Monday, December 11, 2017

Industry icon advances service boutique concept

At the beginning of the week, my employer directed my attention to an opinion piece in Bicycle Retailer, written by Onza founder Dan Sotelo. In it, Sotelo described the end of the independent bicycle dealer and suggested that service take the forefront for brick and mortar establishments. This includes assisted on-line shopping. He described the service boutique concept I had been thinking about for about ten years. It included in-store terminals so that we could help our customers choose compatible, high-quality parts and bikes.

The germ of my assisted online shopping concept started at the end of the age of mail order, when the 1 1/8" threadless headset became the most common standard, and suspension forks were evolving year by year. Someone with a four-year-old fork with blown-out seals could get a newer model on closeout from a mail order source and have us plug it into the bike for only a little more than a full rebuild would cost on a fork that had seen hard use and might have more issues than just seals and bushings. Yeah, it's parts replacement instead of mechanics, but it was also more cost effective and got the customer into something newer that might be supported by the manufacturer for a bit longer.

For as long as there have been internet sources, our shop has welcomed the purchasers of those bikes and parts to get the service they will so desperately need to turn their on-line deal into something reliably usable. We also service big-box boat anchors, with the caveat that something made to low standards will never achieve high standards.

Something assembled far away, by technicians working for low wages, will not provide years of reliable service right out of the box. You may be able to slap the pedals and handlebars on it and ride it, like the advertising says, but it will have been built to industry standards, not to the higher standard that really confers some longevity in the real world.

Last week, a guy brought in a fixed-gear winter trainer I'd built for him in about 1997. All the bearings were still in adjustment. Granted it isn't his primary ride, but it has to have seen some mileage in 20 years. His road bike of about the same vintage was similarly in adjustment, with more use. It had also needed a few tuneups through the years, because of the temperamental nature of brifters, but the structural fundamentals -- any bearing that could be adjusted and needed to be properly secured -- had remained where they were properly assembled.

Because so many people are either bored or intimidated by the inner workings of their simple machinery, they will flock in even for mediocre service by technicians barely worthy of the name. I'd been thinking about a piece titled "Their bikes are beneath them" to explore the concept. The less discerning will take any work that doesn't obviously fail, just for the sake of having someone else do it. Real riders who, for some reason, have not learned how to maintain their own steeds will look for a higher level of precision.

I decided years ago that my standard was, "best possible outcome for this particular bike." The big-box boat anchor will always be horrible at best. If I can bring it up to horrible from abysmal, that's the goal. If a bike has been abused or neglected, it cannot be perfected. But it can usually be better. I try to discuss the customer's goals when the bike is checked in, but I don't always do the check in, or the bikes come in during a rush of business in which we have no time to make a detailed inspection. And sometimes I just feel solitary and uncommunicative. Sorry, folks. Workin' on that. "Grumpiness of mechanic does not reflect quality of work." In fact, the inverse may be true, but that's another whole essay.

Low quality and high technology both work against the mechanic in search of the closest thing to perfection. While the purchasers of low-end bikes tend to acknowledge the notorious crude workmanship and shoddy materials found at that price point, some of them have to be coaxed through a short learning curve to get there. Much of an independent bike shop's customer contact falls into the category of counseling. Owners of expensive bikes can present much greater challenges, because they feel that purchase price should confer some immunity to malfunction. That was actually true, about 30-40 years ago. Well, mostly true. The equipment was all made to the same pattern. Expensive equipment was made much more precisely, out of better materials. Maynard Hershon decried "a 21st Century shifter held in place by a 19th Century wingnut," but the wingnut worked. When it loosened, a quick twist snugged it up again. On a high-end bike, you got a high-end wingnut. And the matching faces of the shifter held together by that nut -- actually a machine screw -- were more precisely matched. I don't miss down tube shifters, but I also don't scorn the wingnut purely on the basis of its ancient origins. Your 21st Century bike is propelled by a human built on a very ancient design.

