Monday, June 04, 2018

Subsidized complexity

The stereotype of the Amish is that they opted out of any technology later than the 19th Century. The truth is more nuanced and intelligent. But the basis for their very measured acceptance of any new technology depends on whether the new thing will help the cohesiveness of their community or harm it.

The evolved division of bicycling in more and more distinct categories reflects the fragmentation of society in general in narrower and narrower interest groups that still try to claim larger allegiances, to a religion in general or to a national identity. There is no single Christianity, Islam, or Judaism, to name the three with which I have even passing familiarity. And the full menu of world religions is much, much longer than even the sects of those three. In bicycling terms, a "bike shop" is expected to know about "bikes" and be able to service most of them.

In biological terms, a bike shop is more like a veterinarian than a physician for humans. Under the broad heading of animals, a vet might have to treat anything from a gerbil to a horse, and more. Under the broad heading of bicycles, a bike shop -- regardless of size -- may have to minister to a downhill mountain bike, touring bike, hybrid, recumbent, e-bike, BMX bike, enduro bike, road bike, cable systems, electronic systems, hydraulic systems, suspension, steel, aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber, and more. Way more.

The swirl of complexity pleases many customers who find just the gimmick they're looking for in that infinite variety. At the center of the vortex sits the bike shop. Onto the shop the cyclone drops different pieces of debris.

I refer often to the 1990s, because it was the Big Bang of the current universe of technological ostentation. At that time, our shop tried to update tools and parts to be able to service the rapidly evolving suspension systems. A couple of years into that, we realized that the expense of new tools would not pay for itself when a two-year-old fork had already been supplanted by a newer model that worked better. A three-year-old fork could be replaced with a closeout model of a new fork from a year or two ago for only a little more money, and a lot less trouble, than tearing down the thrashed old fork and trying to rejuvenate it. Threadless headsets made it easy. The 1 1/8-inch standard used a standard size crown race. A new fork could be cut to whatever length the rider desired. It was actually a bit of a golden age for customizing that part of a mountain bike.

All good things must end. If the bike industry has anything to say about it, they can't end soon enough. The arrival of dual suspension and the emergence of disc brakes threw us into another chaotic tumble down a slope of loose rock.

A small shop has to do a constant cost-benefit analysis. Because send-away suspension service centers had taken a lot of the burden of that off of us, we could solidify our policy and tell people what it would cost and approximately how long it would take. If they opted to replace a part rather than repair it, we could order and install whatever they needed -- provided its manufacturer still supported it. In the case of something like a rear shock, an exact match isn't always necessary, as long as the overall dimensions and travel will fit.

When it comes to details, some of them quite subtle, we have less to offer. I don't burden myself with overly complex bikes, and I don't recommend that anyone else do so either, but my reasoning is philosophical more than technical. Anyone who wants to ride a mountain bike in the modern style will need a modern mountain bike. Anyone who wants to race on the road will need a bike that matches the average modern road bike. Those who can afford to pay more will get more.

The shop owner has bought a 2018 full-suspension mountain bike. It's already old. The 2019s are out. A customer just bought the 2019 version of the same bike, so we could compare the differences and try to guess where it will break. El Queso Grande has gone on a group ride or two on the fluorescent green rocket. He's picked up a little lingo, but at age 62, with a heart condition, he has not developed any stature in the off-road riding community. We used to dominate not only through our power as riders, but through our unassailable knowledge. The bikes of the 1990s still owed more to pedal bikes from 100 years ago than to motorcycles from 10 years ago. That's no longer true. So our heritage and knowledge is just historical trivia to the few among modern riders who might be curious. The only way we could win their love now would be to buy it with killer deals. You know who gets killed with killer deals? The shop that gives them. If all your deals are made at margins you can't live on, you cease to live. It's that simple.

Hampered by economic setbacks and the caution born of experience, we have invested only reluctantly in new tools. Last year we bought a new truing stand to rebuild a fat bike wheel for a guy who had been going to the cool kids' shop in Alton. The cool guy at the cool shop had built his wheel with alloy nipples. Alloy spoke nipples should always come with a big warning label that your wheel will have a definite limited lifespan. On top of crumbling aluminum releasing his spokes without warning, he'd also bashed up the rim pretty well just from slam-banging around on the singletrack with the currently fashionable .75 psi in his tire. I actually put in a few shorter spokes to accommodate the low spots, so that protruding spoke ends wouldn't pierce the seal of his rim strip. The customer bubbled enthusiastically about how we were his new best friends and that he and all his buddies would flock to us.

We haven't seen him since.

As El Queso Grande curses and grapples with the complexities of this year's crop of technology, it rapidly becomes the old stuff and falls to me to be repaired. A Cannondale, roughly circa 2011, had a sticky caliper on a brake no longer enthusiastically embraced by its maker. We recommended an update rather than a rebuild, given the condition of the whole mechanism. But the new caliper mounts to the posts on the fork without room for the intermediary of the centering washers that were fashionable when the original brake was installed. This made it obvious that the brake posts had never been faced. The tool for that costs more than $250. In the case of this bike, I was able to hand file the posts to get the caliper to sit squarely enough.

All the modern tweaky bullshit eats a lot of shop time. This means that all repairs cost more, because we can do fewer of them in a day. Our daily overhead remains the same, so prices have to go up. The rank and file, with simpler bikes, end up subsidizing the owners of the complicated modern marvels. The riders of these marvels often have no idea how much more of a hassle their equipment presents, because they have such a cushier ride as users of it. They push a button, the gears shift. They push a pedal, the obedient servant provides a power assist. They squeeze a lever, the overpowered hydraulic system clamps the pads against the rotor. It's all perfect until it doesn't work at all. What a perfect metaphor for industrialized, consumer civilization. Here we are with flush toilets, motorized transportation, pretty widespread access to clean water, wondering what the heck is making so much of the rest of the world mad at us. Our biggest problems are traffic jams and finding a parking space for the land yacht. And why are these protesters blocking a road? They should be killed for that.

If every rider owned complicated modern bicycles, service would still be expensive, or it would vanish completely, as the industry got its wish and everyone just bought a new bike every two years. The old stuff just goes on the growing mountains of industrial debris forming a forbidding range between humanity and a world that they could have inhabited pretty happily for an almost indefinite period.


mike w. said...

Last weekend i visited a "modern" bike shop for a quick look-see. It was very nice, but Every.Single.Bike. they had was disc-braked & suspended. i felt like a dinosaur, but i'm so glad that i didn't take the decision so many years ago to open & manage a bike shop. The cost of just keeping the tool box up-to-date would've long since broken the budget.

Now i just do my best to stockpile basic consumable (& obsolescent) parts (brake pads & cables, chains, cogs, etc.) to keep my personal fleet going for the foreseeable future.

Myfordbenefits said...
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Steve A said...

Even as it is, I've accumulated more bikes than I can easily ride in a week. Now I have to keep up with the floor pumps that need to be replaced from overuse!

cafiend said...

I know, right? Within pretty conventional categories, I have variations to suit several different needs. They're all designed to use existing public rights of way, paved or unpaved. Tire sizes range from 26X1.95 to 700X28. None of them have really skinny tires anymore. I've been using the same Silca track pump since 1980, but picked up a very recent Specialized floor pump with a smart head. It's my new favorite, but I'm keeping the old pump, too.

Shanaya said...

Thanks for sharing this great post. It is very enlightening. I absolutely love to read informative stuff. Looking forward to finding out more and acquire further knowledge from here! Cheers!

RANTWICK said...

I somemnly swear to never run a psi below 7. You know, now that I'm part of the fat bike crowd. And weigh just under 220.