Ryan McFarland is both thrilled and alarmed knowing that 4 million children in the U.S. turn 2 every year, and every one of them could be learning to ride a Strider bike.
“That’s the market size,” McFarland said.
His Rapid City company, Strider, expects to sell 350,000 of the no-pedal balance bikes next year alone, but McFarland figures that number could go much higher in the next few years.
“We’re trying to make it happen and bracing for it at the same time,” he said.
For many children, learning to ride a bike is frustrating and scary. McFarland, who’s originally from Custer, saw that for himself when he tried to teach his son, Bode, then 2, to ride.
The smallest bike available was too big and heavy for the little boy. McFarland tried tying blocks to the pedals, but then had an epiphany: pedals were only a way to make a bike move.
Once McFarland removed the unnecessary pedals, Bode was quick to get the hang of balancing and turning. Before long he was riding, using gravity and his little legs to power himself.
“Everyplace we went with him on that little bike, people stopped us,” recalled McFarland, who soon realized there was huge potential for his invention.
It’s been five years now since the first shipment of Strider bikes went out in November 2007.
“The first two years … it was very much kind of a part-time evening and weekend endeavor,” said McFarland, 44, whose father, Joe McFarland, often helped out. Eventually the bike business got so busy that the McFarlands sold their previous business, Rushmore Mortgage, and jumped full-time into Strider.
Joe McFarland and Gene Woodle are partners with Ryan McFarland in the business, which moved into its current location off Deadwood Avenue with five employees two years ago.
“This just seemed cavernous,” Ryan said, gazing around the 1,400-hundred-square-foot warehouse section stacked high with boxes of Strider bikes.
They initially planned to sublet the back half of the building, McFarland said, but within months they were using the entire space. Today, “UPS is here daily, sometimes with two or three trucks.”
McFarland’s past experience has helped. In the early 1990s, he developed the Thudbuster, a suspension seatpost for bicycles, which he later patented and eventually sold to Cane Creek Cycling Companies. That experience taught him about patenting, trademarks, inventory and other aspects of the business — and left him with many contacts in the cycling world.
“We’re years ahead of where we would have been otherwise,” he said.
In 2011, Strider went from 5 employees to 13. This year it doubled again to 26 employees.
“And that’s not even the real scope of Strider,” McFarland said, noting that they also have a warehouse in California to fill orders for the western half of the country. The bikes are produced overseas, with 18 people overseeing production. And that doesn’t count the distributors who sell them.
“We sell more bikes internationally now than we do in the U.S.,” McFarland said, with Striders currently being sold in at least 36 countries. “It’s just going nuts in Japan. Japan is crazy for Strider.”
In fact, Japanese riders won in every age group at the 2nd Annual Strider World Championship held in Florida in October. The event drew Strider riders from other countries, including the U.S. and Canada, United Kingdom, Slovakia, Ecuador and Venezuela.
When more than 1,500 Strider riders applied to take part in the Strider Cup Japanese Championship, organizers had to institute a lottery to select the 750 racers who would participate.
“They blow it out,” said McFarland, who was in Japan along with an employee for the race. “It’s a huge event.”
Strider World Cup races also are now held at every USA BMX National event, often on portions of the actual BMX track. The Strider events always attract a crowd, which McFarland said is good for BMX as well as for Strider.
“This is the gateway to their sport,” he said, pointing out that racing also familiarizes young riders with flags, racing rules and other aspects of BMX racing.
Motorcycle dealers are now selling licensed branded Striders. It makes perfect sense to McFarland, who from the beginning chose colors for Strider bikes that would match adult cycles — Kawasaki green, for instance.
“They see a direct connection to their future success,” he said of cycle manufacturers. “We’re teaching their future customers.”
When the Strider was released, though, it quickly became clear that one color was missing.
“Not having any girls, I didn’t realize that we had to have pink,” said McFarland, the father of two sons.
Strider makes pink bikes now. “They can bling it up with all the pink accessories,” said Strider marketing manager Kyla Wright.
(And speaking of Pink, McFarland reported that Willow, the daughter of singer Pink and motocross racer Carey Hart, is the proud owner of a Strider bike.)
Now there’s a scientific study backing what McFarland and other parents say they already knew.
Scientists at the University of South Dakota’s Division of Kinesiology and Sport Science recently concluded a four-week study of 3- to 5-year-olds that showed Strider riders “significantly improved” their balance and coordination, making them less likely to experience future injuries.
“We think the results of this study are fascinating,” Department Chair Andrew Shim said in a news release on the findings. “Ultimately, this increase in balance may eliminate the need for training wheels and tricycles.”
McFarland certainly hopes so. He said he can’t begin to imagine where Strider will be in another five years, or even two years.
But with demand continuing to grow, and Strider bikes now being sold at big box stores including Walmart, Target and Toys R Us, his gut feeling is it could be huge.
“Right from the start you knew the potential was there,” he said. “It’s a big world … There’s little kids everywhere.”