For a small shop in a rural town, providing assisted internet shopping may not pay for the computer terminal necessary to give the customer a place from which to browse. Even in a more populated area, customers who like internet shopping because it is convenient as well as cheap will not make a special trip to the bike shop when they don't suffer that much from the inconvenience of selecting the wrong thing. They're already accustomed to shipping things back and forth a few times, or just making the best of it when something arrives that isn't quite right. Internet shopping puts a lot of product in circulation, and eventually leads a customer in desperation to seek out the nearest surviving bike shop to try to put things right. That may be the best we can hope for.

Promoting service likewise calls for a gamble by the shop that a certain clientele will flock to the dinner bell if a certain service is offered. Suspension service on mountain bikes springs immediately to mind, because that was one of the major dividing points when the stunt man style of riding took mountain biking down a carefully constructed course of obstacles and jumps, away from the main stream of general pedaling. Suspension and hydraulics require clean work spaces, dedicated to that work if possible. It's harder and more time consuming to try to do decent service on something that requires clean oil and grit-free seals, when you're working in a small clearing on a bench that sees regular invasions of grimy junk. So you need infrastructure. Then you need tools.

Tools are a profit center for specialty parts manufacturers. They don't do shops any favors on price. Maybe if a shop is part of a well-funded chain it can get a better deal, but that's a world apart from mine. The true disciples will tithe as necessary to remain in good standing with the faith. The world of esoteric bike parts is minuscule in the global economy, so the price of specialty tools also reflects their relative rarity in the ocean of cash flow. But it's still major coin for subsistence farms like our little outpost.

When bikes were simpler and the range of diversity was narrower, we could benefit from the summer influx of cyclists of all sorts. We would stock some things that were too rich for the local market, like internal parts for Campy Ergopower brifters, just to rescue the vacations of unfortunate riders who happened to be here when the little ratchet spring failed, rather than at home. A little bouquet of them gathers dust even now, on a hook above one of the work benches.

With both electric bikes and electronic shifting gaining market share, we're faced with more expensive investments in tools and parts to prepare for technology we do not endorse, which seldom drops in. Living as we do on a slim margin, we are canaries in the coal mine of bike industry economics. No one pays attention to the dead canaries anymore, except to sweep up the carcasses before rolling out a red carpet for the next wave of expensive bullshit. Maybe some day the electronic technology will settle down to the ageless reliability of a 19th Century wingnut. Until then, it's just a magnet for foolish money buying into a conveyor belt of obsolescence.

Since the 1990s, the bike industry has used customers as test pilots. They do not call attention to this, so customers think they're buying something that not only represents the state of the art, but also durability. I suppose as younger generations grow up without the memory of a 24-inch single speed that lasted for all the decades that seemed to pass between age 8 and 14, the idea that a bike is durable will fade from human expectation. But it seems remarkably persistent for now.

In the 1880s, the newborn bike industry was surprised by how many working-class people shelled out what was a hefty amount of money to buy a penny-farthing ordinary bike. They had not realized how many potential customers would recognize the value of such simple personal transportation. But that was when the purchase price was by far the biggest financial hurdle to ownership. The value continued with the advent of the safety bicycle, and even persisted well past the middle of the 20th Century. Minor increases in complexity did not lead to precipitous drops in reliability. An earnestly striving human could enjoy a nicer lifestyle that rewarded both frugality and personal effort. Because it was hard to exploit monetarily, it has been hammered relentlessly by the modern world. I don't see a business model that can overcome that philosophical divide. Meanwhile, for all you strivers out there, I'll do my best to help you keep your bike going.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Evolved from its environment

As winter comes closer, bicyclists are like birds: a few still flit around, but most have vanished until spring.

The shop where I have spent the last 28 years started out as a cross-country ski shop in 1972, as that sport began a phenomenal boom across the entire country. Throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s, skinny skis showed up anywhere a heavy frost might occur. People discovered as a result how short and warm the winters really were, in most places, so the sport receded again to what we believed were the more reliably snowy areas.

