Tricycles are for tots, right? Fair Oaks businessman Mickey O'Brien is betting that's not the case. If you're a baby boomer with health issues, O'Brien predicts that your three-wheeling days may soon return.
O'Brien opened Laid Back Cycles in Fair Oaks a year and a half ago to catch a ride on what he sees as an upcoming trend: more boomers buying recumbent tricycles when their backs, shoulders or wrists can no longer handle the stress or balancing requirements of upright road bikes.
Priced from $1,000 to $5,000, the tricked-out trikes with attachments for mirrors, smartphones and cameras are a niche product in a market dominated by mountain bikes, road bikes and urban cruisers. Two- and three-wheel recumbents account for only about 2 percent of national bike sales, according to National Bicycle Dealers Association data.
But O'Brien, who started triking three years ago because of a sore back, said the market is already growing as the population ages and people with physical limitations look for new ways to exercise. Many trike sales are not counted in the national data because manufacturers don't publicize numbers.
O'Brien is not the only shop owner making a bet on trikes. Gold Country Cyclery in Cameron Park and AlphaBent in Sacramento also focus on trikes and other recumbents.
Trike customers are often distinctive. Standing in his store on Sunset Avenue last week, O'Brien showed off a photo scrapbook of trikers he says inspire him:
One has polio, another cerebral palsy. One suffers from obstructive lung disease. One is recovering from a stroke. Another has her entire spine fused. One, whose leg is so damaged he has trouble standing, told O'Brien his trike helps him pedal his depression away.
"We are giving people their freedom back," O'Brien said.
O'Brien did not cite sales numbers, but said his business is strong. He recently opened a second shop in Fairfield to tap what he sees as the underserved Bay Area market.
He and a trike manufacturer are leasing a booth at the California State Fair this month to get the word out, and O'Brien has begun leading recumbent group rides on the American River Parkway trail.
"People don't even know what these bikes are called," he said. "It is really about getting the word out there's a better way to ride. Your back, your butt, your knees won't be sore."
Trike riders say they love the feel of gliding along without having to worry about balancing or holding their neck in an awkward position.
Hugh Kern, owner of the AlphaBent shop in Sacramento, said the low-slung three-wheelers with tilted back rests are simple to learn to ride. "Trikes are like plug-and-play."
Matt Morbeck, 32, of Sacramento rides a trike since a car crash left him with a herniated disc in his neck and nerve damage in his shoulder. "It is like being a kid all over again," he said. "I get all happy and excited."
Bruce Thompson, 67, of Citrus Heights, a longtime road bike rider, recently made the switch. Thompson bought a $2,600 trike after a knee replacement surgery persuaded him his upright, two-wheeling days are over.
"My physician said if you (crash) on an upright bike with an artificial knee, it can be pretty serious," Thompson said.
Some cycling industry experts say they are skeptical that trikes or other recumbents will ever rise beyond niche standing. Marc Sani, publisher of Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, said his gut feeling is that most boomers who have been riding upright bikes will stick to their two-wheelers to the "bitter end."
Sani's brother rides a recumbent and a friend took to triking after a stroke, but Sani points out that trikes are expensive enough to make people think before buying. They typically cost at least $1,000 and often much more. Some cyclists say they aren't attracted to recumbents because they aren't as cool-looking as road bikes or cruisers. And some riders express concerns about the potential safety risk of trikes' low profile on the street among cars.
Bike industry consultant Jay Townley is more positive about the sales growth potential. Trikes could get a boost, he said, from what he calls "latent" riders, older people who haven't ridden a bike since they were kids, but who are looking for a comfortable way to get out and exercise.
He noted that trike manufacturers design their adjustable seats similar to lawn chairs.
"How did they arrive at that? People who haven't ridden before are looking for comfort," he said. "A lawn chair is what they are used to."
Jeff Yonker, head of marketing for the TerraTrike brand, said his company doesn't focus marketing on existing cyclists. Instead, it pitches its product to a larger audience as a healthy lifestyle purchase.
"Our customers would not be caught dead in spandex," Yonder said. "We don't show that in (advertising) photographs."
Yonker said O'Brien of Laid Back Cycles understands that, and his shop has quickly become one of TerraTrike's top-selling outlets.
Thompson of Citrus Heights, who has a black brace on one knee, is among trikers who don't care about looking like a Tour de France rider.
"I love to exercise, I like biking, I tried these, and I'm telling you, I love it," he said.
He has two safety flags on his trike that make the low-to-the-ground cycle easier for car drivers to see. He said he hasn't had any close calls yet, but he makes a point of riding as far as he can to the right side of the road.
O'Brien said his recent move into trike sales stems from a lifelong enjoyment of cycling. As a kid, he painted "The Bike Shop" on the family's backyard shed, where he took bikes apart and put them back together. Later, he ran a bike shop in Folsom.
A few weeks ago, he tried out an upright bike again after lending out his trike. Nope, he decided.
"Once you ride a trike," he said, "you'll never go back to a bike."
Call The Bee's Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059. Follow him on Twitter @tonybizjak.