At the end of my 40-minute “Tandem Geek Show” during last weekend’s Tandems East Expo I decided to test the audience’s threshold for interest by asking if there were any questions before jumping into some other topics. As I suspected, there weren’t any and I took that as an indication that they’d either reached an information saturation point or were otherwise ready to move onto something else so I yielded back my remaining 20-minutes to the floor.
However, there were a few things that I’d captured on 3×5 cards regarding cycling and tandem trends that I was prepped to address so I figure I’ll share them here, just because I can. On the bright side and for those who were at the Expo, it’s probably a good thing that I opted not to dive into these topics, as y’all would have needed a butt-break once I got on a roll! I think there are nearly 4,000 words in this blog entry; yikes!
Let me start off by level-setting the tandem marketplace within the overall cycling scene. Using the prism of the larger bicycling industry statistics published by Bicycle Retailer & Industry News (aka, BRAIN), tandems only represented .2% of the total cycling market measured by dollar sales in 2011. Now, that’s not new or alarming. Tandems have always been less than 1% of the entire bicycle market, which is why as tandem cyclists we sometimes feel underserved by the market. And, if you feel that as a consumer you don’t get much attention, try being a tandem builder or retailer looking to source something like tandem-specific cross-over cranksets from FSA or SRAM’s Truvative where the entire annual tandem market need could be satisfied in about a 1-hour production run: that’s not a lot of leverage.
And, if you “feel” like cycling in the U.S. has stagnated in terms of growth, you’d also be right. Ridership in 2011 was down slightly (1.6%) from 2010 at 39.14 million based on the National Sporting Goods Assn.
Cycling in the U.S. reached its peak level of participation back in 1995 at an estimated 56 million and has been hovering around 39-40 million for the past decade or so. And while being steady seems like a good thing, bear in mind the U.S. population has grown by 13% over the past decade without a corresponding increase in ridership. And, what makes it that much more troubling for some is during the past decade over $10 billion has been spent on cycling infrastructure, i.e., bicycle lanes, MUPs, rails-to-trails projects, etc. You don’t have to be a CFO to realize the ROIC and CAGR are headed the wrong way in terms of the benefit those investments are yielding to local business and the economy in general. Other numbers that were headed the wrong way from 2000-2010:
- 7-11 year old ridership down 21%
- 12-17 year old ridership down 15%
- Women as a whole saw ridership drop by 13%
Now, what’s interesting and at the same time masks the overall trend in ridership as well as sales data is the stratification of the market. Without a doubt, it’s the casual riders that are a dying breed… fueled by a huge drop-off in the number of kids who ride bikes. For us old folks who lived in the suburbs and rural areas as kids, we can probably remember riding our bikes to school and just about everywhere else before we were old enough to drive a car.
In fact, there would always be a sea of bicycle racks in front of most elementary, middle and high schools filled with 100’s of bicycles just about every day, not only when there was some type of special event as some schools have done in more recent years. I don’t think I’ve seen a bicycle rack at a school since 1990, at least here in Georgia. So, the net effect has been the erosion of cycling right out from underneath the baby-boomers who drove the U.S. bicycle market from the 70’s into the 90’s and who are still major players in the bicycle market. And it’s the boomers who fall into the “Frequent” rider category that continue to ride, ride more, ride harder and buy more expensive equipment that continue to drive the market. Since a lot of tandem enthusiasts fall into the Boomer age range, the fall-off in casual riders may not seem as obvious. Nor is it obvious how the cycling trends that Boomers help to drive — increased price points even for entry-level bikes and a sky-rocketing high-end market — are part of what continues to be a barrier to casual or potential casual cyclists who don’t see themselves as members of the helmeted, lycra-clad cycling tribes.
There, I said it: helmets, lycra and the nanny-state have just about killed-off cycling as a pursuit of an entire generation. But is there hope for GenY? Perhaps. The urban cycling scene has made bikes “hip” again, and bicycle commuting has grown by 57% in recent years (don’t get too excited by that last metric: we’re only talking 750,000 bicycle commuters in a nation of 314,000,000 people). So, perhaps there’s hope for a new generation of cyclists who will reshape the cycling scene in the years ahead. Perhaps… Time will tell. In the mean time, the 55 year and older crowd — Boomers — will continue to drive both the high-end of the market as well as the casual rider market assuming the folks in the 55-65 bracket can ever reach a point where they can retire and spend more time pursuing pastimes like cycling. Boomers are where the money is and we can see that based on the trends in high-end bikes and equipment in a $6 billion dollar market where the average retail price of a bike is $671 and the latest gotta-have uber-wheelset for the gram-counting weight weenie weekend-warrior is $2,000.
