Monday, May 18, 2020

Why you can't make an appointment for service

We get asked fairly often if a customer can make an appointment for service, to guarantee same-day turnaround, like they do with their cars.

Cars are complicated, with a lot of systems that have to work together, but they have to be pretty well foobed not to work at all. The odds are good that a mechanic can do what you ask for and turn you loose until the next thing goes sproing. A mechanic might spot something crucial, if anything is crucial at that moment, but most of the time it's a matter of doing set procedures by the book. When those are standard maintenance procedures, it's really a matter of rote. Even if a less-routine repair is scheduled, a dealer or independent professional can have parts in the pipeline to cover predictable complications.

There are exceptions, of course.

Bike repair is all exceptions. The systems of a bicycle are much more lightly built, reflecting the abysmal power to weight ratio of the human engine, and they are much more interdependent. With rim brakes -- still the most common type -- a wheel out of true risks not only inadequate braking, but also a flat tire if the wheel wobbles enough to allow the tire to rub on the brake pads. Loose hub? Could be a bent or broken axle, not just loose bearings. Loose crank arm? It is quite likely to need replacement with an arm that is the same length, the right profile, and that attaches to the axle the same way as your old one. Your shifting out of adjustment could require complete replacement of the cables and housing, as well as internal procedures to clean out old factory grease. The factory lube in Shimano shifters is the leading cause of malfunction in older units. They want you to buy a new one. But because the bike industry keeps making things rapidly obsolete, finding a replacement part can be a treasure hunt in itself. Cruelly, this seems to happen to the expensive stuff more than the cheap stuff.

Nine is the loneliest number. For a brief time, nine-speed was the top of the line. Once it was supplanted by ten-speed cassettes, the industry stepped away from it completely, keeping eight, seven and some six as OEM spec, but abandoning nine altogether. Weird, huh? You can get some nine-speed parts, but they are the orphan step child of drive trains. The good news is that you can always convert to friction shifting, which allows you to run whatever you can cram in there. I cannot recommend it enough.

We might be able to set up for a same-day repair if we did a thorough examination of your bike on a previous day, but the time we would spend on that is time taken away from every other repair in the queue. It takes experience and knowledge to diagnose accurately. And a lot of the time you need to dig into it to see what it really needs and whether it can be done at all. Sometimes, disassembling a malfunctioning bike is a one-way trip, requiring that the repair be completed just to hand it back in a rideable condition.

We regularly do less than a bike should have, because it's all the customer is willing or able to spend. However, that is never done at the expense of safety. I hesitate to say this, but a lot of stuff gets done pro bono and unrecorded, just to safeguard the rider and to preserve some shred of profit from repairs that develop complications.

At the peak of mountain bike madness, we stocked a lot of parts. Riders were breaking a lot of things, and also looking for upgrades, back when you could still do that somewhat cost effectively. Eight speed was the top of the line, meaning that only two cogs separated the aristocrats from the lowest of the lowly rabble. Nowadays, the top stuff has 12 cogs, the average low end stuff has eight, but you'll still see some new stuff with seven. Super cheap bikes might have six. So that's four cogs between average low end and average high end, each with its own needs for chains, shifters, and derailleurs. Oh, and SRAM and Shimano use different actuation ratios on the shifters, so make sure that all parts that need to match are properly matched. This is true whether the bike is low end or high end.

Auto repair shops have either the resources of the dealership behind them or the highly developed network of auto parts stores for on-demand ordering and rapid delivery. Bike shops don't have that. We have a supplier one day away, and two suppliers two days away, with minimum order requirements and freight charges on every order. The supplier one day away has always been one of the weakest contenders on selection, and they seem to be vying to become more lame rather than less. Add to this the fact that most bike parts come from Asia. Between the trade war and the pandemic, it's surprising that supplies aren't more disrupted than they are.

On Saturday, the owner of an auto body and repair shop in town told me that her business is having trouble getting motor vehicle components because of the pandemic. She didn't say whether it was because of shutdowns in US factories or overseas sources. Maybe both. So for a while even the auto repair business can't necessarily oblige your need for convenient scheduling.

Any repair will take time. Someone somewhere might have written a rate book for standard bike repair procedures, but it should be shelved in the section marked "Humor." The lowly tuneup might take half an hour on a bike that was well assembled or at one time properly tuned, but more often blows out to consume more than an hour -- sometimes a lot more. Once we're in there, we can't just walk away. And we can't usually backtrack to the original crappy configuration of the bike when it came in. Even that would take time. We're better off, once we're going through hell, to keep going. See earlier reference to salvaging some profit from repairs that get complicated. Much of the time, you have to do the repair to determine whether you will be able to do the repair. Diagnosis and treatment become simultaneous, but that doesn't mean that either one was quick.

All these factors have led to the widespread practice in bike shops, that you drop your bike off one day and live without it as long as you have to, until the poor greasy bastards finally get it done and call you. As we shuffle the queue, we can often juggle the small jobs among the large ones, but any interruption will break the flow. If we have to play phone tag because we discovered expensive complications, we can't proceed until we hear back from the customer. If we keep having to stop and restart a job, that means taking the bike off the stand and setting it aside, or hanging it up, substituting another job in the interim, perhaps several times in the course of a repair, as little urgencies pop up during the day.

Some jobs are just a long slog. Suspension pivots, for instance. Every one has to be disassembled, the bearing extracted, new bearings inserted, with care and precision. That's going to tie up a technician and a stand for a long time. Once you've got that thing in several pieces, you don't want to yank it out of the stand. And our work stands are all optimized to the height of the mechanic who regularly uses it. Changing stands slows you down, because the working height is different, and the tools are all in a different place. It seems like a little thing, but you get used to flowing through a work station with familiar movements.

"How backed up are you on repairs?" someone might ask. The answer these days is about two weeks. We may do better, but we're not going to promise it.

"When will you not be so busy?" is the next question. When I say "September," they think I'm being funny or nasty. This year, of course, we can't really say. In recent years, a lot of the repair business has come from second-home residents and long-term vacationers. Who knows how much we'll see of them this summer. Camps have almost all shut down. But the customers are coming from somewhere. A lot of them are locals digging out bikes because they have the time. Once more people start going back to work -- for better or for worse -- they will be riding less. The whole thing could pinch off in an instant. We could be back to solitary contemplation of our debatable life choices. But that goes on in the background all the time anyway. Nothing really changes, you just get more or less of it at a given time.

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