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ARTICLE: Cycling during the Eighties: A History of US Bicycling in the 1980's
Each decade has its own flavor, and the 80's was no exception. This was the period in which a wide variety of extremely well-made bikes showed up along with the flashy bike clothing to go with them.
Questions What obvious differences existed in appearance between the cyclists of the 1970's and cyclists of the 1980's? What political change took place in the US at the beginning of the 80's? How did the change in cycling clothing affect behavior? What were economic conditions like during the 80's? How big was the bike boom of the eighties? What were some possible causes? What were bicycles like during the 80's? What improvements began to appear? When did charity rides first start occurring? How did touring bikes and touring fair during these years?


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Cycling during the Eighties: A History of US Bicycling in the 1980's

During the first half of the 80's, I was not involved in bicycling, and as a result, the distinction between the 70's and the 80's was even stronger to me. The change was as abrupt as if I had gone through a time warp. The seventies was the period of beards, granny glasses, long hair, and bicycling without cycling clothing or helmets. Even President Carter had long hair (he also rode a bicycle). With the new administration in the White House, the mood quickly became more conservative, and "liberal" became a bad word. In fact, the Reagan Republicans boasted that no liberal would ever be elected again. Long hair quickly went out of fashion, and interest in the environment dropped to an all-time low. At the same time, cyclists became interested in style and in new bicycles.

I had a rude introduction to the eighties. I was riding my bike when a faster cyclist appeared from behind and went through the stop sign without stopping. After briefly stopping, I hurried and caught up with him, but I had the distinct impression that he was trying to keep me from catching up. He was nicely outfitted in helmet and cycling clothes, and he was riding a new Cannondale bike. After chatting about his bike, I asked him if he would be interested in riding with me some. No, he was not. Why not? He had a busy schedule and a rigorious training schedule which would not allow him to make casual rides.

After that incident, I had other similar incidents. In fact, on Saturday morning, cyclists would gather at the town square in their nice clothes and with their beautiful bikes, so I would ride down there in the hopes of finding a riding partner, but I was always disappointed. No one ever wanted to ride with me.

I finally concluded that the problem was that I had an old bike with fenders, that my clothes were old and unfashionable (and not cycling clothes either), that my hair was long and that I wore a beard. Inasmuch as I was unemployed at the time, I couldn't buy new dudes, even if I wanted to, as the clothing was rather expensive. Besides, I never did see any of those cyclists riding anywhere else anyway. Perhaps it was a fashion parade. Cycling clothing became popular with non-cyclists at the end of the 80's, so I would often make the mistake that someone was a cyclist based on look-alike clothing.

Economic Conditions during the 80's

Near the end of the seventies, oil prices skyrocketed which caused rapid inflation of all prices. To try to fight inflation, Paul Volker pushed the interest rates up to 10% and above. Unions lost one battle after another as US businesses began moving their production overseas. High unemployment, especially for the blue collar workers, was the result. Poor economic conditions persisted through the 80's and into the 90's. Many young people had to stay at home with their folks because they could not find jobs. In the mostly rural county where I have my cabin, unemployment reached over 25%, and half the people in the county with jobs were having to drive long distances to Huntsville or Chattanooga. Men would cut a pickup load of firewood and then wait all day in the mall for a purchaser. One young woman told me about her experience as a paper hanger. Finding jobs was taking more and more time, and people were offering to hang wall paper for less and less money, so she could no longer earn a living by that method.

I found these difficult years. I strugged to find enough work 79-82, then had a regular but undesirable job for three years, and then lost the job at Christmas 1984, in a massive lay-off. Due to poor prospects, I decided to stay at my cabin in the woods, which I did without working for 2½ years. Unfortunately, my plans to be self-sufficient by selling honey failed, as the government allowed unlimited importation of Chinese honey at 1/10th the US price and gave away massive amounts of surplus honey. As a result, I had the time I needed to return to the bicycle and a strong reason for doing so, as I barely had enough money for food. By 1987, the number of students in the colleges had increased enough to give me an opportunity to become a teacher again, so I went back to teaching, but for part-time pay.

