Can a Pandemic Spark Ignite the Mountain Biking Flame?
Things have gotten quieter outside since last March, haven’t they? Rush hour became a little more bearable. Quick trips to the grocery store grew at the expense of nights on the town. The travel industry went on forced sabbatical.
By all appearances, the world entered a pandemic-induced hibernation. Or did it?
It would seem that our world, the one of suspension and single track, may have a different story to tell. Rather than hunkering down with the rest of America, the bike market is very much a bull market. This is a good thing, since grassroots surges tend to be dominoes: general interest expands, media attention increases, revenue streams flow, and overall health strengthens.
This is all to say that mountain biking is in an interesting spot. To understand the cusp we may be on, we need to understand its trajectory.
Pre-Pandemic: Mountain Biking Uptick
According to the Outdoor Industry Association’s (OIA) annual Outdoor Participation Report, outdoor activities continued to grow in 2019. Camping, running, exercise, etc.—collectively, participants were all up.
How about biking specifically? Up big. Participation grew by 25% from 2007 to 2019. You can chop up the numbers all you want, but there are two demographics we should consider closely.
First, the kids. Even though youth outdoor participation is starting to slip, cycling interest is continuing to rise. Road, BMX, and mountain biking as a whole has been the most popular outdoor activity among the 6–17 bracket for years. Total involvement trends up and to the right, which tends to bode well for any sport’s next-gen pipeline.
Then there’s the second, more counter-intuitive group: the non-outdoor enthusiasts. Biking is the preferred activity by people making $75k+ per year if/when they do take a break outside. That presents a huge potential market should it ever be tapped.
If only they had some incentive to get some fresh air.
Pandemic: Mountain Biking Surge
“Unprecedented.” Cliché by now or not, that would be the response of just about any bicycle shop owner when asked about the past year. Bike and biking-equipment sales have soared since the onset of COVID-19. This wasn’t a slow burn—it was an explosion in every sense.
Retail sales in April 2020—just one month into the mess—were up 75% year over year for the indoor/outdoor bike industry. Fast-forward to June and sales were +63% YOY. But, if you think that slight decline in growth was due to waning interest, think again.
To say demand exceeded supply would be a gross understatement. Two-wheelers flew off shelves faster than store owners could replace them, if they could. With factories shutting down globally, the supply chain essentially disappeared. Sales are tough without inventory.
The boom began with casual bikes. As they ran low, consumers drifted toward specialty categories. MTB sales were up 116% in June compared to 2019. Yes, people’s options had shrunk, but their interest in cycling had piqued.
There are various reasons for such a spike depending on your lifestyle. Fitness buffs need a way to stay in shape when gyms close. Bike commuting is more socially-distanced than mass transit and less intimidating with fewer cars on the road. Parents looking for ways to stay active with their kids can do so on bikes regardless of skill level.
Psychology has even had a hand in sales. We’ve known for a while that cycling contributes to positive mental health. But, it provided a major release valve for pent-up pandemic stress among two-thirds of Americans, according to a study from Trek.
That’s not all Trek found. Half the country claims it will ride more often once life returns to normal. This is great in general, but what does it mean for us?
Post-Pandemic: Mountain Biking Opportunity
Bike interest is high. The market is there. Manufacturers are back online. Vaccinations are in progress. Spring is on the way.
The time, as they say, is ripe.
As many businesses try to turn what has been such a negative into a positive, we’re in prime position to slingshot out of the pandemic in ways that greatly impact our MTB community. NPD sports-industry analyst Dick Sorenson has a strategy in mind for sports in our spot.
“Continuing this growth pattern will require thoughtful execution that strikes a balance between meeting the needs of new entrants to sports and the enthusiast who has driven marketing and product choices in recent years.”
For us, this “thoughtful execution” could take any number of forms.
- Create useful content, workshops, etc. on bike maintenance, fixing flats, and other everyday basics for burgeoning MTBers.
- Educate parents of young riders on the sport and the different types of competitive riding for kids showing interest in off-road options.
- Volunteer to help with trail building and upkeep. This is a great way to give back to the local biking community while literally shaping the sport in your area.
- Partner with restaurants and watering holes on social riding events. Mixing pleasures is a fun, creative way to welcome in new riders.
- Widen MTB networks through apps like Strava. Healthy competition and peer accountability go a long way toward engaging mountain bikers of all levels.
- Be an ambassador. Social media is a great way to support high-profile competitions like the 2021 Olympics, which mark the 25th anniversary of MTB as an official event.
- Promote general biking and health. Rising tides lift all boats, and simply encouraging others to get on their bikes and stay active may well be their gateway to the backcountry.
These are just a few of the many ways to fan the mountain-biking flame. Bottom line, now is the time to make the most of the rare opportunity before us. It’s going to take a vision for the path forward, navigation of its sudden ups and downs, and endurance in seeing it through.
Mountain Bike Action is a monthly magazine devoted to all things mountain biking (yes, that’s 12 times a year because we never take a month off of mountain biking). It has been around since 1986 and we’re still having fun.