Thursday, December 16, 2010

Division of labor

More years ago than I like to count, when I was just starting at this temporary job, the manager came into the back shop to find me reading the Quality catalog or some other technically rich publication.

"I don't mind you educating yourself," he said. "But my mother and father don't understand why you're back here reading a magazine."

This was on a day during the busy 1990s, when innovation swept the bike industry like projectile vomiting and diarrhea through a cruise ship. I wasn't just wasting time with a romance novel. I was reloading with vital ammunition for both the sales and service departments.

During that era, the manager raced road bikes fairly regularly and mountain bikes very casually. A skier by preference, he had taken to cycling as off-season training with a little more dedication than many skiers show, but he cared little more for the technicalities than I did, and I didn't care too deeply. We soon acquired a younger mechanic who was a much more active mountain bike racer who helped his two geezer shop mates keep in touch with trends. I, in turn, helped him put his mania for new technology in perspective, with the help of a lot of that very same technology.

One day in or around 1995 he was just finishing the assembly of a Cannondale full suspension bike.

"A year ago I would have thought this bike was just totally cool. I would have wanted one," he said. "Now I just look at it and wonder where it's going to break."

I've never been so proud.

In the passing years, the management grew accustomed to my apparent lack of industriousness when it kept paying off. When people came in looking for answers, I could provide them. It may not have been what they wanted to hear, but I did my best to be sure it was well thought out, solid and consistent.

Meanwhile, the shop has to run. The manager withdrew more from the wrenching side of the business as the business side took more attention. He also enjoys the sales floor more than I do. Despite the fact that he's been through three carbon frames and a trip to the ICU in the past five years, he's still fully confident in the material. He's down to earth enough to have avoided getting caught up in the tubular tire craze, but he has no complaints about brifters and skinny, expensive chains made out of tinsel. He finds the bright side of the products the industry insists on producing rather than wasting his time on resistance and subversion.

Each of us has a full-time job keeping this battered lifeboat afloat. Aside from the manager's parents, the other staff members also have vital tasks, but they haven't been in skiing, cycling or the related industries long enough to have the fluency that comes from a lifetime thoroughly squandered in self-propelled travel sports. If I'd known this was all I was going to amount to, I would have paid more attention. It was, after all, just a temporary job for rent and beer money while I got ready for much cooler things to happen to me. Even so, rolling along like a ball of rubber cement, a lot of stuff has stuck to me. Maybe feeling like an outsider all this time has given me the perspective to stay out of the industry's seductive web of addictive doodads and obsessively narrow focus.

The manager now piles up publications for us all to read. There's more to work than just looking like you're working.


Steve A said...

Don't all real cyclists ride on tubulars? I have two sets of tubular rims and actually currently have two tubular tires that hold air. If I can bring myself to purchase one more for a spare, I may commute on them. In my own defense, neither wheelset was new in the 80's.

cafiend said...

I've ridden on tubulars. It's all fine until you flat. I don't need the guilt of a closet full of tires I swear I'll get around to fixing one day. So I guess I'm retired from being real.

greatpumpkin said...

I had a bike with tubulars, the one I toured England on in 1976, on a set of cotton-bodied Clement Veltros that were large and durable. I rode those things right down to the fabric. Their replacements never seemed to hold up so well. A few years later when high-pressure 700c tires showed up, I intended to convert to them, but never did. I don't think I'd ever ride tubulars again. I still have one around, which I keep meaning to sell or give to somebody, as I no longer have a wheel it fits on. These days I'm so lazy about fixing stuff that I am quite happy with the 20" (406) folding-bead tires on my Trice, which can be changed in minutes almost with my bare hands. When you ride a trike, you transcend hipness for some higher level of hipness that the merely ordinarily hip can't appreciate.