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John Burke: The checklist that could change our industry

Published February 15, 2019

A recent opinion piece in Bicycle Retailer stated that our industry is plagued with “zero leadership and vision.” That got my attention. And with the polar vortex sending me to the basement each morning to ride my trainer, I have had some time to think about the state of our industry and whether or not we indeed have a vision and leadership problem.

So how is the industry? We live in interesting times, an era of massive change, and the bicycle industry is certainly not immune. As with everything else, there is the good and the bad. 

Let’s start with the bad: according to BPSA data, dollar sales have been relatively flat three consecutive years, with units down 13% over that same period. There is no question that fewer people are riding bikes due to safety concerns, the American obesity epidemic, and our nation’s obsession with screens. America is getting older, fatter, and more addicted to screens and none of that is good for the bike business. 

The good news is that we have four massive platforms for growth moving forward. First, more and more people are heading off-road to enjoy mountain biking and those people are buying higher end bikes. The second is that the road bike market is coming back due to technological innovations like disc brakes. If you ride in a road bike event today, maybe 10% of the bikes have disc brakes. Five years from now, they will all have disc brakes. The third positive trend I see is NICA. This could be the most significant innovation in the bicycle movement — a coed high school mountain bike league where everyone makes the team and where everyone gets to play in every game. It gets even better! NICA has a cumulative effect in that when a child joins, it gets their parents and siblings interested in cycling. NICA has been growing at an average rate of 40% over the last 10 years and is now competing in 22 states. By 2030, it is highly possible that all states will have NICA leagues with over 200,000 kids participating annually. New kids coming into the sport every year, along with their families, is a game-changer. 

I’ve saved the best for last: America is just at the beginning of its E-Bike Revolution. According to NPD data, e-bike sales were up 79% in 2018. All signs point to a huge e-bike business this year, and we are just scratching the surface. In some European markets, the e-bike business is larger than the standard bike business. In good retailers in the U.S., e-bikes now represent more than 10% of total sales. We could be looking at a business in the near future where e-bikes represent 30% or more of sales. It is safe to say that e-bikes could represent a greater growth opportunity than mountain bikes did in the late 80s and early 90s or carbon road bikes in the early 2000s. E-bike riders and this industry have benefited greatly, and will continue to do so, from the thousands of hours of legislation work our friends at PeopleForBikes have done. 

There is a tug of war currently between the good and the bad and the determining factor as to which side will prevail will be advocacy. Since 1999, the US population has grown by 50 million people. In that same time span, the number of miles Americans will drive has exploded. The US Department of Energy estimates that Americans will drive 600 billion more miles than in 2019 than in 1999, representing a huge and rapidly growing barrier to cycling participation and satisfaction. The question before our industry is this: Can we make America a safe place for people to enjoy our products? This has been the most important question the industry has faced for more than twenty years. The numbers speak for themselves. Boulder, Colorado and Bloomington, Illinois have the same population and are relatively the same size but bike sales in Boulder are 8X because it is a better place to ride. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati are similar sized markets, but the number of bikes sold in Pittsburgh is 4X that of Cincinnati because it is a better place to ride. According to data compiled by PeopleForBikes, per capita bike sales in US cities that have complete, connected bike networks are more than double those that don’t. Great places to ride do not happen by accident; it is not luck. If you look at history, there is a reason why Pittsburgh is better than Cincinnati and why Boulder is better than Bloomington. America is just at the beginning of its E-Bike Revolution

