Really? The retail barrier to everyday cycling?

Really? The retail barrier to everyday cycling?

 

Firstly, start by reading this, from everyday cycling advocates Chris and Melissa Bruntlett.

Ok, so to start us off, the concept of everyday cycling. Is it as straight forward as it sounds? Yes it is. It’s the type of cycling that is required for mobilizing the day-to-day activities of your life with your bike. First and foremost, it must be practical. Actually, I don’t think there are any other qualifications. Each person’s requirements may be different – some travel light and some have kids or pets, some travel far and some just a few minutes, some travel through winter, some have the luxury of having more than one bike to choose from, some don’t. The key to everyday cycling is that your gear allows you to cycle whatever your situation. To work. To the shops. To school. To dinner or drinks (not too many, of course…). Because you enjoy it and see the benefits.

Next, the bicycle industry. It’s a rough gig. The article paints a gloomy picture of the state of the bicycle industry in North America, and though some shops are doing reasonably well, most would tend to agree with their summary, and it’s the same here in Australia. It’s pretty rough.

And finally, before we get into the discussion for today, I want to point out that the Bruntletts do a lot of good for cycling and healthier communities in general, and I respect their efforts. Check out their work here. However, I do have to respectfully take issue with this notion that bicycle retail (and the very notion of “transport” bicycles) is the problem that is holding everyday cycling back.

Let us begin

In a nutshell, the story goes that the bicycle industry is preventing people from achieving the practice of “everyday cycling” (or even someone who cycles at all) because they are guilty of “selling the wrong bikes for the wrong reason.” We are told that most shops try to sell people expensive bikes and gear that they don’t need, but that it doesn’t have to be this way:

In order to make cycling more accessible to the regular Vancouverite (and not the fit and the brave), we are in dire need of merchants who specialize in practical, comfortable and complete machines; ones that include lights, a chain guard, kickstand, fenders, skirt guard, bell and a basket.

These are apparently the elements of a “transport” bicycle. To carry all you need and be easy to ride in all conditions. Am I missing something? If your bike has eyelets for attaching a rack, and fits you, then it is a transport bike. Mudguards can be fit, pants can be kept out of chains, panniers and baskets can be fit. What else do you need? You can easily do this to any hybrid, flat-bar road, some cyclo-cross bikes, mountain bike, or many of the growing adventure/gravel/all-road/whatever bike segment if you chose to.

It would seem, however, that the only acceptable version of a “transport” bike is this:

Sorry, that’s not right. It’s more like this:

Crap. I don’t know how these are getting in here. Clearly these people are wrong in choosing to commute with bikes like these. Ok, so it’s more like this:

Ohhhhkay, this is just getting stupid now. Who told these people that they can use anything but something that looks more or less exactly like this for a bike to use to transport yourself from A to B on?

There we go. Anything but a proper Dutch bike won’t get you to where you want to go without absolutely doing your head in, and shops that don’t specialize in these kinds of bikes and sell other things aside from that which comes pre-packaged on the bike, are intimidating and “makes what should be the simple act of getting on a bicycle all the more complicated and prohibitive”.

Prohibitive? Really? Ok, so having choices is an actual barrier to cycling.

Walk into any local bike shop, and you’ll be greeted by the same daunting sight: row upon row of road, mountain and hybrid “commuter” bikes, equipped with carbon fibre frames, dropped handlebars, disc brakes, two dozen gears and hydraulic shocks. Then, of course, there are the rows of expensive helmets, cleated shoes, dry-wicking shirts, padded shorts, high-visibility vests and high-performance socks. Not only is this an incredibly intimidating environment, but it also makes what should be the simple act of getting on a bicycle all the more complicated and prohibitive.

What’s wrong with that, even if it is accurate? You can commute on a mountain or hybrid bike, disc brakes are wonderful, and gears useful. A problem in the shops is very likely sometimes sales staff who are narrow-minded, but people have brains, right? If you enter a shop that also sells things you don’t need along side things you do, how about this – don’t buy them. Get your bike, your basket, your rack, mudguards, lights, bell, and anything else you might want, and then stop buying things.

So we’ll complain about a huge selection of helmets (that aren’t all expensive, by the way) and even socks, for some reason, but lament over the fact that:

“During my search, I went to several shops, but found I was limited to about four brands of bikes to choose from,” Juras told us. Her needs were not unrealistic – a lighter weight upright frame that put less pressure on her back, forearms and wrists; complete with fenders and a rack. The local shops that did carry this style were helpful for the most part, but she did find a lot of repetition in the models available.

Oh, come on! First there’s too much choice, and then “about four brands” of bikes isn’t enough? That’s four brands, keep in mind. Each brand will have a handful of models available, just like this shop right there in Vancouver, (with two locations).

But they’re all so similar! You know why? Because a bike that conforms to the description of a comfortable and “lighter weight upright frame” will generally look like a bike with an upright frame. Like they have for the last 100 years or so. Do you need a revolutionary concept-bike in order to perform the task of getting you around town – for transport cycling, which by its very nature is defined by practicality and does away with that which isn’t necessary? I’d say no, you don’t, but yes, you can. You are entitled to be picky if you want to be, but if it takes you nine months to find a bike to get from A to B on and you don’t live in the middle of nowhere (as opposed to a giant metropolis like Vancouver), then you are making buying a bike far more difficult than it needs to be. Still,

The “interested, but concerned” crowd would quickly be turned away from cycling by the sheer number of specialized bikes they have to sift through, just to find one designed for a slow roll to the supermarket.

