As winter comes closer, bicyclists are like birds: a few still flit around, but most have vanished until spring.
The shop where I have spent the last 28 years started out as a cross-country ski shop in 1972, as that sport began a phenomenal boom across the entire country. Throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s, skinny skis showed up anywhere a heavy frost might occur. People discovered as a result how short and warm the winters really were, in most places, so the sport receded again to what we believed were the more reliably snowy areas.
Many ski shops in snow country developed other business for the snowless seasons. Bikes were a common choice. In the 1970s, the "ten-speed boom" provided a summer counterpart to the cross-country ski boom. As the ten-speed boom mutated into the triathlon boom and the rising tide of mountain biking, some form of bicycle continued to bring in decent money in what ski shops had considered the off season.
Other economic forces in New Hampshire helped to create a year-round local economy for a while. People actually lived here and had disposable income. They raised families and bought equipment for them. It was never sustainable, based as it was on the illusion of prosperity created in the 1980s by ignoring the environmental and social consequences of overpopulation and predatory economic practices. But enough people had what appeared to be a good life that they spent freely on lighthearted recreation. On the fringes of that, a few cranks like me advocated for generally non-motorized lifestyles while deriving our sustenance from the more frivolous majority. We could keep harping on the more practical, larger applications and hope that the message got through. We were all lulled by the sense that things would somehow be okay. Improvement is only gradual at the best of times, because people have to figure things out for themselves. If our species collectively makes the worse choice, we're all goin' down, and there's really nothing you can do about it. It's exactly like being in an airliner that some crazy bastards have decided to fly into the World Trade Center. You may disagree, but the whack jobs at the controls have decided that we gonna die.
Cross-country skis have not been a gold mine for quite a while now. And fragmentation of bicycling into what are essentially warring religions has broken up that revenue stream. It has also made the service side harder. Not only are the machines more complex, the riders in their factions want to go where they hear the familiar liturgy of their respective faith. This is clearest in the road/mountain divide. Look at comment threads on the problems of road cycling and you will see mountain bikers asserting that no one should ride on the road anyway. The smart kids are all hurtling down the trail on hefty beasts, safely away from traffic. It's a strange combination of bravado and fear.
The rivalry between road and mountain bikes was largely made up during the early years of the mountain bike. But it became more real as the technology diverged more and more. Many factors can be manipulated to drive the rider groups further apart. Course design pre-selects for a riding style that will prevail. Cost of the machine makes people choose one or the other. Lack of vigorous industry support for better road conditions leaves road cyclists exposed to a hostile environment while the debate about infrastructure rages. Mountain biking, meanwhile, takes place in constructed environments rather than found environments. Off-road cyclists don't look for trails in their area that they think they can ride. They look for constructed facilities that favor the trick and gravity riding style that makes good videos.
Pure bike shops promote winter service as a way to bring in money and take the edge off of the spring avalanche of service demand. As a ski shop, we can't do that. As long as we cling to the remnants of cross-country skiing, we must convert to cold-weather activities in the hope that the weather and the economy bring us some income.
Even converting to a pure cycling focus would require a lot of advertising and promotion. In the 1990s, when cross-country skiing started to decline, mountain bikers were exploring winter trails. This happened mostly when we didn't have a lot of snow. It was the beginning of the studded tire movement, using existing trails, and frozen lakes. The return of deeper snow would shift the majority back to skiing. As shops dropped out of the cross-country ski business, our shop grew because we had established ourselves in the sport and were too dumb to quit. We drew from a wider and wider geographical area.
Now that winter is much less reliable, cross-country skiing is barely clinging to life, and shoppers can get what little gear they need from internet merchants, we can no longer afford to stock in depth and variety that serves the whole spectrum of the cross-country ski experience. As with bicycling, the different forms have diverged so widely that they are practically different sports entirely. Telemark is just another way to preen on the slopes. Touring can mean anything from a casual trudge around a local golf course to a multi-day trek across the tundra. Performance skiing requires excellent grooming on carefully constructed trails. And the whole thing depends on the arrival of natural snow. The cross-country areas that make snow can only do so on small, closed courses, so only the most dedicated addicts will accept its limitations for the sake of the workout. Racing gear may be expensive, but you don't make a lot of money off of racers.
My last experience in a year-round bike shop was my first experience working in a bike shop at all. Winters in Alexandria, Virginia, were short enough that we did not make a huge effort to solicit winter business. The gap between Christmas sales and the onset of spring was barely three months. That period was hardly dead. The DC area in 1980-'81 had a thriving commuter culture. This new thing called The Ironman brought in runners who suddenly wanted to learn about racing bikes. And new bike inventory had to be assembled well before the fair-weather riders came looking. When I left in May 1981, my job choices took me away from cycling until the spring of 1989, hundreds of miles to the north.
The idea of spending a winter with less direct customer contact and a steady flow of unhurried mechanical work sounds pretty pleasant. But maybe a steady, unhurried flow is not enough to pay the bills. When I left the first bike shop in 1981, I went to a sail loft that made most of its money on winter service. I started in May of '81. Summer business seemed pretty steady to me. But right after the beginning of January the floodgates opened. We were on overtime, 50-60 hours a week with only one day off, until some time in March. If it hadn't been that intense, we would not have had the money to get through the rest of the year. I hadn't thought about the fact that people don't want to give up their sails until the boat's laid up. On top of that we would get orders for racing yachts going south. The first winter was insane. The second winter was not so bad...and half the production staff got laid off by July.
It all depends on your overhead. The owner of the loft had a lifestyle to maintain. It's a luxury business. There's not a lot of transportational sailing in this country. And we did not do small boat sails. The whole production line was geared to large pieces of fabric. Once in a while, as a favor, the owner would take an order for dinghy sails and they would jam things up unbelievably. Dinky sails is more like it. But then a big genoa for a 58-footer would totally blanket a loft built around dinghy sails.
As weird as bikes get, they have not approached the size range of boats and the things that you attach to boats. About the most awkward thing we get in the bike shop is the occasional tandem. Even e-bikes, despite their incredible mass, are not much larger in volume than the biggest upright cruiser.
For this winter, we are working our usual routine. That's the plan, anyway. Because prosperity has been based on flawed concepts for hundreds -- if not thousands -- of years, the cracks run deep. At some point we may have to face the truth, that a civilization in which you need to make a special effort to get healthful exercise in your leisure time is itself so unnatural that it must be dismantled before it destroys everything else. At that point, efficient human-powered transportation will be an asset, combined with public transit and vehicles that derive motive power from external renewable energy sources. But I don't think that will happen in the next few months. We'll spend the winter pretending that weekend recreation and vacation travel are still viable with a shriveling middle class stretching static incomes across widening gaps in their budget.