Wednesday 17 July 2013

Cycling Advertising - What is it selling us?

I'm a huge, huge fan of Vicky Pendleton and Chris Hoy. I admire their talent and hard work - their riding on the velodrome over the years has been inspirational. If I were listing British velodrome cyclists who have had the biggest impact on the sport, I'd put their names up there with the great innovators Chris Boardman and Graeme Obree. Those guys pushed bike design on so far as to make the sport they left behind almost unrecognisable (indeed they pushed so hard some of their innovations were banned!) - but Hoy and Pendleton transcended from being lycra clad sports stars into being people who are looked up to outside of their sport - such an achievement in UK cycling.

But their time as world beating athletes is over. Couldn't last forever, and in their wake is a whole new generation (actually multiple generations!) of world beaters. So what next for these superstars of the track?

An obvious thing to do is to put their name to a range of bikes. I should think that there's a lot of good advice available to them, and that they've had a chance to be involved in designing and devleoping the bikes they're endorsing - and the choices they and their partners have made succinctly demonstrate what I most hate about the UK bike trade.

For the ladies we have Pendleton bikes. I do like them - and having a look at them in the shop the quality of the comonents is pretty good. They ought to be comfy to ride and they're pretty robust. They're old fashioned looking 'ladies' bikes - by which I mean most of them are step-over to give room to wear a skirt, they're sit up and beg, etc. But don't take my word for it. Here's a typical bit of blurb from Halfords:
The Somerby is part of the first all-female bikes range created purely for women and offers a stylish yet practical way to get into cycling. A unique design from Britain's first lady of cycling, Victoria Pendleton, the Somerby offers maximum comfort for the modern female combining feminine touches with a sense of timeless style making it perfect for fitness or fun.
If its an old style ladies bike for ladies you're after, this mighe be for you. Go and test ride one. Be under no illusions; if you're a chap, you're not the target market. But thats fine, after all we've got our own icons of sport just itching to offer us something comfy for our own man bits. Haven't we?

Lets look at the Hoy range. Well they're not immediately saying 'comfort'. But okay, lets pick one out:
The Sa Calobra is a true all-rounder that’s as equally at home racing as it is in a sportive or longer weekend ride, capable of handling typical UK roads or Spring Classic terrain. In the saddle you will find the Sa Calobra offers a fast, nimble ride with a confident and reassured character, effortlessly carving through sweeping corners and willing you to pedal faster on the open stretches. A 100% monocoque carbon fork, thin-wall slim seat stays and a tapered top tube maintains rider comfort while the front end of the bike retains plenty of rigidity for power transfer and a quick handling response.
Looking through the specs of this bike, its a fine looking machine. Stiff, fast, light, its a good looking toy for fast commutes. If thats what you're after, go test ride one. I wonder if its a little over-priced for what it is, but if I were in the market for such a bike I'd test one out and find out for myself.

I can't help but be struck by how different these bikes are; when we look at the riders, the two finest spandex clad speedsters of their era, epitomising the greatest in British sportsmanship and desire to win, with the most advanced velodrome sprinting bikes ever seen. I can't help but be drawn to the fact they're marketing very different products. And its not because they're bike snobs - Chris Hoy came into cycling from BMX and Pendleton from grass track racing (I believe), they both know (indeed have demonstrated) that you want different kinds of bikes for different jobs. You wouldn't take the carbon wonders they won Olympic medals with out on to the roads! There's a very particular gender bias in marketing the two ranges.

Now I'm fine with blokes wanting to ride pretty solid utility bikes. And I'm fine with ladies wanting speed machines. But thats not what the folk marketing bikes want us to want.

Don't believe me? Watch this afternoons stage of the Tour de France (or any stage of a great tour) on Eurosport and watch the adverts. Or go in to most of the mainstream bike shops and pick up the sales literature, see what there is targetted specifically at women, and whats targetted at men.

Men are meant to want to be the assertive, fast, dominant roadie types oozing machismo from every chain link as they speed off to do important things. Or they're meant to want proper hardcore mountain bikers. It seems that we're not meant to want a comfy sit up and beg city bike. There are womens road bikes of course, but the range of womens frames available, especially in smaller sizes, is something I've often heard women roadies complain about.

Women are meant to want to ride sit up and beg bikes with a fitting for a basket, perhaps with room for puppies in it. They wouldn't want to ruin their lovely dresses with oil or anything like that. Oh, and they're not in any hurry.

The bottom line? Yes, there are gender differences in frame geometries - if you ride a ladies road bike and a mens road bike of supposedly similar size you'll spot this. And most women prefer the ride you get on a ladies road bike, most men prefer the ride on a mens bike. Its more comfy. But the decision as to HOW we ride isn't a gender issue - some women will be better served by a road bike, some men are riding in a way that would be better accomplished on a Dutch bike. But we're not being marketed bikes that way - the bike market is gender driven, we're being sold a cycling myth that doesn't exist. 

If you're reading this then odds are you're a cyclist with views on what you want to ride already - but imagine you're coming in to cycling anew. You've seen some ads, you go into a bike shop... How do you choose what you want? I suggest that marketing strategies of bike manufacturers in the UK are failing such people, and we're so far from having a genuine bike culture that there isn't an easy way in to cycling that isn't tainted by this crap.

I don't want to criticise Hoy, Pendleton or any of our other inspirational sport cyclists. But I do wish they'd take a stand against this gender driven marketing nonsense. Not with their whole bike ranges, but perhaps a few models. But these bike ranges are symptoms of the problem - how we're meant to ride is seen in the UK as a gender thing. How do we fix it?


  1. There's one more thing that bothers me about that. Women are being marketed a utility bike, men are being marketed a bike for leisure. It even mentions sportives, weekend rides and racing.

    Although I do both, I feel passionately about cycling as a mode of transport, not as a weekend toy. While getting fit is important, it doesn’t also reduce air pollution, congestion, deaths and make our cities more pleasant and easier to move around. To do that we have to replace motor transport journeys with cycle ones. We need cycling to be how people get to work, to the shops, to school.

    This was one of the many things that bothered me about Councillor Curtis as Cycling Champion. I could be wrong, since he so rarely mentioned cycling at all, but I got the impression he was a leisure cyclist. He seemed to have no understanding of how cycling is different at 8.45 am on a weekday in heavy traffic, rather than on open country roads on a sunny weekend. This is coming up again with him talking about ‘tourist trails’ as if this helps the transport problems we have in Cambridge.

    Anyway, there certainly are people who move from cycling as leisure to cycling for transport, but I think that failing to market cycling as transport is not just bad for everyone, it’s a missed opportunity. What about marketing a bike with the slogan ‘beat the traffic’ or ‘Do your exercise before you get to work’?

    Road bikes are often not ideal for use in cities. The lower position is less good for looking around and over your shoulder, the higher speeds are not always appropriate, and clipless pedals are an absolute pain if you’re stopping every 100 metres for traffic lights. Where is the push for the men’s utility bike?

    However Boardman do both men and women’s bikes in MTB, road and hybrid versions, and he got there first. Actually my road bike is a Boardman fi. Wish it hadn't only come in pink, though.

    1. Brilliant comment. Thanks!

      I agree - we're not seeing much marketing of cycling as just something folk can do to get around. Which is a crying shame as I think many commuters soon become enthusiasts, and its commuting traffic that most needs addressing.

      I quite like my road bike for some commuting. I use it a lot at this time of year when the roads are dry, but my standard commuting ride is a chunky hybrid. I think I passed you on the road on Tuesday morning - I was on the road bike then.

      And I agree with you re. Curtis. Doesn't even talk a very good game on real cycling.