How The Superbike Helped Kill Triathlon.
By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com
There was a time when triathletes were a blank check to the bicycle retailer: affluent, upwardly mobile and ready to spend without asking for a discount. Selling bikes to triathletes above $3000 was easy. Triathletes accounted for the majority of full-margin, non-discounted bikes sales in the higher price categories.
But the bicycle retail industry’s repetitive bad habits and inability to develop new sales and marketing methods at both the bike brand and dealer level have compromised the once profitable triathlon bike market. As a result, the triathlon bike business has taken a massive hit from the days of, “Triathletes are willing to spend anything to go faster and always pay full price.”
The marketing script used to be: hype a new superbike with teasers and white papers, launch it with “preorders”, sell out of the first production run early and try to fill orders through the early season with the bikes being gone entirely by May or June. Those were also the days when Ironman races sold out in minutes. Buyers were ready to spend, often sight unseen, and ready to enter expensive events a year in advance.
Most of that has changed as the demographic of the sport has evolved to decidedly down-market and entry-level. Now, the “superbike” is a super flop. Circular debates about which bike is “fastest” and cryptic tech-speak with “white paper” slides showing bike drag, speed and yaw angles ignores the reality that the median long distance triathlete averages about 18 MPH on a bike course while the latest “super bike” is wind tunnel testing at speeds often 50% faster than the rank n’ file athlete will ever see in their “A” race.
Triathlon has filled from the bottom. While there are a few impressive age group performances the vast population of triathletes especially at longer distances, have filled the sport in the back 70% of finishing times. It has become an “every(wo)man” sport. And in the case of the fastest 10% of athletes at big races like Ironman, those people are not paying retail for a bike anyway.
It’s the bottom 70% of the sport where any remaining business may exist.
As that population of citizen-athletes entered the sport they were largely ignored by a bicycle industry locked into a repetitive script of developing new bicycles that spiraled upward in price and complexity. The tired script of, “Tested lowest in drag, developed in the wind tunnel” rings hollow on the only remaining full price consumer, the entry-level triathlon consumer. The market has not followed the sport downward in price while it spiraled upward in hype.
“The greatest failing of the bike industry has been to look at bikes in triathlon, not people in triathlon.”
Perhaps the greatest failing of the triathlon bike industry has been to look at bikes in triathlon, not people in triathlon. As a result the industry has failed to address the single largest market opportunity in the sport, an entry price-point bicycle that does double-duty as a road bike and a triathlon bike, a “multisport bike”, in the sub-$2000 price category.
While bike brands have added new sub-category after sub-category of mountain bikes with different wheel sizes, “gravel grinders”, disc brake road bikes, fat bikes, e-bikes, high head tube comfort road bikes and a host of emerging categories they utterly missed the low-hanging fruit of the entry-level triathlete.
Because the industry missed the entry-level demand from triathletes and wound up filling it by bolting aerobars on road bikes, a poorly conceived workaround, they alienated their consumership with the narrative that triathletes are always up-scale big spenders. Now triathlon bike retailers, and bike brands, are stuck with a lot of expensive bikes. But they have no practical, sub-$2000 bikes to sell at full margin that are specifically intended for entry-level triathletes.
The largest single remaining opportunity for bike retailers is the relatively entry- level, full price, non-discount customer: the new triathlete.
New triathletes need their own bike, a “Volksbike” that is inexpensive, comfortable, safe, looks cool and is easy for triathletes to ride. They don’t need another $15,000.00 superbike that takes hours to sell, feeds the “sponsored athlete” discount narrative and eats up three months of rent from the retailer just to gather dust on the sales floor and eventually die a quiet retail death on an anonymous eBay auction or “sponsorship” deal to the local hotshot that the bottom 90% of triathletes never see.
