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A Bike to Fit Your Life

Boomer demand spikes sales of two-wheelers designed for older riders


The large hills looming between Lucy Rigg McAdams’ home and Lake Washington inside Seattle gave her the willies. The greeting card illustrator, 66, couldn’t pedal her trusty 20-year-old bike up a series of 500-footers that would deliver her downtown to run errands. She used to ride that bike up and down the hills of Switzerland in her 40s, but these days her legs, back and hips don’t have the strength they once did.

Help came this spring from a friend’s son, Wakefield Gregg, the owner of the recently opened eBike Store in Portland, Ore. He loaded eight pedal-assisted electric bikes in a van, drove 200 miles to her in-town address and let her test each one for sturdiness, comfort and speed.

His customer was astonished at what she saw and promptly surged up hills she once thought insurmountable.

A booming market

Rigg McAdams quickly found out what many other 50-plus Americans have been discovering—the U.S. bike market is now catering to their wants and needs. Many older bicyclists aren’t looking for sturdy mountain bikes designed for daredevils or racing styles for Lycra-clad hard bodies. Instead, they’re interests are piqued by the newer, more comfortable models broadly referred to as “lifestyle” bikes.

Lifestyle bikes boast features like padded seats for a soft ride; lower, U-shaped crossbars for trouble-free mounting; low gears for easy pedaling; and a sturdy, upright frame for balance. And some, like Rigg McAdams’ new $1,800 wheels, are power-assisted.

This interest has made such bikes the hottest category of two-wheeled transportation today. From an almost nonexistent market a decade ago, these lifestyle bikes now command a third of the 3.1 million bike sales anticipated in 2009.

But the most noteworthy shift in the market is who’s now riding bikes. “We’ve seen riders in the demographics between ages 9 and 29 plummet,” says Loren Snyder, spokesman for Cannondale USA in Bethel, Conn., citing figures from the Bicycle Products Suppliers Association. “But the number of baby boomers and older riders is skyrocketing. Since 1998, riders over 50 as a category has moved from 7 percent to 21 percent as of 2008.”

The rise of comfort

Bike manufacturers have paid particular attention to this trend, hoping to sprint ahead of the market. One of the early players, San Diego-based Electra Bicycle Company, introduced its revolutionary Townie as a European-style recreation bike in 2000. This revived English racer—an upright, three-speed bike that boomers rode in the 1960s—returned with adjustable handlebars and a fully upright frame in polka dots, stripes and neon colors. It helped carve a new market out of city dwellers and recreational cyclists seeking something fun to ride around the neighborhood and shopping districts.

Then came a major shift. In 2003, Shimano North America, the Irvine, Calif., gear and brake specialist, paired with IDEO, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based design firm, to research customers’ experience with cycling and their motivation to get back on the saddle. Their studies found adults had fond memories of riding bikes as kids but they didn’t take to the complicated and costly bikes in the stores.

Shimano teamed with other bike companies—Giant, Raleigh and Trek—to design a balanced bike that combined automatic shifting with pedals mounted toward the front tire so a rider can put both feet on the ground in a seated position. Some models also had dual shifters for faster, smoother pedaling and clear dials for identifying gears. Trek called its comfort line “Pure.” Soon, the category was adapted by other bike manufacturers, Fuji, K2, Phat, Sun and Jamis.

Boomers roll along

Two factors drive older adults’ demand for lifestyle bikes, according to Snyder. One, people are commuting more by bike to save money. In a recent book Pedaling Revolution: How Cyclists Are Changing American Cities, author Jeff Maples notes that city streets across America are filling up with more and a bigger variety of bikers. In Portland, Ore., for example, ridership is up 20 percent in the past four years.

A trip on a pedal-powered bike costs nothing, and a trip on an eBike, one that involves pedaling and power assist, costs much less than it would by car, says Gregg. He figures that to charge an eBike battery for a 12-mile trip would run about a nickel.

Second, many boomers bike to stay healthy and live longer. John Brunow, owner of bikes@vienna, a specialist in comfort bikes in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, sees evidence of this all the time. “People come to us to overcome physical issues and continue cycling,” he says. “Activity equals longevity.”

Often, riders who purchase lifestyle models have both health and economy in mind—and those who sell the bikes know that. “I’ve thought of myself as a snake oil salesman—‘Comfort bikes are good for anything that ails you!’ ” says Earl Lang, who owns bike shops in Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte, Fla.

Lifestyle characteristics

Because of this increased demand, a burst of new and improved lifestyle models has come on the scene in the last couple of years. The newest entries are comfort bikes, enhanced with added features such as gender-specific gel seats and shock absorbers in the front fork and seat. Every year, manufacturers offer updated colors.

The specific needs of older riders are also addressed with other designs:

• Upright configurations reduce spinal stenosis and other painful back problems caused by hanging over dropped handlebars.

• Crank-forward geometry, with its seat tube slanted back, minimizes knee strain by allowing the rider to sit lower and put his or her feet flat on the ground at stop signs.

• Step-through, U-shaped frames ease mounting for people who have trouble extending a leg over a traditional crossbar.

• Ergonomic handgrips allay ulnar nerve pain in the hands and forearms by positioning arms properly to endure road shock.

• Fenders and chain guards protect clothing from grease and puddles.

• Shock absorbers in the front fork and seat post can reduce pain to the rotator cuff and neck, which often absorb the jolts of a rough road.

And then there’s a small but growing category of cyclists, like Lucy Rigg McAdams, who also need a little energy from electricity to help them log miles when their muscle power lags. Today, Giant, izip, Schwinn, eZee and Currie Technologies have models that use batteries. In 2009, Giant introduced the Twist, with a lithium ion battery pack that sustains the rider up to 70 miles between charges.

The decision

Back at home, Rigg McAdams now zooms up hills with a smile as wide as a Cadillac Escalade. After Wakefield Gregg’s demonstration, she bought an eZee Sprint LDS. She now presses a handy switch on the handlebars for an electrical boost, but can also maintain pedal motion, more fun than a full-power moped. Her bike’s frame is upright, the seat is cushioned and the gears easy to manipulate. It has a bell to alert oncoming traffic and a basket to gather groceries.

Rigg McAdams says she keeps her prized possession at the ready in her foyer. She says, “My granddaughter shouts, ‘Wow! Going vroom right up a hill, a grandma,’ when she sees me on my bike.”

Maureen McDonald lives in Detroit and pedals her 10-year-old hybrid, a Cannondale Silk Path 700.