Getting past 'the Schwinn mentality'

Jerry Slack, owner of the Cycle Loft in Burlington, Mass., has been in business for 25 years. He's seen bike sales ebb and flow, styles change, and technology improve.

At no time, he says, has the news been better for buyers.

"The $250 bicycle is twice the bike it used to be," he says, "no matter how you measure it - performance, weight, gear ratios, or ease of use."

Maurice Wynn agrees, and he isn't a bike seller but a product tester with the recreation and home improvement division of Consumer Reports magazine.

"You get much more bang for the buck," he concludes after his most recent study of mountain bikes.

Technology trickles down to all price levels, he says, citing brakes and frames as two areas where significant gains have been made.

"Prices are falling and there's a lot of good, useful technology out there," Mr. Wynn observes.

An exciting development, in Mr. Slack's view, is the advent of multi-geared bicycles for the youngest school-aged children.

"We have six-speed bikes in a 20-inch wheel size," he says. "This has made a big difference, because now kids down to ages 6 and 7 can keep up with their parents. There's no way a child can do this on a one-speed, coaster-brake-style bike, since the top speed and climbing ability is limited."

More versatile juvenile bikes have contributed to a growth in family riding during the past 10 to 20 years, Slack says.

Family rides may be on the upswing, but Slack and others in the bike industry believe general bike usage among children is declining. (See main story.)

"Parents think their kids should be riding bicycles, but they are reluctant to let them ride by themselves," Slack says. "Family riding is a way of keeping children on a bit of a leash. Kids aren't encouraged to ride their bikes to school anymore."

To some degree, the traditional, all-purpose bike faces more competition for the hearts of young people, many of whom get their kicks from skateboards, in-line skates, trick-oriented BMX bikes, and scooters, which are the current rage.

Still, many Americans think of bikes as something every child should have. Slack calls this "the Schwinn mentality," a reference to a brand familiar to baby boomers.

The general population, he says, continues to view bikes as toys - perhaps a holdover from the days when they were popular Christmas presents.

As a result, the majority of Americans (80 percent) turn to chain stores, including toy stores, when buying new bikes, while only 20 percent seek out bike shops, where the experts reside.

Richard Olken, executive director of the Bikes Belong Coalition and a former Cambridge, Mass., bike shop owner, says that consumers don't get service or qualified sales help in the big discount stores, "but they also don't get intimidated."

If consumers are put off by the heavy bike culture in some shops, Mr. Olken says to keep looking. There are about 6,800 bike dealers in the United States.

Some consumers, of course, like the prices in the big-box stores, which can pass along savings from volume buying to customers.

There's a "false economy" at work here, though, cautions Olken, who explains that these stores commonly sell the bikes in boxes, unassembled. For an additional charge, they may put them together, but the work is most often not done by skilled bike technicians, nor is there likely to be a service department.

"Most dealers wouldn't sell a bike out of the box because they know that it's not easy to assemble properly," says Ken Segerberg, project director for the National Bicycle Dealers Association. "There's a lot more enjoyment you receive from a bike when it's running properly."

People who try to save money by buying from chain stores often wind up at the bike shops once they realize their bike needs aren't being met.

"We make a ton of money on those bicycles, fixing and keeping them running for people," says Slack of the Cycle Loft.

Chris Cooper, an employee of Wheelworks in Belmont, Mass., says he sees a lot of customers come in with mass-merchant bikes. "One of the first things I check is whether the handlebars are tight," he says. "Five times out of 10 they aren't."

Trek Bicycles of Waterloo, Wis., a major manufacturer, doesn't sell bikes through big-box stores. "We built this company through independent dealers, and we believe in what they bring to the table, especially for kids," says Nate Tobecksen, Trek's corporate communications manager.

With so many brand and style options, parents need help negotiating a confusing sales landscape.

Young people, Mr. Tobecksen says, go for the "cool factor," that is, bikes that look like what older siblings or competitive riders might choose. Given a choice, children go for looks, but bike experts agree that fit is critical.

With children growing rapidly, some parents naturally seek out the least expensive bikes, perhaps the $89 model at a big-box store.

However, for $190 or $200, says Mr. Segerberg of the bike-dealers association, you can often find a decent-quality bike that will last much longer, be more enjoyable to ride, and have a higher resale value.

Buying a used bike is becoming increasingly popular among adults, who may not want to pay for a brand-new, high-performance bike, which can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. Some bike shops are now specializing in used equipment, while others, like the Cycle Loft, don't deal in used product.

Many parents search garage sales or the classified ads for used bikes for their children, but it's important to remember that many of these bikes may require a trip to the bike shop to put them in good running order and adjust the fit. This often runs between $50 and $100.

For the casual adult rider, though, Consumer Reports researcher Wynn says "you can spend about $300 to $350 for a new mountain bike and probably be very satisfied."

Many in this market, he says, may be interested in "hybrid bikes," a cross between mountain bike and road bike. These incorporate the sturdiness and upright riding position with narrower tires, like those on racing-style road bikes. There are also "comfort bikes," modified mountain bikes with softer seats, lower gearing, and shock-absorbing suspension features.

What Mr. Cooper of Wheelworks finds is that parents who come in looking for a child's bike "often have a fire lit under them. They say, 'Gee, I should get rid of my trusty, rusty, 25-year-old, 10-speed bike and embrace the modern era. They do it and the next thing you know they're going gangbusters."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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