I've been spending a lot of time in bike shops lately: mostly Evans, but occasionally Halfords, Cycle Surgery, and others. I have no hesitation recommending Evans, by the way, as I've found their staff knowledgeable and helpful, and a big plus for them in my book is that they are helping fund the London Cycling Campaign's Space for Cycling campaign: exactly the kind of thing that the big bike firms in the UK should be getting involved with, in my view, for their own self-interest. (Brompton previously helped with the LCC's Go Dutch campaign for the 2012 Mayoral elections). Another plus for Evans is that they give a 10% discount for in-store purchases on presentation of an LCC membership card. They even allowed me to take an expensive bike out to test-ride it, for no charge, with only a credit card handed over and sight of a British Library card as proof of identity, and there was no sales pressure at all (I didn't buy it). The branch in question, my nearest one, was their huge shop in the most unpromising location imaginable, on the roaring A41 trunk road in Hendon, on the edge of a steep hill, in the Bikeless Borough of Barnet. I once said to them that I thought this was a terrible location for a bike shop, but they assured me, to my surprise, that they see quite a few commuters cycling past on the A41. In any case they usually seem to be busy, though I suspect most customers get there by car.
Anyway, my point is to make this observation, having spent some time looking at the bikes they stock in London bike shops: the bikes you see in shops are different to the bikes you see on the streets, predominantly. Put the other way round, if, you survey the bikes you see people using for practical tasks on the streets of London, they are untypical of the bikes the shops mostly seem to be trying to sell. This is not entirely true, of course. There is some overlap of the sets. But they are different sets, and that causes me to wonder why.
|At Asda. Spot who hasn't learned to use the iPhone camera without their finger over the lens yet.|
The bike behind mine in the photo has the mudguards and rack, plus bungees, and bell, but battery, not dynamo, lights. It does however have some sort of chain-guard, a refinement which mine sadly lacks. The lady loading the bike at the back, which you can't really see, has both a wicker basket on the front and panniers on the rack.
My point, of course, is that the bikes you see in shops are not sold ready for use as practical machines. Everything you need to turn them into such is an extra in most cases, and in many cases the bike would not be very suitable for such utility use anyway. Go into any low-end warehouse like Halfords or Go Outdoors, and you will see rows and rows of samey, unispiring hybrid and mountain-style bikes, the vast majority with no mudguards, no rack, no incorporated means of carrying luggage of any kind, and no lights. This is in a country famous for its wet weather, and where we have 17 hours of darkness per day for part of the year. So any bike that is used at all is almost inevitably going to be have to used in the wet and the dark, but they don't give you mudguards or built-in lighting. Dynamo lighting systems, so common on the Continent, are almost unheard of in the big UK bike chains, and hub gears, so much better suited to stop-start urban cycling, and so much better for those who don't want to be bothered with bike maintenance, lubrication and cleaning, than the ubiquitous derailleurs front and rear, are rare indeed.
If you go into a store that sells higher-quality bikes, like Evans, or most small, independent shops, you'll see, more predominantly than the faceless mountain-style bikes, row upon row of alloy and carbon racing-style bikes with drop handlebars, derailleurs, and no accessories. Who buys these? I don't know. I don't see many of them actually ridden on urban roads. Here's a point to baffle most people outside biking culture: these bikes are called "road bikes" by everyone in the trade, and by cycling geeks. An ordinary member of the public I suspect, would expect the term "road bike" to mean a bike equipped for normal uses on normal roads, but of course you and I know it means a racing bike: always one with drop handlebars. What should be referred to as a "road bike" is called a "utility" or "town bike". But these are incredibly rare in our shops, so most people who go in to a shop looking for one of these will probably go out with a mountain-hybrid as the closest available thing, though it probably won't be very suitable at all, without a lot of changes that they have to make. Paradoxically, many so-called "mountain bikes" are actually closer to what is needed as a "road bike" for utility use than what is called a "road bike" is. This all puts a certain barrier between the bike trade and the non bike-enthusiast potential customer, I feel. Language is used confusingly; the categories are wrong.
