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Masi SoulVille
The $800 Masi SoulVille features curved steel frame tubes, fenders, an upright rider position, and a traditional leather saddle. (Globe Photo / Mike Stotts)

Simple cycling

The push is on to bring back the rider who doesn't want high-end features

LAS VEGAS - To boost bicycle sales, Kozo Shimano is peddling simplified gears to the masses.

He's a third-generation executive of Japan's influential bicycle parts maker Shimano Inc., whose newest components are aimed at getting more average Joes on the road.

Bikes built around Shimano's "Coasting" parts shift gears automatically, brake with a simple backpedal, and generally cost about $500. They are meant for the 160 million Americans who know how to ride but quit years ago - a much larger group than the 20 million who bike at least a few times a year. A typical customer: Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who appeared on a Trek Lime with Coasting parts this summer.

"It's a huge untapped market," Shimano said last week at Interbike, the industry's biggest annual trade show.

It also represents a change of emphasis for Shimano and some of the other big brands. Previously, Shimano and partners like Trek Bicycle Corp. got a lot of attention as suppliers of the high-end equipment that Lance Armstrong rode to seven Tour de France victories.

But this year, the talk of the trade show was simple bikes for transportation around town and recreation. With bike sales level at about 20 million units a year for decades, and doping scandals tarnishing racing, many hope the new models will reinvigorate the industry.

Concerns about global warming, traffic congestion, and obesity seem to be generating a modest growth of commuter and recreational sales this year, said convention attendees like John Crenshaw, a contributing editor of the trade publication Bicycle Retailer and Industry News. Next year, 10 manufacturers will offer bikes with Coasting parts, up from three in 2007.

Also, moves by civic leaders to promote cycling as transportation could pay off for the manufacturers, since cities with bike paths tend to have more cyclists and sales, Crenshaw added. "If you build it, they will come," he said.

Emphasizing simpler bikes is something of a gamble, since they typically sell for under $1,000, a fraction of the $3,000 or more for high-end racing bikes with carbon fiber frames and 20 gears.

Still, even famous mid-size racing specialist brands like Masi were showing off around-town bikes. Masi manager Tim Jackson said one of his hottest bikes this year is the $800 SoulVille, with curved steel frame tubes, fenders, an upright rider position, and a traditional leather saddle. Jackson expected to sell 75 of them this year, but last month raised that to 400.

The trend is also helping business for Taiwan's Dahon Inc., known for making "folding" bikes whose small-wheeled frames can be disassembled easily to be carried onto buses or trains in a big duffle bag. Vice president Joshua Hon said the company has sold 24 percent more bikes this year than in 2006.

"The psychology has changed with cycling," he said. "It used to be for people who were poor or some weirdo in Birkenstocks." Now many middle-class customers have realized bikes can make their regular commutes easier, he said.

If Dahon's bikes are at one extreme for size, at the other is an elongated bike from Minnesota-based Surly that's designed to carry more than 200 pounds. Called the Big Dummy, Surly's frame works with racks and bags from California's XtraCycle and will cost around $2,000 for a complete bike, starting in December. "There seems to be a lot of interest in using bikes for transportation or things like getting groceries," said Peter Redin, Surly's general manager.

Industry veterans regard the trend as a way to rekindle sales in an industry that worries interest in its more expensive racing bikes will tail off, due to the doping scandals that have wracked the sports' highest levels. "When Lance was winning the Tour de France, suddenly road bikes were very hot," said Carey Schleicher-Haselhorst, marketing coordinator for Raleigh America Inc., in Kent, Wash. "Then he stopped, and there were the drugs, and the super high-end went in reverse."

Two bikes getting much attention at Raleigh's booth this year were a pair of $710 models. The first, the Detour Deluxe, is for commuters and comes with a rear rack and lights powered by a generator in the bike's Shimano front hub. The other, the single-speed One Way, for more experienced riders, comes with a leather saddle and bar tape and what is known as a "flip-flop" rear wheel, which can be reversed to make it ride like a track-racing bike that doesn't coast. The setup - harder to ride, but yielding more control - is the height of messenger chic.

Not everyone at Interbike was convinced that commuter bikes and gear would help to reinvigorate the estimated $3 billion-a-year independent bike-store industry without dramatic policy changes to promote biking. (Bikes sold by mass merchants account for another $3 billion or so in sales, according to consultants Gluskin Townley Group.)

Carlton Reid, editor of the bikebiz.com trade news website, said a big problem for riders is having a safe place to store their bikes indoors. Even the best locks do no more than delay thieves, he said, and many new customers quit cycling after they lose their bikes.

More bike lanes and showers at work would also encourage more people to start pedaling, many advocates said. "The infrastructure isn't friendly," said Kozo Shimano. "You have to be a pretty committed cyclist to ride to work."

In response, some of the largest equipment companies, including Shimano, Trek, Specialized Bicycle Components, and Quality Bicycle Products, now help to fund Bikes Belong, a group with a $2 million annual budget that lobbies for changes. Examples include allowing employers to give bike-commuting workers a tax-free stipend, much like the subsidies commuters who carpool or take public transportation often enjoy.

Another much-discussed idea: Put outdoor stations in town centers with bikes that can be rented with the swipe of a credit card. Such systems have taken off in European cities.

But the show was mostly about the gear, such as Giant's Tran Send EX, a $750 number with a parts group from Shimano aimed at commuters, Alfine, that until this year it sold only in Europe and Japan, where more people ride for errands.

Unlike Coasting, which is meant for novices, Alfine lets the rider pick from eight gears concealed in the rear hub, out of the weather, and uses hydraulic lines to control its disc breaks, rather than traditional metal cables. which require more maintenance.

Specialized showed off a new line of city bikes called Centrum, starting at $550. The company's chief operating officer, Michael Haynes, said the brand has seen early orders of such bikes from dealers double, compared to a year ago.

One dealer, Clint Paige, president of the three-store Wheelworks chain in Belmont and Cambridge, said his sales of commuter bikes are up 20 percent in the past two years, compared to a 10 percent increase overall. Bikes equipped with Shimano's Coasting parts are one reason, including the $529 Trek Lime he sold to Menino.

Paige made sure they mayor tested the bike around City Hall first. "For someone who hasn't been on a bike in years, we wanted to see if he still liked to ride," Paige said.

Ross Kerber can be reached at kerber@globe.com.

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