Why The Bicycle Industry Is Right To Ignore Recumbents
Recumbents are considered a fringe segment of the bicycle manufacturing industry. This characterization is deserved because of the tiny market share recumbents enjoy. According to the industry statistics, recumbents make up less than 2% of total worldwide bicycle sales. In such a market, 2% is just above the threshold of noise.
That seems to be appropriate because the most vocal in the recumbent community has made a lot of noise over the years about how the the mainstream bicycle industry has ignored the segment and needs to pay more attention to recumbents. The argument goes something like, “If the industry was more inclusive, then more recumbents would be sold”.
I’m of the opinion that the mainstream bicycle industry is doing nothing more than exactly what it is designed to do – respond to the market. Let me give an example.
The bicycle industry was in a slump by the end of the 80s. The 1984 Summer Olympics and Greg LeMond’s Tour de France win in 1989 kept interest up for road racing bikes but sales dropped off by the start of the 90s. Cheap gas kept more people in cars, and the rise of the SUV was just around the corner. The industry was in big trouble. The thing that saved it was the mountain bike.
What we know now as a mountain bike bears little resemblance to the original. The TIG welded works of mech-art we see today had more humble beginnings as cruiser bikes. Some of them were modified with moped front forks to absorb the bumps on the insanely treacherous downhill trails that the mountain bike pioneers thought were fun to ride. That whole story is fascinating but I won’t get into it here except to say that the mountain bike market segment, which is so dominant today and saved the industry, was practically non-existent until the industry noticed a growing, grass-roots interest in a kind of bicycle developed by a group of passionate riders. You might say this group was on the fringe of the bicycling industry.
You might also conclude that this story proves the point that when the bicycling industry gets involved it makes a market segment successful. I would argue that the market segment had already been created and was successful without the bicycle industry. It would have continued to grow and be a huge success with or without industry support. Passionate riders created the product they wanted and had a compelling story about what they were doing. When other riders saw what they created and heard the story, they wanted to be part of it. When the bicycle industry saw the growing interest in this type of bike, they wanted to be a part of it too. There was money to be made.
I mentioned SUVs earlier. The mountain bike and the SUV have something in common. They share a similar story that is part of what people are buying when they choose those products. Despite the fact that the SUV was originally meant to be an off-road vehicle, they are more common in the suburbs than on the trails. Most SUV drivers have never driven off road, but they like the idea that they could if they wanted to. They can envision themselves in this rugged vehicle riding over rocks, through mud and water, and surmounting every obstacle. This is the story and the image that sells SUVs. Likewise, a very small percentage of the US population lives near mountains and an even a smaller percentage would ride a bike on one, but the story and the image of a bicycle that can take on a mountain if it wanted to, and by extension its rider, hits at the heart of successful marketing.
If recumbent manufacturers and dealers want into the big tent, they need to bring something to the party. If interest in recumbents were to grow in the manner mountain bikes did, then recumbents could not be ignored by the industry. Seeing a growing recumbent rider base, you can bet the advertising and marketing engines would rev up and recumbents would go mainstream.
Without more interest, we can all expect the same. Overall, it’s the passionate recumbent rider that is in the best position to increase the profile of the recumbent. The success or failure of the recumbent is up to us, not the mainstream bicycle industry.