|Why is this called a "road bike"...|
|...rather than this? (Pictures nicked from Evans Cycles, who classify the red bike as a "hybrid", which it is not, it is a classic town bike design – nothing could be less "hybrid". There's a categorisation problem.)|
So what is going on? If the general truth of my observations is accepted, why are the bikes that actually get used around town not the ones the shops sell? There are a number of possible explanations, and the truth is doubtless a combination of these. One explanation is that a high proportion of the bikes sold in the UK are indeed only sold for leisure and sports use. They are taken out of the city in cars and ridden in the countryside, or abroad, or people ride them from their homes in the London suburbs, early on Sunday mornings before I am about, and go on "club runs" and audaxes on them. Some of my friends do do this, and there is nothing wrong with it. Typically, these people don't ride during the week and don't do their shopping by bike. They aren't interested in cycle campaigning or in the concept of mass utility cycling. The people who ride these bikes are being sold the right bikes, and the shops are catering to them.
Another explanation is that lots of people are buying the bikes on offer and then rapidly giving up cycling after trying it in real UK conditions. The problem here is not primarily with the products the trade is offering, but with the lack of suitable infrastructure to cycle on in the UK: you can't cycle unless you can come to terms with, and deal with, constant threat, harassment and bullying from drivers, the lack of subjective safety David Hembrow bangs on about. Most people cannot do this, so the bikes they buy languish in garages, or rust away in gardens. The saddest possible explanation however is that many people are being mis-sold inappropriate machines, and that they fail to become regular cyclists when they might have done so had the products from the retailers been better suited to the tasks they needed a bike to perform. Under this explanation, those users who survive the winnowing out process due to hostile conditions mentioned above do so preferentially if they have been supplied with better bikes in the first place, or have had the determination to improve them themselves.
These are not new ideas of mine. I recall two decades ago Paul Gannon addressing a day-long conference at Camden Town Hall, organised jointly by Camden Cyclists and the council, and asking why the British bike trade did not offer more bikes better suited to utility purposes. He made the point that though the trade will just say they are responding to demand, and that because cycling is perceived largely as a leisure activity and a sport in the UK, that is what they cater to, in reality, the problem is that there is a marketing job which is not being done right. He commented that every successful product is marketed actively, so that people who didn't think they needed it at first become convinced that they do, and that the trade really does not try to market practical bikes as they should. They are, in other words, purely reactive, complacent and lethargic.
Since then, the situation does seem to have improved slightly. There are small, independent shops in London specialising in practical bikes, and Evans does stock a significant number of such machines. (I was able to get the picture of the red Pinnacle off their website). The big lacuna I still observe is the lack of bikes on sale with built-in lighting. This seems to me to be the biggest issue, bordering on scandal. It is as illegal for bikes to be used after dark without lights as it is cars, and rightly so. But how many motorists would have lights if their machines were not supplied with them built in, powered (indirectly) by the fuel they supply? How many would fiddle about to fit them themselves, with screwdrivers and plastic bands, or pay for the shop to fit them as an extra? Of course, this is a silly, childish point. The concept makes no sense. But that our bikes are sold without lights in this 17-hours of darkness country shows clearly the immaturity of our cycling culture.
The UK bike trade, I am told, anecdotally, has historically resisted legislation to make lights on bikes compulsory at point of sale. The have argued it does not make sense for a trade which is leisure and sports-driven. Their lobbying has been successful, to our detriment, and maybe their own, viewed long-term. For there is a big credibility problem for cycling with the majority of the British public, and much of this stems from the perceived problem of cyclists being lawbreakers. And part of this comes from the difficulty with lights. If quality, solid, reliable and theft-proof built-in lights are not normally supplied with new bikes, chances are that a significant proportion of bikes, inevitably, will be ridden at night without lights. The problem of being responsible for sorting the lighting is too great for many users. What is sold to them is too easily stolen, runs out of battery power, or falls off. Or they just convince themselves they won't ride in the dark, and then they find they have to.
The Germans seem to have solved the problem elegantly. The law there is that bikes over a certain weight must be sold with lights conforming to certain standards. The weight criterion serves to exclude high-end sports bikes. So basically all the bikes used on the streets in Germany have lights built-in. A side-effect is that Germany has developed the world's leading dynamo and bike light industry, and we import their products and use their standards. This legislation has had beneficial social, safety, environmental and economic effects for the country that enacted it. I'd support a similar approach here.
