Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Commuter Bikes: They've Got It All Wrong! Part III

Note: This has turned into a bit of a series! Today I will tie things up with my take on exactly how the "Cycling Industry" has got it wrong philosophically concerning "commuter/urban" cycling. Thanks for reading!

The "standard" equipment for these "commuter/urban" bikes being proffered by the industry of late seems to be of high quality and (unfortunately) high price. I have stated in my previous two posts how the price of entry for someone looking to start a cycling lifestyle as a "utilitarian user" of a bicycle is a negative. Why is there a seeming disconnect here? I think it's a rather simple situation and easy to understand if we look outside of cycling.

Generally speaking, if one wants to start an activity in the recreational/sports categories one starts by "testing the waters". For example: If you were to start fishing, and never have fished a day in your life, you most likely will get a "starter set" that provides you with all the necessary gear at a low price for entry. Now mind you, this is typically gear that a "serious" fisherman wouldn't be caught dead with. However; I think we can all agree that first time fishers are not going to buy a $300.00 reel, $200.00 pole, a fish finder, a boat, etc.... No, they are going to spend enough to get started, maybe a $100.00 total, get a license and drop their line in the local watering hole. This is where a lot of "fisherman" are made, from casual users that get "hooked" on the activity. (Sorry for the pun!) The same is true for golf, tennis, and several other sports. Sure, we all know that getting better equipment enhances your first time experience, but the high price of "real equipment" doesn't stop these segments from gaining new users. The cheaper, entry level stuff along with a healthy dose of encouragement/excitement help turn users into serious enthusiasts. Of course, a lot of folks don't ever get beyond the entry level stages, but at least there is an entry point that doesn't require a huge cash out lay to try things out.

An example of the opposite situation is skiing, where equipment costs have kept new users in the rentals, (which have been upgraded to pro level stuff, so why buy anyway?) and access to the slopes has been getting more expensive as well. If it weren't for rental equipment, I'd wager the ski industry would be far, far smaller than it is today due to the high cost of entry into the sport.

So, while conventional cycling industry wisdom is to get these folks on commuter bikes that are of high quality with parts that will be reliable and work, reality is that the price for entry is way too high to attain this. So, is the cycling industry prepared to provide rentals and live off of high end commuter sales, or is there another way? I say that there is another, better way.

In my experience the new user of a bicycle has a couple of common traits that should tip off the industry to where to go with utilitarian bikes. First of all, most folks don't know what to do with derailleur drive trains. They are confusing and seem unnecessary to a new user. A lot of folks are looking for simplicity. This is where the Shimano Coasting idea is right, but the price is still too high, and the design is too user unfriendly. Unfriendly? Yes, I dare you to hand a Coasting bike to a new user and have them remove a wheel in less than an hour. Really, it's not intuitive or simple and that defeats the purpose in my mind. I know, I own a Coasting bike, and even I think it's a bit wonky.

Which leads me to point #2: People are afraid of flats. New users have no idea what to do when it comes to flats, and lets be honest, nothing ruins a buzz on your ride like an untimely flat. New users that are putting a bicycle to utilitarian uses can ill afford a flat at anytime. So, a system of foam filled tires, or something similar would take that complaint right out of the conversation. While "cyclists" will scoff at such heresy, new users will see it as a benefit. Heavy tires/wheels as a benefit? Yes. The industry needs to look into a cheap way to do this for new users. Until they become cyclists and want something better, (lighter/easier to pedal), utility and practicality where they are at in life is paramount.

Which leads me to point #3: New users of bicycles are not as afraid of "work" as you might think. I have noticed on several occasions where new users of bikes will buy a derailleur equipped rig, put it in a gear, (Usually, but not exclusively the highest/hardest gear) and ride it till the cows come home. I have seen on several occasions where people who actually enjoy "cycling" and call themselves "cyclists" are going at a sub 50 cadence down the bike path. Typical cycling wisdom would say these people need education and are using bicycles in a manner that is on the other side of "right". Well, I say at least they are using a bike! If we could just get out of our own way and realize that new users are just fine with single speed coaster brakes, we might just see an increase in users and eventually cyclists. A single speed utility bicycle with a simple coaster brake, high tensile steel frame that is strong, cheap, and heavy, and can do some work because it's outfitted with a rack and a kickstand would be the ticket. Never mind that it might weigh 40lbs, or be geared too high. Folks that are new users will just think they are getting a good work out. Really.

In conclusion: If the cycling industry wants to get people on board with using a bicycle as a daily "tool", then it needs to provide an easy, cheap point of entry, not unlike other sporting goods segments do. It needs to create a pool of "users" of bicycles which can grow into "cyclists", or enthusiasts later. Trying to jump a new user from zero to cycling enthusiast in one leap is not really working. Users first- cyclists second.

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