With gravel and adventure riding on the rise, we ask: Is road cycling dying, or just having a midlife crisis?

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It’s Friday and you’re looking forward to a weekend ride, maybe even two. Options abound. Where will you go? What bike will you ride?

Increasingly the answer is not a standard road bike — and not on standard, paved roads. Whether you call it a gravel grinder, adventure riding, something-something Roubaix, or full on cyclocross or mountain biking, cyclists are increasingly drawn to roads less travelled. And a look at bike sales and event registration confirms it: wide-tired, adventure bikes and races are the biggest trend in U.S. cycling.

And if we are to believe hashtags, then #roadisdead. But is it? We asked USA Cycling and the “big three” bicycle manufacturers — Trek, Specialized, and Giant — to find out.

“Road is absolutely not dead,” commented USA Cycling’s President and CEO, Derek Bouchard-Hall. “It’s going through a midlife crisis.”

Road cycling’s ‘midlife crisis’

Like many a midlife crisis, this collective crossroads involves exploring alternative routes and new frontiers— one could even say it’s about redefining an identity.

More and more, traditional roadies are discovering new forms of cycling, opting for events geared toward personal achievement and adventure instead of a local Saturday criterium.

In terms of primary disciplines identified by USA Cycling members, road is falling behind mountain biking and cyclocross, with the latter being USA Cycling’s best-performing participant discipline at the moment. And even in ’cross, numbers are plateauing.

Participation is still high, Bouchard-Hall said, but there has been a distinct contraction.

“We were used to a growing trend because we had that for a decade. And now we are seeing less participation, and cancelled events, which is a bit startling to people,” said Bouchard-Hall. “But you have to remember how much it was pushed up and how high the level got, and now it’s coming off that peak. There is still a very robust participation level.”

The sport of cycling, in general terms, is healthy. Participants are merely shifting their interests. Many roadies are turning to dirt, and many would-be road racers are “competing” in Gran Fondos.

“It’s a diversification, and I don’t think that is a bad thing for our sport,” Bouchard-Hall said. “There are more ways to participate in cycling now than before. It’s part of what keeps the sport interesting, but it is tough for road cycling, because road cycling is losing its share. The shift has been slow; it’s not a market change. But I would expect it to go on for a little while longer.”

This doesn’t mean that the days of amateur road racing in the U.S. are numbered, however.

“These are trends we see through time,” Bouchard-Hall said. “If you look at trends through history, it’s not static. It goes through waves driven by the Olympics, Greg LeMond, the rise in mountain biking, John Tomac, etc. It’s constantly moving in waves, and I think it will come back and there will be a time again where road cycling is the cool, hip thing to do.

“There is something unique and different and special about being in a peloton or being in a group with a very singular focus that everyone participating is trying to get to that finish line. And I think there will come a time where people will revert to that.”

Confident as Bouchard-Hall may sound, he admits that this trend keeps him up at night. After all, USA Cycling is a business, and ultimately, this trend challenges their economic business model and the future of their programs.

“It is very concerning to me,” he said. “This is a very significant trend for USA Cycling as traditional road cycling is at the core of what we do, and it’s our core income. The number-one thing that provides us with the resources to do the work that we do is memberships, and road cycling is our biggest driver for memberships.

“It’s great that we’re seeing a nice growth in permits for gran fondos and gravel grinders and fun rides, but those are events that don’t require [racing] licenses, and that’s tough for our business model. We have to adapt to the changing market place so that our market place will continue to thrive even when the dynamics are not favourable to our existing business model. We are just going to change with it.”

What the industry is seeing

Whether the industry caught on to this trend, or has been driving it, may be up for debate, but for years now, bike brands have been trending toward wider tires, disc brakes and frames that are capable of handling much more than smooth pavement.

Representatives from Trek, Giant and Specialized all agreed that the trend is undeniable, but certainly not deadly.

“I think that, without a doubt, seeing the growth in an endurance style of riding cannot be ignored by any brand,” said Stephanie Kaplan of Specialized. “We are a performance brand and we’re not going to stop making Tarmacs or Amiras, but it absolutely cannot be ignored. And it’s very obvious that we’ve turned resources towards that and I don’t think that’s going to change. I think it’s only going to grow.”

Vanessa Christie, Specialized’s Global Women’s Brand Manager, argued that the nuances perhaps lie in semantics.

“People riding bikes on the road is not dead. It’s the opposite of that,” she said. “What’s different is that it has evolved and diversified. I think the description of ‘road’ and the places where rides go is being redefined.”

What’s driving this trend?

Factor 1: U.S. cycling needs a hero
In the past, U.S. cycling fans looked to riders such as Lance Armstrong and Greg LeMond as their country’s biggest stars. Today, riders like Tejay van Garderen and Andrew Talansky don’t have the same star power. U.S. women such as Megan Guarnier, Coryn Rivera, Chloe Dygert, and Kate Courtney are all performing at the highest level, but women’s racing still does not have the same draw as men’s racing (more on that below).

“There are many factors at play, but in this post-Lance era, we don’t have that attention and excitement and enthusiasm around [road] cycling as we did before,” said Bouchard-Hall. “This is something that’s been going on since 2012. Our peak of road cycling participation was in 2012 and it’s not coincidental that that was the time that Lance went on Oprah and announced his doping past. It’s not the only factor, and it would be incorrect to apply the entire trend to that, but that is part of the story.”

