- Associated Press - Monday, September 23, 2019

WORCESTER, Mass. (AP) - For some local bike shops, industry trends and overall figures are worth keeping an eye on, but not necessarily something to put too much stock into.

For example, a recent participation study from the Outdoor Industry Association noted a nearly 20 percent decline in children’s bike riding since 2007. But a look at more detailed breakdowns within the latest available report from the OIA reveals that participation in BMX bicycling - on single-speed bikes popular with young people, particularly in urban areas - among kids ages 6 to 17 jumped from 935,000 in 2007 to 1.6 million in 2017.

The bikes and that style of riding - heavy on wheelies and other stunts - have caught on in a big way in the city, putting at least a slight dent in the argument that screen time and other electronic distractions are keeping kids increasingly indoors.

“BMX still sells OK,” said Neil Medin, store manager at Landry’s Bicycles on Jolma Road off Grafton Street in Worcester. “You’ve seem them, the ‘SE’ bikes. They’re basically BMX bikes with larger wheels from a mountain bike.”

They’re popular, particularly among urban riders, and the industry has responded to that culture - there are products now made specifically for those bikes and the accessories kids adorn them with, including specialized tires, brake pads, colorful spoke protectors, Mr. Medin said.

Peter Howard, owner of Barney’s Bicycles on Park Avenue, the city’s oldest bike shop, stocks the bikes, and said they are selling well. He said the bikes’ success has been a bit of a surprise to him. The trend has undergone its own evolution, he said - at Barney’s, it started with a couple of sales, then he started selling out of them as they caught on with kids. He said it’s unusual in that the trend almost exclusively bubbled up from the inner city.

Depending on the model, the bikes sell for anywhere from $500 to $1,000, Mr. Howard said. That’s not inexpensive for a new bike, but he said he’s seeing 20 kids a day in the shop checking them out. Many of them then come back with their mother or father and roll out on one. And now he’s seeing kids from the suburbs come in to buy them.

He said those kids out riding aren’t in front of screens, although he said he suspects social media has helped fuel the “wheelie bike” movement. But Mr. Howard said the kids deserve credit - it takes an incredible amount of talent and skill to pull off the wheelies, “hand drags,” and other tricks they can often be seen performing on city streets on any given afternoon.

To be sure, there could be bad apples in any bunch, Mr. Howard acknowledged, but he said he doesn’t have a problem with a shop full of kids, and said it has been heartening to see families come in for a child’s new bike purchase. He said the kids who are fueling this trend have been overwhelmingly friendly and respectful when they come in the shop.

Mr. Medin, a longtime member of the local bike scene dating back to his days as store manager at Bicycle Alley in Webster Square, said increased screen time for kids could be connected to youth cycling participation, but said there are other factors that present challenges to getting kids on bikes, including a lack of places for kids to ride. He said that when he first started riding a bike as a kid, “we wanted the freedom to get on bikes and go anywhere.”

While the industry as a whole worries about how a possible drop-off in youth bicycling could have a ripple effect for future adult bike sales, Mr. Medin said he likes to look at it a little differently. Rather than term them “kids’ bikes,” he calls them “starter bikes,” with the idea that a teen will come into the shop and get on a bike that will instill a lifelong passion for riding.

“I still ride bikes today because I enjoyed it when I was younger,” he said.

If kids get on a bike and stay on it as they become adults, there are more options than ever before, for every type of rider and every type of terrain.

Mr. Medin said one area that’s exploding in the industry as a whole is pedal-assisted electric bikes. A small battery-powered motor tucked into the frame gently assists the rider, whether it’s to help with hills, or to extend range. He said Landry’s stocks two separate classes of ebikes - one that maxes out pedal assistance at 20 miles per hour and one that maxes out at 28 miles per hour. But the rider still has to pedal to get the assist; Landry’s doesn’t stock “Class 2” ebikes that can propel the bicycle with a throttle regardless of whether the rider is pedaling.

