You’ve probably never heard of Decathlon stores but there are now two of them in the Bay Area, in Emeryville and soon to be in San Francisco on Potrero Hill. Decathlon is a cross between WalMart, Performance Bike, and Sports Authority: it sells sporting goods including lots of cycling stuff for distubingly low prices. The catch is you’re not going to find any familiar brands in its stores. You look around and there isn’t anything from Castelli, Pearl Izumi, Sugoi, or any other brand you’re familiar with. They carry bikes from B’Twin, Van Ryssel, and Triban. Never heard of those brands? The reason is that they are only found in Decathlon stores as they’re all made-up brand names coming directly from Decathlon. Decathlon is a practioner of vertical integration. It tries very hard not to be a reseller of other manufacturers’ goods. Whatever it can make (or arrange to have made) Decathlon will sell. That allows it to avoid markups for other companies’s marketing and cuts out the intermediate cost so Decathlon can offer goods at low cost. So you see cycling shorts for $50, inner tubes for $4, and bicycles of every level at anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars less than you’d pay for a Trek, Specialized, or Colnago. The trick is you have to be satisfied with non-name brand stuff made in god-knows-where. The good news is that some of their cycling stuff is either decent or pretty good.
We walked into the Emeryville store and were simultaneously blown away and skeptical: how can you have decent cycling shorts for $40 or $50? Then you run across product reviews on the blogosphere like this or this or a review from a mainstream cycling sites like this or this and you realize that although their stuff may not be quite as good as, say, Pearl Izumi, it’s still good enough and it’s a whole lot cheaper.
My closet is filled with Rapha, Assos, and Castelli garb. But you know what? It may look nice but I’ve had quality issues with every brand including the “best”. Wearing $250 cycling shorts and $200 jerseys that PRO racers supposedly also use is a signifier more than it is a realistic and practical reflection of need. But we all know what our needs are abundantly manufactured, don’t we? It’s a lot like having that Porsche 911 in your driveway when all you do is run errands or commute on clogged Bay Area roads. Yeah, you look hot in that German Autobahn machine but a Prius would serve the same function. So it is with a lot of cycling stuff.
Back to Decathlon: their bicycle prices are also eye-opening. We saw a starter bike for $199. That’s cheaper than Costco and probably Sears too. They also had full-on carbon road bike with a full Dura Ace group and Mavic carbon wheels for around $4,500. That’s the kind of bike that Trek or Specialized sell for at least $7,000 these days. Canyon Bicycles out of Germany is also selling the latest-and-greatest carbon wonder machines for thousands less than you’d pay for the Big S or Waterloo. But its road to lower prices is selling directly to cyclists through the Internet. The advantage that Decathlon has is it’s a brick-and-mortar store: if you have a problem with your bike/apparel/accessory you can take it back and get it fixed or replaced immediately rather than having to ship it back to Canyon’s North American distribution center, wherever that is. And those Decathlon bikes fare well against Canyon’s.
Decathlon is like WalMart, Costco, or Ikea in another way: your local bike store is going to take a hit now that France’s megaretailer has arrived in town. Fortunately for LBS’s Decathlon doesn’t do small stores so you’re never going to see lots of them in the nearby communities. In a way Decathlon is doing what Performance Bike did only half-assed, which was to sell some of its own branded stuff on the cheap; in Decathlon’s case it sells ONLY its own stuff. If I were REI or maybe Sports Basement I’d be worried. Although Decathlon is more of a “traditional” sporting goods store and REI is outdoors oriented, there is enough overlap (cycling, running, hiking, camping) that Decathlon is going to undercut REI with its super-low prices. Also, Decathlon unlike REI or most local bike shops I’ve seen doesn’t trade in the same up-market mystique. You walk in and it looks more like a Sears for sporting goods (eg. Sports Authority) than a Rapha store. No snob appeal here and that’s partly because its stuff isn’t on point for fashion or trend. That isn’t to say their clothing is unfashionable—it’s just done simply. For your average consumer that’s a very good thing even if Rapha freds couldn’t stand the stench of off-brand knock-offs.
There’s no doubt that the Decathlon in Emeryville is going to be a player. But for the moment its zeitgeist is nakedly value-for-dollar. So much of cycling—well, recreational cycling I mean—is about Walter Mitty, faux racer fantasies and projecting the PRO image and Decathlon just isn’t aiming for deluded aspirational cyclists. Yet. (There was a time when Decathlon did in fact sponsor a pro team. Maybe that will happen again.)
One thing that Decathlon doesn’t have going for it is customer service. We walked in and there were staff around. But it was more like Home Depot: you are going to have to hunt for a staff person if you need assistance. We walked in, perused the goods in the cycling area, which wasn’t small, and didn’t see a single staff person around nor did we see a repair shop; perhaps it was in the back (they have to assemble those bikes somewhere!). Well, you have to cut your labor costs if you want to offer low prices and make your owner wealthy. (Decathlon is privately held).
For more information about Decathlon: https://www.decathlon.com/pages/emeryville
UPDATE (10/30/19): Apparently merino wool is so en vogue in athletic or ‘active’ wear that even Decathlon now sells a merino wool long sleeve jersey in the UK for about £50 (=$64). I don’t see it on the US site but you can view it on the UK site here.
It’s a nice looking jersey that would probably be very comfortable for Bay Area winter riding. It also got a very good review at road.cc here. For comparison look at similar wares from trendy apparelists Rapha and Cafe du Cycliste. Rapha is the company that started the merino cycling apparel craze about ten years ago. Their current merino jersey, the Classic II, is $175. Cafe du Cycliste, a Rapha wannabe company in France, offers its Claudette merino jersey for $210 (!) I don’t foresee Decathlon cratering either Rapha’s or Cafe du Cycliste’s sales anytime soon. But the fact that Decathlon can come out with a comparable handsome jersey for a third the cost will raise some eyebrows (and open some wallets, maybe a lot of wallets). If you’re hanging in there for a Rapha sale—something that has been perhaps too regular—you may be out of luck as this article points out. Rapha’s has been posting a loss despite being a luxury brand, showing that even the velominati have their limits when it comes to being asked to hand over $270 for a pair of cycling shorts. With Rapha retrenching as the Louis Vuitton of cycling wear you can be sure that those of us who are déclassé will find it literally too rich for our taste and will be eyeing Decathlon’s goods with relief.