What’s hot in the single bike market? Carbon, carbon, 29ers, carbon and anything that’s lighter than the lightweight thing it just one-upped. Yup, the numbers of bikes being sold is down, but the cost per unit continues to climb such that the dollar volume in bicycle and bicycle related goods sales masks the lower volume. Imports are actually at a 10-year low and the recent recession was tagged as having a 1.7 million unit hit on the market, mostly in lower-end / entry-level and kids bikes that the middle-income consumers hit hardest by the recession would have typically bought in a more robust economy. In some respects, the emergence of the 29er was seen as the saving grace / cash cow that kept the bicycle industry from seeing truly big losses over the past couple of years. Of course, like most trends the 29er bump won’t last forever and cost-premiums are already narrowing and putting 29ers on par with their 26″ wheel counterparts.
Now, if you are finding it harder to locate a nice, independently owned bike shop that’s not part of a small chain of shops you’re not alone. Since 2003 nearly 24% of U.S. bicycle speciality retailers have gone out of business. That’s 1,269 fewer shops nation-wide, with just over 4,000 still in business today. Hitting the small-business, brick & mortar bike shop has been the growth in Internet sales, which are now estimated to account for nearly 20% of new U.S. bicycle and bicycle related goods sales. On top of that, Craigslist and Ebay sales of used bikes drive the internet-based market value to nearly 33% in a market where 37% of consumers surveyed indicate they’ve satisfied some of their bicycle needs via internet sales. Interestingly enough, two of the Etailers seeing tremendous growth in the U.S. market are U.K. -based Chain Reaction and Wiggle who aren’t subject to the same minimum advertised pricing restrictions as their U.S.-based competitors. While their market share is small, it has been growing by leaps and bounds year-over-year. Finally, direct sales are also starting to by-pass the entire retail industry, both from U.S. boutique builders and large Asian manufacturers. At one point composite frames on Ebay were quickly dismissed as “junk” just a few years ago as consumers preferred to trust brand names like Giant, Trek or Cannondale. Now that Trek and Cannondale are sourcing nearly all of their bikes from Asia, the fear factor of imports continues to drop and consumers are more than happy to buy un-branded composite frames from faceless brokers in Asia to satisfy their carbon fix.
Tandem Cycling Trends
So what does all of this mean for the tandem cycling market? I’ll be honest, I’m really not sure what’s going on across the entire tandem cycling scene since I don’t have much insight beyond what I sense from the discussion forums and feedback I get from dealers and builders in very general terms. After all, most dealers and builders tend to be pretty close-hold with their sales numbers.
That said, I believe the tandem market pretty much parallels the overall market in terms of ridership, sales and trends. It’s a very regionally diverse market and it’s also one that’s now seeing the same impact of internet sales trends that take “local” out of the equation. If someone lives in Arizona, they’re just as likely to buy a tandem from the East Coast as they are anywhere else if the deal and product fit their needs. For tandem speciality dealers who have carved-out niches within the tandem market, the world is truly their oyster so long as currency exchange rates and shipping costs make it more reasonable to buy from a U.S.-based dealer than anyone else in the world.
Other things that I’ve taken note of include:
- HIGH-END REMAINS HOT. As mentioned in the overall cycling market trends, Boomers have most of the disposable income in America and the ones that are into tandem cycling aren’t afraid to spend it on hardware. A decade ago a five-figure tandem had four-seats or was a very custom Titanium model with couplers. Today, five-figure tandems can routinely be found at tandem rallies and tandems in the $15,000 – $20,000 range are no longer unicorns: just look for a high-end tandem with Shimano DuraAce Di2 and/or couplers with an uber-light wheelset and you’re probably “there”. I believe Santana’s most popular model remains their top-of-the-line Beyond, noting the one we test rode back in May 2011 was easily sporting an MSRP of $17,000 as equipped. Paketa’s typically go out the door with far more than just the basic build kit, which is true of Calfee’s tandems and perhaps even Co-Motion’s popular Machiatto. Custom titanium models from Seven also get pretty-well upgraded enough to put them in the five-figure range as do the daVinci tandems built using their more exotic materials.
