Monday, April 09, 2007

Your local shop

Today marks the middle of the middle of my semi-enforced rest period (for training). And this has very little to do with bike shops but let me explain.

Our house is getting its floors refinished in two stages. The first stage is almost done, after five days of work. The second stage will start in three days and involve the same amount of work. This totals ten days. Since we worked about four days before, and we'll work perhaps five or six days after, we'll be involved in this project for about four weeks. Since we're about halfway through the second week, we're in the middle of the middle of our project.

Since the project is severely curtailing my training time, this is the middle of the middle of my semi-enforced rest period.

The one day I might have been able to ride outside it was cold. Cold enough for snowflakes to drift around. I didn't feel like dressing up, riding, then going home to shower in a house that reeked of floor finishing fumes.

Instead, I went to a local shop to hang out. I raced with the owner a while back (well, technically I raced against him) but he's one type of rider and I'm another. So we both have respect for each other. He talks about how one of his first serious years of racing he was on my wheel going into the sprint and my first pedal stroke put ten feet of pavement between us. I actually don't have any stories of watching him demolish fields because I was so far back I never saw his strength - it's like asking Robbie McEwen what he thinks of Lance Armstrong's climbing. Like most of us mortals, McEwen probably never saw Armstrong climb in anger except on the Tour DVDs.

Anyway, I think this guy is a lot better than me.

When I was there he seemed to be short a mechanic so I told him I'd give him a hand. I went home, ate, got my mechanic's gloves, returned, and waded through a few repairs and bike builds. Nothing fancy - a couple girl's bikes (complete with streamers and a white basket) and some nice road bikes. I spotted a few things and fixed them, made myself useful, and hung out with him for almost six hours.

It was great.

We shared bike shop stories, talked about life, and played with mega-thousand dollar machines. I got my hands dirty on the first FSA crankset I ever worked on, bumped my head into some ti/carbon fancy bike, and fiddled with some Dura Ace things (as a Campy-phile, I never touch Dura Ace).

I realize now what I didn't know when I was in his shoes and I realize how fortunate he is to be where he is now. I think he realizes this in an abstract way but with my life lessons happening after I was out of the business, the reality of his situation really hit home with me.

He faces a lot of obstacles.

Shops are hard to maintain. They're hard to grow. And they easily fall victim to entropy. Yet shops have a unique role which no other organization or group could replace.

They're responsible for getting people into bike racing.

Without a local shop most teams would simply not exist. There would be no racers around to have a team. The guy who wants a bike because the doctor told him it's good for him, and then enters a race a year later (because it's in his hometown and seems like a fun thing to try)... That guy may have bought his bike online but there is nothing online about fitting a bike, trying different stems, riding with someone (and noticing a odd hip or knee), and getting someone to go on their first group ride.

Shops do that.

Online places, eBay, places like that, cannot replace hands on experience.

Riders who patronize my friend's shop probably don't realize how fortunate they are to be fitted and advised by a rider that cares about his customers, his riders, his people.

The trouble is that shops often lose those riders once the racer "knows enough". There are other sources for parts, for expertise, for fancy deep rimmed carbon wheels.

I'm honest when I tell him what's available online and he tells me to get it out there - it's no use for him to sell me something significantly below his cost. His battle is with his suppliers on that one.

Likewise, he's honest when he tries to find me a friendly priced frame or bike or whatever. I bought my little brother a nice mountain bike (a family present to the brother who commutes to work on a bike). The shop owner found me a scratch and dent bike for a third of retail. I made him take a 45% margin on that bike. But when I was jonesing for a wattage trainer and he offered me a leftover demo one at cost, well, I took it at cost.

When I finished with my work the other day, I asked if I could place an order I'd discussed with him earlier. It was significant enough that he could piggy back off of it and get free second day air on his stuff. That's a good thing. I made him charge me sales tax and his credit card percentage - why should he eat 1.5% when he's not making any money on me? He charged me appropriately.

We both know I don't buy everything there. I try though and when I do, I try and make sure I treat him right.

Because you know what happens to good shops you don't treat right?

They go away.

(Note: this is by no means a reflection on how anyone treated the writer when he was in the bike biz. I truly appreciate my time at the shop and am thankful for the enduring friendships, the eye-opening experiences, and finally the fact that I'm out of it. However, for those in the business now, there must be nothing more frustrating than watching someone blossom into a competent rider under shop tutelage and suddenly forget who got them into the sport.)


Anonymous said...

Bravo! That was one of the best editorials I've read on this subject. You should consider submitting this to your favorite mag or the NY Times.

Radio Freddy said...

A great piece, after 20 years in the bike world your comments ring very true. Your blog is great, keep it up.

Anonymous said...

man, if I would have known you were there, I would have asked to put your special touch into building up my bike that is there :) good post as always. see you sunday.

Aki said...

anon - thanks perhaps I will :)

radiofreddy - thanks for the words and encouragement

gar - if I'd known, I'd have worked on it! seriously though I'm new to all this outboard bearing stuff. rest of it hasn't changed though.