Tuesday 5 February 2008

Coasting Bikes: The Road Ahead or a Dead End?

Giant Suede (top), Trek Lime (centre), Raleigh Coasting (below)

Coasting: Cycling for Everyone?

To the surprise of many of us who are obsessed by–oops, sorry: I meant to say "enjoy"–cycling, the bicycle industry in the United States is apparently in a decline. Bike sales have been flat for a decade at between $5.5 and 5.9 billion but as more high-end bicycles are being sold, cyclists are leaving at the other end of the market or never even getting in. The National Sporting Goods Association calculated that in 2006 35.6 million Americans over age 7 rode a bike at least six times in the year, down from 43.1 million the year before and 53.3 million in 1996. So as the expensive carbon bikes hit the market, revenues were stable but unit sales declined.

Shimano, the Big Daddy of the bike components business, was alarmed and retained a California innovation/design firm, IDEO, to create a better biking experience and, of course, sell more Shimano parts. IDEO went to the homes of non-cyclists across America and met with people to learn about their leisure activities.

In the end, Shimano/IDEO decided that what they were hearing was that cycling had become too intimidating and had lost its child-like fun. The choice available to cyclists had become overwhelming, and over-priced. They did not want to go into a bike shop and talk about technology and performance but wanted to reclaim their memories of just riding around as a kid. Nothing about being too lazy to ride or fear of Spandex!

Working with IDEO, Shimano came up with Coasting, a concept that called for new bikes that looked familiar and were easy to ride and affordable. In fact, the bikes require so little from the rider that they shift themselves, using a Shimano automatic transmission. Shimano also has made an effort to improve the bike purchasing experience so that Coasting buyers are comfortable in bike shops. Shimano then took its concept to several big manufacturers and to date Trek, Giant and Raleigh have Coasting bikes on the market and apparently sales are good. Even Business Week had a story about it.

From the reviews I have read, the Coasting bikes–the Trek Lime, Giant Suede and Raleigh Coasting–are pretty heavy and not very responsive. They are a lot cheaper than a decent Mavic wheelset at around $450 each and they look unthreatening with their rounded lines, covered chains and simple brakes. They do not have lights or even racks so it is unlikely they will be used for even short errands but probably for just riding around subdivisions.

Raleigh One Way

If the Coasting idea brings people into cycling, it is all for the better but it seems to me that perhaps the concept is a dead end rather than the smooth Highway of the Future. The bikes are not designed to be maintained by their owners–just looking at changing a tire conjures up nightmares–and their appeal will be primarily to people who will probably not move to more capable bicycles, either for commuting or sport. There are nice alternatives that are much better bicycles: for example, the Raleigh One Way is a steel classic-looking singlespeed bike (ie. no shifting), with fenders, good brakes, eyelets for a rack and a price tag of only $600.

To me the reason that people drop out of cycling or never get much into it is the perception that it is dangerous to go out and ride a bicycle on the street. I have ridden in heavy city traffic on three continents and there are skills that have to be developed. But there also has to be an environment that is welcoming to bicycles as transportation, whether through traffic-calming, market bike lanes or paths. If this element of the cycling equation were to be improved, I think that more people, across all age groups, would be more interested in cycling in the United States. Selling automatic transmissions to big manufacturers might be easier for Shimano than effective bike advocacy but in the long run–to reduce traffic fatalities, to improve your health, and to just have fun–the industry has to get behind advocacy in a much bigger way.

Cool-looking bikes, though. The first prototype presented by IDEO to Raleigh made the managers liken it to something that was a cross between Audi and Dr. Seuss.

1 comment:

Judi said...

Thanks for stopping by. Your cycling history is incredible.