For much of modern American history, the bike industry has revolved around sport. The 1990s witnessed a mountain bike boom that was followed by the popularization of road biking in the early 2000s. While cycling legends such as Lance Armstrong helped popularize the sport, for the most part its actual participants were restricted to only the most athletically enthusiastic.

These days, bikes are so ubiquitous it's difficult to remember a time when bikes weren't present in everything from film to fashion ads to shots on Instagram. According to the League of American Bicyclists, between 2001 and 2009, the number of trips made by bicycle in the U.S. more than doubled to a total of four billion. The bicycle is no longer just a tool for sport; it's responsible for the emergence of a new lifestyle trend.

I chatted with Ryan Zagata of Brooklyn Bicycle Company to understand how the humble bicycle has spurred a modern lifestyle industry. Per his insights, here are five factors driving the modern bike trend.

Urbanization is on the rise

As more and more people return to urban centers, modern transportation systems are increasingly strained. For city dwellers, bikes present a cheap and convenient way to navigate ever-busier streets. In some cities, public transportation infrastructure simply isn't a viable means of transport; bikes help fill the gap.

City planners who are looking to staunch the incoming flow of vehicular traffic also have reason to encourage the use of bicycles. (This helps explain, in part, why bike-friendly infrastructure--such as bike lanes--is proliferating.)

Biking is getting increasingly accessible

From bike lanes to bike shares, hotel bike rentals, and online bike sales, it's getting easier and easier to purchase and/or ride a bike--no matter where you live or travel. As a result, people are looking for ways to incorporate the bicycle into their lifestyle, whether that's commuting to work or dropping the kids off at school via cargo bike.

Fashion is in on the action

Over the past decade, bikes have started appearing in photo shoots for fashion designers and lifestyle brands. Big-name companies including Kate Spade, Ralph Lauren, and Chanel have incorporated the bicycle into their branding. Levi's now has a commuter jean that's "built to ride". Fendi and Urban Outfitters have sold bikes. Most recently, fashion titan Louis Vuitton acquired Italian bike company Pinarello.

The fashion industry identified the bike trend early on and helped rocket it into the public consciousness. In the process, the bike has "become almost an accessory," says Zagata. "You have your handbag, your sunglasses, and your bicycle." The desire for personalized helmets, baskets, and other biking accessories is further driving this trend.

People are increasingly concerned with wellness

Everyday Americans are developing a "wellness ethic" that applies to the bicycle in a number of ways:

  • Americans are increasingly interested in fitness, and biking provides an enjoyable way to be physically active.
  • Bikes provide people with the means to explore and become intimately familiar with their communities in ways that are impossible in a car or via public transportation.
  • Bikes allow people to gain time back (e.g. by shortening their commute) so they can spend that time engaging with loved ones or in other fulfilling pursuits.

Smaller brands appeal to everyday consumers

For a long time, the bike industry was dominated by a few big brands, all of which focused their design efforts on sport. But between 2005 and 2009, smaller boutique brands started creating bikes that appealed more to the masses. (This trend is occurring in a variety of industries, from linens (a la Boll & Branch ) to backpacks (a la cotapaxi).

Lifestyle bikes are meant for everyday use (e.g. they're designed so people can ride them in any attire) and cater to consumers' concerns over what they look like. As consumers have placed increasing emphasis on vintage inspiration, craftsmanship, and personalized design aesthetics, boutique brands have arisen to meet this demand.

Each of these factors on its own might not have been sufficient to land the biking lifestyle on the cultural map. Together, they're responsible for the meteoric rise of a modern lifestyle industry.

Feb 15, 2017