whether you like Coasting or not, it is a great example of industrial design rather than just styling in the industry. I look forward to seeing more products that attempt to make a connection with those people who don’t yet ride. Personally, I love high-end road and mountain bikes, but from a design standpoint, bikes that have potential to appeal to the masses interest me the most. In that regard, I think the bike industry could learn from the auto industry. It’s all about making an emotional connection with the user with a product that fills a need. Simply filling a need is not enough to get anyone to change deeply ingrained habits. You have to sell them on the idea that you have something that makes their life better, not just something that they should try to conform to.

  6. What does making cycling “easy and accessible” mean?
    It could mean creating more safer routes, which I think would go a long way toward encouraging more timid people, parents with children, slower riders (etc, etc…) to give it a try. But at an urban level, this can be a very lengthy process, and one small section of bike path can be many years and dollars in the making.
    It could also mean making more user friendly bikes, but I personally happen to think that we’re already there.
    What making biking “easy and accessible” means to me as a retailer, is creating an atmosphere in my shop that makes riders – young and old, new and experienced, all riders – welcome. If you are a bike shop owner or employee, you are at the forefront of bike culture in your community, and have a genuine opportunity to shape that culture. If we really expect new people to come to cycling and embrace it as part of their lives, we have to make them feel at home at a bike shop. And I agree about not pushing the benefits too hard: that can make people feel guilty about the times they don’t ride, rather than looking forward to and celebrating the times they do.

  7. Great Disucssion !
    I’m with James on this.

    I believe it is down to being clear that cycling is both a sport AND a fun utility.
    An opportunity to test how fast you and your machine is, and ALSO a fun and efficient way to get from A to B.

    The snag is these 2 aspects are confused.
    Check out ANY cycling forum to see subtle versions of self justifying stuff… “me and my X are much better than you and your Y” (Its funny how arriving at destinations sweaty and smelly doesn’t seem to get much of a mention :-) ).

    Cycling, as in any specialist hobby, activity or sport, purists and enthusiasts seem like to form Clique’s ‘you cant come into my ‘tennis club’ unless you have the right membership , clothes, experience and show 100% commitment by competing’ !!!

    Visit most western bike industry shows and there is so much testosterone in the air that women come out with biceps :-). The industry needs to wake up, and grow up.

  8. Great article and discussion. I am with James on this.
    Bikes are a fun utility to get from AtoB, often easier and faster than other methods ….. but the cycling industry confuses this utility with sport.
    Most cycling forum discussions, focus on the sport aspect – often subtle ways of saying ‘me and my machine are better than you and your machine’.
    But using bikes are also an efficient way to get from AtoB and enjoy the journey – why spoil it by always racing, getting sweaty and smelly at the destination ?

    The facts are compelling too: 161 million potential bikes riders of vs 13 million enthusiasts.

    But, Cycling, as in any specialist hobby, activity or sport, purists and enthusiasts seem like to form Clique’s ‘you cant come into my ‘tennis club’ unless you have the right membership , clothes, experience and show 100% commitment by competing’ !!!

    Go to any western bike industry show and there is so much testosterone in the air that women come out with biceps. The industry (of which i am a very small part), needs to wake up and grow up.

  9. Great article and discussion. I am with James on this.

    Bikes are often an easier and faster utility to get from AtoB, ….. but the bicycle industry, must be clear to separate their transport utility from sport. The facts are compelling: It is unlikely that the 161 million potential bike riders will all join the 13 million enthusiasts, but as in Amsterdam and Copenhagen bikes can become the hub of urban transport.

    Most cycling forum discussions, seem to focus on the sport aspect – often ending up in subtle ways of saying ‘me and my machine are better than you and your machine’. Acknowledging bikes as simple, fun and efficient transport, without a hint of competition or ‘distance bragging’ is rare. Its funny how getting sweaty and smelly at the destination is rarely noted … bit of a downer for office workers.

    Cycling, as in any specialist hobby or sport, enthusiasts seem like to form Clique’s ‘you cant come into my ‘tennis club’ unless you have the right membership , clothes, experience and show 100% commitment by competing’ .

    Go to any western bike industry show and there is so much testosterone in the air that women come out with biceps. The industry (of which i am a very small part), needs to wake up and grow up.