Twin Cities on Two Wheels

A World Without Spandex?
Millions of Americans like the idea of biking, but are put off by form-fitting clothes and the race to build the lightest racing bike. There’s a market waiting to explode—and several local companies already cater to it.
By Dan Gilchrist

Dave Gray is a skinny, bearded guy whose bike resembles something you might see in a Dr. Seuss book. A single-speed, purple contraption with colossal, four-inch-wide tires, it’s called the Pugsley, and it’s designed in part for wilderness explorers who need extra stability while riding on loose terrain or especially rugged trails. But Gray gets stopped all the time by people who desire one of these human-powered ATVs for their farm, lake property, or deer-hunting trip. The Pugsley is just one of a number of models that Gray has helped design for Surly bikes, a nationally known, locally based brand whose website and catalogs feature the Warehouse District, First Avenue, and other local landmarks (not to mention male Surly employees riding bikes in dresses).

Surly has carved out a solid niche selling steel frames and specialty parts, and Gray says the brand is popular nationally with “shop rats”—bike-store employees with champagne taste in bikes and beer budgets. Surly also caters to single-speeders (“Going Steady,” p.45) who appreciate the maker’s single-cog-friendly frames and its “flip flop” hubs that allow quick switching from fixed-gear riding to coasting . It also makes niche products (“the Singleator”) that help convert multi-speed bikes to single speed.

Surly, which expects to sell 10,000 bike frames this year, benefits from being owned by and sharing a location with Quality Bicycle Products in Bloomington, one of the largest bike-parts distributor in the cycling industry. QBP has grown from its West Bank bike-cooperative origins to an employer of more than four hundred people, many of whom live for cycling. In addition to certified sustainable practices that go as far as on-site worm-composting, the company offers amenities like indoor bike racks, showers, changing rooms, and even a competitive league that challenges teams of employees to rack up the most bike commuter miles.

While Surly and QBP focus on the hard goods—bikes, frames, parts—a number of smaller companies see a promising market in soft goods: clothing and other stylish accoutrements for the growing numbers of cyclists who see riding as a lifestyle rather than a race. Twin Six, founded by locals Ryan Carlson and Brent Gale, is one such outfit, infusing their ideas about what constitutes good design into street apparel for Joe and Jane Biker. They recently relocated from Gale’s basement to a space near Cedar and 42nd Street in South Minneapolis to handle their expanding inventory.

Gale was working at a local ad agency several years ago when he had what he calls “a moment of clarity,” in which he realized that most bike clothes were either horribly dull or plastered with logos (he calls them “billboard jerseys”). Twin Six’s jerseys and T-shirts are “cycling inspired” but not necessarily bike-specific. They sell a sporty jersey with an argyle design, for example, and T-shirts that bear a drawing of a bike wheel with wings or a vintage-look bicycle below the word “ride.” For the mainstream bicycling world, where the Tour de France’s bright yellow jersey is the pinnacle of achievement, this is subtle stuff. “We’re looking for people who are aesthetically minded,” said Carlson.

The market for bikes and biking accessories is just now catching up with those for snowboarding, skateboarding, surfing, and motocross—sports that have spawned companies who push a lot of soft goods to enthusiasts and, almost as important, wannabes. According to Gene Oberpriller, proprietor of the One-on-One Bicycle Studio (“Going Steady,” p.45) “The Burton company sells a lot more sweatshirts than they do snowboards. There are ten or twelve shoe companies for skateboarders. That’s what we’re waiting for in the bike market.” He speculated that the lag in the biking market was due to its broad appeal, which makes it difficult to target demographically. While a large share of snowboarders are in their late teens or early twenties, bicyclists can be just about any age.

Helping matters along, he said, is the fact that bike culture is becoming more detached from the world of high-end racing. Lately, he has seen friends leave major bike companies in order to join up with clothing makers like Swobo, a San Francisco company that specializes in bikewear that looks like streetwear and favors natural fabrics over synthetic fibers. “It’s not about Lance [Armstrong], it’s not about Lycra,” said Oberpriller, himself a former Lycra-clad professional mountain-bike racer. “People who are into single-speeds aren’t suiting up to be Lance—no offense to Lance and to people who like to suit up like him. They just want to ride their bikes.”

The shift is epitomized by a new online ad campaign by Shimano, perhaps the world’s best-known bike-parts maker. The ad, apparently targeted at the estimated 160 million non-biking Americans, touts upscale but low-maintenance, auto-shifting coaster bikes from various manufacturers. Its tagline: “Less Tour de France, More Cul de Sac.”

 

31,000 calories are in a gallon of gasoline. If people could drink gasoline, they could ride about 912 miles on one gallon. 55 miles is the average per-gallon rate for hybrid automobiles.

#4 is the rank of Minneapolis (among cities with a population over 250,000) in numbers of regular bike commuters (and the only cold-weather city in the top ten).

10,000 people commute to work or school in Minneapolis during warm months; 2,500 in the winter.

54 gallons of gas are saved annually by commuting by bike four days a week on a four-mile one-way route.

100 bicycles could be built with the energy and resources needed to build one medium-sized car.

99.3 percent of bicycles sold in the U.S. last year were imported (virtually all from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong).

52 percent of Americans say they want to bike more than they do now.

Check out these links:
Bicyclopolis Sequence
Bicyclopolis.com
BikeJerks Cyclist Portraits Slideshow
More BikeJerks Slideshows

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