Many ski shops in snow country developed other business for the snowless seasons. Bikes were a common choice. In the 1970s, the "ten-speed boom" provided a summer counterpart to the cross-country ski boom. As the ten-speed boom mutated into the triathlon boom and the rising tide of mountain biking, some form of bicycle continued to bring in decent money in what ski shops had considered the off season.

Other economic forces in New Hampshire helped to create a year-round local economy for a while. People actually lived here and had disposable income. They raised families and bought equipment for them. It was never sustainable, based as it was on the illusion of prosperity created in the 1980s by ignoring the environmental and social consequences of overpopulation and predatory economic practices. But enough people had what appeared to be a good life that they spent freely on lighthearted recreation. On the fringes of that, a few cranks like me advocated for generally non-motorized lifestyles while deriving our sustenance from the more frivolous majority. We could keep harping on the more practical, larger applications and hope that the message got through. We were all lulled by the sense that things would somehow be okay. Improvement is only gradual at the best of times, because people have to figure things out for themselves. If our species collectively makes the worse choice, we're all goin' down, and there's really nothing you can do about it. It's exactly like being in an airliner that some crazy bastards have decided to fly into the World Trade Center. You may disagree, but the whack jobs at the controls have decided that we gonna die.

Cross-country skis have not been a gold mine for quite a while now. And fragmentation of bicycling into what are essentially warring religions has broken up that revenue stream. It has also made the service side harder. Not only are the machines more complex, the riders in their factions want to go where they hear the familiar liturgy of their respective faith. This is clearest in the road/mountain divide. Look at comment threads on the problems of road cycling and you will see mountain bikers asserting that no one should ride on the road anyway. The smart kids are all hurtling down the trail on hefty beasts, safely away from traffic. It's a strange combination of bravado and fear.

The rivalry between road and mountain bikes was largely made up during the early years of the mountain bike. But it became more real as the technology diverged more and more. Many factors can be manipulated to drive the rider groups further apart. Course design pre-selects for a riding style that will prevail. Cost of the machine makes people choose one or the other. Lack of vigorous industry support for better road conditions leaves road cyclists exposed to a hostile environment while the debate about infrastructure rages. Mountain biking, meanwhile, takes place in constructed environments rather than found environments. Off-road cyclists don't look for trails in their area that they think they can ride. They look for constructed facilities that favor the trick and gravity riding style that makes good videos.

Pure bike shops promote winter service as a way to bring in money and take the edge off of the spring avalanche of service demand. As a ski shop, we can't do that. As long as we cling to the remnants of cross-country skiing, we must convert to cold-weather activities in the hope that the weather and the economy bring us some income.

Even converting to a pure cycling focus would require a lot of advertising and promotion. In the 1990s, when cross-country skiing started to decline, mountain bikers were exploring winter trails. This happened mostly when we didn't have a lot of snow. It was the beginning of the studded tire movement, using existing trails, and frozen lakes. The return of deeper snow would shift the majority back to skiing. As shops dropped out of the cross-country ski business, our shop grew because we had established ourselves in the sport and were too dumb to quit. We drew from a wider and wider geographical area.

Now that winter is much less reliable, cross-country skiing is barely clinging to life, and shoppers can get what little gear they need from internet merchants, we can no longer afford to stock in depth and variety that serves the whole spectrum of the cross-country ski experience. As with bicycling, the different forms have diverged so widely that they are practically different sports entirely. Telemark is just another way to preen on the slopes. Touring can mean anything from a casual trudge around a local golf course to a multi-day trek across the tundra. Performance skiing requires excellent grooming on carefully constructed trails. And the whole thing depends on the arrival of natural snow. The cross-country areas that make snow can only do so on small, closed courses, so only the most dedicated addicts will accept its limitations for the sake of the workout. Racing gear may be expensive, but you don't make a lot of money off of racers.

