BY JASON NORMAN
NOVATO, CA—Mainstream brands are catching up to urban and commuter bike-focused brands when it comes to product selection and quality.
Companies like Trek, Specialized and Giant are making strides in this market. But they’re not the only ones that see this category as having legs.
Marin Bikes is a relative newcomer to the urban category. The company started with three models in 2004, and this year grew to five.
“Growth is driven by an increase in bicycle commuters, the growing popularity of 29ers and the increasing hip factor of single-speed bikes amongst the post school-age generation,” said Steve Glazer, vice president of sales and marketing for Marin.
The urban category, excluding city, accounted for roughly 7 percent of Marin’s overall business.
While plenty of competition exists between brands in every bike category, urban bikes may pose a bigger challenge for brands trying to distinguish their products from that of their peers.
With mountain and road bikes, it’s about weight, what makes a particular suspension better than others, and spec bang for your buck. But those criteria don’t readily apply to urban bikes.
Like all bikes, however, the smallest details go a long way. “It’s things like manufacturing a saddle with padding on the underside so it’s more comfortable to carry the bike up stairs,” said Eric Bjorling, marketing coordinator for Trek Bicycle. “And rubber bumpers on the toptube so you can lean it against a metal pole.”
These unique details give one bike an edge over the competition. “Designing a thermal coffee mug that is made to fit in a bottle cage is another example of the way we’re addressing people’s lifestyles,” Bjorling added.
Since Europe is so far ahead of the United States when it comes to bike commuters, Specialized has a product manager based there that devotes time to the urban category.
“He has his finger on the pulse of what people are using,” said Nic Sims, who handles global marketing for Specialized. “With these types of bikes, it’s a case of making the bike comfortable to ride with a more upright style, but also giving it a look that will appeal to the younger and older generations.”
With that thinking in mind, Specialized launched a new urban commuter-style line called Centrum. “It definitely has a look that will appeal to the younger generation,” Sims said.
Giant is another player in this category. A big theme for its lifestyle line for 2008 is utility. “Giant’s differentiator is clearly in the road and mountain lines, [but] that’s also present in the lifestyle category,” said Andrew Juskaitis, communications manager for Giant. That category accounts for 37 percent of Giant’s unit sales.
Consumer bike magazines don’t pay much, if any, attention to this category, but other media do. “Non-endemic media cover more of our sub $1,000 lifestyle-orientated bicycles than performance bicycles,” Juskaitis said. “Readers of endemic bicycle media are mostly enthusiasts, so it makes sense that those publications focus on performance products.”
Last month, Newsweek featured a short story on comfort bikes that made mention of Trek’s Lime, Electra’s Amsterdam Balloon 8 and Sun Bicycles’ recumbent EZ Sport AX.
Specialized’s Sims said media coverage of this category is something the industry needs to monitor. “We do a lot of work with magazines and newspapers outside the industry,” Sims said. “This is a great place to start as they will have a broader audience than the cycling industry magazines.
“We need to approach cycling magazines to find ways that they can do a piece on commuter-style bikes that will appeal to the bulk of their readers,” Sims added.
As gas prices continue to soar and global warming becomes more of an issue, commuter bikes should be in even higher demand, as suppliers will look to keep feeding the frenzy.
“I think these bikes will be in a state of evolution for some time,” said Patrick Kaye, product manager for GT Bicycles. “As more people put their old bicycles to work as utility devices or upgrade to a true urban commuter, then the consumer will demand more from this category.” GT has more than 10 options in the fitness/commuter/comfort category.
Trek’s Bjorling feels commuter bikes—and bikes in general—are becoming more accepted and welcomed as a mode of transportation.
“There’s been significant investment of financial resources in bicycle-friendly initiatives in some of the biggest cities of the world,” Bjorling said. “There is a reawakening happening at the political level that is going to help this movement significantly in the near future.”