Bicycle makers keeping it simple

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 three-speed 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.

“Anything that has gears — it’s complicated,” Lange said. “And at 58, you don’t want complicated. You want automatic.”

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 nonriders 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 dropped to an estimated $5.8 billion last year, said industry analyst Jay Townley. Sales have been flat for 12 years, and companies are looking for new riders.

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 — ages 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.