The Interbike Trade Show announced it’s taking a one-year hiatus, which means it’s certainly gone in any recognizable form. For cycling nonprofits Interbike’s demise is a disaster. For triathlon it’s a minor alarm. For everyone else, we’ll see. The loss of this show hits my nostalgia bone: I was at Interbike Reno in the 1980s, and Interbike Reno 2 months ago, and all 30 Interbikes in between them. Acknowledging the industry-appropriate comments by Marc Sani and Ray Keener, below my no-more-Interbike response from through a tri-industry lens.
The very first “tri shops” opened in the mid 1980s. They followed the retail model. They failed. As they should have. Triathlon didn’t have – and mostly still doesn’t have – a large enough following to support a traditional retail operation. None of cycling’s categories fare much better (in my cycling lifetime I’ve seen the pro road store come and go).
Tri shops that bucked the trend augmented walk-in with online sales: Trisports.com, Nytro, Inside Out Sports, All3Sports, R&A. But even these were subject to pressure from Amazon over the last decade. Also, just as triathlon’s first tri shops couldn’t buck the decade long downturn in the sport, from 1989 thru 1998, everyone in triathlon from manufacturer to retailer to coach to race organizer has had to weather the recent 5-year downturn from 2013 to 2017.
I am president of triathlon’s industry organization – Triathlon Business Intl (TBI) – and we hold an annual conference (this year in Tempe, AZ, January 25-27). As anyone in the cycling world will tell you, I’ve been a cheerleading pest, stalking you ‘til you attend either TBI’s conference or the Interbike trade show (or both). Eschewing industry conclaves doesn’t save money. I’ll quote Stephen Del Monte, who just filed a 1,350-person all-women’s pool triathlon in its inaugural year. He conceived of this event at one of our TBI Conferences and wrote this to me after his big year-1 success: “If I never took the time and made the investment to further my education in the sport of triathlon by attending conferences like TBI, USAT RD Symposium, Running USA, I would have never thought of this event. For those of you who watch every nickel and "can't justify the expense" … you can't afford NOT to attend the conferences.” (One TBI Conference session uses a "graphic recorder" to memorialize a brainstorming session, and the graphic representation of last year's session is below.)
The reason paid registration in TBI’s conference grew 60 percent year-over-year is to me bittersweet: The industry came to acknowledge that Interbike wasn’t any longer their annual conclave, and they needed one. Further, there’s something that happens when you get disparate stakeholders in an industry together: race organizers, retailers, manufacturers, clubs, coaches, governance, non-profits. This is one area where TBI had it over Interbike, and pays dividends. I could cite concrete, compelling examples of this.
TBI ran Interbike’s Triathlon Pavilion (there’s a shot of the Pavilion below), but the only reason there was a Triathlon Pavilion is that triathlon decamped from Interbike a half-dozen years ago for a rival trade show out of exasperation at Interbike’s lack of interest in taking triathlon seriously. (For all my love for Interbike I have had my disagreements.) But this ambivalence the industry shows to triathlon has actually aided us. We’ve always been the runt pup who had to fight like heck to get mother’s milk. Tri shops have been the step-children of the bike industry forever. When I got into this business – which I only did because I couldn’t find the product I was looking for – I didn’t know which end the food went in. But, that blissful ignorance served me in certain ways.
And it serves me still. Because triathlon and its manufacturers, retail stores, governing body, race organizers, media were always treated dismissively, we’ve grown strong. Mind, we failed whenever we try to do business the traditional way – we needed to invent our own business paradigms. USA Triathlon is stronger than all but a handful of the 45 national federations under USOC’s umbrella. Industry club teams? Try to find them, in any sport, that are as strong as those we have in triathlon. Bike fitting? It’s more developed in triathlon, and road cycling is learning from us, using our metrics and motifs, dependent on us, waiting on us to chart its way forward.
Which takes me back to my premise: Interbike’s demise is a devastation to many of the bike industry’s stakeholders, but triathlon will take it in stride because for all 40 of our years we’ve gotten the thoughts and prayers from swimming, cycling and running’s industries (except when they wanted us, during our high points), and ironically that cold shoulder has been our salvation – it’s forced us to find innovative ways to not starve. I know a guy whose business consists of coaching, bike fitting, parts & accessories sales, and sales of non-stocked bikes. And he’s doing great. I know another guy, for him it’s a Kickr studio, a coffee bar, bike fitting and bike retail. Doing great. Another guy, a manufacturer, makes more money off his club team than he does on his manufacturing brand. (And I don’t think he’s the only manufacturer for whom this is the case.) I know two retailers who made more money off the races they produced than off their retail enterprises. Another guy is a coach, a mobile bike repairman, a mobile bike fitter, and a concierge bike shipper (sort of his own local version of Tri Bike Transport). And he does quite well! Another guy’s secret retail weapon his triathlon bike, wheel and wetsuit rental fleet.
Triathlon makes up its own industry rules and that habit begets resiliency. Retailers and manufacturers in swim, bike and run are hurting. But as opposed to the 1980s, when the first wave of local triathlon businesses were ill-equipped to compete with full-service family bike retailers, today’s multisport businesses are run by little Elon Musks, divining clever methods without consideration for convention. It saddened me to see fewer and fewer of them at Interbike in recent years; but it gladdens me to see more and more of them at TBI.