I think it's probably naive to expect the UK bike industry to make a big change on its own. This is a complex, factorially-interlinked, maybe circular, problem. The trade think they are supplying according to the demand. They perceive the main demand in this country as sporty. The demand for utility "Continental-style" machines won't increase until the government makes the infrastructure better, so a bigger mass of people feel safer engaging in slow, relaxed, routine utility cycling. Unfortunately, the character of the trade as it is at the moment creates problems for people trying to get into cycling, and we need those people to get into it to accelerate the change by experiencing the issues we face and joining the political lobby (though organisations such as the LCC).
The trade resists legislative change on lighting, though that change, arguably, might serve to regularise cycling into British society better, ultimately increasing their turnover. (They could certainly make a lot of money selling high-quality lights and dynamos, and better-quality fully-equipped bikes). The trade promotes certain other things quite a lot, like helmets and high-visibility clothing, that serve, arguably, to distance cycling as an activity even more from the mainstream public. The trade often seems unable to provide people with what they need, or tries to persuade them they need something different to that which they really need. It confuses customers, but that's inextricably linked to the rest of the cycling culture we have, which is shaped by a combination of history and current environment.
Dave Warnock commented on his blog 42 Bikes yesterday:
Also worth noting is that in the UK where cycling is not at all normal you find a much higher percentage of people who ride bikes are “bike geeks” compared to the Netherlands where bikes are just bikes for most people who ride them. That is a clear indicator of the amount of work to be done in the UK to get non bike geeks on bikes (work that I believe should be nearly all focused on safe and convenient infrastructure).He's right. Though you can get here, or build up yourself, of course, highly practical bikes, we need a situation where those who aren't really interested in bikes don't have to do a lot of research and search high and low, and don't have to fiddle about themselves for hours, just to get easily what any ordinary non-enthusiast bike user would need. What they need should be in their face as soon as they step into a bike shop, as it would be in Denmark or the Netherlands.
In previous discussion of the bike trade in the UK versus that in the Netherlands, Carlton Reid, who is something of a spokesman for the UK trade, has assured me that the Dutch bike trade does not promote utility cycling much either, because most of their income comes not from the utilitarian mass of cyclists, but the sporting minority. This seems unlikely to me, though I suppose it is possible that there is more profit on one anodised stem than on 100 inner tubes. If true, it maybe indicates we can never expect much better from the trade, that it always follows a market environment determined by external conditions, and that it is never likely to be much of an ally for cycle campaigning. I think this could be too pessimistic a view. The actions of Brompton, Evans and other companies supporting LCC campaigning argues otherwise.
When I once commented in a tweet that the Dutch don't really care much about their bikes, they just regard them as "furniture", David Hembrow reacted indignantly, claiming that the "furniture" analogy was not right, and that many Dutch do in fact spend a lot of money on their bikes and regard a nice bike as a status symbol. This could also be true. But it doesn't really invalidate the "bike geek" point. In the UK, if you ride a bike you are probably in to messing about with bikes, adjusting them, maintaining them and optimising them, whether for speed, or usefulness. If you are Dutch or Danish or German, you just buy a bike and use it, and get it serviced when it needs it, like you would a car, or central heating, or a TV set. It's rather symptomatic of a mass culture of anything that most users don't know how to fix the gadget in question.
In summary, I think that to change both the culture of cycling in the UK, and the type of bikes we get, the primary requirement is for government at local and national level to work much harder to change the conditions. The trade could do far more, both in joining and supporting campaigners in ambitious lobbying, and in disseminating more widely an image of cycling that would appeal beyond the enthusiast, backing that up with more pro-active marketing of practical utility bikes, changing the language around them and clarifying the message. They should also be willing to accept sensible legislation on lighting at point of sale. But the situation we have at the moment with respect to these attitudes is a bit of a log-jam, and it's hard to see any part of this jigsaw moving without all the other parts moving first, which is where the basic problem lies. There's been a slow drift in the right direction since Paul Gannon spoke on this 20 years ago, but the fact is that a typical UK bike shop still looks very different to a Dutch one, and this is both a symptom of, and a contributory factor to, the big problem of promoting utility cycling in the UK.
Best wishes for 2014 to my readers.