My last experience in a year-round bike shop was my first experience working in a bike shop at all. Winters in Alexandria, Virginia, were short enough that we did not make a huge effort to solicit winter business. The gap between Christmas sales and the onset of spring was barely three months. That period was hardly dead. The DC area in 1980-'81 had a thriving commuter culture. This new thing called The Ironman brought in runners who suddenly wanted to learn about racing bikes. And new bike inventory had to be assembled well before the fair-weather riders came looking. When I left in May 1981, my job choices took me away from cycling until the spring of 1989, hundreds of miles to the north.

The idea of spending a winter with less direct customer contact and a steady flow of unhurried mechanical work sounds pretty pleasant. But maybe a steady, unhurried flow is not enough to pay the bills. When I left the first bike shop in 1981, I went to a sail loft that made most of its money on winter service. I started in May of '81. Summer business seemed pretty steady to me. But right after the beginning of January the floodgates opened. We were on overtime, 50-60 hours a week with only one day off, until some time in March. If it hadn't been that intense, we would not have had the money to get through the rest of the year. I hadn't thought about the fact that people don't want to give up their sails until the boat's laid up. On top of that we would get orders for racing yachts going south. The first winter was insane. The second winter was not so bad...and half the production staff got laid off by July.

It all depends on your overhead. The owner of the loft had a lifestyle to maintain. It's a luxury business. There's not a lot of transportational sailing in this country. And we did not do small boat sails. The whole production line was geared to large pieces of fabric. Once in a while, as a favor, the owner would take an order for dinghy sails and they would jam things up unbelievably. Dinky sails is more like it. But then a big genoa for a 58-footer would totally blanket a loft built around dinghy sails.

As weird as bikes get, they have not approached the size range of boats and the things that you attach to boats. About the most awkward thing we get in the bike shop is the occasional tandem. Even e-bikes, despite their incredible mass, are not much larger in volume than the biggest upright cruiser.

For this winter, we are working our usual routine. That's the plan, anyway. Because prosperity has been based on flawed concepts for hundreds -- if not thousands -- of years, the cracks run deep. At some point we may have to face the truth, that a civilization in which you need to make a special effort to get healthful exercise in your leisure time is itself so unnatural that it must be dismantled before it destroys everything else. At that point, efficient human-powered transportation will be an asset, combined with public transit and vehicles that derive motive power from external renewable energy sources. But I don't think that will happen in the next few months. We'll spend the winter pretending that weekend recreation and vacation travel are still viable with a shriveling middle class stretching static incomes across widening gaps in their budget.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Whose freedom takes precedence?

In rural areas there are no unimportant roads. Some of them may fall into disuse and neglect, but the ones that actually connect are important arteries, regardless of their size. My commute to work uses one of these arteries, Elm Street. In Ossipee it even has a double yellow centerline. No shoulders, and narrow lanes, but a double yellow centerline. The road I live on, without painted lines or a shoulder, is a virtual expressway for the locals. Their speed and aggression often reflect this.

This morning, driving back from taking the cat to the vet, I met a logging truck with multiple wheels on my side of the double yellow line on Elm Street. It was one of a small group of vehicles using the road the way normal people do.

The logging truck driver was taking his half of the road out of the middle. Forget cyclists, a vehicle that size can take out much bigger prey. Not that a truck driver wants to waste time having an accident, but intimidation clears the way for higher speeds. Higher speed means shorter time in transit.

We had an inch of snow yesterday. It's damp and raw today, under a gray sky. At one point in my life I would have gone out to train in this. It was years ago, when the population was lower and the political climate was less harsh. I thought I had nothing better to do than keep myself in top physical condition. Meanwhile, normal people were working themselves sick, as we are told to do. Who wants to be the lone lemming on the cliff top, looking sadly down at the others? Sure, you're alive and healthy, but you're an outcast. People hate you for refusing to join their foolishness, whether it's a lifestyle or a war. And they talk about freedom.

