GOLDEN, CO—If sales of 29ers are any indication, 26-inch mountain bikes are shrinking quicker than suppliers can switch production to the larger wheel size.
Retailers who have long sold 29-inch bikes say they underestimated demand in their preorders this year, citing strong sales of high-end carbon hardtails as well as entry-level models.
“Carbon 29er hardtails came on strong even though we increased our preseasons over last year,” said Adam Williams, who manages Golden Bike Shop in Golden, Colorado. “We are already completely out of Scott carbons and so is Scott, and Niner’s carbon is selling fast.”
Carbon 29-inch hardtails also are flying out the door at Hammerhead Bicycles in Austin, Texas. Shop manager Adam Leedy said he’s been able to get his hands on Ellsworth’s carbon 29-inch Enlightenment, but sales of that hardtail and the trail bikes from Ellsworth and Intense are up over last year.
“It’s hard to put your finger on it, and I’m by no means a 29er zealot, but people are looking us up because we are a 29er shop,” Leedy said. “There just seem to be more people looking for 29ers in general this season.”
The situation is similar at Slippery Pig Bicycles in Phoenix, Arizona, though that shop also is seeing a boom in opening price point 29ers.
Owner Erik Angermeier jokes that the slow start to the season in other parts of the country means he might just get some of the 29er fill-in orders he needs.
“I was a little nervous when Trek pulled Fisher from me, but Specialized stepped in and sales are as strong as ever. What’s new for me this year is its $520 Hardrock disc. That entry-level 29er is all my entry-level sales now,” Angermeier said.
“Over 80 percent of my sales are 29ers. Even so, I’m getting a lot of first-time customers, and previous customers are upgrading to bigger travel trail bikes or carbon hardtails,” Angermeier added.
These retailers are attributing part of the increase in sales this year to shortages of 29-inch bikes last year.
“Last season availability was a big issue. Remember, until now most 29er suppliers were small, made-in-USA builders. And they were struggling to keep up with the business,” said Frank Mitchell, owner of Moontime Cyclery in Edwards, Colorado, a suburb of Vail.
Sell-through data from Leisure Trends Group supports anecdotal evidence of 29er growth. In the first quarter, 29er models accounted for 23 percent of all mountain bikes sold compared to only 9 percent in the same period last year, according to Leisure Trends Group RetailTRAK sponsored by the BPSA. Retail sales of 29er mountain bikes grew 158 percent in units and 133 percent in dollars in the first quarter. Growth came from both front and full-suspension 29er models.
According to Leisure Trends, average retail selling price dropped 10 percent due to price points moving down. More than half (56 percent) of all 29ers sold were under the customer friendly $1,000 mark.
Outside of Trek, which offered Fisher 29ers for years, other major suppliers are relatively new to the market, which is a challenge when trying to forecast sales to determine production runs.
“We had no 2010 29er models, only a custom project. Our five-model 2011 line was our first offering, and we bet big, but clearly not big enough,” said Adrian Montgomery, Scott Sports’ marketing director.
Without any data to use in forecasting, Scott Sports figured it would double the number of 26-inch carbon hardtails it sold last year and use that as the production figure for its first run of 29er carbon hardtails. But that number fell short of meeting demand as the company sold out before the season broke.
Specialized has offered 29-inch mountain bikes for a few seasons. This year, the company’s lineup included more than 30 big-wheel models. Still, it’s struggling to meet dealer demand for its Epic alloy and carbon 29-inch bikes.
“Overall, the incredible success of the Epic 29er platform took us by surprise, as riders seem to be using it for much more than just racing,” said Richard Belson, communications specialist for Specialized USA. “Suffice it to say, appropriate forecasting adjustments are being made for 2012.”
Andrew Juskaitis, Giant’s communication manager, said sales of the company’s 29er introductions this season are surprising.
“The Anthem 29er is 30 percent of our total Maestro sales, an impressive number considering this is the first year of this product’s availability,” he said.
Sales of Giant’s early 2012 introduction of the XTC composite 29er are so strong they’ve already surpassed Giant’s hardtail sales last year.
Retailers committed to the 29-inch segment say that the category started with hardtails and then moved on to short-travel cross-country designs. Now the market is dividing between racing hardtail carbon designs and four- to five-inch-travel trail bikes with little demand for anything in between.
“The carbon hardtail allows racers to build up a bike not that much heavier than their 26-inch race bike. And the relatively smooth race courses make it a better choice than a 26er,” said Moontime’s Mitchell. “Riders are letting the terrain determine the bike. Trail riders want 29er trail bikes. For us, it’s an up valley trail rider or down valley hardtail customer,” he added.
Shops with a heavy 29er focus used to stock a few opening price point 26-inch bikes, but the new $500 29ers have displaced these bikes.
Still, even dedicated 29er dealers say 26-inch wheels make sense on five-inch-plus travel bikes, for shorter riders and for weight weenies that need the lightest hardtail they can build.
Large bike suppliers entering the category or expanding their 29er lineups are bringing more consumer awareness, but smaller niche brands say that hasn’t taken away from their sales.
“29er sales have been the mainstay of our business for five years. Now that the big companies are pushing into the market, it seems customer demand is increasing,” said Michael Mulder, chief executive officer of Ellsworth Handcrafted Bicycles. “We will be refocusing our line next year in response to the competition, but I don’t see our overall sales being impacted.”