- LOW-END IS NOT ALL THAT LOW ANYMORE. When Burley left the market and Cannondale abandoned its entry-level tandems and consolidated model offerings with a single performance tandem as they transitioned production to Asia, the under $2,500 tandem market got a whole lot smaller. While KHS and Tandem East’s Hokitika value-based models are available to fill that need, that’s about it and the next stop is $2,995 and up…. or the second-hand market. And while I’d like to see a low-cost offering, I’m not sure that I’d like it to be an import. daVinci was the first to test the import waters with its Grand Junction models and a lot of hand-holding with their source in Taiwan and of course we’re now expecting Cannondale tandems made off-shore to begin arriving to consumers — Cannondale, Trek and other major brand owners — who don’t think twice about buying bikes made off-shore. Hopefully the made in the U.S.A., hand-crafted tandem builders who have not gone off-shore will not see any market share erosion that might otherwise entice them to begin outsouring.
- TRAVEL & TOURS. There is definitely a correlation between high-end buyers and package tandem tour regulars as the premier tandem tour provider — Santana — continues to offer spectacular events around the world that attract a very loyal and committed following. I’m always reminded when I check out the price of single bike touring companies that Santana’s tours really do provide their clients with a good value. Erickson Cycle Tours seems to remain great-values in European tandem tours, and Rob Templin’s Second Summer Tours have the Pacific Rim covered. Tandems East offers great values in package tours, but you’ve got to stay on your toes to catch them and have 3-weeks to spare for their New Zealand trips. Pennywise has seen a change in leadership, but they continue to have a formula for tours that clearly make them THE BEST VALUE in tandem tours. Tandem Rallies are still a good value, but the tendency to add frills and days to the events and up-scale accommodations has brought with it an ever-increasing cost premium that can put a four-day rally into the $750.00 range plus some meals on your own.
- PARALYMPICS & OUTREACH. The one aspect of tandem cycling that’s definitely growing, at least in exposure, is related to competitive as well as recreational cycling for the physically impaired (e.g., sight, sound, loss of limb, etc). Between an entirely new community of organizations such as the Rush-Miller Foundation, Club VIBES in Knoxville, TN, Panagiotis Mission Team TANDEM in Athens, Greece, The Blind Stoker’s Club of San Diego, CA, U.S. Blind Tandem Cycling Connection, CanVelo in Israel, the ongoing Paralympic Games movement and USA Cycling’s tandem camps, and a large number of US service men and women coming home with injuries who are interested in adaptive cycling solutions there is an almost underserved segment of the tandem community out there busting at the seams. By all means, if you have the ability to lend your support, time, or tandems to one of these groups please do so!
- WE’RE ALL GETTING OLDER. With respect to tandem ridership, I’m told that in certain markets younger parents looking to share the cycling experience with their kids are starting to show up again so perhaps there is some of that light at the end of the tunnel the larger cycling market is looking for from Gen Y. However, at least at tandem rallies and elsewhere I’m pretty confident the average age of tandem teams continues to creep higher. Some of that is goodness as it’s not at all unusual to see teams in their late 60’s and 70’s still out there enjoying the tandem lifestyle with 30+ years of tandem cycling and 100k miles under their belts. In some respects we’re still mere pups with our 15 years and 60k miles together on the road. As for the “kids”, every once in a while we’ll see a team in their 30’s show-up at an event, and I believe we even had a couple in their 20’s at the Southern Tandem Rally last year. But at least to my eye, the center of the bell curve continues to move to the right on age and remains heavily skewed to the right with a very sharp, short left-hand tail.
- TRICKLE DOWN TECHNOLOGY. For good or bad, single bike technology and fads continue to trickle into the tandem market with what appears to be about a two-year migration cycle.
- Bottom bracket technology continues to search for the Holy Grail… and all the while I’m confident the square taper was probably the right answer from the git-go simply in need of a technology re-fresh. But, be that as it may, we’ve now seen the appearance and disappearance of Octalink, ISIS, MegaExo/Giga-Pipe/Hollowpipe and now BB30, although Santana remains committed to Octalink when last I checked. Although I won’t name names, I’m hearing that BB30 has some of its own issues so I’m sure we’ll see something else before too long.