Firstly, if your everyday cycling consists purely of slow rolls to the supermarket, then by all means, get a bike that is designed for just that. If, like quite a few others, your bike must take you further than that and you have varied terrain to cover, or want to use the bike recreationally as well (is that allowed?), then your pretty three speed Dutch-style bike may not be the best tool for the job.

And if you are a bit confused by the variety of choices in the shop – they’re called sales staff, and they’re the one’s that you go up to and say, “I’m looking for a bike I can use to take me everywhere around town and that I can carry stuff on if I need to, and I’d like to be able to wear a dress and heels if I want to, and don’t want to get wet, if I don’t want to – what do you have?”. Problem solved. I’m willing to bet, if any city in the three countries that I’ve lived in are to go by, that there will be more than one shop that can help you if you don’t like the look of what the first shop has to offer.

The problem as I see it isn’t that there aren’t bikes available that will do the job quite nicely, it’s that people are actually boxing themselves into a limited notion of what tool will work to do the job, all the while while lamenting the fact that the industry is boxing them into a box of a different shape in terms of the tools they have to offer that will do the job. “I need this exact type of bike to make short journeys around town comfortably”. If you say that last part out loud and then think about it, the requirements actually start to appear rather easy to fulfill.

But “conduct an internet search, and you’ll find dozens of manufacturers specializing in upright, Dutch-style bikes.” Yes you will. I’m led to believe that there are many interesting things on the old World Wide Web that I don’t have direct access to at my local purveyor, but that’s life, isn’t it? You can’t have anything you want, in the colour that you want it in, but that’s what the internet and the media teaches us. We’ve grown accustom to having so much to choose from. We’re spoiled. We’ve grown soft. It wasn’t long ago – one or two generations – that people somehow got on with life with what they could find locally. Life went on. Kids still smiled. People still got to work and the store. Bikes were ridden, and a lot more than now, as it happens…

What each city needs, apparently, is a giant, approachable, locally owned mega-shop that specializes in carrying the exact bike you have imagined in your head, with the exact accessories that you want already attached to it, in just the right style, in every size and colour, and has a fleet of these bikes (including cargo bikes!) to take out for an extended test ride, but doesn’t carry any accessories past the ones you need, or sells any other bikes than the ones you’re interested in. Like that shop in Philadelphia. That one-in-a-million shop in a city with a “surprisingly vibrant bike culture”that was already there to support it (it only opened in 2013), operating out of a giant former elevator factory and can custom make you a bike if for some reason they don’t have just what you want on the floor. Sounds awesome.

Still, Vancouver apparently has no problem with using “sport” bikes for everyday cycling, their “continued ubiquity on the streets of Vancouver” being noted by the Bruntletts.

Maybe people in Vancouver just haven’t bought into the idea that to make short trips around town you need something special and unique and actually quite specific. You know, something that you can match your handbag to and looks good on Instagram. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there are shops in town, despite what Charlotte thinks, that sell this version of “everyday cycling” bikes. Vancouverites could go get one if they really wanted or felt they needed one. If it was about utility rather than fashion that also happens to be utilitarian, it would be really easy.

Bicycle retail isn’t suffering because it’s not offering tons of Dutch bikes on every street corner. If there is a strong demand for something, someone will capitalize on it soon enough. The bicycle industry is more likely suffering because people expect to have everything at their fingertips instantly and pay nothing for it, thanks to economies of scale (the internet and giant retail outlets) and the downward spiral it encourages.

The Bruntletts bring up some good points. Retail is suffering. Some shops are pretty crap. Some shops can be pretty daunting to new cyclists. It would be nice to have more shops that specialize in really cool “transport” bikes. If people had a bike that they could comfortably use every day, they would likely be more inclined to practice everyday cycling. I totally agree with all of that.

It’s where they take these points that seems a tad overwrought. The irony of people protesting against all the cycling-specific gear that the industry says we need to just ride our bikes, and then complaining that there aren’t enough shops that give us a selection of 20 different bikes (again, this local shop in Vancouver has far more than that) that are perfectly equipped with just the right cycling specific gear that mostly need to perform the same tasks that any (many) bike could do, is not lost on me. “There’s too much equipment”, but “there’s not enough choice!” It seems at odds to me that people who generally characterize road cycling that requires specialized equipment and is therefore a barrier to regular people who just want to ride, these advocates of everyday cycling, utility cycling, cycling for one-and-all, cycling that requires no special equipment, describe the act of everyday cycling as one that requires quite specialized equipment that conforms to a rather specific kind of aesthetic.

It just sounds like one’a them first world problems that the kids are talking about. What’s holding people back from everyday cycling is no more an absence of a vast array of subjectively cool bikes any more than a lack of uptake for volunteering in soup kitchens is due to an absence of really cool aprons and neat-o soup ladles.

If people feel comfortable enough to cycle around their neighborhood on a regular basis, that will be because of appropriate infrastructure, educated motorists, and cities and economies that are organized in such a way that everyday cycling is more convenient than everyday driving. If that is the case, then people might find that they want to trade up on the old rust-heap in the garage for a shiny new “transport” bike, whatever that looks like.

 

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