I’ve recently been spending some time exploring outside of the usual bounds of a cycling tech journalist. Earlier this month, I visited the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, hunting for gadgets that might be of interest to cyclists. At the recent Outdoor Retailer show in Denver, Colorado, I wanted to take a look at how other outdoor industries market themselves, and what sort of imagery they project to their target audience.
I’ve long held the opinion that the cycling industry — at least on the road side — is far too insular, primarily catering to consumers who are already neck-deep in our curious little sport. And to be honest, I didn’t fully appreciate the severity of the industry’s myopia. At best, the way bike companies currently market road cycling is unproductive, non-inclusive, and lacking in imagination. At worst, it’s just plain stupid.
Suffer. Race. Win. Endure. Train. Harden the fuck up.
These are the sorts of ideals typically portrayed in road cycling advertising. We idolize competition and glorify professional athletes, celebrate physical discomfort, and equate difficulty with enjoyment. Being able to raise your hands in victory is everything; second-place is the first loser. To succumb to pain is to fail.
Naturally, the visual imagery associated with those ideals is about what you’d expect — and exactly what you see in reality. Pro riders in team kit competing at the world’s toughest events. A sponsored marquee athlete crossing the line ahead of the peloton after five grueling hours in the saddle. Another rider training solo in the mountains bundled up in rain gear while Mother Nature throws torrents of cold water down from the skies.
Rarely are the people portrayed ever smiling. Because, according to the marketing collectively put forward by the bicycle industry, riding on the road isn’t supposed to be enjoyable. It’s supposed to be hard. Suffering is fun. Whereas activities that are classified as “Type I fun” are enjoyable while you’re doing them, road cycling is depicted more often as Type II fun: It’s only well after the experience has ended that you can look back on it fondly. Ex Duris Gloria.
The marketing associated with road cycling exhibits a strong disconnect between what people are really doing and what the industry (and many of the sport’s dyed-in-the-wool veterans) thinks they should be doing. In magazine and website ads, road cycling almost invariably equates to competition, even if it’s just with one’s friends. It’s not something you participate in; rather, it’s an aspirational goal. Riding on the road isn’t something you’re supposed to do because it makes you feel good. You do it for the purpose of getting faster.
This feels misguided. Placed next to the positive messages being used in the rest of the outdoor industry, road cycling doesn’t look like much fun at all.
In terms of the gear itself, it’s all about stiffness and efficiency. Watts saved. Bench test numbers. Gram scales. Who used what in that race.
This is all well and good if you only want to view road cycling purely within the context of professional sport. In that environment, it all makes sense. You’re supposed to aspire to be like the people shown in the ads, not feel like you can relate to them. It’s awe-inspiring. Idols exist on pedestals, where they belong.
And indeed, many of us relish in those ideals. The most memorable rides are often the hardest ones, and it’s rare that a group road ride doesn’t devolve into an impromptu road race. It’s cool to be fit. It’s cool to be fast.
Few people will argue that road cycling is, by its very nature, hard. Tell your non-cycling friends that you climbed for an hour straight last Saturday and many will look at you like you’ve got horns growing out of your head. The best rides in hindsight indeed often seem the most miserable at the time. Strava, the self-proclaimed “social network for athletes”, is largely built on the premise of continually challenging yourself to get better, to compare your performances to those of others – and it’s hugely popular. The word, strava, is literally the Swedish translation of “strive”. That last ride you did was pretty good, but hey, you know? You should strive to do better next time.
All of this ignores the bigger picture. If you ride on the road, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re interested in pinning on a number every weekend. Is it a bad thing to not have a training goal in mind every time you clip into your pedals? Are sunshine, fresh air, and exploration not worthy pursuits?
We ran a reader survey here at CyclingTips last year, and I’ve recently been revisiting the results to refresh myself of who our audience is: their likes and dislikes, their habits and lifestyles. As I already knew, as a reader base, CyclingTips readers are about as hardcore road cyclists as they come. More than 95% of you ride on the road yourselves, and nearly every one of those riders has more than one bike at their disposal. More than 75% of you ride three to six days per week, and over 90% consider yourselves either “intermediate” or “advanced” riders.
And yet less than a third of respondents hold a road racing license. It turns out that most of the people who own racing bikes don’t actually race, and instead choose them because they’re wicked fun to ride. Odd.
That new endurance road bike may put you in a more comfortable position and smooth out rough pavement, but what’s portrayed in the marketing collateral is a custom-made version with pro-only geometry that was pounded at Paris-Roubaix. It doesn’t make sense.