There's strength in numbers. To get the best use out of those numbers, they have to be organized. Military forces are a good example. A thousand angry people might make a mob, but a thousand trained soldiers is a battalion. The mob engages in free expression and unrestrained action. The battalion answers to a chain of command and moves with discipline and purpose. There is no free expression and no unrestrained action. Organization of all group endeavors falls on a continuum from the amorphous mob to the highly disciplined military formation. At each higher level, the individuals in the group give up more and more pure liberty for the benefits of participation.

Traffic is not a fully organized activity. The shape of infrastructure and the laws and customs of its use make up the rules of engagement. It is both a cooperative and a competitive activity. The personalities of individual road users determine the balance.

As the truck came at me, with its unofficial escort of smaller vehicles -- all larger than a bicycle -- I imagined a cyclist in the mix. Every driver would have had to navigate around the rider. The cyclist, with every legal right to be out there, would have curtailed the freedom of the motorists to travel freely in ways that motorists can handle, for the most part. I suppose cyclists can handle them, too. Any vehicle that passes cleanly, no matter how close, was not a problem, right? That which did not kill you did not kill you. The shot of adrenaline might even improve your average speed for the day.

We complain about what might happen. I do it myself, and agree with the principle that drivers shouldn't squeeze cyclists for fear of hitting them. But from an impartial viewpoint the goal is to move users through the system at the best speed. That is often not the highest speed, but generally maintains the flow. As long as the majority is motorized, the needs of cyclists will be minimized, and we will be marginalized. But we continue to be accommodated to some degree. You take what you can get while maneuvering for more. It applies to life and to traffic.

The Onion recently posted a piece with the headline, "Study: 90% Of Bike Accidents Preventable By Buying Car Like A Normal Person." At the bottom of the page is a link to another item poking at people who bring their bikes onto public transit.

With all the reasons to dislike cyclists, I'm surprised we don't get mowed down more often. Every bit of media that reinforces the stigma against weirdos who clot up the motorized world brings us closer to another front in the conflict of various interests that has been created by the convergence of overpopulation and mechanization.

Society expects conformity. Tolerance for nonconformity varies on yet another continuum from most hung up to most anarchistic. The use of the term "normal" to describe motorists alerts us to the baseline of conformity from which pedalers depart. Drivers respond with varying degrees of anxiety or hostility based on how much they feel a cyclist has injured society by using a non-standard vehicle. The Onion sets the acceptable upper age limit for bike riding at 12 years.

Satire is not just a joke. Satire is a pointed effort to portray the ridiculousness of beliefs and behaviors. There's good-natured ribbing, and then there's propaganda. Satire is often intended to be persuasive. This takes it from the category of joshing and turns it into social leverage.

Some platforms, like South Park, collect their audience on the principle that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." They appear to hold no belief or person immune to ridicule. When it's well done, it provokes thought as well as mirth. But when it just looks like a tidal wave of acid rolling across the landscape it becomes depressing. If they're scourging someone you like to see scourged, it's all great. If they're scourging your beliefs, it's unfair and simplistic.

I like the comic strip Pearls Before Swine, but I don't like the character of Jef the Cyclist. Because the strip is read by the general public, and the general public is notoriously prone to generalization, the sole cyclist character being an arrogant snot means that all cyclists are arrogant snots. Do arrogant snots deserve to be accommodated on the public right of way? Only if they express their arrogance in suitably high-powered cars. An arrogant cyclist deserves to be doored or run off the road, because that's how we do things now. Don't suffer fools. Once fools are identified, persecute them until they smarten up.

The properly humble cyclist shuffles and mumbles and nods deferentially. Yes, we are inferior, evolutionary dead ends who will eventually be eradicated. The fact that some of us are overbearing and egotistical stems not from any actual power but from the pathetic posturing of a doomed subculture. You would be more socially acceptable if your human powered commute consisted of climbing tall buildings and then leaping off in a flying squirrel suit to glide to the next and the next, until you reach your destination. If you don't have access to suitably tall structures, too bad.

