When future historians are looking back for pivotal moments that capture the vibrant turbulence of early 21st-century bicycling culture in America, they might well find themselves in the Twin Cities in March 2019.
First they’ll notice that the venerable Penn Cycle — 61 years in business, the world’s very first Trek Bicycle dealer — sold its six stores to Freewheel Bike, another beloved local shop that had proved more nimble in a rapidly evolving marketplace. This was an echo of a national announcement in February that Performance Bicycle, the industry’s big-box behemoth, was calling it quits and closing all 102 of its stores.
Then, those historians will likely notice what was billed as America’s first E-Bike Challenge — a bike industry trade show that, for $6, gave everybody a chance to try battery-assisted bikes on indoor tracks. The show rolled first into the Minneapolis Convention Center on March 22 because, according to its Dutch organizer, Theo Jorna, “We believe Minneapolis will be the cycling city of the future in the United States.” Fine.
It was natural that the bike industry would want more bike riders to experience an e-boosted biking experience. These machines are efficient, fun — and they cost at least $2,000 to $4,000. But there was something of a surprise: The organizers reported that more than 2,700 people showed up — more than attended Mariah Carey’s concert at the nearby State Theatre a few nights before — and hopped on for 4,200 e-rides.
Perhaps the crowd should not have been a surprise, since nationally e-bike sales jumped 79 percent last year.
So we head into a new world, as we watch the evolution of our local bike shops, (the head of the Professional Bicycle Mechanics Association speculated recently that local shops make so little money on slumping sales of bikes that they might stop selling them altogether), and anticipate what will happen when a fast-growing percentage of the bikes around us have an e-boost that lets them cruise at 20 miles an hour.
The Dutch people at the convention center will tell you that last year, perhaps prophetically for America (only historians will know for sure), more than half of the adult bikes sold in the Netherlands had an e-assist. And again, perhaps prophetically, they might mention last year’s world bicycling stat of the year: More Dutch men over the age 65 were killed while riding electric bikes than while riding in cars. Will that be our new world?
Mr. Nice Guys: Speaking of the Trek, some historians might have cringed the other day to hear Chief Executive John Burke give a heartfelt speech to industry leaders about their responsibility to youth-centric nonprofits and schools with bike programs. And then almost the same day, the publicist for Lance Armstrong — identified as a “philanthropist, cyclist and an avid runner” — alerted the media that he was generously trying to make the world a better place by raising money for nonprofits by running in the Austin (Texas) Marathon.
The timing of Burke’s and Armstrong’s high-mindedness was at least ironic because it arrived on the ninth anniversary that the Wisconsin bike company wrote a large check to the foundation of Greg LeMond to avoid a trial that was scheduled to begin in federal court in Minneapolis. Trek had marketing and bike-building deals with both LeMond and Armstrong, but when LeMond suggested publicly that Armstrong had doped his way to wins in the Tour de France, Armstrong allegedly gave Trek an ultimatum: Him or me.
Trek, despite considerable and growing evidence that supported the doping charges, was making more money with Armstrong at the time. It tore up its contract with LeMond, sending him back to his home in Medina to try to remake his business life. Armstrong was ultimately stripped of his titles because of the doping, and nine years ago this month Trek essentially admitted its craven business practices and paid LeMond — who, by the way, remains the only American ever to win a Tour de France.
Never too late: Park Tool, the industry-leading St. Paul bike toolmaker, last week announced its annual Community Tool Grants, which award bike-related nonprofits across the country with $1,400 worth of its bike repair equipment. One of the 10 winners was Pedal Power MN, which works with the Minneapolis Public Schools to teach kids how to ride a bike. Pedal Power’s proposal to Park Tool included this disquieting fact: 35 percent of the children who enter fourth grade in the city’s schools — one in three children — do not know how to ride a bike.
Tony Brown is a freelance writer from Minneapolis. His column appears twice a month. Reach him at email@example.com. Read archived columns at startribune.com/bikeguy.