Planning for the Cycling Bunch

March 26, 2010

(image via billaday on flickr)

It’s a great time of the year to ride your bike: we’ve just had our first taste of 60-degree days in Minneapolis, one of the nation’s top cycling cities. Bicycling enters the public conversation every spring, around the same time that Midwestern flooding prompts a bizarre national Fargo-Watch and March Madness replaces work.

Last week,  Lance Armstong and Tony Kornheiser of ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption engaged in a social media brawl after Kornheiser went on an anti-cyclist rant on his Washington, D.C., radio show.  Cyclists responded in a huge way, enough to make Clear Channel ban on-air cycling talk. We could keep bickering away online, but as marketers and culture-watchers, I think we should take this opportunity to take a closer look at the mindsets and motives of cyclists.

It’s easy to pass off bikers off as spandex-wrapped Tour de France wannabes or granola-crunching packages of flannel, but I think that we should look at individuals’ transportation choices in a bigger way. There’s a mindset, lifestyle, and ideology of the bicycle-riding population that marketers and planners should be aware of.  It’s impossible for me to lay down any final judgment on cyclists, as they are a vastly diverse and quirky bunch (including the author) but I’ll try to give some insight into these populations.

Cyclists ride for many different reasons: fitness, convenience, raw fun, personal finances, the environment, etc., but they all ride for a reason.  No one hops onto a bike at 7:00 a.m. in the middle of winter for no good reason.  Many cyclists need to know the reasons behind their actions as well as the products and services they choose to buy.  Not all cyclists are environmentalists or 3% body-fat specimens, but they make direct connections between what they do and the results of those actions. This is not to say that motorists are oblivious to their actions, but cyclists may pay particular attention to the effects of their purchases and lifestyles.

Geography and transportation infrastructure matter in a big way for cyclists.  I’ll gladly pay a bit more at the hardware store that’s within biking distance than deal with a cheaper place located off the interstate.  Many riders are confident enough to ride on the nastiest streets at all hours, but for recreational cyclists, bike lanes and streetlights are necessary.  Bicycle parking can be the best of times and the worst of times, all at once.  You can usually park your bike very close to your destination, but you have to think about the chance of someone ripping off your saddle or wheels.  Stores that provide adequate bike racks get more of my business.

Many cyclists have a community-centered mindset  and they may shop accordingly.  You’ll see tens of bicycles outside of the local Co-op, but very few lined up outside Arby’s.  They have strong feelings about public space, public funds and public decisions.  The experience of cycling practically demands a community-based worldview: on the bike, there is nothing between you and the terrain, the traffic and the elements.  Smaller communities are also important to many cyclists. After a week of cheating death on icy urban streets, there’s something reassuring about  spending time with other people who commute by bike and can tell you that you’re not the only crazy one.  Local bike shops often depend on a core of riders who swing by on evenings and weekends to talk shop and occasionally buy something.

Performance-enhancing chemicals are no small matter to cyclists.  Doping has been a part of bicycle racing since the earliest days, and the connections between bikes, coffee and beer are many. Peace Coffee is delivered by bikes, New Belgium Brewing Company was inspired by a bicycle trip, Minneapolis boasts at least three cycle-based coffee shops, and Pabst Blue Ribbon shares a weirdly intimate relationship with urban cyclists. I can’t say much more about this bicycle-chemical connection beyond my observation that cyclists depend heavily on caffeine and alcohol, will do anything for them and love every minute of it.

Also, they’re sort of weird.