I have said more than once that bicyclists need to remember that many people will never be able to incorporate any pedaling into their daily routines. A lot of people could start bike commuting or ride bikes on short utilitarian errands, but technology has evolved to make other alternatives necessary. The amount of stuff we move, over the distances that we cross, in the time we have available, make motorized transportation a fact of modern life. Before that it was railroads and boats and big wagons drawn by burly animals. People who pedal have always been a troublesome minority. Even in the various bike booms, the minority became a larger percentage of the population, but never achieved long-lasting respect.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Speaking of darkness...

The big storm that blew through northern New England last weekend took out my power line for five days. I just got electricity and running water back last night. The cable is still down. Where I have time, I have no internet connection. Where I have an internet connection I have no time. The cable company says they’ll see me Tuesday. I’ll relate gripping tales and profound insights after they hook me up the rest of the way to the 21st Century.

Monday, October 09, 2017

Observation from the darkness

A few weeks ago, I observed in a post about aggressive driving in early autumn, that motorists on my route seemed particularly irritable on a small secondary road near or after dark.

Murphy's Law as it relates to motorists passing bicyclists states that the drivers will synchronize their speeds so that the pedaler and the motorists are all squeezing through the same space at the same time. In daylight this is annoying enough. At night, it is particularly hard on drivers, blinded by oncoming headlights, trying to find a safe passage. Those of us who drive, think about how often you maneuver on faith alone, because the glare has eliminated all sight of the roadway at a time when you really can't stop. Now put your pedaling self into the picture.

For the majority of situations, a decent set of lights and some added reflective material will make a cyclist adequately visible. A decent set of lights also provides enough light for the cyclist to see the road ahead. But when the road is narrow, a little hilly, and bendy, a cyclist presents much more of a challenge to drivers.

By the law, cyclists in many jurisdictions have the right to take the lane to prevent passing. This is a good idea a lot of the time anyway. It isn't always a good idea, though. You have to develop your own judgment about when to herd, and when to let 'em run.

Unfortunately, impatient local drivers will perform the most insane maneuvers to pass a cyclist, day or night, on my route. But even the ones who are somewhat more likely to take a moment will seldom take more than a moment before launching themselves around me. This factor more than any other impels me to change to the park and ride when daylight grows short. Faced with the sudden threat of each other, motorists will blame the easier target: the guy on the bike.

Is it a form of surrender, to give up the road because motorists don't have the patience and judgment to behave decently around other road users? Yes. But the death or injury of a cyclist would serve no purpose. It would not advance the point of view that motorists should learn to drive with more generosity. Someone would point that out, but it would join a jumble of other assertions that would leave us all where we started -- except for the poor schmuck who had gotten slammed by an armored vehicle.

Evolution moves slowly, on a broad front. We can each help it along in ways we'd like to see, but ultimately an individual's survival comes down to moment-by-moment combinations of skill and luck. Accumulated skill can enhance luck, but uncontrolled variables will remain. If you want to see what the future turns out to be like, you have to survive to get there.

Monday, October 02, 2017

It's the traffic, stupid

To be more accurate, it's motor vehicles and the people who drive them. The category is, "Things that make people quit cycling on the road."

There is no last word on this topic. It shows no sign of ever going away. Those who choose to pedal must now and forever deal with the challenges of sharing space with large, fast vehicles, mostly piloted by people with minimal training. And professionalism is no help: truck and bus drivers are notoriously hostile to pedalers. Professionalism may make matters worse, because those drivers are on a schedule and are earning their living by driving. The direct monetary connection reinforces their territoriality against not just cyclists but against all amateur road users.

