Monday, May 01, 2017

Scavenger hunts

In the struggle to survive, our shop still clings to its precarious holds above the bottomless pit. Since the turn of the century, customer count has dwindled. The whole bike industry has felt the effects of numerous pressures. Meanwhile, customers who do come in still expect the same basic goods and services.

Service especially sets the independent bike shop apart from other sources of merchandise. You don't see people shipping their bike off to an internet merchant to get a tuneup or an overhaul. Customers look for a bike shop when they need someone to do actual wrenching.

Because cross-country skiing is also stagnant or in decline, our winter revenues have fallen quite a bit as well. This leads to the springtime scavenger hunts, as we try to meet the surge of demand for bike repairs when we don't have sufficient cash flow or reserves to buy parts as needed.

You might think we could make a big preseason order of things we know we will need, like cables, brake pads, inner tubes, and chains. But chains include one-speed, 6-7-8 speed, 9-speed, 10-speed, and 11-speed, with 12-speed up and coming. Tire and tube sizes include 10, 12, 16, 20, 24, 26 fractional, 26 decimal (in a couple of widths), 26 fat bike, 650C, 650B, 700C and 29. The 29 and 650B include at least a couple of widths as well. Who will come in when, with what level of urgency? Roll the dice.

In the brake pad department we need to stock cheapo caliper brake pads, nice caliper pads for road bikes, post-type cantilever pads, threaded cantilever pads, linear-pull brake pads, and a speculative selection of disc brake pads.

This was the selection in disc pads as of 2014:
While we're on the subject of disc brakes, we'd better have mineral oil and DOT fluid for the hydraulic ones. Make sure the bleed kits are up to date.

Of course some parts carry over from year to year. Those are usually the ones you won't need. That's why they're still here. We still have to remember where we put them.

Along with the riders who have been using their bikes regularly, year after year, we get the ones I call van Winkles: they've awakened after years of slumber and want to start riding their bike again. The period of dormancy could range from a couple of years to a couple of decades. The oldest bikes can be the easiest to accommodate, because the best of them completely predate the index shifting era. The recent Holdsworth project is a perfect example. The poor bastards who have drive train issues  on a bike that used to be cutting edge and is now abandoned by the manufacturers will often drag the carcass away and give up the idea of starting to ride again because they can't afford the repairs to get the old bike going or the purchase price of a comparable new bike. I always feel bad when they get talked into buying a new bike that is considerably cheesier than the one they don't want to fix, just for the sake of having something "new."

Many repairs, even in the best of times, have sent me on a scavenger hunt to find what I can use among what we have in stock. The back shop is cluttered with improvised tools made out of scrap metal or old spokes. I mine the basement for hulks I can strip for useful bits.

A rival shop went out of business shortly before I started here in 1989. Last year, someone brought in cases of old parts and accessories from that shop, in case we could use any of the stuff. A lot of it is too old or weird, but you never know. The bulging, half-rotted cardboard boxes join the rest of the cache in the basement. It has already saved us several times. Don't let anyone tell you that you should throw out anything that you have not used in a year. Not if you run a bike repair facility, anyway.

Any repair or maintenance beyond routine adjustments will lead to some level of scavenging, because the industry changes so many things with little warning or publicity. If you are not obsessively hooked to the information pipeline, it's easy to miss an important announcement. Then you go looking for parts, only to discover that you've been abandoned. People don't want to live like this. They don't look forward to it when they buy a bike. They look forward to years of happy riding. A cutting edge is an instrument of pain, an implement of destruction. It is a surgical tool, amputating riders whose commitment is not strong enough to make them want to fork out the dinero to fund their addiction.

I keep recommending the freedom and reliability of primitive equipment. What's primitive now was better than I could afford when I was racing, because I had my flirtation with abrasion back when step-in pedals and aero brake levers were just appearing. When I ducked out, friction shifters on the down tube were the mark of an expert. I don't miss shifters on the down tube, but I still don't index, because I don't need to. The drive trains on all my bikes are mixed and matched from nicely made parts collected over the years. My interest is in riding, not shopping, or ministering to the infirmities of super-sophisticated componentry.

The bike industry in general and independent bike shops in particular could survive and thrive without the embrace of industrial enslavement and technological complexity. Good luck convincing them of that. But it's true. People who really want to ride will ride. And the goal should be to get people to ride and keep riding, not to spend and keep spending. The orgy of consumerism that propelled the mountain bike boom will never be repeated, because its fundamentals were destructive and unsustainable. It was an affliction of the entire industrialized world, for which we are still paying. The United States was the superpower of self indulgence, so we guzzled the most and faced the biggest crash. A healthy cycling culture could help us roll out of it, rather than crawling forward on bloody knees until we can drag ourselves into the seat of a motor vehicle to perpetuate the madness. Again, good luck convincing enough people of that. We're all about making money, not about making the world a better place.

I know no better than to keep doing what I do. It might catch on some day.

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