Interbike is the largest bicycle trade show in North America. Therefore, Interbike should be a cross section of the entire bicycle industry in North America. One could argue, that this has certainly been the case for many years, as Interbike has largely been a cross section of the high-end bicycle industry; high-end meaning race-worthy bikes, carbon-fiber, and other state-of-the-art equipment. For the most part, though not entirely by any means, the bicycle industry has focused the majority of their efforts on this type of manufacturing. Utility and transportation cycling have largely been ignored as an area for innovation in much of the North American bicycle industry.
Attendees of Interbike 2009 surely witnessed something different at this year’s show – the major emergence of transportation bikes, city bikes, and utility cycling products in general. There was an effort made by nearly every major manufacturer to produce a handful of products targeted at the utility cyclist. This is certainly acknowledged and even lauded by Interbike’s organizers. In a letter in the Event Guide from Andy Tompkins, the VP of Nielsen Sports Group, which runs the show, transportation cycling, and cycling in general, is getting more and more attention:
In spite of the continued economic downturn, it’s exciting to still see growth in the mainstream acceptance of the bicycle as both a practical means of transportation and as a means to fitness and recreational ends. It seems that more and more people are choosing to ride a bicycle and this provides opportunities for us all. Every week, it seems, we hear about the launch of a new corporate or municipal bike sharing program; the Tour de California, in its third year, drew a record 1.7 million spectators; and the bicycle continues to influence and inspire urban lifestyle and fashion in exciting new ways. Interest in cycling just gets stronger by the year and Interbike is proud to offer you so much to help you maximize your business opportunities.
Interbike – and consequently, the bicycle industry – should take advantage of the growing interest in cycling, especially in North America, by emphasizing utility and transportation cycling more at the show each year. This suggestion, however, would require that the industry gain a much more comprehensive understanding of the utility cyclist and the products such a cyclist is looking for. As we have demonstrated, utility cycling is a very broad category, indeed. In fact, declaring that the North American bicycle industry should take a more proactive approach to understanding utility cycling in North America is like asking a 3rd grader to pass the GRE. It would not be impossible, but it would certainly be quite difficult.
Europe is often characterized as providing the best example of utility cycling in the world. However, comparing utility cycling in Europe to utility cycling in North America is not entirely productive. There is certainly a great deal to be learned from Europe, but let’s face it, the North American market, the North American consumer, and the North American landscape is vastly different from Europe. Therefore, a different sort of utility cycling is possible in this part of the world, and this is not entirely a bad thing. In fact, one of the reasons utility cycling needs to be conceptualized differently in North America is largely due to infrastructure and city design. In many cases, transportation cyclists have greater distances to cover with less appropriate bicycle infrastructure and bicycle design can and should cater to this. A wide assortment of utility bicycles are possible, and they do not necessarily all have to be like the “city bikes” that were prevalent at Interbike this year. In short, the North American bicycle industry can learn a great deal from cycling in Europe but should not mimic European bicycle design in all cases.
Unfortunately, we do not know much about people who cycle in North America. In fact, we know very little. More and more cities are making an effort to count cyclists and better understand cyclist behavior, but in general, the North American cyclist is a rather mysterious individual. Therefore, before the bicycle industry can develop the “ideal” utility or transportation bicycle for the North American consumer, it is important to better understand what people who might be inclined to ride bicycles in this part of the world might be looking for. This is not necessarily the bicycle industry’s responsibility, but the industry could certainly aid in this effort by working with local governments and other organizations that are attempting to better understand cycling in North America to better understand people who cycle. This undoubtedly helps the industry, because the more people riding, the more bicycles being sold.
At the same time, the bicycle industry should continue to develop utility and transportation bicycles. As Interbike 2009 indicated, the industry is certainly starting down this road, and it will be interesting to see how many retailers jumped onto the bandwagon and ordered utility and transportation bikes for their stores. Then, it will remain to be seen how many people purchase the new utility bicycles and how these bicycles are used. One company that has taken this to a whole new level is Specialized, who has really attempted to reach out to the consumer through the Globe brand of bikes, and especially through their Globe Experience Project.
It is certainly going to take some time for bicycle manufacturers and retailers to begin to better understand the utility cycling demographic. However, it should be recognized that the bicycle industry is in a serious position of power to shape (to some degree) what the consumer is looking for in a utility bicycle. Yes, lessons from Europe can help, but we also need to understand how North America is different and those differences need to be reflected in the products that are developed in order to make them as appealing as possible to people who will be using them.
Finally, back to Interbike. The main point of Interbike is to provide a common space for manufacturers to display their products to retailers who can make orders, empty warehouses, and develop important relationships. If utility and transportation cycling are to be taken more seriously in the future, Interbike could make more of an effort to emphasize this aspect of the industry. This year’s show included a fashion show – Urban Legends – which was dedicated to urban cycling, but I say do more! Perhaps an entire section of the show space could be dedicated to utility and transportation cycling, much like the “European Village” section of the show. Whatever the method(s), Interbike can and does play an important role in helping retailers and manufacturers to better understand the industry in general. As major changes are taking place, it is important to recognize these changes, and Interbike is a good place to facilitate this transition.