The solution comes not with a single stroke but with a multifaceted response that has to include a lot of infrastructure changes along with behavior modification. Unfortunately, the system we have evolved developed very naturally along the path of least resistance. People were happy to let their communities be designed around motor vehicle flow. Almost no one questioned it. Forget whatever sinister conspiracies underlay specific things like the destruction of streetcars in favor of buses, and other sabotage of public transit. The proliferation of cheap automobiles relative to rising incomes in the mid and late 20th Century guaranteed that they would dominate our lives. The illusion of freedom was easier to sustain when the consequences, both economic and environmental, could be more easily masked.

We all understand the problem, but it seems as difficult to solve as gun violence. Both motorist dominance and gun violence breed fear, which can then be used to control people. In the case of cycling, fear serves to keep riders off the road.

People who used to ride tell me that they can't anymore. Maybe they quit completely. Maybe they switched to separated venues ranging from mountain bike trails to sedate paths. Most of them express their decision as a matter of maturity and wisdom rather than defeat and surrender.

People who haven't ridden on roads much or at all, who take up cycling or continue it in separated venues also assume the mantle of mature wisdom rather than regretful fear.

We all want to feel good about ourselves. Most of us, anyway. The problem is that the ones who have surrendered have surrendered completely. They've put it behind them and will not advocate for road cycling. I have not met a single quitter who said that they would take it up again if they noticed that conditions had improved. It falls to a shrinking group of experienced riders, augmented by younger people who are still in their riding phase, to keep a scrap of territory available to riders willing to face the existing reality and continue to promote proposals for its improvement.

The inexperience of those younger riders hampers their ability to understand the experience of cycling as the body ages. What was good enough for me in my twenties is out of reach to me in my sixties. It takes a bigger and bigger truck, going slower and slower, to get me to sprint it down. The degeneration has been gradual, but, because I have never stopped riding, I have been able to observe and document it. I guess I do all right for my age, but without the explosive power and grinding endurance I enjoyed from age 20 to about 50. And it shouldn't always be about exploring one's physical limits. Transportation and exploratory cycling should seldom be about exploring one's physical limits, or the limits of one's courage. It's okay for daily life to have a certain serenity.

To make this post self-contained, I have to acknowledge that motor vehicles have their uses. Time, distance, payload, and weather can all make a closed, motorized vehicle a better choice than something powered by human muscle. That has to factor into the system. When you need them, you need them. And what Edward Abbey called "motorized wheelchairs" can accommodate anyone who has decided that it's time to settle into their embrace.

Sunday, October 01, 2017

The Economics of Expertise

In ancient times -- you know, the 1970s and '80s -- bicycle technology was mostly simple and accessible. Beginning with Shimano's introduction of Rapidfire in 1990, the industry has been systematically destroying that, but you can still find it.

Someone who has evolved with the bicycle over the past several decades will understand what the new stuff is trying to do, based on its ancestors. The processes are simple. The new crap just uses more complex internal parts to achieve the same basic objectives.

Most sophisticated modern componentry can't be repaired. And why would you? The stuff you bought this year has already been thrown on the scrap heap by the manufacturer. And yet, people persist in keeping their bike equipment for as long as they can, and trying to get it fixed when it malfunctions.

There are plenty of YouTube videos of people fixing things. Personally, I would rather have an exploded diagram and a brief, written synopsis of what's inside something than watch someone who may or may not know what they're doing demonstrate it in a video, but I'm old, cantankerous, and independent. But I digress...

Through the efforts of intrepid people doing what they've been told they can't, the independent mechanic community has discovered some of the inner mysteries of modern widgets that have accidentally been made accessible enough to open up, explore, and attempt to repair. Sometimes the repair depends on having donor organs available from another specimen that may conveniently have failed in a different way. Other times, the inner mysteries just need a good cleaning.