What differentiates the winners from the losers? People. As Margaret Mead once said, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” And now we get back to the greatest challenge (or opportunity) in the bike industry. It is not vision or leadership. It is execution. Ask any national advocate — people who pour their blood, sweat, and tears into creating a more pro-bike America — how well the bicycle industry supports bicycle advocacy. Ask them on a scale of 0-5 and the answer is a 2. Other industries would die to have the sport that we have and the potential governmental support that we have to help build our activity and yet, we are a 2. We don’t lack leadership or vision; what we lack is companies stepping up and getting involved. I gave a speech in Las Vegas a number of years ago, and I told the story of how President Bush won the 2004 election that illustrates the opportunity for the bicycle industry. The story is about how Bob Paduchik, the man who managed Ohio for the Bush campaign, won the state with a brilliant strategy. Instead of focusing on areas where the campaign was weaker, he focused his efforts on areas where they were strongest and made sure that voters turned out. They won BIG in the areas that they were supposed to win, took Ohio, and won the election. The lesson for the bike industry? If we can win where we are strongest — with bicycle companies, their employees, and retailers — we can win the game. 

The bike industry is more dependent on government support than just about any other industry. Almost all riding takes place on public roads, in the public right of way, or on public land. Competition for these spaces is fierce, and bicycling is far from the biggest or most powerful voice in deciding what gets funded and prioritized. We’ve got to be united, active, strong and professional. It’s not going to happen by accident!

But if we want to be exceptional, grow, and create a pro-bike America, we need to have high standards for ourselves and hold people within our industry accountable.

The standards I would suggest for any manufacturer/distributor participating in the U.S. market would be to judge yourself honestly with the following score card:

1.     Is your CEO actively involved in creating a more pro-bike America?

I have never seen a company make a significant contribution to bicycle advocacy without the CEO being personally invested.

2.     Would a group of leading local and national advocacy leaders say that your company supports their efforts?

Advocates around the country do amazing work on behalf of the bicycle industry. They are the ones that know who is pulling their weight and who isn’t. 

3.     Does your company take responsibility for helping to make your local city and state a pro-bike community?

Companies can make a massive difference in their home markets. If a company is really engaged in advocacy, they care about their own backyard. If every company in the bike industry made sure that their hometown was a pro-bike community, it would make a massive difference. Santa Barbara, California is a perfect example. Over the next five years, 8 major projects will be completed with a total investment of $113 million. There is a total of 447 current active bicycle projects in Santa Barbara County today. All it took was a group of highly dedicated local advocates, some guidance from PeopleForBikes, and someone from the industry who cared. Opportunities like this exist in every community across the country.

4.     Is your company a dues-paying member of PeopleForBikes?

In 1997, I attended a meeting of bicycle industry leaders at a time when the industry truly lacked any kind of leadership or vision. The solution at that time was to form Bikes Belong, which later became PeopleForBikes. At that time, the federal investment in bicycle infrastructure averaged $20 million per year. Over the last twenty years, PeopleForBikes has delivered leadership and vision bringing business, taxes, and jobs into the equation. They’ve pioneered protected bike lanes and complete seamless networks that are now widely accepted as the appropriate standard. In just twenty years, PeopleForBikes has secured $14 billion worth of public funding for cycling infrastructure which has created over 37,000 bicycle projects. In that same time, our industry has grown to what the NPD states is a $6 billion industry. Imagine the state of our industry today if those 37,000 bicycle projects never happened. 

The sad fact is that only 37% of the bicycle industry’s companies are full paying members of PeopleForBikes. An organization that is the best in the world at what they do and has delivered 37,000 new bike projects in 20 years and 63% of companies take a pass. Let me be clear, those who say that they are contributing in other ways are pulling the wool over your eyes. The companies who are the strongest supporters of PeopleForBikes, support many other organizations and projects. You can do both.

As we head toward an uncertain future, have a discussion at your company about what you can do to make a difference in creating a pro-bike America and then do something. Become a member of PeopleForBikes, make a contribution to NICA, meet with your city’s leaders and figure out how you can make a difference. Meet with your elected officials and ask for their support for cycling. Implement an advocacy tax on some of your products so your retailers can help make a difference. Adopt a trail system. Just. Do. Something. 

I can tell you that at Trek, we are reviewing our advocacy efforts and will be increasing our investment. Not just because we believe that it is good business, but we believe that we have a responsibility to help change the world by getting more people on bikes. 

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