WATERLOO, Wis. — Bill Lange thought his bike-riding days were over. Gears were complicated. Stores were intimidating. Plus he wasn’t exactly itching to put those tight spandex shorts on his 58-year-old body.
Then Lange, of suburban Milwaukee, saw an ad for a new type of bike out this spring. The Lime, by the world’s top bicycle-maker, Trek, automatically shifts gears, has a wide seat and fluid style that looks like bikes Lange rode as a kid.
He was sold on the concept and bought the three-speed Lime for himself and one for his wife, no small investment at about $500 each.
“Anything that has gears — it’s complicated. And at 58, you don’t want complicated, you want automatic,” Lange said.
Bicycle-makers like Trek — the Waterloo, Wis.-based brand that Lance Armstrong rode in his Tour de France victories — and other industry players hope these automatic bikes will encourage non-riders to take up the sport. With an estimated 160 million people considered potential riders, strong sales could reverse the flat growth and dwindling rider numbers that have plagued the industry for years.
The bicycling industry saw sales of all products — from bikes to those spandex shorts — at nearly $6.2 billion in 2005. But it’s estimated to have dropped to $5.8 billion last year, said Jay Townley, an industry analyst with Gluskin Townley Group, based in Lyndon Station, Wis.
Sales have been flat for the past 12 years, and companies are looking to woo new riders, he said. The new automatic-shifting products could increase the number of the country’s cyclists, he said, by cutting out the intimidation factor.
The number of riders — age 7 and up who ride at least six times a year — dropped from its most recent peak of 56.3 million in 1995 to 43.1 million 10 years later.
The industry has performed relatively well, especially on sales of road bikes made popular by Armstrong, a seven-time Tour de France winner, said Andy Clarke, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists.
But something is needed to woo casual riders, even if they’re just hopping on their bike to grab a cup of coffee or going around the block with their kids, said Clarke, whose group has 300,000 members in affiliated clubs.
“Long-term, to keep replenishing the customer base, it’s the non-enthusiast that has to be spoken to and brought into the fold,” Clarke said.
Automatic shifting uses a computerized gear from bike component maker Shimano called Coasting, which is also used in new bikes by Trek, Raleigh America and Giant Bicycle Inc.
Shimano spent several years figuring out why ridership has decreased, and realized people wanted to ride for fun, they were just intimidated, said Shannon Byrant, Coasting coordinator for the Irvine, Calif.-based company. The company was shocked to realize its efforts at making newer, more high-performance bikes weren’t winning over new riders.
“We come to find out these people not only don’t want high performance, they don’t even care about it,” she said.
So Shimano designed the Coasting system to place enjoyment over performance and each of the three brands incorporated it into a design.
On the Lime, it works like this: A hub in the front wheel acts as a speedometer and communicates electronically through wires within the bike frame to a computer near the pedals. The computer then communicates with a three-speed internal shifter. The speedometer sends a signal to switch gears — which makes a quick, quiet buzz — after riders hit 7 mph and again at 11 mph. The pedals power the system so no batteries are needed.