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Opinion: The single biggest issue facing the bike industry

Published April 1, 2014
A blog by Jay Townley

As we finish the first quarter of 2014 the U.S. bicycle business is preparing for its April gathering of industry leaders at the Bicycle Leadership Conference and the IBD Summit. We have noticed that the U.S. bicycle business continues to separate the meetings of the specialty bicycle retail, or bike shop channel of trade, suppliers from the retailers, and the separate agendas for these two important annual gatherings still do not mention or pay attention to the most important single issue facing the U.S. bicycle business today!

The following chart is a graphic presentation of the 18-year history of U.S. bicycle riding participation from 1995 through 2012. The data is from the National Sporting Goods Association (NSGA). The overall trend is a slow decline, from a peak of 56 million in 1995 to flat overall bicycle riding participation at 39 million for the last three years. 2013 bicycle riding participation will be available in early April, but we don't anticipate any significant change from the history you see here.

From the low of 35.6 million in 2006 there has been a steady increase to 39.8 million in 2010, the year after the Great Recession. However, the stabilization of U.S. bicycle riding participation in 2010 through 2012 is not enough to change the trend line shown in the chart.

This is, in our opinion, the most important single issue facing the U.S. bicycle business. What needs to be done to reverse this trend line?

Put another way, what needs to be done to actually grow bicycle riding participation in the U.S. in the years ahead? There have been various answers put forth over the last decade, but obviously none of them have been sufficient to grow bicycle riding, or the U.S. bicycle market.

The most important single issue needs to be talked about!

We feel it is vitally important to engage all segments and channels of trade involved in the U.S. bicycle business and bicycling advocacy community in a constructive and ongoing discussion about what must be done to grow the bicycle market.

What we are talking about is as simple, as complex and as challenging as actually growing bicycle riding participation and the bicycle business in the U.S., which we conclude requires the bicycle business and bicycle advocacy to become more inclusive of the new America and less exclusive as it is now.

We mean no disrespect to those individuals and entities that have been and are actively engaged in current bicycle business and advocacy activities in the U.S.; we are simply pointing out the facts and reality of the current situation and the future probability if current methodologies and practices are not changed.

Our first assumption is that there are those currently active in the U.S. bicycle business and the bicycling advocacy community who are really interested in growth, both from the standpoint of riding participation and the supporting business.

Assuming there are, we ask for the support of bike shops and suppliers in asking their respective trade associations to join together to open a dialog focused on doing meaningful things to reverse the steady and inevitable decline the factual history predicts is coming. If you attend either the Bicycle Leadership Conference or the IBD Summit this month, raise your hand and ask why the most important single issue facing the U.S. bicycle business is not on the agenda — and when it will be openly discussed!

Townley is a partner in the Gluskin Townley Group LLC and is a longtime bicycle industry analyst.

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