Sunday, April 23, 2017

Up One Level

The shop has a new trainee. A highly skilled mountain biker, we used to know him as Jumper Dude when all we saw of him was a flash as he shot through our parking lot and launched off the bank on his nearly daily lunchtime rides around Wolfe City.

His resume is impressive, but he's never worked in a bike shop. He can -- and does -- build professional-quality trails. In addition to work experience completely unrelated to biking, he was a mountain biking instructor at a riding park that took over an old ski area. You can see by his riding skills that he's not a poseur. He has a great personality, which will be a real asset offsetting my crappy one. But can he survive the reality of shop life?

"After a couple of months in the apron, your outlook will change," I told him. I don't mean that he will be shattered and disillusioned, only that the wide horizon of enticing possibilities has to narrow, as probability weeds out the more vulnerable fantasies. He knows a certain clientele very well, but that clientele quit coming to our town long before we quit bothering to try to attract it. As our local group of hard core riders decided on their own to leave the trails and move onto the road, there to be dropped one by one as other aspects of life overcame them, they have not been replaced by an equal or greater number of newcomers in any specific riding genre.

When our weekly mountain bike riding group first started to dwindle at the end of the 1990s, one of them told us, "I just got tired of cleaning and repairing my bike all the time. I realized I could spend a lot more time riding and less time on maintenance if I was on a road bike." And this was before a mountain bike could routinely cost $4000 and have a dozen bearings in the suspension pivots. Someone spending just upwards of a thousand bucks on a mountain bike in the late 1990s had something pretty sweet to ride, although you could easily spend twice that. But in the background still lingers the ghost of mountain bikes past, costing far less and providing hours of laughs.

A younger generation will see the world differently. A teenager looking at mountain biking now will see that the minimum buy-in may look like it's still around $400-$500, but the upper end sits above $6,000, with peaks above $10,000.

A $1,500 bike today was a $500 bike in the 1980s. Because so many things can be mixed and matched, the value and usefulness of a bike can't be compared directly to many other things. For instance, I just did some nice updates on a 1970s Holdsworth road bike, to improve rider comfort without significantly changing the original intent of the bike as a drop-bar tourer. Because the bike was fundamentally sound, it can go on for many more years with minimal investment, if it is well maintained and properly stored. The frame itself could be fitted with completely modern componentry. Its geometry matches that of frames you can buy today.

Bits of history walk in all the time. A mechanic who has co-evolved with the technology has a huge advantage over someone who has only studied it academically, or perhaps never gave it a thought before it appears unannounced. This is true of dusty old gems and crusty old junk. Some of that old junk started its life as new junk. But even then it might have sentimental value to its owner.

Working in a bike shop, you have to deal with forms of the machine that might not interest you. I do disparage technology that I feel makes riding needlessly complicated and expensive. There are things I wish would go away. But until they do, I have to try to fix the broken ones. That doesn't mean I won't laugh derisively at anyone who would fall for that crap. But if I can get it to work for them, I will do so before it leaves my hands.

In the mid 1990s, a previous trainee came back in from test riding a full-suspension Cannondale he had just assembled. "Before I worked here, I would just have thought this thing was totally cool," he said. "Now I look at it and try to figure out where it's going to break." I've never been so proud. He had reached the next level. That's my goal for any trainee. You can like what you like, but love with your eyes open, and don't be afraid to scorn and deride what is badly designed, over-marketed bullshit. You are a mechanic now, the first line of defense between riders and the bike industry.

1 comment:

Coline said...

Aim for that next level in any work or it will just be a drudge...

All last month's housekeeping went on new parts for my 1970's Holdsworth and it is now good as new, now it is a month on beans.