When bikes were truly simple and accessible, a rider could perform complete disassembly and reassembly in a small room with simple tools. Some of them had to be bike-specific, but they would all fit into a small toolbox. You could fake a work stand and a truing stand in various ways, although those items do make even simple maintenance luxuriously easier. When I was briefly well funded in the late 1990s, I bought shop-quality versions of both of those. But without them I still managed to build wheels and perform complete overhaul after complete overhaul through the years.

I don't say you need to be so ambitious. I only point out that it was possible. My riding buddies and I did invest in a truing stand that we owned communally and passed around so that we could each build wheels for our commuting and racing bikes. It was a beat-up old thing, not a real shiny Park, but it got us started. Other than that, we got by with improvised facilities wherever we lived. Our apartments always had telltale handlebar scuffs on the walls of the sparsely-furnished living room. In one apartment, my crazy friend Mark painted the rear stays of his racing bike fluorescent orange, leaving the outline on the wall. It was a pretty slummy apartment. I'm not sure whether we even lost our security deposit over that. The owner of the building may have thought she owed us some compensation for the cockroaches and the lack of heat.

Fast forward to the present day: I was digging around inside a SRAM Rival brifter that had suddenly stopped responding to commands. SRAM lets you right in there. I've even seen at least one video in which the rogue mechanic shows how easy they are to service. "Easier than Campy," he says. Even now, we still relate high end road stuff to Campagnolo. The thing is, Campagnolo provides parts and service instructions, or at least they did a couple of cogs ago. In the past several seasons, I have not had to delve into anything later than very early 10-speed from the Italians, if anything. I have not bothered to keep up, because I need brain space for more common issues.

SRAM does provide ample access to the interior of their brifters. After that, you're on your own. Since the simple task of changing a shift cable can involve removing the handlebar tape and exercising a large portion of your profanity supply, anything deeper than that will take a lot of time and require that you keep track of a lot of little parts. And therein lies the economic problem.

A shop has overhead. Back in the 1990s, mechanics learned as quickly as they could to fix as many esoteric problems as possible, because an active riding population was constantly challenging us to prove that we knew our stuff. The industry steadily added complexity and buried the mysteries under more layers of concealment, but the changes were incremental enough, and the equipment remained mostly simple enough for a good wrench to maintain some level of stature from season to season. And it made financial sense for the shop to project this image of expertise. Riders would tell their friends where to get the good work. They might buy bikes by price and brand image, but enough people were really riding to understand the value of reliable repairs.

As complexity reached ridiculous levels and the industry had simultaneously managed to wedge rider groups firmly apart, all-around expertise became harder to maintain. Riders, particularly in hard-core mountain and road categories, now want to go where they recognize the nonverbal signs of group allegiance. The divisions were always there. Now they are more starkly prominent. But, beneath it all, certain mechanical concepts still make everything work. So a shop that may not appear obviously in with the in-crowd may still have a person or two on the staff who can get into a mechanism, figure out what ails it, and fix it or definitively declare it dead.

Unlike the hospital, our shop tends not to charge the customer if the patient dies. This means that we have to make our assessment quickly enough that we haven't lost a lot of billable hours. And, if we think it might be repairable by someone more in tune with a particular bike type, we say so. In the case of the SRAM brifter, we ordered and installed a new one. Then I started an autopsy on the old one. The ratchets are not engaging correctly, and probably cannot be stabilized. Donor parts from another unit might work, but the experiment would take hours, at shop rates.

It makes no sense for the customer to invest in that or the shop to spend the time. But a bike owner with mechanical aptitude and spare time might get in there, diagnose the problem, scrounge up the parts, fix the unit, and announce triumphantly that shops are ripping you off when they say your brifter has to be replaced. Total cost in commercial shop hours might have been $300 for a part that retails new for $114, but that part of the calculation is ignored.

What the industry deems unfixable they will make sure really is unfixable. Until some mad scientist develops a little machine for home mechanics to clone repair parts using recycled plastic bottles and metal cans, powered by scampering cockroaches or little solar panels, true repairs will be the exception.