The Second Cycling Boom

It's really an exaggeration to call it a boom, at least according to bike sales, as there were about nine million bikes sold each year before the boom (except during '82, a poor year with less than seven million sold) to just over twelve million bikes per year in '86 and '87. "Boomlet" is probably more appropriate. (It's interesting to note that the college population of baby boomers peaked just before the first bike boom and during the second boomlet.) Nonetheless, with colorful cyclists everywhere and lots of bicycling magazines in every store, it seemed in many ways like a bigger boom than during the '73, when over fifteen million bikes were sold. Some credited this boom to the Olympics and others to Greg LeMond, but I wonder if the sudden appearance of so many bicycling magazines wasn't partially responsible. Even in a small Southern town, it was possible during the later 80's to find five or more bicycling magazines on the same newsstand! Although the economic conditions of the 80's probably hurt sales of bicycles, they were good for encouraging people to ride, as no one was working long hours, and many weren't working at all.

New Emphasize on Bikes in the 80's

In the 70's, purchasing the bike you wanted was a bit of a problem. Bikes were always in short supply, prices were high, and you had to do with whatever you could find. In the 80's, there were brand-new American companies producing bikes -- Cannondale, Specialized, and Trek -- who were dedicated to supplying whatever the customer wanted. Aluminum, fat aluminum, carbon fiber, and titanium bikes began appearing. For the first time, it was possible to walk into any bike shop and find a dedicated touring bike, not that the sales staff tried to interest anyone in them. Mountain bikes began appearing in Alabama in the middle of the decade, and by the end of the decade were 2/3rds of sales. Hybrids started showing up right at the very end of this period. No one type of bicycle dominated for most of this period, and there was a good variety of well-designed bikes in every shop.

Along with fancy clothes, no one wanted an old bicycle anymore. It had to be the latest style and in the right colors. SunTour was fighting a battle for survival against Shimano, a contest it would soon lose, and this led to a variety of new innovations, including better freewheels, the first cassette hubs, and indexed shifting. Clipless pedals, once used only by racing cyclists, began becoming more popular with the new available designs, especially since Greg LeMond was pushing them.

Charity Rides during the 80's

Riding a bicycle for charity was a new feature of the 80's with the MS tours starting in 1980. By 1985, if I mentioned riding a long distance or on a tour, someone would always ask what charity was involved. They thought it very strange for me to be riding a long distance without asking for any money! I did attend a ride, but I couldn't participate, as I didn't know enough people to gather enough donations. It was sponsored by a fitness gym (something else that we didn't have during the seventies). The cyclists rode 25 miles, sticking to the main roadway and escorted by police vehicles. It seemed to me that they were very slow, and some were very tired ahd/or sunburned. Everyone was so excited about having ridden that far, and there were prizes for them as well. They all had nice bikes and clothing, and they were nice people, but I concluded that they were not regular riders and did not know much about bicycling. (NOTE: This is not a comment on charity rides in general, just some local observations. I rode with some MS riders in the early 90's who were very good cyclists.)

Bicycle Touring during the 80's

Although touring bikes continued to be improved all during this decade, sales were not as good as the manufacturers hoped for. One reason for this was that the selling staff at the bike shops were interested in sports cycling and didn't see any reason for a customer purchasing a bicycle for commuting and travel. They tried to push the ultra-lightweight bikes, and when the customer was not interested, they would skip over to the mountain bike, which was good for off-road sports activity.

Towards the end of this period, Bikecentennial began to worry about its survival, as the number of people interested in long tours began dropping. The organization changed its name to Adventure Cycling, and began offering short tours, including mountain bike tours.


In this year, 9.0 million bikes were sold. There were 9,000 registered amateur cyclists (that is, racing cyclists). Johnathan Boyer was the first American to ride in the Tour de France. John Marino and Michael Shermer established the Ultra-Mathathon Cycling Association, a organization to establishing records for long-distance (coast or coast or NS along the coasts), non-stop, bicycling trips. Most of the riders were accompanied by vehicles containing large crews of support personnel. The Bicycle Ride Across Nebraska was established. The first MS tour began this year.


