Blast From the Past: Is Mountain Biking Niche-ing Itself to Death?

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Dirt Rag Issue #123, published in July 2006, but it was rather prescient and still is worthwhile food for thought. Photos courtesy of contributors, except as indicated. Note that a lot of these people have probably moved on from the positions they’re listed in.

In every industry, a given company’s product catalog is a reflection of the market it intends to solicit. Browse any bicycle company’s product literature and you’ll find countless mountain bikes designed for specific genres of riding. You may find yourself asking, “What happened to the plain old mountain bike?”

It seems that every bike or component in a company’s line-up is now part of a specific sub-genre of mountain biking, with further diversification happening each season. This led Dirt Rag to ask a few trusted industry folks for a roundtable of responses on the topic: Is mountain biking niche-ing itself to death? Their answers follow. —Brad Quartuccio

Nick Sande, design/quality control/warranty, Surly.

Nick Sande: design/quality control/warranty, Surly

Niches are actually a good thing—take singlespeeding for instance. A bike built for simplicity to conjure up the days of old. The thing that both astonishes me and keeps me employed are the people who buy and use niche items. Surly was built on niche products … it’s the kind of shit we like to ride and fortunately there are enough other like minded people who want to convert their bike into a singlespeed or ride their bike on snow, so we get to share our experiences with these people. More people riding bikes is our ultimate goal.

Diversity is also a good thing. If there are more sub-genres and hybridized versions of cycling, I guess that means there are more cyclists out there. I don’t think the bike industry is niche-ing itself to death. It’s just responding to the people who’ve been asking for something different for a long time.

Reed Pike, director of marketing, Raleigh USA.

Reed Pike: director of marketing, Raleigh USA

All activities evolve as participant skills improve, new terrain is found and equipment improves. Progress is the natural state of things. Niche products are actually trying to meet the needs of the customer, but it’s also marketing/sales hype trying to influence the buying decision. In the case of mountain bikes, there are real differences in the bicycles that truly make some bicycles better suited for specific types of riding.

Frank Maguire, co-owner/general manager, Mt. Nittany Wheelworks, State College, Pennsylvania.

Frank Maguire: co-owner/general manager, Mt. Nittany Wheelworks, State College, Pennsylvania

Being in a shop, it seems too often to be marketing driven, but as my coworker says, “Even the blind squirrel finds the nut once in a while.” Case in point would be the Gary Fisher Rig. A 29 inch disc singlespeed seemed to be as esoteric as they could get when rumors first started surfacing about it. We sold a bunch. It became the niche bike that made sense.

The bike industry is a top-heavy pyramid; there are a small number of people who spend an inordinate amount of their money on bikes. The industry thinks that their company can only grow if they wave a new shiny object in front of people every few months. The dark side to this is that bikes are toys to most people. Not enough energy is given to bikes being fun and efficient. Not enough energy is given to bringing people who don’t look or act like “us” to the trails.

Andrew Juskaitis, communications manager, Giant Bicycle.

Andrew Juskaitis: communications manager, Giant Bicycle

We often struggle with the breadth/depth of our mountain bike line. For 2007 we will produce [six different full-suspension models]. That’s a lot of bikes for the consumer to digest, but we feel each bike offers a unique personality that the discerning mountain bike rider will appreciate. It can be a lot to stomach for the entry-level rider, but we feel that today’s rider is discriminating enough to warrant producing a wide variety of models. Mountain bikes have matured to the point where the performance-minded rider will most likely own a “quiver” of mountain bikes. [However], the “do-all” mountain bike is not dead. Giant calls it the “trail bike.”

Cy Turner, owner, Cotic Mountain Bikes.

Cy Turner: owner, Cotic Mountain Bikes

Do I think mountain biking is niche-ing itself to death? Only up to point. We have all these niches because marketing people have an insatiable need to label things. Someone who came to mountain biking late will buy all the ability they can lay their hands on, because they didn’t waste their youth bashing themselves up to get those skills. Who’s to say that’s a poor approach? They get their fix of great days in the hills with a great bouncy bike to look after them, and that’s all their expectation of riding is. If that’s their “soul riding” then it’s not wrong.

Dirt jumping scares me to death, but it’s fun for some people, and those kids doing it are far better off there than in front of a PlayStation. It’s only at the “too far gone, all spare money spent, complete bike geek” end of the market that it’s all got split into camps, but up to a point that’s only because we the riders have let it. I defy anyone even remotely into mountain biking not to smile and woop after whizzing down some fast swoopy singletrack.

Scott Montgomery, general manager/vice president, Scott USA.

Scott Montgomery: general manager/vice president, Scott USA

I think the majority of people still just go for a ride to escape the stress of normal life and to get some nature mixed with some good exercise. I do think that bike manufacturers will continue to offer tons of options because we all know there are so many varied types of terrain and styles of riders. Everyone wants to be as much of an individual as they can be and picking the bike that is “just right” is a privilege that I do not see going away.

Dustin Brady, consumer marketing, Shimano USA.

Dustin Brady: consumer marketing, Shimano USA

Shimano has to build products for different cycling niches/focuses. Maybe it’s now a more generic term, but whether you’re freeriding, racing cross-country or going for a five hour all-mountain epic, the principle is the same. You’re riding a bicycle off-road, and that to me is “mountain biking.” Who cares whether you go to the jumps, or shuttle up a hill or get fit on an all day epic? The fact that you’re outside riding a bike, a “mountain bike,” is what binds us all.

Jeff Archer, owner, First Flight Bikes, Statesville, North Carolina. Photo by Arleigh Jenkins.
Photo by Arleigh Jenkins

Jeff Archer: owner, First Flight Bikes, Statesville, North Carolina (RIP)

I think mountain bikes started out like sneakers. You wore one pair of Chuck Taylors to do everything and you used an early Ritchey to ride everywhere. Then shoes started getting complicated and bikes followed suit: front-suspension, full-suspension, 4-cross, freeride, all-mountain and on and on. I think we are seeing something of a return to Chucks with the singlespeed and to some degree 29 inch movements (or even the sub-niche of 29 inch: singlespeeds!).

A vast majority of our customers are just looking for a way to get out around the neighborhood and get a little exercise. There will always be the folks pushing for the “next big thing” and it can be a lot of fun too, but it will always come back to the simple joy of pushing the pedals.

Ric Hjertberg, new technology manager, FSA.

Ric Hjertberg: new technology manager, FSA

The niche-ing that you notice is a product of how personal cycling is, especially dirt. First, you don’t do it on a regulation court or field. Second, you do it as you wish. Philosophically speaking, the combination of terrain and personality means no two riders share the same sport. The surprise is how good the industry has become at making bikes. The industry can practically turn out unique bikes as easily as the recording industry can churn out tunes. Combine the marvels of modern design and manufacturing with a contemporary appetite for change and customization and you get the 21st century bike industry. The challenge is to see through the smoke, to understand that the bike isn’t being “improved” any more than newer music is better over old.

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