The Emperor’s New Bike: 5 Reasons “Superbikes” Have Trended.

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It’s become the script for releasing new high end bikes: tease with media “leaks”, stage a rollout with attendant theatrics, segue into “hard science” with slick videos of wind tunnel testing and release a thick “white paper” of empirical engineering speak. Follow-up with ad nauseam debate about which bike is fast-est, light-est, aero-est or best-est in internet forums. Every bike brand in triathlon has done it.

There are two problems: The script is tired and people care less and less.

“Superbike” is an overused term attached to any bike sold with cliché marketing hyperbole. The reception to “superbike” introductions among social media and triathlon forum users has become decidedly lukewarm this “superbike season”.

There are a few reasons why:

  1. You’ve Heard It All Before. 

If every new superbike introduction claims to be the fastest, lowest drag, most developed in the wind tunnel and “best-est”, every one of them is wrong except one.

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An actual race car aerodynamic engineer, who knows about science, talks about bikes. Again.

The arguments for the designs are circular and never resolved. No one ever wins. They are no more than claims, and the claims all sound so similar they get lost. So people stop listening. It’s great argument, but bad marketing. Consequently for all the hot air that is moved online and in person very few of these bikes are actually sold at full retail.

  1. The Superbike is Increasingly Irrelevant. 

Triathletes are getting slower and finisher rates at large events are dropping. Between bizarre weather events at Ironman and other factors people are having a tough time just getting to the finish line, let alone shaving two minutes off their Kona bike split- a race almost no average triathlete does. There are more beginner and middle of the pack athletes now- races are filling from the bottom, not the top. The new generation of superbikes is not relevant to them. They are too expensive, too difficult to maintain and designed for average speeds the bottom 95% of new triathletes never ride at.

The bottom 95% of triathletes have needed new product offerings in the $1500-$2500 range for a decade now, and there have been almost none. That is a missed opportunity for the bike industry.

  1. The Superbike Feeds an Ugly Stereotype. 

If you wheel a superbike into a transition area and don’t finish at the top of the podium you run the risk of becoming a harsh parody: the conspicuous consuming triathlete dandy, the girl or guy with more gold cards than gold medals.

Superbikes have become a statement that infers hubris and elitism to some, and that doesn’t always have a positive ring. It isn’t “inclusive” in tenor. The outdated perception that having a Superbike is necessary to be taken seriously has become an economic barrier to entry in triathlon, and new participants are increasingly rejecting it. But bike brands have not latched onto this opportunity.

  1. Triathletes Have a Voice Now, And They’re Using It.

The first superbikes were developed in a user-media vacuum compared to today. Triathlon specific social media was limited to specialty forums. There weren’t as many Facebook groups of triathletes. Social media outlets were more segregated. People couldn’t comment as readily to such a large audience. Bike companies had not wandered into the rough n’ tumble social media landscape to do marketing.

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Now bike brands are using social media for marketing. They’ve discovered the medium is harshly critical. That has blunted the older wide-eyed excitement surrounding new bike introductions with cynicism from contributors. It has made superbikes seem “less cool” and somewhat foolhardy.

  1. Most Triathletes Can’t Afford It, Even If They Did Want It.

The Gallup Daily U.S. Economic Confidence Index measures consumer sentiment about the economy. It has trended below negative throughout the summer with one brief foray into the positive that turned south as the election season heated up. Even if people do have discretionary income they have become increasingly cautious about spending it. They may be willing to spend $1500-$2500 on a new bicycle, still a substantial amount for most buyers, but spending above $5000 is unusual in a pre-election year with a divisive political environment. As a result these introductions above $5000 at retail are less relevant than they were in a stronger consumer market. 

What’s The Solution?

Glossy triathlon media is locked-step with their paid advertisers. They run splashy press releases within the hour of a new superbike’s release. This year the buying public hasn’t been as enthusiastic. They railed against it on Facebook and other media.

In an unscientific glance at the reception of one of the industry’s biggest superbike introductions this past week the tenor of 100 comments from four different Facebook user feeds showed 91 comments that could be characterized as “predominantly negative” while only 9 were “predominantly positive”.

The opportunity for the bike industry lies in the empty spaces, the categories no other brand is selling to: Entry level multisport bikes in the sub-$3000 price range.

While bike market segments like off-road have been diced up into multiple sub-segments by wheel size and suspension type the multisport athlete is stuck with two polarized choices: road bike or triathlon bike.

A value-priced bike that crosses from road to triathlon categories would add new bike buyers and eliminate perceived barriers to entry in triathlon. It would also create a more logical progression of products for customers to graduate to. It may actually help sell more superbikes.

The bike industry has done a bad job of asking what the rank n’ file triathlon customer actually wants. They never ask bike shop customers and end-user entry level triathletes what they are shopping for. As a result they are disconnected, and so are their product offerings.

When I worked in marketing at a large U.S. based bike brand known for triathlon bikes I never saw them survey consumers directly, in person or even with an online survey of what end-users wanted. They never asked customers what they wanted. They just went back to the wind tunnel year after year to blow smoke over another new $10,000 bike for a marketing video. Until the bike industry has the courage to change this tired script their wind tunnels are just more hot air.

 

 

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8 comments
  1. Dan Kennison said:

    Nice job Tom.

  2. Caje said:

    Good read and hits the nail square on the head.

  3. twain said:

    Really well done. I think these new “super” tri bikes are sort of like Gravel road bikes. Providing features (and disc brakes!) that we didn’t know we needed. At the expense of weight, complexity, and $.

  4. Jack Meredith said:

    I need a super bike because I don’t have enough time to train!

  5. Steve Burstall said:

    You said it right. The expensive bikes aren’t worth it. They pretty much follow the law of diminishing returns. Some of the top riders we’ve seen in this area aren’t using the really high end. Here’s a few other things to consider
    1) If you look at the many of the design of many of new bikes coming out, they are the same from over a decade ago (you’ve seen someone make this post in Pathetic Triathletes).
    2) The wind tunnel is not the best way to test a bike. Yes, to find the aerodynamics of a STATIONARY bike, this isn’t bad. Hell, even throw in the rider for good measure. The true test of a bike’s aerodynamics worth is when it’s actually moving. This is where the rubber hits the road (figuratively and literally). The rules change.

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