Author Tom Demerly has raced triathlons and worked in the triathlon industry since 1984, completing over 200 races including the Ironman World Triathlon Championships in Kona, Hawaii in 1986 and Ironman events in Canada, New Zealand and the U.S. He has participated in the Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge, The Raid Gauloises, The Marathon des Sables, The Antarctic Marathon and the Jordan Telecom Desert Cup. He raced bicycles as an elite amateur in Belgium for the Nike/VeloNews/Gatorade Cycling Team and is three-time Michigan USA Cycling State Champion. He is a former member of a U.S. Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Team (LRS) and now works as an aerospace and defense columnist for TheAviationist.com, the world’s foremost defense and aerospace blog published in Rome, Italy.
Amen! Just the reason this entry level tri guy bought a red shift seat post and tri bars to turn my road bike into a tri bike. If there had been an affordable entry level bike I might have bought one.
Great post. With the growing popularity of the sport, it is surprising this gap in the market has not been filled. I wonder who is going to cash in on this over the next few years…
Some of my most memorable time I spent in the ” Tri ” biz was when I worked for Quintana Roo and Softride, Excellent article Tom.
Reblogged this on Endurance for Everyone and commented:
A really good take on the Superbike issue from Tom Demerly
My only comment is that I believe the QR Kilo is the bike you are talking about. Though it will not double as a road bike, it was my entry into the trip bike world and I road it all the way through the obligatory sprints, Oly’s and a half on my way to finishing Ironman Texas on that same Kilo. The only nod to the “super realm” was a rented pair of ZIpp’s that probably did little for my finishing time, but made me feel like my little Kilo at least belonged out there. Speaking of rental, I would like to see our wonderful bike manufacturers explore a lease/rental type arrangement that allows us entry level age groupers to use their product for a season and return it. Right now I only know of one company, Race Wheels, who are exploring rental bikes as well as wheels. But while a one race rent-a-bike may help “destination racers” save on shipping their bikes, how much more could say a sub $1,000 investment to put a fitted PR6 in my garage for a whole season of racing, be helpful?
100% agree – my QR Kilo has seen me through 4 seasons as a very competitive AG triathlete in the local race scene at the sprint, OLY & HIM distances. I have about $500 in upgrades (cranks pedals, saddle) and it’s a great bike at the “entry level” described by Tom. I have well in excess of 10K on it and it’s going strong. Only upgrade I would like to add is a deep section carbon wheel set from FLO or some other value quality wheel manufacturer. Since I have had such a great experience with this “entry level” bike I haven’t needed to upgrade and was able to do triathlon “realatively” inexpensively. Over the past 3 years.
Completely agree! I’m “that guy” that rode a used road bike for my first couple of season before I decided I was going to keep with the sport and stretch the race distances out. So, I saved up enough to get a decent *used tri-bike. Although it doesn’t double as a road bike, I’m surprised that the new A-Squared bikes haven’t gained more popularity. They hit all the marks mentioned in the article as far as looks, feel, ride, and price-point. I would definitely give them a look if I was a new triathlete or even if I was in the market right now. One of our local pros is an ambassador for them and I’ve seen their bike in person, also have seen a blur of it fly by me in a recent race…ha ha (no, I’m not affiliated in any way)
All good points with regard to the hole on the low end of the market
In some ways the super bike has killed itself. Having worked at a retailer through three generations of Felt superbikes, and two generations of Cervelo superbikes I saw people get gunshy about buying on account of reliability. The Felt Bayonet was a continual nightmare for years. Every Cervelo P4 through our shop cracked at the tail end of the seat tube.
Buying a poorly tested/poorly qc’ed bike at $10,000+ is a mistake many people won’t make twice
Very true. As a bike shop owner in the Philippines, we had $5000-6000 Shivs that didn’t move until the distributor announced a retailer-wide discount. I think the sweet spot for entry-level with a touch of high-end is $2000-2500 with carbon frameset and Shimano 105; our problem there is finding enough bikes to sell in the right size. Below $2000, our bestseller is the Allez Sprint DSW. It’s gotten very good reviews and while it’s billed as a midrange road race bike for the non-sponsored crit racer, majority of our customers are triathletes who want the versatility of the Sprint for their first serious race bike. Manufacturers should consider that customers still need to have enough $$ left over for upgrades from the same brand like racing wheels, lighter cockpit etc without feeling like they’re being milked over and over.