Bill Lange thought his bike riding days were over. Gears were complicated. Stores were intimidating. Plus he wasn't exactly itching to put those tight spandex shorts on his 58-year-old body.
Then Lange, of suburban Milwaukee, saw an ad for a new type of bike out this spring. The Lime, by the world's top bicycle-maker Trek, automatically shifts gears, has a wide seat and fluid style that looks like bikes Lange rode as a kid.
He was sold on the concept and bought the three-speed Lime for himself and one for his wife, no small investment at about $500 each.
"Anything that has gears — it's complicated. And at 58, you don't want complicated, you want automatic," Lange said.
Bicycle-makers like Trek — the Waterloo, Wis.-based brand that Lance Armstrong rode in his Tour de France victories — and other industry players hope these automatic bikes will encourage non-riders to take up the sport. With an estimated 160 million people considered potential riders, strong sales could reverse the flat growth and dwindling rider numbers that have plagued the industry for years.
The bicycling industry saw sales of all products — from bikes to those spandex shorts — at nearly $6.2 billion in 2005. But it's estimated to have dropped to $5.8 billion last year, said Jay Townley, an industry analyst with Gluskin Townley Group, based in Lyndon Station, Wis.
Sales have been flat for the past 12 years, and companies are looking to woo new riders, he said. The new automatic-shifting products could increase the number of the country's cyclists, he said, by cutting out the intimidation factor.
The number of riders — age 7 and up who ride at least six times a year — dropped from its most recent peak of 56.3 million in 1995 to 43.1 million 10 years later.
The industry has performed relatively well, especially on sales of road bikes made popular by Armstrong, a seven-time Tour de France winner, said Andy Clarke, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists.
But something is needed to woo casual riders, even if they're just hopping on their bike to grab a cup of coffee or going around the block with their kids, said Clarke, whose group has 300,000 members in affiliated clubs.
"Long-term, to keep replenishing the customer base, it's the non-enthusiast that has to be spoken to and brought into the fold," Clarke said.
Automatic shifting uses a computerized gear from bike component maker Shimano called Coasting, which is also used in new bikes by Trek, Raleigh America and Giant Bicycle Inc.
Shimano spent several years figuring out why ridership has decreased, and realized people wanted to ride for fun, they were just intimidated, said Shannon Byrant, Coasting coordinator for the Irvine, Calif.-based company. The company was shocked to realize its efforts at making newer, more high-performance bikes weren't winning over new riders.
"We come to find out these people not only don't want high performance, they don't even care about it," she said.
So Shimano designed the Coasting system to place enjoyment over performance and each of the three brands incorporated it into a design.
On the Lime, it works like this: A hub in the front wheel acts as a speedometer and communicates electronically through wires within the bike frame to a computer near the pedals. The computer then communicates with a three-speed internal shifter. The speedometer sends a signal to switch gears — which makes a quick, quiet buzz — after riders hit 7 mph and again at 11 mph. The pedals power the system so no batteries are needed.
To stop, riders use the same coaster brake — engaged by pedaling backwards — that so many people remember from their youth.
The result is no learning curve and little upkeep. Most riders won't rely on the bikes for fitness but will instead use them for casual rides around town or paved trails, Byrant said.
Shimano expects to have as many as six other brands on board by next year.
Trek expects to sell about 26,000 Limes this year, out of about 1.4 million bikes worldwide. The bike, which comes in two versions, plus men's and women's in each, ranges in price from $499 to $579. The seat on the high-end model opens up to hold a cell phone or keys.
Raleigh's Coasting model uses wheels slightly larger than the Lime. It features a frame that holds a six-pack and even has a bottle opener. The Kent, Wash.-based company already has waiting lists at many dealerships after selling out its first shipment of about 1,000 Coasting bikes, said Reed Pike, director of marketing for Raleigh America.
Trek expects Lime to have broad appeal and expand its customer base — from baby boomers whose doctors tell them to get off the couch, to parents who want to ride with their kids, said Derek Deubel, Trek brand manager.
"I think it will help, hopefully, with marketing and make Trek and cycling more of a household name," he said.
Trek is also working with its network of 2,000 dealers to make sure novices are not intimidated when they walk into a store. Dealers are learning how to communicate with non-riders — such as calling what is traditionally known as the "saddle" a "seat" — and are instructed to have special displays just for the automatic shifters.
New riders sometimes feel they're being looked down upon if they ask for help from experienced riders, said Clarke of the League of American Bicyclists. Longtime cyclists need to realize new riders have to be welcomed if the sport is going to grow.
"They need to remember the time before they were enthusiasts, when they were just getting into cycling and what kind of learning curve they went through and who it was that helped them get the love of cycling they now have," he said.