What did Sea Otter Say About the Bike Industry?

We showed you the products we saw at Sea Otter. Now, here's what we noticed about the industry.
Photo: Matt Miller

As I squeezed into my seat on the airplane from Denver to San Jose last week, the gentleman in the middle seat leaned forward to say something to his wife in the next row.

“Everybody has all these bike brand logos on their clothes. So cool!”

“Yeah, it’s a migration,” I said to him.

“There’s this big cycling event going on in Monterey this week,” he told me. “We’re going out and I’m going to do a race too.”

I’m not sure how I managed to fly under the radar, but I told him that’s where I was heading too. Singletracks hadn’t attended since 2019 and the event was quickly cancelled in 2020, then reappeared in October of 2021 before hitting its stride again in April of 2022 and now, 2023.

If there’s a bigger cycling event than the Sea Otter Classic, which encompasses athletes, consumers, bike brands, industry folks, and riding of every kind, I’m not sure what it is. Though it’s not on everyone’s radar, it’s still a pretty big deal to a lot of people.

As I made my way around the venue, racking up about seven miles a day on my Chevrolegs, and meeting with dozens of people each day, I noticed a few trends worth recapping. This isn’t an authoritative article; I’m just one person who crossed many different paths with others over the few days there, so there’s a strong chance that a lot more could be said about the event too. But, here’s what I noticed.

Gravel and e-bikes are still getting the brightest light

We saw a lot of mountain bike product around the show, but there was notably a greater focus on gravel and e-bike products. Again, it’s hard to completely qualify this. There were a lot of core mountain bike brands at the show, and the e-bike and gravel brands we saw may have had a bigger marketing budget to illuminate their products too. They certainly stood out.

WTB, for example, had two saddles that underline the effort: the Gravelier and a new version of the Devo with a little handle cut out to lift the rear end. These saddles with handles or scoops have grown more prevalent in the e-bike market. WTB noted the Gravelier was their first dedicated gravel saddle too.

At Shimano, we chatted about their latest e-bike powertrain and drivetrain gear and other brands spoke about their gravel glasses, shoes, helmets, forks and tires as well as e-bike certified helmets, tires, and forks.

A POC gravel helmet with a bungee strap to hold your loosies?

E-bikes have been powering the bike rack market too. 1UP displayed a new rack ready for 125lb. bikes, and Saris had a motorized rack, the Door County, with an elevator that drops the rack to ground level before it hoists it back up. Thule’s latest Epos rack is an e-bike friendly option too.

The law of diminishing returns says that as technology gets more and more developed, like analog mountain bikes, it’s get harder to make meaningful gains, and this could speak to the amount of e-bike and gravel products of late since both are still relatively new categories.

Core mountain bike brands are getting more techy

Photo: Jeff Barber

The paragraph above doesn’t mean that mountain bike brands are taking a nap. Push Industries is known for their highly tunable and robust suspension products like the Elevensix shock, however they haven’t ever offered a fork. That may be changing. The Colorado brand showed an inverted suspension fork at Sea Otter last week. Based of their history, the fork would presumably be a coil option, however air forks stand to benefit more from inversion than coil.

Photo: Matt Miller

EXT suspension also showed off their new Aria air shock, an advanced and tunable shock with dual positive air chambers. Down the aisle, 5DEV gathered a good buzz of people for their honeycomb cranksets that are made in lengths from 135mm(!!) to 175mm.

There was also a lot of drivetrain talk, as usual, and to be expected following the release of SRAM’s direct mount Transmission. While Shimano is doing exceptionally well in the e-bike market, everyone is curious what their direct mount response will be.

More European brands are riding into the U.S.

We spoke with a handful of European brands who are expanding into the U.S. Factor Bikes, based in the U.K. will soon be available in the United States. So will Decathlon, the French outdoors retailer with its in-house Rockrider and Riverside mountain and road brands. Decathlon was courting independent bike dealers at Sea Otter.

Photo: Matt Miller

We also spoke with Limar, the Italian helmet and eyewear brand expanding into the U.S. Nukeproof and Vitus both launched Stateside recently too.

It’s hard to say why, other than the brands obviously feel they can reach new consumers in the States, though the competition is anything but light.

Big U.S. brands played hooky

Specialized, SRAM, and Shimano had a large presence at Sea Otter, but a lot of major brands skipped out. Santa Cruz Bicycles, based an hour north, skipped the show altogether, as did Trek, and other notable brands like Kona, Evil, and Transition. With so much of the bike industry feeling a little deflated after the pandemic, these decisions could be monetarily motivated. It’s a pretty penny to set up a booth at the event.

Layoffs and media maelstroms amongst the bike industry

Following a very manic few years, the past 12 months have not been as positive for many in the bike industry. Bike brands all over have been downsizing, many of which had upsized to fulfill the demands of the pandemic. Pearl Izumi, Specialized, The Pros Closet, and many others have let employees go in order to make their business more sustainable after declining interest. The state of the industry came up a lot during the event.

Mostly unrelated to recent economic cycles, outdoor and bike media has faced its own hurdles over the past several years, and we were asked a lot about the health of bike media. Outside has cut staff across many of their cycling and mountain bike magazines, and other titles, like Road Bike Action, have been slashed recently. Many of the journalists who were laid off have taken to starting their own publications and could be seen buzzing around the show, looking for scoops like everyone else.

While it may not have been the most uplifting undertones at a Sea Otter, it was still inspiring to see everyone out on the tarmac excited about bikes and the community around them.