EVERY FEW YEARS, a new sensation comes to the rescue of a beleaguered U.S. bicycle industry. In the 1970s, 10-speed bikes from Europe sparked a boom stateside. A decade later, mountain bikes renewed the business. A few years after that, American Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong caused a surge of interest in the sport—before his fall from grace.
Now, once again, as bikemakers find themselves confronting years of sales declines for their bread-and-butter product, a new kind of bike is fueling a renaissance in the $6 billion industry: the e-bike.
According to the NPD Retail Tracking Service, unit sales of bikes with electric motors rose 73% last year at specialty shops, after more than doubling the year before. Across the industry, that comes to about 400,000 e-bikes. In contrast, traditional bike sales fell 8% last year.
Trek Bicycle, an iconic American bikemaker whose popularity soared in the early 2000s as Armstrong’s bike of choice, got an early jump on this part of the market, and it’s been a boon: Trek is now the U.S. market leader in e-bikes, ahead of Specialized and Electra, and they generate about 20% of its $1 billion in annual sales. Trek president John Burke sees this as just the start of a new golden age for the industry. “You have people who commute, you have people who want to bike up hills, and you have people who want to keep up with their spouse,” says Burke, 57, whose father, Dick, cofo