Factor 2: Riders want options
Exploration, new challenges and personal accomplishment are huge drivers behind this trend. It’s new, it’s exciting and it hasn’t yet been tainted by history.

“There is always going to be a place for competition and tradition road racing, but I think — and we see this in our customers — people don’t want to do just one thing. They are cyclists but also yogis and runners and this and that. I think there is something to our desire to be multifaceted,” said Kaplan. “ It doesn’t mean that road cycling is dying, it just means that instead of training everyday on the road and staring at your power meter, you get to ride on dirt and challenge yourself in new ways.”

Factor 3: Overcoming culture and safety issues
For all of its glory, road riding and racing has two distinct dark sides — traffic fatalities and the long shadow of performance-enhancing drug use. Stories of vehicle-on-cyclist accidents abound, with more and more being attributed to distracted driving, and we all know who ultimately loses in these incidents. There’s no question that, for many, riding on dirt roads provides a safe haven from the inherent danger of riding along crowded city streets or vacant, high-speed highways.

“When it comes to the cyclocross, mountain biking and fun-ride formats, there are things about it that a lot of people find attractive — enclosed spaces, no interacting with cars, it’s something you can bring your whole family to, and the community dynamic is very strong,” said Bouchard-Hall. “There is also an element of people getting a bit disenchanted with all the doping controversies and the idea of traditional competition.

Christie said more and more young cyclists are drawn to participation and exploration, rather than competition.

“Why people are responding to adventure riding is because we are making the culture — the history — now,” she said. “It doesn’t already have a defined culture, its history isn’t steeped in competition and victory. It’s still so young, and that is exciting, especially for a younger generation. Road has been geared toward competition, and I do think we are seeing a shift toward community-based style of riding.

Emily Bremer, Women’s Marketing Manager for Trek Bicycle, echoed that desire for culture and safety. “We are certainly seeing a growing interest in mountain bike and non-road riding disciplines, for several reasons I’m sure,” she said. “The obvious answers are that you don’t have to fear distracted drivers on the trails, and the difference in attitude of mountain biking versus road riding in general is pretty substantial.”

How Women’s Cycling fits into a growing segment

While smaller than the men’s segment as a whole, women continue to be the fastest-growing segment in bicycling. And while we may not have a Lance to look up to at the moment, we do have a Megan, Kristin, Amber and Chloe — the UCI’s top ranked rider in the world, a three-time gold Olympic medalist, a world time trial champion, and a multi-junior world champion. When it comes to American stars in the sport of road cycling, there have never been more; they’re just not men.

For USA Cycling, however, this does not translate into women bucking the overall trends. Last year, USA Cycling did see a slight increase in its percentage of female members (still only 14 percent), but the overall trend in women’s participation matches that of men’s — decreasing participation in road cycling and increasing participation in cyclocross and mountain bike events.

“Unfortunately these great [professional] cyclists are not getting the same general public attention in the way that men have, particularly with the Tour de France,” said Bouchard-Hall. “In the community they are inspiring lots of people. I mean if you are out there riding by yourself, trying to go as fast as you can, and you’re not picturing Mara Abbott in the final kilometres in Rio trying to fend off those three, you just don’t have the passion for cycling.

“I think we have all been inspired by that moment, and other moments this past year by the women, but that has not transcended to the general public. Mara Abbott was not on the cover of Sports Illustrated or Newsweek. It isn’t transcending into the general public which is necessary for bringing in new people to the sport. That’s a challenge. I hope our society will embrace those stories more broadly as they have on the men’s side, but we are just not seeing that yet.”

When it comes to retail, it’s a bit of a mixed bucket — the women’s road market is still growing, but so are the other disciplines.

“After analyzing the attendance data from our field events and our sales figures, we do see an increase in gravel and adventure cycling among women,” said Isabel del Castillo, Global PR Manager for Liv, the women’s brand under the Giant Bicycles umbrella. “This actually connects to the general growth of the entire women’s cycling market.

“But this doesn’t mean that women road cycling is declining; it is actually just growing at a slower rate now. Road cycling is already a mature segment while these other two categories are new trends and currently in the early stages of their lifecycle. We don’t think road is dead, and we are still investing in the development of top new road products to keep our commitment to women road cyclists worldwide.”

Similarly, Specialized saw sales of its women’s performance road bike, the Amira, outperform that if the men’s equivalent, while also seeing triple growth in sales of its women’s adventure bike.

Kaplan credits the spike in off-road riding to dedicated efforts and clinics that have gone into getting more women and kids onto mountain bikes.

“There aren’t a lot of organizations that put on ‘how to ride your road bike’ clinics, but you see so many mountain-bike clinics and lessons,” she said. “There has been a more significant push, and that’s paying off. Not just in sales, but also in the camaraderie and community that it has built.”

Is road cycling dead? No, and it’s not dying, either. But it is evolving. Perhaps this means that like Peter Sagan, Pauline Ferrand-Prevot and Marianne Vos, we may see an increase in cross-discipline athletes.

And as consumers, the correct answer to the minimum number of bikes one should own — “n+1” — rings truer than ever.

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