- Tapered fork steerers are also making their way onto tandems, albeit with the attendant hit on head tube production efficiency / complexity and a dizzying array of associated headsets that need to be stocked to support current and prior year model offerings, as is true of bottom brackets. Yes, yes… there are all kinds of claims out there regarding the “huge improvement” this provides. I simply dismiss most of that as marketing to the masses. After all, there have been triplets, quads, quints and off-road tandems riding around with 1.125″ steerers for decades with nary a concern or complaint about marginal strength, etc. IMHO, like most things in the bike industry this is another “innovation” that is designed to make people who already own a bike go out and buy a new one. And, well… it works.
- Carbon forks are pretty much old news, except that we’ve now gone through a huge swing over the past decade when the first composite forks for tandems began hitting the street from Alpha Q, then Wound-Up and then Reynolds. Of the three only Wound-Up (Advanced Composites) is still a going concern. Alpha Q sold out to True Temper who subsequently bailed out of the composite fork market about the same time as Reynolds. Santana figured out the fickle nature of the composite fork market early on and worked with its suppliers to develop their own house-branded composite forks. More recently, Co-Motion worked with several firms and selected one as their house-branded composite fork maker, while others are using the ENVE 2.0 model of forks to meet their needs. Are carbon forks all of what they’re cracked up to be? Yes and no. For some applications and teams, they’re a great choice. However, they’re still not the answer for all teams and steel remains a solid choice.
- Disc Brakes are ubiquitous on off-road tandems where some of the real torture testing has occurred for tandems: hydraulic remain top shelf but there are some mechanical systems that are just fine for all but the most hard-down downhill and free-rider tandem teams. Disc also continue to find their way onto more road tandems each and every day. Cannondale of all people was the first to make dual discs standard fare on their road tandems almost a decade ago, bucking warnings of certain doom offered by critics of the Avid BB7. A few years back Co-Motion followed suit and now sends most of their base model tandems out the door with the Avid BB7. Santana has developed and fielded three different rear disc brake systems over the past 13 years or so: first the Formula hybird, followed by the IRD Dual Banger and more recently the Bengal MB700T which is a pretty good brake once you install good pads. The question remains, do tandem teams really NEED a rear or dual discs? Our answer has always been, “it depends”. That will continue to be the right answer IMHO going forward, as some teams — either due to size or other requirements — truly do need something other than rim brakes and in some cases even discs aren’t the answer: only a bona fide drum brake will do and those have been hard to come by in recent years following the last production run of Arai drum brakes. We’re told the replacement is just about ready for prime time and will most likely hit the shelves at Tandems East before anywhere else. However, for some folks there is the never-ending pursuit for the perfect disc brake system: one that weighs the same or less than the rim brake solution is would replace. Over the past year or so there have been a flurry of new lightweight or high-heat dissipating rotors that the resident weight weenies at the BikeForums.net tandem sub-forum have been trying out and now there’s a not of buzz around the new disc brake systems being developed and fielded on cross bikes that they hope will be “good enough” for a tandems. We’ll see how that all plays out. In the mean time, the Avid is still about the right choice for 90% of all tandem teams, whereas another 5% may truly need a rear drum and another 5% either have a need or desire for a higher-heat resistant brake like the Bengal or “what’s next” once that gets sorted out by the self-appointed beta testers.
