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Inside the Bicycle Business: an interview Noel McFarlane
Noel McFarlane has over three decades experience in the Australian bicycle industry. He has started his own bike shop, designed his own brand of touring bicycles, and wholesaled many well-known bicycle brands within Australia.
Adrian: Can you tell me how you got into the bike industry?
Noel: I grew up on a farm in Central Queensland and we all cycled everywhere. That was just how we got around. I came to Sydney and I cycled right through university so I never stopped cycling. At end of university, I stumbled across a Friends of the Earth bike ride from Sydney to Canberra. Although I’d cycled all my life, I had no idea that you could go on a long trip on a bike. It was there that I met lots of people who were into cycle touring. Because of my height, I’m 6’5”, the bike that I had wasn’t big enough so I became involved in the custom bike building scene. Even though I had a Hons degree in Economics, I decided I wanted to open my own bike shop which I started in Newtown in 1979. I soon discovered that I had to make many of the bikes in the shop, because the bikes available from the wholesale network weren’t really what I recommended or customers wanted. I started designing my own bicycles which were made in Japan, then subsequently Taiwan, and that was the beginning of Gemini Bicycles.
Adrian: Now one of the features on bikes you’ve designed, such as the World Randonneer, is they come with a rack, mudguards and a dynamo lighting system. Can you tell me why they were designed to come with accessories?
Noel: Well people that use bikes for practical purposes need a rack, lights, and mudguards, just like cars need lights and windshield wipers. The idea that a bike gets sold and later has these things fitted seems strange. It’s a bit like selling a shirt without the buttons. Having been involved in designing bikes for many years, I’ve discovered that there is a tremendous amount of detail that goes in getting the components to fit together. One component manufacturer might change their design from one year to the next so there are always compatibility issues. It’s much harder for a bike buyer to get these issues addressed satisfactorily after the bike is purchased. Bike shops are limited in what accessories they can stock and many of the best products are not readily available in the Australia.
Adrian: Why do you think bikes sold in Australia are very different to European bikes?
Noel: Well it’s a combination of factors including the lack of regulation, industry complacency, and the pre-dominance of American designed bikes in the Australian market. Each one of these factors is quite important. To single out one factor, such of regulation, in Germany it’s not legal to sell a bicycle above 11kg unless it has dynamo powered lights. There is no comparable regulation in Australia, so many people ride with unreliable and poor quality lighting.
Adrian: Do you think there is enough diversity of bicycles available in Australia?
Noel: There is enough diversity available for consumers, however, there are many examples where really well designed bikes have been made available but they haven’t sold well, so shops are less inclined to stock them. The European bicycle industry has come about through a very different history. There was never a substantial break in the significance of cycling at the community level in Europe. In Australia, particularly since the 1960s, the automobile knocked bikes out in a way that never happened in Europe.
Adrian: How do you see the Australian bike industry changing in the next ten years?
Noel: Well the bicycle industry is everything prior to the consumer, so that includes retail, distribution, wholesaling and manufacturing. I don’t believe they’ll be any increase in manufacturing in Australia because salary levels in Australia are high and it’s much easier to make bikes in areas where all the required parts and components are made nearby. In terms of wholesale and retail, I think we’re seeing a changing retail landscape. Ten years ago everything that was available to consumers in Australia was available in bike shops, and as far as bike shops were concerned, everything they had to sell was available to them through wholesalers who were distributing products through various license and distribution agreements. Today we’re seeing a large amount of online purchasing from overseas, mostly in parts and accessories. Bike shops can’t offer the same range that online shops can offer, so it’s not just a matter of price. It seems that online sales will continue to gather pace and challenge bike shops. I think we’re going to see a growth in small mechanic workshops, mobile mechanics, and bike shops that are located in lower rent areas. They won’t have big showrooms but they’ll be popular with inner city riders who need frequent mechanical services and accessories. Meanwhile, some of the larger bike shops are being re-energized by major international brands such as Specialized and Trek. These brands have taken distribution away from local companies to develop their own specialty retail outlets. I suspect that these shops will hang around for some time. Another type of shop that is growing is retailers that sell bikes directly from factories in Asia. They’re offering lower quality but value for money bikes for people on tight budgets.
Adrian: It’s often quoted that bikes have outsold cars in Australia over the last decade. Do you think cycling is booming in Australia?
Noel: Well if you look at the data that Chris Rissel has shown us, it’s suggests that while there may be a growth in inner city cycling, across the whole country, there is no evidence to suggest that we are undergoing a bicycle boom at the moment. We haven’t got the latest ABS data on modes of travel, but if you talk to any of the big bike wholesalers, they’ll agree that there is no bike boom in Parkes, Dubbo, Wagga, Tamworth, Townsville, or Toowoomba. I think it’s very important for us in the inner cities to recognise that the phenomena we see here in inner Sydney doesn’t represent a big turnaround. What the inner cities areas are discovering is that bikes are an obvious and logical lifestyle choice, but to assert that this is the case for Griffith or Dubbo is much harder. For many people the bike that they own is in the garage with the tyres half inflated and some question mark as to whether the gears are properly adjusted, while their car is parked in the driveway with fuel and is ready to go. It’s a great time for people to take up cycling and I think that trend is going to continue, however, many of us still trying to find the right button to press that will really make bikes mainstream at the community level, be it through infrastructure funding, health policy, or something else. We talk about it endlessly, which is a good thing, but unfortunately nobody’s found the right button to push. One thing that might help in Sydney is a metropolitan-wide, user organisation that represents public transport users, pedestrians and bike riders. We’re going to need allies to overcome Sydney’s car-based transport system. But we need to be united.
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