I really appreciate the intent of this discussion. I hope I can add something meaningful.
I talk to a lot of triathletes one-on-one as customers and friends. Many come to me looking for a new bike. Many are relatively new to the sport or making their first step to a tri bike. These are the less established folks who are incurring the initial costs of participation.
When I ask them what their bike budget is, the most common numbers I hear these days are "$2,000" or "$3,000." I had a guy state "$5,000" the other day. That's the biggest budget I've heard in a long time. That's usually followed by a half-joking, "if my spouse doesn't find out about it." My follow-up to that is if their budget includes pedals, saddle, shoes, and any other parts that might be swapped. That is usually met with hesitance and a bit of a deer in the headlights look. That stuff adds up, but they might not have done the math.
I also ask them about their goals. Two years ago, their goal race was "Ironman something-or-rather". Lately, it seems the responses have leaned towards, "I hope to do 2 or 3 sprints this year, and maybe an Oly or 70.3" next year. That 70.3 is most likely going to be Ironman 70.3 Muncie because it's close and that's the one they've heard about. Toughman Indiana is another option, because it's close and cheap.
The second group of folks are the established triathletes. They've got a bike, maybe a few years old, and all the gear. They are in maintenance mode. I would include myself in this group. They aren't buying new bikes, and seem to be happy with what they have. I thought I had a guy interested in a Dimond a couple months back after he got a nice promotion at work. He decided his old bike was good enough, and took the family on a nice vacation. Most of the folks I talk to in this crowd are less focused on the gear and more focused on the events now. It really seems that the sense of community is a big draw for this group - they enjoy finding events that their friends will do, too. But, those events are fewer and farther between. I know a lot of folks who do one triathlon a year.
If anything, the place I see that second group spending money on gear is not specifically in triathlon. They are buying other bikes and trying different things related to triathlon - whether they decided they wanted a road bike to feel more welcome on the local group rides or are getting on the MTB or a cross bike, they are branching out. I've been fitting a lot of return customers with "new to me" bikes lately (and they are getting killer deals on used bikes). I've talked to a lot of folks that did Ironman events, got completely burned out and are now making sure their couch doesn't fly away.
Those are just some of many subsets of the triathlon community, but just a general observation from a guy who gets a lot of opportunity to observe triathletes in their native habitat. I get the impression people are cutting back or maybe "right sizing."
On a related note, I feel bad for RDs. They are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Their costs are going up (municipalities and insurance are big ones) and the price has to go up accordingly. Everybody has a point where they say, "Enough is enough. I'm not gonna spend that for a race." As the costs go up for the RDs, that tipping point is reached for more people. My tipping point is $200. I won't pay that for a race anymore. I can do 10 local MTB or cyclocross races for the price of one Ironman. Mix in a sprint tri or XTERRA in there and that's a pretty fun race schedule.
Going back to the bike budgets for a moment, the Premiere Tactical is a healthy dose of honesty, and it's kind of hard to swallow. It's a bit of sticker shock. At first glance I thought, "$5,500 is a lot of money for a bike", but then realized what Dan had put together there and that some of us have certainly spent all of that and a lot more on what started as an "affordable" bike. I'm as guilty as anybody on that one.
Probably not the best analogy, but I think we need to talk in terms of sticker price versus cost of ownership. It's kind of like how car dealers always want to talk about the monthly payment rather than the total cost of ownership. That $300 per month lease payment sounds palatable, until you do the actual math and realize how much it will cost over the life of the lease. And you still don't own the car. But, hey, it's "only" $300 a month. Or how the banks are so willing to pre-approve you for a house you can't afford. The new home buyer is all excited because they can get a $300,000 house with no closing costs and nothing down. Yeah, but do the math on that 30 year mortgage at high interest, add in mortgage insurance, and realize that the monthly payment is more than you can actually afford and you'll be owned by your house before you own it.
Maybe that's the difference between the groups I've described above. There are the newbies, buying that car or house without realizing what it will cost them in the long term, versus the folks that already have learned everything the hard way, refinanced the mortgage or downsized, and are now settled into a more sustainable pattern.
And don't even get me started on what an overuse injury will cost.
Travis Rassat Vector Cycle Works
BikeFit Instructor | FMS | F.I.S.T. | IBFI Toughman Triathlon Series Ambassador