When Bikes Ruled The World. A Trip Back In Time.

Imagine a moment in time when bicycles were the biggest topic for everyone to be talking about. It happened and greatly influenced bike culture today. 

The greatest year to be a bike retailer in the United States was 1972-1974. These are the years many industry veterans refer to as the Bicycle Boom. Time Magazine said it was “the bicycle’s biggest wave of popularity in its 154-year history.” In the early 1970s there were approximately 15 million bicycles sold each year which, for the first time in decades, surpassed car sales. To create a sense of how big this boom was, seven million bicycles were sold in the US in 1970- and only 200,000 of those bikes were lightweight 3-speed or derailleur equipped bikes geared toward adults. The majority of bikes sold in 1970 were children’s bikes, approximately 5.5 million. By 1972 the bikes for adults grew 40x with sales breaking 8 million making it the first time since 1890 that nearly one-half of all bicycle production was geared for adults.  The Bicycle Boom was so enormous that the US has yet to match those annual sales numbers.

We can give credit to the Baby Boomers for sparking such growth in the cycling during the early 70s. As many of the Boomers were in their early twenties they were seeking inexpensive transportation and a new form of recreation and exercise. Boomers also had an eye on reducing pollution and they saw the bicycle as their answer.

But the Baby Boomer’s weren’t the sole cause, it was a perfect storm of events as manufacturers in Asia were producing lightweight and affordable bikes for adults. Brands like Fuji, Miyata, and Nishiki are credited as the brands of the Bicycle Boom. They were so dominant that they caught US manufacturer Schwinn on their heels, unable to produce a bike that could compete on quality and price. This arguably started Schwinn’s 20-year demise from their throne as the brand of choice in the US.

National Geographic, May, 1973. Grove, N. “Bicycles are Back, and Booming.”

The three largest US-based bicycle manufacturers still operating today were all born from the 70s Bicycle Boom; Cannondale in 1971, Specialized in 1974, and Trek in 1976. Many of the bike retailers in the country also began in the 1970s and the ones that were already in existence saw massive growth. Bicycles were in such high demand that bike retailers weren’t the only ones cashing in- department stores, gas stations, and small garage shops popped up like flies, selling whatever bikes they could get their hands on. Prior to the boom many bike shops were known as one-stop fix all service centers and you were just as likely to find a grease covered mechanic working on a lawnmower as a bicycle.

If bike retailers that started up in the 70s played their cards right, they rode on four more distinct waves in the cycling trends. They likely continued to sell lightweight, Asian-made road bikes in late 70s and early 80s. They expanded into BMX in early 80s but by the end of the decade were focused on the massive growth of mountain biking fueled by American manufacturers like Specialized, Cannondale, and GT. Mountain bikes would carry them through a good chunk of the 90s until 1999 when road cycling made a monstrous comeback on the coattails of Lance Armstrong’s Tour de France performances. As the 2000s came into focus many bike retailers could have also jumped on board with the growing army of triathletes.

From 1970 to 2000 IBRs grew from sales and service to true community hubs. People would walk into their neighborhood store, grab a magazine, and talk about the sport. Discussion bounced from newest bikes, to comparing technologies, dissecting suspension systems, and which riders were lighting up major tours. Club rides started at the IBR and when they finished everyone would grab a beer from the communal fridge. Everyone knew each other’s name and every store had a distinct club-like feel. If you were in the club, you were in for life. If you weren’t in the club, you were only a purchase and a bike ride away from earning the secret pass to belonging. It was a true subculture. Bike retailers were their own niche and the center of all cycling knowledge for their community.

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