“Women who ride love riding just like the guys”: Talking about the women’s cycling market with Trek CEO John Burke

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Women drive 70 to 80 percent of all consumer purchasing. As such, they are the world’s most powerful consumers. The cycling industry knows this, and for years now, has been trying to bring in a share of that growing market.

Gone are the old “pink it and shrink it” days, and the women’s segment today is filled with sophisticated designs, fashion-forward apparel, innovated technology and more than anything: opportunity. While cycling is growing in popularity, women are still only a tiny percentage of the people riding bikes, and for the industry that means a huge potential for new consumers.

We previously talked with executives at Giant and Specialized, two of the “Big 3” companies that control the lion’s share of the bicycle market, and now completing the Big 3, we had the opportunity to sit down with the CEO of Trek, John Burke.

Trek made their targeted push for the women’s market back in 2000, when they launched their WSD (Women’s Specific Design) line of bicycles and accessories. Sixteen years later, Trek continues to try to meet the unique needs of female cyclists while appealing to their wallets.

Earlier this year, Ella CyclingTips visited Trek’s global headquarters in Waterloo, Wisconsin, for its inaugural Global Women’s Summit, where 54 women’s ‘advocates’ (a.k.a brand ambassadors) and media from around the globe gathered to learn about Trek’s ongoing campaign to make cycling more accessible to women everywhere. During the summit we snatched 20 minutes in Burke’s busy schedule to talk about the women’s market and how to get more women on bikes.

Trek's CEO John Burke (left) hosted 54 Trek advocates at his house this September. The advocate program is Trek's latest effort to reach more women.
Trek’s CEO John Burke (left) hosted 54 Trek advocates at his house this September. The advocate program is Trek’s latest effort to reach more women.

Ella CyclingTips: Jumping right in, what is Trek’s long term plan for the women’s market?

John Burke:  Trek’s long term plan is to build awesome products that we love. We’ve got a lot of great women who work here and we like to build great things. The other thing we’re really good at doing, is taking care of customers. We think that there are great opportunities for women in cycling and, through ways that we can influence the market, we’re trying to get more women involved in cycling.

Ella: What is your percentage of female customers versus male customers?

JB: I don’t know. That’s kind of a hard number to tell because sometimes women buy women’s bikes and some times they buy men’s bikes. One study that we have going on is trying to figure out how many women are actually buying products and using products, and at retail, how many women are working at retail and just kind of trying to figure that out. We think there’s a big gap.

Ella: Trek was among the first to jump at the women’s market with your WSD line. Is this something Trek wants to continue or is it going to be more size-specific rather than gender specific?

JB: You know, that’s a really great question. And it’s something we are working through right now. I think [women’s products] are really good to have. There are certain parts of the bike that need to be gender specific. And then there are certain parts of the bike that don’t need to be gender specific all the time. It’s really hard to put customers in a box and say you’re this or you’re that. I kind of like for the customers to make their own choices and so I think we’re going to continue to have women specific products and then we’ll continue to have more choices for women to make.

My wife rides a lot. She rides 6,000 – 7,000 miles a year and she’s a really good rider.  She has a Silque [Trek’s women’s specific endurance road bike] and she loves her Silque, but she likes her [unisex] Domane more. I think there are different types of consumers and they want different things. And I think making sure that you satisfy  those riders is a good thing.

Ella: Did WSD initially succeed at what you were trying to do? Did it increase your sales and/or get more women riding?

JB:  Yes. For sure. One of the great things about Trek is that we like to sell bikes, but we also like to do good things. When we came out with the WSD product maybe 15 or 20 years ago, we noticed that there was a huge gap in a male-dominated sport. And we said there should be some specific products for women.  That worked out really well, and then we started helping shops do a better job at taking care of women customers, we did Ladies Night Out, and we’ve done a lot of things to get women into the sport.

Ella: And that’s been profitable for you?

JB:  Yeah, the more people ride bikes, the better off it is for us. But there’s a long way to go. I take a look at what’s happened in running.  The amount of women out running at 7 o’clock on a Sunday morning … it’s women to men, 5 to 1! And you just look at all the statistics in running and you just go, ‘wow that’s amazing’. That should happen in cycling.

Women who ride love riding just like the guys, you know. Riding a bike is an awesome thing.

And especially in retail, I think there’s an incredible opportunity [to grow].

Trek hosted its first Global Women's Summit this year, an attempt to make cycling more accessible to women.
Trek hosted its first Global Women’s Summit this year, an attempt to make cycling more accessible to women.

Ella: What’s your gender ratio, here, at Trek? 

JB: I don’t know. We don’t track that. But it’s a really diverse office, and I’ll tell you one thing that’s really interesting, is if you look at a 10 to 20 year time frame, the amount of women in powerful positions here has grown significantly. I think it’s just about having really competent people, and it continues to get better.

Ella: Talk to me about what is happening to road. It seems to be a really tough market. In design, you’re struggling with every gram, innovation is getting harder and, especially in the women’s market, more riders are going off-road, to gravel or mountain biking. 

JB: You know, that’s a really a great question and nobody has a simple answer to it. I think that one of the things that’s going on in the road market is a growing safety concern. I think that’s the biggest factor that’s out there. If you take a look at the United States, the amount of fatalities over the past 15 years has always been between like 650 to 800 per year.

One of the things that we’ve done here is that we saw the safety concern maybe three years ago and we hooked up with Clemson University to drive the safety study. And it’s been a phenomenal study and we’ve learned an awful lot. We are big believers of safe riding, and the latest catalog we came out with is really dedicated to safety.

I think cycling is getting safer as we speak and I think it’s going to continue to become safe and safer over the next few years. I think taking leadership in the safety area is a good thing for us to do.

Ella: Safety aside, what do we need to do to get more women on bikes? 

JB: Retail is the key. I think a lot of women get turned off to the point they don’t even walk in the door. You lose a certain percentage of people right there, and then you lose another percentage of people when they walk in the door and they see an environment that they just don’t want to be in.

And I think the shop is really the centre of the cycling community.

Ella: Still, despite the online market?

JB: Yeah. Even with online retail, I think the bike shop is still where people go to get information, where people can go to find out about rides, and where people get their bikes fixed. The shop is the centrepiece, and I think great shops are the ones that are really good at participation and getting women involved. That’s where you make an impact.

With safety a major concern, Trek, too, is recognising a shift away from road and toward dirt.
With safety a major concern, Trek, too, is recognising a shift away from road and toward dirt.

Ella: You’ve got Trek Factory Racing, and on the women’s side, you’ve got Drops Cycling, Katie Compton and Rachel Atherton all riding Trek. Where does racing fit in in all of this? Does having a presence in racing help you sell product?

JB:  I love racing. I’ve never seen a bad bike race, but what I’m more concerned about is just overall cycling.

I think racing is good for everything. People just seeing other people involved in the sport, the way races pushes technology, and the interest of fans — the bigger racing is, the better it is for everyone. I can only speak for what we do. We own a racing team and we did that for a number of reasons. It’s a good promotional thing, but most importantly, we really use that team for product development. Professional riders use products to the absolute extreme and you can get just amazing feedback. So that’s what works for us.

It’s important to us to have good people on the team. And one of the things I’m really proud of is the athletes that we associate with. Some of these people are just great people to be with and that’s who you want representing your brand.

Ella: Final question: give me your best sales pitch. Why try cycling?

JB:  Why try cycling? Because you’ll never run into somebody who rides their bike and regrets it. The bicycle can change your life. It can change your life as a kid, it can change your life as an adult.


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