Not too long ago, a certain rare event always made big news in the East Coasters Cycling and Fitness stores in Blacksburg and Roanoke, Virginia.
"It used to be, 'Oh! You sold a road bike!' " recalls Mike Matzuk, owner of the stores.
After years in the dumps, road bikes are coming back.
The renewed popularity of the sleek bikes comes as an American cyclist has become the dominant pro racer in the world. However, the success of Texan Lance Armstrong isn't the main reason for the revival.
Members of the cycling community point instead to other factors. Mountain bikers want to expand their horizons, charity rides and indoor Spinning? classes attract new riders to the sport and a growing number of retired baby boomers are looking for ways to stay in shape.
Despite the rebound, road bikes remain a small part of a market dominated by mountain bikes.
"It's still a very small part of overall sales," said Michael Gamstetter, editor of Bicycle Retailer and Industry magazine.
Bike shop owner Dave Abraham agreed.
"I don't see throngs of people knocking down the door to buy road bikes," Abraham said.
Sales of road bikes in shops in the Roanoke and New River valleys range from 5 percent to 20 percent of each shop's units sold. The increase in sales numbers can be measured in dozens of units, not in hundreds, but the percentage jump has been impressive. Sales at most shops were well below 5 percent just a few years ago.
The upswing in the popularity of road bikes comes at the end of a long downslide.
The boom in "10 speed" style bikes began in the early 1970s, when they accounted for the majority of bikes sold to adults. Things began to change in the early 1980s when mountain bikes began to appear.
Multi-speed bikes based on heavy-duty frames, early mountain bikes were comfortable, easy to handle and durable. They were and remain a natural choice for recreational riders seeking just one bike for a variety of uses.
Today, mountain bikes and their "comfort bike" cousins account for about 60 percent of all sales at bike shops, according to Fred Clements at the National Bicycle Dealer Association.
As sales of mountain bikes exploded, about the only people buying road bikes were serious bike racers, triathletes or hard-core recreational riders. Then, just a few years ago, road bikes began to recover.
The mountain bike boom actually is helping fuel the road bike recovery. Many mountain bikers are adding road bikes to their collections.
"I think people are tired of just having a mountain bike," Matzuk said. "Road bikes offer a different riding experience."
The growing popularity of charity rides, such as the MS 150 Bike Tour, also is helping to sell road bikes.
"People may have borrowed a bike, or rode their old bike in a tour," Gamstetter said. "They enjoyed it so they decided to buy a new road bike."
Some customers are completely new to outdoor cycling.
"I think what might have contributed to it as much as anything are Spinning? classes," Matzuk said.
In the classes, riders of stationary bikes learned the benefits of pedaling, so they decided to ride real bikes.
Aging baby boomers also are buying more road bikes. They want the low-impact exercise benefits of riding, but aren't interested in tackling bumpy trails on mountain bikes.
"Asphalt is pretty unforgiving, even if you rotate your running shoes every 60 to 90 days like they say you should," said Bernie Sanders, a 51-year-old from Roanoke who recently gave up running in favor of riding and racing a road bike.
A couple of factors likely will ensure road bike riders remain a relatively small part of the cycling community in the United States.
Decent bikes cost at least $500, quite a bit more than the price of an entry-level mountain bike. And population growth and development has meant an ever-expanding number of cars now occupy the country's roads. Rather than battle autos, many riders will continue to stick to ride off-road trails, or on stationary bikes inside gyms.
Need a bike?
Here's a sampling of "best in show" road bikes:
Schwinn Super Sport $650
Reasonably light aluminum frame, quick handling, traditional Schwinn quality.
Jamis Quest $1,300
Aggressive racing geometry, quality components, lightweight steel frame, many sizes to fit wide range of riders.
Trek 5200 $3,000
Extremely light, responsive handling. Not too different than the Trek ridden by Lance Armstrong.
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