NEW YORK It's a sound dreaded by baby boomers the creaks and pops that can emanate from knees after years of running, skiing and other strenuous exercise.
To stay in shape and keep the pounds off, many boomers are forgoing running and turning to bicycling. Retailers are seeing brisk sales of bikes to boomers, especially ones that emphasize comfort.
Charlie McCorkell, who owns the Bicycle Habitat store in Manhattan, says he has seen an increase in sales to boomer-age customers over the past year or so, especially of easy-to-ride models that have an upright riding position that's easier on the back.
But these customers, who still see themselves as fairly athletic, shy away from bikes that seem to be designed for older people, with wider saddles and higher handlebars.
''I don't think the boomers are ready to be written off yet,'' McCorkell said. ''These are people who had mountain bikes in their 20s and 30s, and they're looking to recapture that experience.''
Despite this large, ready-made market, industry experts say bicycle makers have done an overall poor job catering to boomers, choosing instead to go after young enthusiasts who want the latest in cool, high-performance machines that will turn heads.
''Our industry underserves baby boomers,'' says Jay Townley, a bicycle industry consultant based in Lyndon Station, Wis. ''There are a lot of baby boomers who ride bikes but who are intimidated by going into a bike shop. They feel that bike shops are elitist.''
However, there are a growing number of signs that bicycle manufacturers and retailers are doing more to reach out to boomers:
Next month, a national cooperative of bicycle retailers called Ya Ya! Bike is launching a marketing campaign specifically aimed at drawing boomers into stores. The campaign, the first of its kind, will be headed by Michael Basch, one of the founders of FedEx. The campaign begins in four markets this year and goes national in 2005. ''The untapped potential is huge,'' Basch says.
Bill Fields, a leading consultant for the bicycle industry, has been recruited to do infomercials for a company that markets easy-to-ride bicycles with automatically shifting gears directly to consumers. ''The demographic is clearly boomers,'' Fields says. After starting up last spring, the company, Landrider, has already sold 40,000 units.
Several high-end manufacturers are catering to boomers by making custom bikes that are both high performance and comfortable. Seven Cycles makes about 2,500 bikes a year that average around $5,000, and business has been growing about 30 percent a year since the company was founded in 1997. Marketing chief Jennifer Miller says boomers are ''the heart of our market.''
Harvey Minsky, a 56-year-old computer network technician, says he got seriously into cycling about three years ago for a reason cited by many boomers his age: ''Basically, my knees were going.''
Now, he leads hard-core rides of enthusiastic riders with a New York City-based cycling club, and has even pulled off several double centuries, or rides of 200 miles in one day.
Along the way, he's met a number of people in his age group, who are either single or with kids who are grown up, who now find themselves with a little extra income to pay for a fancy bike as well as some more available time.
''There's a certain group of us that are getting grayer,'' Minsky says with a chuckle. ''But it's fun, we get out there and stay in shape. It's a social thing. My doctor tells me that I'm his poster boy I've kept my blood pressure and cholesterol down, and also my weight.''
For some boomers, it's not bad knees or doctor's advice that gets them back into the market just luck. Dan Gallo, a 57-year-old retiree based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., got a folding bike for his sailboat last year after his daughter and new son-in-law egged him on. He hadn't been on a bike for 25 years.
Gallo is now a devoted convert, bringing his two-wheeled contraption ashore in his dinghy and tooling around just for the fun of it when he goes on shore.
''You can meet people when you're on a bicycle,'' he says. ''It makes me feel like a kid again.''
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