Not (just) for kids: Exploring the current state of BMX

The BMX industry may sit on the periphery of the bike trade, but it’s often a portal into cycling for many youngsters. BikeBiz editor Alex Ballinger goes back to his roots to explore the current state of the BMX market

This piece first appeared in the June edition of BikeBiz magazine – get your free subscription here

“BMX has always been a gateway into cycling,” said Wichai Saensawat, BMX brand manager for UK-based Ison Distribution. “Talking to the media and shop owners, BMX was often their gateway into cycling.”

That was my own route into bike riding – from riding days spent at the skatepark into the wider world of two wheels. While cycling in the UK has grown dramatically in popularity, particularly in the past 10 years and accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic, BMX continues to be the outsider in the trade, often seen as a kids’ pastime.

But following on from Team GB success at the Tokyo Olympics, and with the boost to the whole bike trade through the coronavirus pandemic, will there be a lasting impact for the BMX market? Ison Distribution, based in Cambridgeshire, has remained committed to BMX brands despite the fluctuating popularity of the sport, currently distributing Volume Bikes, Demolition Parts, and TSG Helmets.

Managing director at Ison, Lloyd Townsend, said: “I think it’s fair to say that like most interests in cycling, markets have their phases. BMX racing, at least in the UK, has remained a relatively niche area of cycling for many years, whereas freestyle (in its variants of dirt, park, street) has tended to be the most significant and noticeable area of BMX that most dealers will have experienced over recent years. BMX freestyle hasn’t been as popular in the past few years as it had been previously, whereas it seems that racing has remained relatively stable.”

But there has been a significant opportunity for BMX supporters in the industry in recent years, following the inclusion of BMX in the Summer Olympics – first racing in 2008, followed by the introduction of freestyle BMX at the Tokyo Games in 2021. While the Olympics offers airtime on mainstream television for many fringe sports, it was the unprecedented success of the British BMX squad that many hoped would provide a springboard for BMX brands in the UK.

A British success story
Out of the four medal opportunities on offer in BMX disciplines in last year’s Olympics, Team GB took home four, including two golds – Bethany Shriever took gold in the women’s BMX racing, Kye Whyte won silver in the men’s racing, while Charlotte Worthington took gold in the women’s freestyle, and Declan Brooks claimed bronze in the men’s freestyle.

Brooks told BikeBiz: “I think if we didn’t get medals, it wouldn’t have been half as big as it was. It started making front page news, it went to a whole new level. Charlotte and Beth were making the front page, so that was quite surreal, for people in the industry I think as well. A lot of people watched [the Olympics] and might have known what BMX was, but didn’t know what you could do on it, or thought it was just a kid’s bike. But I think maybe the stigma has gone a little bit, so hopefully it will carry on in that direction.”

While Brooks, who is sponsored by TSG Helmets and British brand Mafia Bikes, said while he noticed a major boost in the number of people riding bikes at skateparks immediately following the Olympics, the wave may be losing momentum. In the past 10 years or so, BMX in the UK has struggled to reach previous heights, as BMX media languished, and events vanished from the calendar.

Brooks hopes, however, that the return of events like Backyard Jam, a series of contests hosted by indoor skateparks around the country, run by iconic BMX
distributor Seventies and backed by British Cycling, marks a return of high-level BMX competition in this country. But have brands seen the benefit from the increased media focus following the Olympics?

The Olympic legacy
Mafia Bikes, founded in 2009 and based in Hampshire, said the answer, so far at least, is no. CEO Marc Brotherton said: “To be quite frank, the answer to that is no and we didn’t expect any increase in sales. It’s a positive thing that BMX has been included in a mainstream event such as the Olympics, it’s good for general exposure and a real boost for the supported riders. However, to be honest the potential customer base isn’t really interested in the Olympics.”

Saensawat, who manages Volume and Demolition for Ison, said: “In freestyle, I haven’t seen much of a boost in business as such. Because there’s not really an obvious or low-cost route to get into freestyle for folks who might have seen it on TV. Many other sports have easy to connect with grass route clubs, activities, and so on, whereas BMX freestyle perhaps isn’t quite so easy or obvious as to how to get into.

“Also, the growth of freestyle scooters hasn’t especially helped the BMX industry, perhaps because scooters are more affordable and arguably ‘easier’ to start using. We would have hoped that many scooter riders would have naturally progressed over to BMX bikes in large numbers, but it seems that didn’t happen. That said, BMX freestyle being on mainstream terrestrial TV is never going to be a bad thing, and it may be that the positive Olympic effect isn’t quite as instant as it may have been in BMX racing.”

Townsend added: “Interest in BMX racing has grown a lot with the inspirational performance of Beth Shriever and Kye Whyte in Japan. It seems the biggest problem now is a severe lack of availability of products. This may be related to many of the production factories not being as interested in running small batches of specialist parts when demand for other products is so high.

“I think the difference in the ‘Olympic interest’ between freestyle and racing is perhaps mostly down to the longer established and more obvious routes for new riders to get into the sport. After all, BMX racing was in the Olympics in 2008, so has had at least a 13-year head start on freestyle.”

But the boom and bust of the BMX market continues, and despite all the benefits of Olympic coverage, the industry appears to be going through another lull. As I was writing this article, news emerged that stalwart BMX store Custom Riders, one of the biggest players in the online marketplace in BMX, announced it would be closing its doors after almost 40 years in business.

Owner Mason Smith said the BMX market is slower than in recent years, and that increasing prices had made business unsustainable. Traditionally, BMX sales have been dominated by specialist action sports retailers like Custom Riders and others, which often combine into skateboard, scooter, and bike specialists.

A new era?
A recent emerging trend that is changing the face of the BMX market is demand for BMX-inspired bikes with larger wheels, colloquially known as ‘wheelie bikes’. With impromptu wheelie bike events springing up in cities across the country, this trick-based riding comes with much of the appeal of a BMX bike for youngsters, but without the need for high-quality purpose built facilities like skateparks and dirt jumps.

For Mafia, these bikes are a significant aspect of the business, according to Brotherton: “Obviously I can’t speak for other brands, however for us, the current trend has moved away from 20” bikes into cruisers (26”-29”).

“We often refer to these models as ‘wheelie bikes’. Demand is pretty strong in this area right now and these bikes fit really nicely alongside more traditional bikes as urban transport or even ‘pub bikes,’ or beach cruisers. Based on this, yes we would love to see more traditional retailers having a go at selling BMX products. They are bright, exciting and fun and will certainly invite a new customer base into cycle stores.”

For Ison, it is also larger-wheeled bikes that appear to be the growth area, albeit in another discipline altogether. Saensawat said he has noticed a spike in dirt jump mountain bikes in skateparks, as he noted these often outnumbered BMX bikes in major skateparks like Adrenaline Alley in Corby.

Opportunities for cycling retailers
But there are opportunities in the BMX for more conventional cycling retailers, according to the Ison team. “The demand for BMX parts in a traditional retailer has always been small, because it’s a very specialist area of cycling,” said Saensawat.

“That said, there are literally thousands of BMX bikes being used out in the market overall, and they still need the relatively common ‘consumable type’ parts such as tyres, pedals, grips, saddles, chains and wheels.”

While BMX appears to still be struggling with oscillations in sales as demand ebbs and flows, it remains an important, if niche, corner of the wider cycling industry. Despite the struggles it won’t be going away. As Brooks said: “If you want to come into BMX for the Olympics, that’s great, but if you just want to ride bikes and have fun, that’s also great. That’s what BMX is about. I want to see new kids come through and push us.”

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