- Belt Drives from Gates remain a hot item. There were some growing pains as the 1st Gen CDC system fielded on Co-Motion had pulleys that were just a bit too big for the 28.5″ stoker compartments at 71t which made installation and removal of the 2000mm carbon belts a bit of a challenge. A 2nd Gen 69t pulley was fielded about the same time as Santana’s 74t pulley for their somewhat shorter, 27.75″ rear stoker compartments. The biggest break-through in the belt system came in late 2011 when the prices on the belts and pulleys plummeted to something that made them cost-competitive with chain drives as noted in a blog entry from December 2011. More recently, the new CenterTrack CDX systems have hit the street that solve most of the CDC issues. As for my take on the belts, if you’re buying a tandem that has a 28.5″ or 27.75″ stoker compartment that is compatible with the belts, there’s really no down side to the belt SO LONG AS you don’t want to fiddle with your tandem’s cranks and bottom brackets. These are turn-key systems designed to fit tandems in a specific way using specific types of off-sets. If you stray beyond the strict guidelines for the systems — or want a tandem with a stoker compartment that’s not exactly 28.5″ or 27.75″ — forget about it: the juice ain’t worth the squeeze. Moreover, you might be surprised to find that the weight weenie can probably cobble together a chain-driven system using daVinci’s cranks and some really lightweight bottom brackets that are almost on par with some of the Gates-based drive solutions. That said, the belts do provide a really awesome placebo effect on starts from a dead stop and sprints due to their zer0-slop hook-up and power transfer and that characteristic coupled with the light weight, low-maintenance and quite operation are what make the belt so attractive.
- Rohloff Internally Geared Hubs continue to grow in popularity, having first made their appearance on mostly off-road tandems well over ten years ago (check out the white Fandango Tourista with the Rohloff at right). I believe the surge in popularity is tied to the ability to make a chain-free tandem with the introduction of the Gates belts for both sync drive and primary drive. The pros and cons remain unchanged, where the true test for anyone considering a Rohloff-equipped tandem is a test ride. The muckier your riding conditions or the more prone to drive train failures your team is, the more likely you’ll fall in love with the Rohloff. Cons remain the cost, weight, locked-in gear ratios and some noise issues in certain gears, whereas the Pros are simplicity, robust design, on demand shifting even at a standstill, no gear duplication with uniform jumps and resistance to environmental hazards, e.g., the aforementioned mucked-up drive train or destruction of rear derailleurs, hubs or cassettes. Look for them to become more common as the off-road tandem market continues to expand in all directions: gravel grinding/trails, single track and 29ers.
- Shimano Digital Integrated Intelligence (Di2) / Electronic Shifting has now moved from the stratosphere into the tropopause region with the Ultegra level system. Regular readers may recall I reviewed our four-day test ride of a Di2-equipped Santana Beyond back in May 2011. At the time the biggest barrier to entry was the cost. However, with the introduction of the Ultegra-level Di2, you can now find the basic 5-piece groups for as little as $1,389 (MSRP $1,730) vs. the DuraAce 5 piece group at $2,199 (MSRP $2,679). They’ve also addressed some of the DuraAce Di2 issues by giving the front & rear derailleur’s their own micro-processor such that they work independently. Looked at another way, a tandem could now use a Di2 rear derailleur with a front mechanical triple if one were so inclined for tours or special trips where a granny ring might be desirable without having to leave the front derailleur attached to the bike as is the case with the DuraAce system. For regular riding, the Ultegra Di2 front derailleur could be used with the inner / granny ring removed just like a two-ring system. I believe Shimano has also seen the writing on the wall vis-a-via Calfee’s seat-post mounted battery modifications and will now offer a factory seat post battery option as well as various different length cables so that cable modifications are no longer needed. Now, while I remain pretty darn happy with my crisp, Campy 10 speed mechanical shifting I can now see the Di2 option becoming more viable with the lower price point, particularly for people who don’t want to fiddle with their tandem’s shifting every now and again, as is needed to keep cable-based systems running crisp. Will there be a 105-level Di2 that offers a front triple? I’ve got to think it’s in the works and the level of success that Shimano sees with the Ultegra Di2 at the lower price point will determine when to bring it to market.
Well, there you have it. There are certainly other aspects of tandem technology I could dive into, but these are the ones that I think will resonate with most readers. As you can tell, I’m somewhat wary of innovations that really aren’t innovations. Things like 29ers have their place, but can complicate things that don’t need to be all that complicated. For example, with dual disc brake technology a couple could easily have a do-it-all tandem with a simple change of the fork and wheels by building a 700c road frame with sufficient tire clearance to allow the fitment of some 650B fat tires for gravel grinding and off-road while steering clear of some frame size issues that come with those really tall 29″ tires mounted on what are essentially 700c rims. But, it’s these “new products” that keep the bike industry in business and that’s something I am interested in seeing. So, for those who crave the next thing, I’ll keep my eye on them and will share my candid views. So long as they work and don’t create bigger headaches for the dealers and owners, it’s all good.