Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Bike Shop Economics with a Twist

Here in our little northern refuge, our shop started as a cross-country ski shop. Long before I arrived, the owners added bikes as a summer line to carry them through their off season. It was 1972 or '73, a particularly good time to have a few ten-speeds kicking around for sale.

The 1970s treated shops that sold bikes and Nordic skis pretty well. The Baby Boomers were young and strong. Moving into the 1980s, many of them were chasing and catching the Almighty Dollar or at least running up their credit on the hope that their success would catch up with their spending sooner than the bill collector did.

By the end of the 1980s, when the cracks in the exuberant economy began to show, mountain biking rose to take the torch of the bike industry from the drooping hand of the road bike market. People's finances took a hit in the recession that began in 1989, but Nordic skiing was "the cheap skiing" and mountain bikes used human power, not expensive fuel. It wasn't great, but it was good enough.

The 1990s began with some shabby winters around here. At the same time, economic changes in the neighboring state to the south that we love to hate meant that fewer people were coming north in herds to spend their disposable income on winter recreation. But with mountain biking huge and getting huger we changed from being a ski shop that sold bikes to being a bike shop that sold skis. We all studded up our tires and hit the frozen lake and snow machine trails to show that nothing would stop us from playing outside.

Nothing symbolizes the desolation of globally warming winters better than a wide-open blue lake that should be frozen several feet thick. It looks so wrong after you've gotten used to the gray and white expanse dotted with fishing shacks and parked cars year after year. Winter has become wildly unpredictable since then, and winter cycling never really threatened to become the next big thing.

The stars our wagon was hitched to have become two lame mules. A tired, irritable and fat public pays lip service to the joys and benefits of cycling, but fears the road and lacks the cash and the will to construct better infrastructure. It is cheaper and easier to bitch about how there's no place to go and nothing to do than it is to do something about it. On the winter side, Nordic skiing isn't really "as easy as walking." It also requires snow, which has become a luxury, apparently.

Good snow has become a luxury anyway. Packed and packable powder that allows both classical and skate skiing on plausible waxes seems to show up less and less. We may get lots of snow in an odd winter, like last year, but it's bulk-packed, cheap discount store crap. We got feet of wet glop last year. If you got out at precisely the right time on the right days you had a great time, but the majority of the time the surface was maddening. The soft snow never firmed up into a good skate platform. The warm temperatures made grip waxing insane. Snow stuck to everything unless you lathered on some sort of chemical slop to prevent it. It was a year for no-wax skis. I'm sorry. That's just not a quality season.

Commercially, most customers only see white, think snow and buy whatever they choose for winter toys. But last winter would have had to be phenomenally lucrative to make up for the staggering canyon the whole northeastern Nordic industry went into in 2005-'06. No winter since then has been able to make up the deficit.

There's no summer savior like mountain biking anymore. We survive mostly because our mechanical shop has a decent reputation. That can only bring in limited money because it requires the mechanics to spend the necessary time to do a quality repair, assuming the mechanic in question is capable of it. We're not pumping out dozens of happy hardtails to new enthusiasts and equipping them with full accessories day after day. Biking has broken into niches and most riders are afraid.

In our enclave of the unimaginably wealthy, money never dries up completely. One can study the trickle-down theory up close and personal when someone who could buy out your entire net worth with the loose change in his couch cushions is asking if you can knock a few percent off your price for no other reason than that he asked you to. And even if the deep pockets toss a few coins our way without chiseling us, their business is not enough to keep us afloat.

Take note, my wealthy friends: I will happily continue to keep your bikes in fine working order if you want to put me on a retainer. Since the middle class is dying, the poor schmucks who used to subsidize your mechanical lackeys have mostly gone away. See that? The wealthy DO need the middle class.

For a starting salary of, say 50 grand a year plus a housing allowance, I'll travel with you as your personal mechanic.

We saw a little surge of interest and business last summer as fuel prices soared, the economy sputtered and coughed, and the scientific community assured us that we needed to lower our CO2 output as much as our cholesterol intake. But all the problems of cycling, combined with dreary weather, soon put that to rest.

We cyclists know that if major numbers of people started cycling, conditions would improve instantly. They really would. Each cyclist would be one less occupant of a car. Each bike would be one less car to park. Small vehicles powered by humans would flow more easily than ungainly steel boxes in the streets. Some steel boxes would remain, but we would outnumber and surround them.

We cyclists must admit that during the transition period, cycling accidents could increase as less skilled riders tried to use their bikes. There's a crossover point where increased bike ridership crowds the space with those still in their steel boxes. Carelessness and anger would generate conflicts and collisions. If it looked bad enough for long enough (perhaps not long at all), the new cyclists would shrink back, leaving only the memory of the bloodbath to make future adopters even more wary.

This is not a reason to give up. It's just something to prepare for. Can anyone in a bike shop anywhere tell me they haven't heard a customer say they're afraid out there? I've been doing this for decades, and I'm afraid out there.

No other sport is played in traffic. Any time you ride for any reason except a practical one, you're playing in traffic. Traffic is sometimes understandably resentful. Then we have to get into how many motor vehicle trips are frivolous and unnecessary to compare the score card between cyclists and motorists.

All this seems like a digression from the question of economics and cycling, but economics are a political force and a symptom of social structure. If people really wanted to bike they would bike, just as they did in the crazy 1990s, when times were tough but we couldn't keep enough mountain bikes in stock.

We cyclists know that cycling is great and affordable, good for the environment, good for health and fitness and peace of mind, but only if you make it out and back in one piece. Make cycling's built-in appeal obvious enough and the business side will take care of itself.

A word to the industry: If you engage in the kind of elbow-throwing, criterium-style competition you did in the mountain bike boom you will screw it up again as badly as you did then. Bad enough when you hook each other into parking meters and litter barrels along the course, but you ended up crashing on top of bystanders and lower-category riders just warming up. If the money starts flowing again, be cool this time and see if we can keep it going for a long, long time. Biking is a lifetime sport, even though hard-core competitive cycling emphatically is not.

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