In this year, 8.9 million bicycles were sold. Almost Across Arizona was founded, a ride from the Grand Canyon to the Mexican border. Georgiana Terry began making custom bicycle frames for women in New York. Her bikes were designed for women's smaller hands, shorter arms, narrower shoulders, shorter pelvis, wider hips, longer legs, and smaller feet. Specialized produced the first mass-produced mountain bike, the Stumpjumper. The Crested Butte Fat Tire Week was established in Colorado. Lon Haldeman made a double crossing of the US in 24 days and three hours.


In this year, 6.8 million bikes were sold. The Hotter'n Hell Hundred began in Wichita Falls, Texas. The first Race Across America (RAAM) was won by Lon Haldeman in 9 days, 20 hours. The Noiseless Tenor: The Bicycle in Literature was published. The Bicycling Book was published.


In this year, 9.0 million bicycles were sold. Greg LeMond won the world road-racing championship. The National Off-Road Bicycle Association (NORBA) founded. There were an estimated 200,000 mountain bike riders by this time. Winning Bicycling Illustrated, a magazine dedicated to sports reporting, began publication. Lon Haldeman won the Race Across America for the second time, setting no new record.


In this year, 10.1 million bikes were sold. The Olympics were held in California. Connie Carpender Phinney and Rebecca Twig were first and second in the 50 mile woman's race, Alexi Grewal won the gold in the men's road race. Mark Gorski won a gold medal. The US bicycling team won a total of 9 medals, including four gold medals. Bicycle Guide, a general cycling magazine, began publication. Pete Penseyres won the Race Across America in 9 days, 13 hours.


In this year, 11.4 million bikes were sold. Although now appearing in every state, mountain bikes had sales totaling only 5% of market. There were 19,000 registered amateur (racing) cyclists at this time. Bicycle Rider, at first dedicated to the touring cyclist, and Cyclist, a general cycling publication, were first published, both in California. The Mountain Bike Magazine was started this year, and was later purchased by Rodale in 1988. The movie American Flyers was released. John Howard reached 152 mph on the salt flats, riding a specially-made bicycle behind a wind screen. Johnathan Boyer won the Race Across America in 9 days, 2 hours. I returned to bicycling this year.


In this year, 12.3 million bicycles were sold. The Denver Post's Ride the Rockies began, a 400 mile trip in the mountains. The Great San Francisco Bike Adventure was founded, a tour of the city with thousands of riders. Pedal Across Lower Michigan established. The Oregon Bicycle Ride (across state) was established. The Bike Ride Across Tennessee had its first year. The Great Annual Bicycle Adventure Along the Wisconsin River, a 500-mile ride, was created. Greg LeMond won his first Tour de France. Elaine Mariole won the women's Race Across America in 10 days and 2 hours. Pete Penseyres won the Race Across America in 8 days, 10 hours.


In this year, 12.6 million bikes were sold. The first one-day 160-mile Ride Across Indiana (RAIN) was run. Greg LeMond's Complete Book of Bicycling was published. Michael Secrest won the Race Across America. The Show Me Tour was established in Missouri, from Kansas City to Keokuk. The Bicycle Touring Manual was published.


In this year, 9.9 million bicycles were sold. The only US cyclist to win a medal in the Olympics was Connie Young. I made my first multistate bicycling tour in 17 years, traveling 2,515 miles from Alabama to Pittsburgh, then to Philadephia, and back to Alabama.


In this year, 10.7 million bikes were sold. Greg LeMond won his second Tour de France victory. The ten-day Tour de Trump was held. The Cycle Across Maryland ride was first ridden. The Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure was established.


In this year, 10.7 million bicycles were sold. The Gallup poll showed that 28 percent of Americans had ridden a bicycle at least once that year, with only swimming and fishing being more popular activities. Mountain bike sales climbed to 65% of the market. There were 35,000 registered amateur (racing) cyclists, about 10% of whom were women, and there were 1,100 cycling clubs. LAW had 20,000 members. The first official World Mountain Bike Championships were held.

Sources of information: The Cyclist's Sourcebook by Peter Nye, 1991, was extremely helpful and contained a lot more information than what I used. Michael Shermer's book Sport Cycling furnished most of the RAAM information, and other books provided a few details. Anyone who wants to contribute some more dates and information can send me an email.

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