Friday, January 04, 2008

Story - "You!"

Karma has a weird way of working.

I try and do things the right way. There are times when I am not technically right - like when I drive a bit faster than the speed limit on the highway, for example. Or the year I drove without car insurance because, well, I didn't have the money to pay for it. The car wasn't registered either, and there were a host of other things I couldn't afford to do that, in reality, ought to have gotten done. But I made some (risky) choices and it worked out.

I figure that if I was using the money that should have been paying for the registration to buy alcohol or drugs then things wouldn't have worked out. But I was trying to survive, pay the bills, eat somewhat regularly, and stay alive.

So the karma thing worked out.

When I sold bikes, I was honest, perhaps too honest. The only way a shop learns about the products it sells is to really, well, sell the product. Then you see what fails, what wears out, and what really ought to be updated. At the shop we'd see things that fail and either stop carrying the particular model or, in some unusual cases, carry the model but make a change to every single bike we sold so that the iffy part was replaced before the customer bought the bike.

For many consumers, a less expensive headset or hubset really doesn't matter. The hub will last for a couple thousand miles with no problems and many bikes never see that mileage.

In fact, a common statistic I saw regarding department store bikes was that they were designed for 25 miles of riding. Most of them were not ridden any more than that. If you're only riding a bike 25 miles before tossing it, then suddenly the bike's design needs change.

Grease? For 25 miles? You've got to be kidding. So the bearings, well, they'll be fine for 25 miles without any lube.

Round bearing races? Again, for 25 miles? C'mon, let's get real. Anything that doesn't bind will be fine for the 3 or 4 hours it'll take to pedal 25 miles, so if the hub isn't rattling around, consider it done.

Of course this goes for other things like handlebars. A tongue in cheek review of an H brand "mountain" bike stated that after 5 minutes, you just flip the straight bar around so you can bend it back down into place.

Department store bikes typically had the sorriest excuse for a dropout ever - the tubing would be squished flat and a slot cut into it. Tighten the axle nuts appropriately and the tubing-dropouts would bend, curling around the ends of the axle.

For 25 miles, that's fine.

On the other hand, if you want to ride more than 25 miles, such a bike is sadly deficient.

This is where a bike shop bike comes into play. They have things like handlebars that don't bend under normal or even somewhat extreme use. So you don't have to flip the bars every five minutes to bend them back into their original shape.

Their bearing races are round... well, at least from Ultegra on up for Shimano, or maybe Veloce on up for Campy. The races are hardened steel with machined races, not the soft steel that is left unfinished so the bearings can "machine" the races for themselves. And the matching cones are also machined high quality steel. Nowadays many of the bearings are precision sealed cartridges, easier to service but not quite as ideal for load bearing purposes.

Dropouts are solid material, steel or aluminum for the normal bikes, carbon fiber for the light ones. Tighten an axle nut (or more likely, the quick release skewer) and the dropouts resist any crushing forces, allowing the axle to be securely fastened.

What about less serious bikes, like maybe a kid's bike?

You ask a parent if they think their kid's bike isn't serious when the kid is zipping down a hill towards a road that might or might not have cars on it. At that point, a kid's bike suddenly becomes a very serious piece of machinery.

Bike shop kid's bike cost as much as four or five times that of a department store bike. So what do you get for it.

Well, let's go over what isn't any different. The paint and the decals. The department store bikes use very high quality paint because, frankly, it looks great. But after that it goes down hill.

Bike shop kid's bikes use size appropriate crankarms. So the 12" wheel bike has cranks for a 3 or 4 year old, the 16" for a 4 to 6 year old, etc. A department store bike saves money by using the same crank for a bunch of different wheel size bikes. So the poor 3 year old will be making huge slo-mo circles with the same size cranks as their 10 year old elder making tiny circles on their 20" wheel bike.

Bike shop kid's bikes also use stronger frames (some, even the little ones, are aluminum!), stronger wheels, and much better quality bars, stem, seat.

Even the training wheels make a difference. Most shops use the very durable Wald training wheels, while department store bikes have whatever cheapest stamped steel training wheel.

Okay, I'll admit the seatposts don't vary too much.

When I sold bikes, I was proud of the bikes I sold, and that went right down to the kid's bikes. In fact, the kid's bikes were always pretty easy to sell. Pointing out differences was pretty straight forward, especially if we had a department store bike on hand. We typically did as people would show up to get their kid's department store bike fixed and then ask us to toss it when we pointed out what we needed to do to fix it.

That bike would become our latest "department store bike sample".

Parents love their kids and when they'd learn the differences between a shop bike and a department store bike, they'd buy the shop bikes. We even told them to buy it from a different shop if we didn't have them in stock because, well, it just seemed wrong to let someone buy such a poor piece of machinery for their kid.

It's the way things ought to be, at least that's how I saw it.

As a shop guy I never really thought of going out in the real world and seeing my customers. I spent virtually my entire existence either working in the shop, riding the bike, or at either my own place or a friend's place.

So when I went out for a special dinner one night, we chose a small Italian place by the water, run by a former colleague of my dad's.

We could see the small place was packed, but we were okay with waiting for a table and so we walked into the doors. We stood by the "Please wait to be seated" sign, looking at all the tables in the restaurant. No booths separated any of them so we could see every patron in the restaurant.

Suddenly, a man in the middle of the restaurant stood up. He looked at me in an indecipherable way. Then he pointed at me.

"YOU!!!" he screamed, his finger trembling.

The restaurant fell quiet, everyone looking at him, at me, and then trying to figure out what I'd done to the guy. They all turned back to look at him since I was standing there with my mouth half open and he seemed more inclined to keep talking.

"You sold me my daughter's bike!"

All faces snapped to my direction.

Oh no, I thought. She died on it. She's paralyzed. Maybe half paralyzed. Maybe I'm lucky and she only broke something like a thigh or arm. Why couldn't I have sold fax paper. No one dies from fax paper. But no, I had to sell bikes, bikes that let kids ride into streets away from irresponsible parents who then blame the guy who sold them the bike for their kid's problems.

Judging from everyone's expectant faces, they were thinking along the same lines.

The man's face broke out into a big smile.

"She LOVES her bike! She can't stop riding it!"

The tension broke. You could feel the collective sigh of breath from the whole restaurant. I almost collapsed but managed a weak smile.

"I'm glad she likes it," I croaked.

The smiling man looked around the restaurant.

"If any of you need a bike, talk to this guy," he announced firmly. Then, in case someone didn't catch it the first time, he added, "He sold me my daughter's bike."

People started eating again. No shoot outs tonight, no fisticuffs. Just a happy dad with his family, and a very relieved bike shop guy.

Karma, like I said, has a weird way of working.

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