When you are surrounded by concrete, traffic, and the hustle and bustle of city life, it can be hard to imagine peace and serenity. That was the case for me growing up in the Chicago suburbs. I couldn’t get up to the northwoods of Wisconsin, or the Upper Peninsula of Michigan very often, but when I did, my time would be filled with outdoor adventures. Even when visiting family in Chicago after moving to Colorado, I found that I needed some sort of fix and forest preserves could only do so much. Every time I was in the city, I would visit Recreation Equipment Inc. (REI) to get that “outdoor” fix.
While my trips to REI have been few and far between since growing up near the big city, I assume that for many, REI is the go-to retailer for outdoor essentials such as sleep gear, cookware and food, water purification, clothing, and more. But how about bicycles? I never really saw REI as a bike shop, but more recently this has changed as REI has taken a big step in making it a one-stop-shop for bikepackers.
A few weeks ago REI announced that they will start to carry Salsa bikes in a select number of stores starting in the spring of 2017. Since the news was released there have been opinions expressed in our community that run the spectrum from positive to negative. REI is attempting to simplify their bike line, which at one point carried 10-12 brands. Salsa has enabled them to do this with their diverse line of trail and gravel focused adventure bikes, as well as their fat bikes.
A few years ago when I started focusing more on bikepacking, I looked to one company, and it was Salsa. Salsa has done a great job of marketing their “Adventure By Bike” tagline, but Mike Reimer said it was more than a marketing campaign. “It is not just a tagline, but it is our guiding principle. In that regard it affects everything we do, from the products we make, to who we sponsor, to the events we participate in and promote.” However I saw it, I noticed their brand was driven by adventure and I was a part of their target audience.
The Salsa/REI partnership started slow, roughly 3 years ago with a conversation regarding fat bikes. The speed and growth of their partnership will remain that way as you will only see Salsa bikes in 10 or 11 of REI’s flagship stores. To put things into perspective, REI has a total of 145 stores nationwide. You will, however, be able to order a Salsa bike online and go pick it up at any REI location. Paul Calandrella, Director of Product Strategy for REI, understands the potential conflict with local bike shops by saying, “[we] don’t want to cannibalize independent retailers. our intent is not to infringe on a healthy retailer.” The end goal is to get more people out on bikes in the long run, right? There will continue to be pushback about mainstream outdoor retailers marketing directly to bikepackers, but the fact is we are seeing enormous growth in our sub-industry from all angles, which isn’t all bad, and it certainly could be worse.
This partnership is sure to go beyond selling bikes. REI has always had a way with inspiring people to get out and play, and Salsa’s brand story is well-aligned. Pair those two things together, and you have a powerful outlet that will no doubt share stories, media, and adventures down the road.
So what does this all mean for the big picture of bikepacking and the industry as a whole? This partnership was the start of many interesting things in the bikepacking industry. Maybe one thing prior to this was Ortlieb, a touring company who dove headfirst into the bikepacking world with their Bikepacking Series. Almost the same thing is going down with Arkel announcing their Seatpacker recently. Last week Specialized finally announced their long-awaited bikepacking bag series, ones that look all-too-familiar to bags that we have seen from other brands.
Another trend that we have noticed over the last year, and one that is pretty neat, is the collaboration between bike and bag manufacturers. It all started with Revelate Designs and QBP a while ago. Revelate makes bags to specifically fit Surly and Salsa bikes, a convenience that will get you out on your bike in the backcountry and in front of a fire next to your tent that much quicker. A few other brands that are also making these partnerships and making it easier for the consumer are Porcelain Rocket/Rocky Mountain, and on a smaller scale Chumba USA/Wanderlust Gear, and Jpaks/Zen Bike Co, and to a lesser extent, Niner/Blackburn Designs.
As far as bike manufacturers that are specifically seeking out our niche, they are still rather few and far between. Salsa obviously leads the pack and Surly too. Niner has dabbled into this niche, but on a smaller scale. Jones Bikes is another company that is clearly building bikes specifically for your next adventure. There are also plenty of boutique manufactures that are making adventure-specific bikes like Advocate Cycles, Tumbleweed Bike Co., Zen Bike Co, Chumba USA, Meriwether Cycles, and many more.
So where does all of this leave us and our small sub-industry in the bike market? Competition is good, saturating our market will only improve bikes and bags. Unfortunately, there is a small percentage of folks that understand that bikepacking bags have not just evolved over night. It has taken years of trial and error in making the perfect product. These large corporations stepping up in the game are bound to take business away from the smaller bike and bag manufactures who have spent countless hours and sometimes years testing their designs in order to create the best products for the sport. There is also the concern of the overexposure of common bikepacking routes and areas, which could depreciate the value of solitude over time.
On a positive note, this could be a great time for successful bag makers to team up with bike manufactures. These partnerships seem to not only create great exposure for both brands, but also give the consumer an easier option to grab a frame bag that specifically fits the frame they just purchased. I think it will be interesting to see which companies will take that path and which will not. If you missed our first annual Bikepacking Bags Survey, take a look to see which brands stand out the most. Who knows who will be at the top of those lists in five years or so.
So what do you think? How do you think these partnerships and larger corporations jumping into the game will change the way we shop for bikepacking gear? We all know that gear is only part of the equation.