Now, compare this with the outdoor industry.
Fun. Adventure. Stoke. Challenge. Experience.
These are ideals that aren’t just implied in that world, but are actually conveyed in writing at the Outdoor Retailer show. Being outside in the woods and mountains is supposed to be fun. You’re supposed to have a good time. People are smiling. As a friend of mine said to me a while ago (and I wish I could remember who it was), no one wins at camping.
For sure, we’re not talking about apples to apples comparisons here. It can certainly be said that hiking beneath the giant redwoods is just about recreation, that pitching a tent and roasting marshmallows by the fire isn’t exactly a strenuous activity, and even skiing involves being carried uphill on a chairlift so you can enjoy the benefits of gravity.
Yet all of those activities exist on a spectrum.
Going for a casual walk in the woods is easy; a 100-mile off-road ultra-marathon is anything but. Pitching a tent and staring into a campfire is easy; being tossed into the Survivor reality-TV show is not. Gleefully making your way in between the trees on a perfect glade run is easy; ask Lindsey Vonn what she thinks of World Cup downhill racing.
The difference is that much of the outdoor industry tailors how those activities are portrayed so as to appeal to the masses. The hard parts are there, but they’re downplayed in favor of the more enjoyable aspects. The whole point is to look at an advertisement and think to yourself, “That person is having fun. Maybe I’ll try that.”
Suffering your brains out? Not fun. Idolizing a racer who just laid it down on the pavement at 60km/h and is covered in road rash? It’d be like an ad for rock climbing constantly reminding you that you could fall and die at any moment, or only showcasing Vonn’s most recent torn ACL. You get the idea. None of that brings in new users.
None of these concepts are unknown to the cycling industry, which continues to perpetuate this imagery.
“The biggest problem is that they still think it’s something of an arms race, that the majority of people really care about those last little grams,” said a veteran bicycle industry marketing executive who preferred to remain anonymous. “That audience continues to get smaller and smaller. The majority of people doesn’t interact with what’s going on at the professional level. That’s not to say those people don’t exist, but how many different ways can you talk about ‘lighter, stiffer, faster’ things? For the most part, 99% of the people don’t even know what that feels like. They just want a great-riding bike that allows them to go out and do what they love and be with their friends. Most of those people are now choosing to do that in their own way, and on their own roads, so to speak.
“The classic top-down marketing on innovation ignores the real personalized love and passion and beauty of the sport,” the marketing executive continued. “It’s not even really a sport for a lot of folks; it’s an activity. There’s a gap there. I can appreciate the notion that you have to prove your products on the world’s largest stage — professional road racing, in this case — and that trickles down, but I don’t know that a lot of trickle really matters now like it did once upon a time.”
Yet if there are people in the industry who already recognize the issue, why does it continue? Apparently, old habits truly die hard.
“It’s a safe mentality; what’s always worked continues to work in their minds. A lot of those companies are trying to figure out a way to connect with people, and those bigger brands, in particular, are having a hard time with their traditional model to build and inspire community in new ways. They’re so entrenched in their old ways and the size that they are. It’s hard to turn those big boats. It’s like the last of the dinosaurs in some ways.
“More and more people are realizing that it really is more about the journey than the victory. It’s the people and places you meet along the way that you remember at the end of the day. That notion of escapism and camaraderie and experiencing the world through what is a really beautiful way to do — the bike — that’s the joy of it.”
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with road racing in and of itself (the health of professional cycling is a topic for another day). As I’ve stated many times, it’s one of the most challenging and most beautiful sports in the world. And yes, some of my most memorable rides have also been some of my hardest. But sport is not life, and to fixate on that single aspect of road riding is to foolishly choose to limit its appeal.
One bright spot is the exploding world of gravel and adventure riding, and I’m not at all surprised by its appeal. After all, getting outside and having a good time with your friends are some of the core themes there. Exploring the world. Challenging yourself. Breathing some fresh air.
Those more lighthearted ideals are pulling an increasing number of long-time roadies away from their skinny tires in search of more lighthearted experiences, and it’s refreshing to see. Every industry person I’ve spoken to has confirmed (usually off the record) that traditional road cycling is in sharp decline, but those fatter-tired alternatives are all on the upswing.
The mountain bike world learned this lesson ages ago. Cross-country racing is still a thing, but mainstream trail riding is all about getting your stoke on right then and there. As it turns out, Type II fun is still awesome, but there’s nothing wrong with Type I fun, either.