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Ray Keener: Do cheap bikes mean fewer riders?

Published November 28, 2012

The Age-Old Debate broke out on Facebook a while back: Do mass market bikes discourage their owners from becoming cyclists?

Speciality retailers generally support this idea. Here’s what Chip Wamsley said on Facebook: “Unfortunately (most) of those big box shoppers will give up on cycling due to their perception formed by cheap, ill-assembled bikes.”

The flip-side of this argument: Mass market bike buyers don’t have much if any expectations of their $100 bike. It works just fine for the distance and style they ride. If they start riding farther and faster, they’ll upgrade. 

So two opposing opinions, do we have any data? Well, sorta. The most comprehensive consumer research our industry has ever seen (thanks to Bicycling magazine) was done in 1990.

Yes, it’s old, and I would posit that it’s still very useful for the purpose of examining this issue. The research divided cyclists into four categories: Infrequent, Casual, Moving Up, and Enthusiast. I believe Gluskin Townley is still using these same designations in its consumer research.

So that Infrequent cyclist constitutes 69 percent of cyclists overall. They averaged zero visits to a bike shop in the past year. Nine out of ten Enthusiasts (3 percent of all cyclists) bought their last bike in a bike shop.

So what does the research tell us about how the mechanical function of the bike impacted how much the bike was ridden? At first glance, it seems to support the retailer’s contention.

When asked, “I’d ride more if…,” 12 percentof the Infrequents and only 3 percent of Enthusiasts answered, “If my gears were easier to shift.” One thing we can all agree on (even though mass bikes have gotten better over the past 20 years): Bike shop bikes certainly shift better!

On the other hand … when you look at the entire list of “I’d ride more if…” reasons, “easier to shift” is only the number six reason for Infrequents.

Following, in order: If I had someone to ride with (46 percent). If I had a more comfortable seat (37 percent). If I had a safer place to ride (33 percent). If I were in better condition (29 percent). If I had a more scenic place to ride (28 percent).

So once again, it’s clear that, for the vast majority of cyclists at all levels, It’s Not About The Bike. 

And it’s not surprising that, with their heightened mechanical sensitivity and loathing for BSOs (bicycle shaped objects), retailers think it is.

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