Thursday, September 24, 2015

I'm getting too old for this

The bike business does not respect age. Not surprising when you consider that a young adult can propel and maneuver the vehicle to its greatest potential. Not too young; the best riders need seasoned muscles and honed skills. But at a certain point a rider can no longer keep up.

Bicycling in general encompasses an array of machinery and techniques suitable for all ages. Bikes for children are mostly toys, or perhaps prepare them for what they might some day achieve in bicycling's real theater. Bikes for older riders reflect what people past their prime can still manage to be.

Certain elders achieve the status of wise men. Owners of companies, famous innovators, retired racers all can manage to make the young pups shut up for at least a minute. But put one of these silver-tops in a greasy apron in a little shop in some nowhere town and the young guns would not know to be impressed. And if the greasy old geezer turning wrenches has never been one of those luminaries in the first place, the world really passes them by.

In what passed for the glory days, my physical prime happened to coincide with the mountain bike boom and my skills and style happened to be slightly better than average. This is no modest understatement. My edge was very slim. Mechanical skills and analytical ability made up the rest of my powers, but these were certainly enhanced by the number of people I could leave puking behind me on a long climb. The fact that I was puking to stay in front of them, and chasing faster riders, was excused by the fact that nearly all of us were chasing someone faster. If I could stay ahead of two thirds or three quarters of a ride group, that was solid enough. I knew that all the riders ahead of me were puking to stay out there.

There's a lot of puking, actual or metaphorical, in the prime of cycling. And a lot of acid reflux in your declining years.

Briefly, the local mountain bike crowd shifted to road riding before succumbing to the various ailments of aging athletes. Mountain biking itself went off a cliff, literally. Even if I was in my prime, I would not want to ride in the modern style, on the modern arthropod.

The fragmented bike market does not need hard-driving, monomaniacal riders as much as it needs experienced observers and interpreters. But some of its segments still feed on the intensity of the competitor. Lots of riders claim to understand their lower place in the hierarchy, but when they ride you know they're listening to the narration of their private video, or at least feeling the savage satisfaction of chasing down their quarry, real or imagined. An awful lot of people who come into a shop look at the people who work there and mentally assess whether they would be the chasers or the chased.

Actually, an awful lot of people don't come into bike shops anymore. Not in Resort Town, anyway. Even when there was money to be made, it was not easy because it attracted a lot of competition. We left all of them in the dust eventually, but now the dust settles on us, on a course nearly deserted. The segmented market seeks asylum in enclaves of its own disciples. You're either a big shop or a specialty shop.

We're an outpost, in Resort Town. We're that palisade far from civilization where a traveler hopes the blacksmith can knock together something to keep the wagon going long enough to get them home. We'll never be a big shop, because we've chosen to live beyond the edge of big civilization. The place is hardly remote. The lifestyle has evolved from north country lite to rural suburban. But the rough and rocky land refuses to support much of an economy. When people no longer come from away, the locals can only do so much to keep each other afloat.

The model for New England -- particularly northern New England -- is the subsistence farm. Now that the party is over for cycling, our shop is a subsistence farm. The woods are full of the weathered stone foundations of subsistence farms. The inhabitants of them gleaned whatever sustenance they could before they gave up and moved on, or simply dropped.

In the bustle of civilization, life is less of a struggle against indifferent nature and more of a brawl. There may be more activity in the lands of urbanization and sprawl, but it's no less strenuous. The specialty shop is only as good as its reputation. The big shop has to find the right size for its economy, and maintain a staff that will help it flourish, or at least not embarrass it too badly. If a specialty wanes, the little boutique must shift its focus or wither. The big shop or small chain can grow or shrink categories as long as the staff can keep up with the technology.

Technology is driven by desire. Perceived necessity is the mother of invention. Desire breeds an image. An image is an emotional construct. Emotion responds to first impressions. First impressions can be shaped by prejudicial beliefs. We look for what we hope to see, and often see what we have told ourselves to expect. Does this slightly limping, unkempt mumbler really know what he's doing? Why is someone that age still doing this job?

Because I can. Because the craft needs people who respect the craft. Why waste all that experience?

Like any writer, I console myself with the idea that I may yet figure out how to produce and sell something popular, or at least be discovered after my death and become influential then. Beyond that it's probably better not to pick at things too much. You can't do much more than what seems like a good idea at the time, whatever you're into. Good luck out there. If you need your bike worked on, you know where to find me.


Steve A said...

At least indie bike shops, unlike their book store counterparts, have not been vaporized by technology.

cafiend said...

We are stressed by it. Should we invest in the tool kit for Shimano Di2 shifters? I still endorse DIY shifters. We lose touch with the buzzwords of the various subcultures that cycling has become. Segments become more and more isolated by specialization. We need to know enough to be useful to whoever might show up. It's hard to stock a lot of bike inventory when we don't know for sure which of the increasing number of categories will be strong in our area during our selling season.

Someone keeps reinventing simplicity,but the choice usually turns out to be between finicky complexity and extreme simplicity. You can have 30 speeds or one. Fancy-zoot shifting or a fixed gear.