In their infancy in the U.S., ebikes were a niche product, popular with commuters or aging cyclists, but awkward-looking and heavy. Rapid improvements in motor and battery technology have pushed the bikes into the mainstream - for example, Specialized recently unveiled a sleek road bike that, aside from a slightly larger downtube, could be mistaken for its purely pedal-powered brethren.

“They’re now tailoring it to carbon fiber road bikes where a rider might have been comfortable riding a racing bike, and can still experience that thrill of riding and love of handling that they’re used to,” Mr. Medin said.

According to the global research firm The NPD Group, ebike sales totaled $77.1 million in 2017 in the U.S., up a whopping 91 percent from the previous year. Mountain biking still captures the biggest piece of the $5.9 billion U.S. bicycling cycling market, with $577.5 million in sales in 2017, according to NPD. But that ebike sales growth is being seen in the showroom, Mr. Medin said, adding that the type of customer buying them is diversifying.

“It runs the gamut,” he said. “The commonality is that it’s more toward the 40-plus crowd, but there are some younger riders, some commuters.”

Like many modern updates of traditional products, the ebikes are rolling out of the shop infused with technology, Mr. Medin said. He said Specialized has an app riders can install that connects to the bike and allows them to tweak the bike’s performance and gather data from their rides. The bikes are pricey - starting at $2,000 and going up from there - but they are selling; Mr. Medin said Specialized recently reported it’s nearly 95 percent sold out of its inventory of ebikes.

Over at Barney’s, Mr. Howard said he has made some ebike sales, but said his shop isn’t particularly geared toward that type of rider. Ebikes are huge in the industry, but in a city like Worcester he said he just doesn’t see the numbers of “transportation” cyclists or commuters who often take advantage of the motor-assisted bikes. He said he sees a lot of riders in his shop simply looking to ride recreationally - whether that’s in their neighborhoods or on area bike paths. Barney’s offers a wide selection of bikes for various riders and ability levels, but Mr. Howard said he’s never been too interested in the higher-end “expensive pro stuff,” preferring to remain family-friendly.

Mr. Howard said online sales is a huge issue for bike shops, but added that service and maintenance has taken up some of that slack. He said he’s not a “cookie-cutter” bike shop or company store for a major brand, which gives him the independence do be creative. Barney’s keeps a stock of used and vintage bicycles, and he said the shop is willing to work on any bike, even big-box store bicycles some shops won’t touch.

“I like the saying, ‘Don’t be the best, be the only,’ ” Mr. Howard said.

Mr. Medin said Landry’s, which operates at several locations in the Boston area and Westboro and opened the Worcester location in 2015, is offering value to customers who visit the shop. The market has changed - customers can buy something from the couch rather than coming into the store. But by offering riders something they can’t get online, Landry’s is setting itself apart.

“You’ll find that for Landry’s, we’re selling riding, we’re selling the experience, not just the cycling experience, but really making people feel welcome in our stores,” Mr. Medin said.

By listening to customers and helping them “create the best ride possible,” the shop is making itself a destination, he said.

“You’re basically solving a problem,” Mr. Medin said. “You’re saying ‘hey, I want to ride a bike,’ and we’re helping you get started with a solution.”

He said technology is getting better and better not only with bikes but with accessories and safety equipment. Helmets are safer and riders can now go out with crash sensors that alert emergency contacts if a crash is detected. Lights are also going high-tech, and more and more cycling advocates are recommending riders use lights even during daylight hours.

Part of the job these days in the bike industry is creating and maintaining communities. Both Barney’s and Landry’s put on regular weekly rides. Mr. Howard is a founding organizer of the annual George Street Bike Challenge, and Mr. Medin said there are regular bike clinics Landry’s that are popular with riders. He said the Landry’s rides are aimed at a broad range of abilities, and said nobody gets dropped. Making it fun and social is a great way to get people on bikes.

“The main thing is just getting people comfortable, getting them to a place where they can walk in and be comfortable,” Mr. Medin said.

Online: https://bit.ly/2kYPjlR


Information from: Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, Mass.), http://www.telegram.com

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