Unisex Bike or Die

I was introduced to bicycle companies making “women’s” bikes in 2008. I remember this vividly because I was hired at a local bike store as a sales representative, and during that time I learned a lot about how I was viewed as a person to men in the bicycling culture, along with the inner workings of companies and how they marketed their products. Now, I was hired to sell cycling apparel, which I thought “neat”. When slowly meandering towards the bikes, I expressed interest in selling the them. I was informed that in no way was I to sell bikes. Only the men were allowed to sell bikes because, “the kind of cliental that comes into our store, they would not be interested in buying a high-end road bike from a girl”. Oh ya, they said girl. I was 22 years old. I was informed that I was to only sell apparel and to stick with that side of the store because -and I vividly remember this being said to me by the owner- “women are intimidated to buy clothing from men, and men like to buy soft goods from women too, so this is where you belong”. I seriously wanted to sell bikes because I loved bikes and I wanted to share that love of bikes with people who were thinking of purchasing them. Little did I know, the offer would eventually come down the pipe, but with a hefty condition I was not willing to submit to.

“The kind of cliental that comes into our store, they would not be interested in buying a high-end road bike from a girl.”

I was offered to sell bikes once and only once during my short time at this store, but it came at the onset of being introduced to the very new idea of Women’sTM Bikes. I remember the owner showing me this new, very pink road bike with delicate cursive typography for the logo of the bike company, along with flowers and butterflies on the down tube, no jokes. It was suggested to me that I take it out for a test ride, and even went so far as to suggest that if I purchased it with my staff discount, if I liked it that much, then I’d be allowed to sell bikes, but only women’s bikes. I was insulted. There was this beautiful black and yellow road bike I loved in the display though, and inquired that if I purchased that bike instead, could I still go on to sell bikes after that purchase. The condition was set, and they wouldn’t budge. I knew I had to get the hell out of there before I sacrificed too much of myself for the image this business wanted to make out of me.


A lot has changed over the years when it comes to how companies research and market to WomenTM; I’m sure some of us still remember the phrase “pink it and shrink it”, which became synonymous with every new “women’s” bike line that emerged in the bike industry boom because not a lot of research and technological innovation went into these new lines; only time would tell how this market would evolve.

That’s where Specialized Bikes stands out; they’re business mantra “Innovate or Die” isn’t just something they repeat, it’s  something deeply imbedded into how they operate as a company. During this new era of bike marketing, they were already one of the leading bike companies who invested heavily into the engineering of their bikes and components, while simultaneously compiling a lot of data, and used it all as a marketing strategy. It must not go without saying that while this focus on engineering was taking place, they were still separating their lines of bikes into gendered categories, along with stereotypical colours and typography associated with a specific gender in order for everyone to know which bike was marketed towards which gender -which is something we still see today among all bike companies. This was going to be the future of their brand; invest in what makes a bike fit  for their consumers, and then build a relationship of trust in their strategy on how they use this engineering to continuously produce better products. Innovate or die indeed.

Innovate they did, and this brings us to what we’re seeing now with their new 2019 Roubaix ad campaign. It’s incredible if you haven’t seen it yet; the cobbles through the forest of Arenberg narrate the ad and describe how relentless they are on the male elite racers who participate in the Paris Roubaix, but herein lies the catch in the ad; the riders in the commercial are female. The ad goes on to introduce the new Specialized 2019 Roubaix bike as being unisex in sizing, and is now available to anyone who wants it. It ends with the message that “The Roubaix is no longer just for men, the race shouldn’t be either”.

Lots to unpack here, especially the language of essentially erasing gender from how they engineer bikes, and then to be vocal about making one of the most prestigious Spring Series Race of the UCI calendar open to all genders. It makes sense that a bike company that has complied so much data can now mathematically determine and support the idea that there’s “more likely a difference between two male cyclists, than a male and a female”, which is a direct quote from Todd Carver, the head of human performance at Specialized. This could signal a new beginning of the return to unisex bike fitting but with more sizes than before, and perhaps less gendering of bikes, maybe. Or maybe a new unisex that’s like the old unisex, but better because brands have the language of the Gen Z and Millennials at their disposal.

“We’ve learned that there’s likely more difference between two male cyclists than between a male and female. This means that gender alone doesn’t provide nearly enough data to specialize. It means that separating bikes by male or female is arbitrary and outdated. It means that it’s time to go beyond gender.” -Specialized

A 2017 Nielsen report found that Gen Z and Millennials in United States make up around 46% of the population, that’s more than the Gen X and Boomers combined. We’re going to see many marketing campaigns that are geared towards the younger generation and how they value brands because we are now the majority of the population with purchasing power. In The Gen Z Frequency: How Brands Tune in & Build Credibility by Gregg L. Witt and Derek E. Baird outlines the various ways in which Gen Z generational markers are intimately connected to our relationship with technology. That we are “very politically aware and actively involved in supporting environmental, social impact and civil rights causes”, as well as “Gen Z is open to all ethnicities, races, and orientations [and we] expect to see those values reflected in their brands, classrooms and media”, and let’s not forget, they know we “manage [our] presence [on social media] like a brand”(pages 19-20). Marketers are aware that we are the first generation to “grow up in an era when same-sex marriage [is] considered the norm, equality for their LGBTQ+ friends and family is a non-negotiable” (page 26), so get ready to see all of that integrated into ad campaigns, and get ready for people to talk about it, for it or against it.

With all of this taking into consideration, we will begin to see more companies go through a new rebranding process where they co-opt language and images the of various social movements, and possibly stripping away archaic gender stereotypes of ad campaigns from the past. And they know that we will see it and react to it, because companies are fully aware that we will hold them accountable, and they’re terrified.

We’ve all seen various marketing disasters, like the Pepsi protest ad in 2017, which completely fell victim to the younger generation calling BS of their attempt to be authentic in their portrayal of the new generation. The problem with that campaign is that they completely sanitized activism; they painted a happy picture of solidarity between everyone, all while not aligning themselves with any social or political movement with a deeper message. That’s why the Pepsi campaign failed, but also gathered information and taught a major lesson to all other brands.

And this is why Nike’s ad campaign won. They embraced the language and icons of the BLM movement holistically and it paid off tenfold. And not just Nike, but we’re seeing a new wave of marketing campaigns that are completely taking on new language and images in order to sell brands and products, like the Gillette ad campaign we saw earlier this year, which encouraged men to be more self reflective in how they perpetuate toxic masculinity. Which I immediately found ironic coming from a company that still relies on gendering their products in order to sell “women’s” razors, but that’s another critique all onto itself. What can be said is that this is the new era of advertising campaigns, and this is how they co-opt the language that speaks to the majority of the consumer population at this point in time.

And this is why the new Specialized Roubaix advertising campaign has stood out for me. Unisex bikes are being reinvented and branded because innovation has taught us what we already knew about gendered products; it’s just marketing. For Specialized to come out and state that the Paris Roubaix race shouldn’t just be for men is a whole other thing altogether.

Larger companies in the bicycling industry have a much bigger influence on how they affect systematic changes in our governing bodies, as well as how they support athletes. If they want to show us which side of history they want to invest in, they better do something more than just state the obvious of what their consumers are demanding politically. Direct sponsorship to women, POC, and LGBTQ+ community members is a start. Larger bicycle conglomerates can sponsor events and help balance the prize purse.

This isn’t innovation, this is influence, and if companies want us to think they’re authentic in their stance on making women’s elite UCI races equal to the men’s, I better start seeing their commitment in action. And if not, we call BS and you eventually die.

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