Keep on Bikin’: American-Made Bikes Making a Comeback
Will large-scale cycle manufacturing make an all-American comeback?
image by Keith Levit / Alamy
Shortly after Joe Bike opened in Portland, Oregon, last November, a cyclist stormed in and challenged the owner, Joe Doebele, about why he was selling bikes made in China. “He wanted to know if the Chinese workers have pension plans,” Doebele says. “My shop was just getting started. We didn’t even have pension plans.”
The outburst surprised Doebele. He assumed it was common knowledge among cyclists in Portland—where 8 percent of the population commutes by bike—that most bicycles come from factories in Asia.
It’s been 20 years since most bikes sold in the United States were also made stateside. Some dealers and brands do a small amount of domestic manufacturing, and there’s a growing sector that skillfully hand-crafts a few hundred high-end bikes each year, but the demand is overwhelmingly for mass-produced, affordable bikes made in China and Taiwan. The United States imported 200 times more bicycles than it exported last year; 95 percent of the 13 million imports were shipped from China.
But the factors that favor manufacturing abroad are changing and the trade imbalance is about to shift again, says Jay Townley, a prominent industry analyst and 52-year veteran of the bicycle industry who is based near Madison, Wisconsin. He predicts that large-scale bike manufacturing will return to the United States “in a bigger way” sometime within the next three years.
Rising oil costs over the long term are making overseas shipping less economical, and consumers (and therefore retailers) increasingly want to add custom options to the mass-produced bikes they buy—with faster turnaround than overseas factories can meet. At the same time, an increasing focus on climate change and the emergence of a recent “buy American” sentiment stemming from the global financial crisis could create a much larger U.S. market for bikes.