Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The kind of problems you don't mind having

Spring will eventually get here. The forecast finally calls for warming temperatures. The next storm mentions snow, but only changing to rain. Barring the usual practical jokes from the weather, I predict an increasing probability of bike commuting.

These are the times that try cyclists' wardrobes. Morning lows in the 20s can give way to afternoons in the 60s. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon. Even a more modest swing, from just below freezing up to the vicinity of 50 degrees, calls for fewer layers on the way home than on the way in.

There's no clever solution. You can layer lightly in the morning, counting on the afternoon warmth to come through for you as much as you hope. You can protect yourself adequately against the morning chill and do either of two things in the warmer end of the day: carry the wad of shed clothing or wear it all and sweat a lot.

I know a couple of riders who commute with panniers. Rather than try to hone their kit to the essentials, carried with the minimum amount of rack and bag, they go right to large capacity. Forget any illusion of streamlining, of aggressive agility. Relax! Slow down! Live the good life.

They get up earlier than I do, or at least get themselves out of the house more quickly, so they have the time to spend en route. I keep meaning to try that.

Even a lackluster winter brings cold and darkness. I appreciate the purification brought by winter but I really prefer warmth and light. I welcome its return even if I do have to grunt home with extra weight at the end of a long day. There are worse problems to have.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Black Gloves

Before the last snowstorm, I actually managed to get out for a couple of rides. This gave me the first opportunity to try out the North Face Apex gloves I bought a couple of months ago to replace the North Face Windstopper gloves I was wearing out.
The Apex Glove

North Face offers a couple of models of wind-blocking fleece or softshell gloves, the Windwall and the Apex. The Windwall is similar to the old Windstopper Gore Tex glove, without the brand name Gore membrane. I had loved the Windstopper gloves, but the gripper sections sewn onto the palm and fingers would come loose over time. I reattached them when necessary. Eventually the material they're made of wears out so you can't sew it down anymore. The fleece material also wears. The membrane loses effectiveness. By the end of the useful life of a Windstopper glove you need glove liners whenever the air is more than moderately chilly.

The Apex gloves have a textured material bonded to the shell rather than pieces of grippy fabric sewn to the glove. I thought this might wear better than the sewn-on panels. Good in theory, but it doesn't grip very well on cold handlebar tape.

The Apex gloves definitely block wind incredibly well. Driving home after work the day I bought them, back around January, I stuck my hand out the car window at 50 miles per hour with an air temperature in the teens. The only effect I felt from the frigid wind was pressure. No chill. Ten out of ten for weather protection.

The things I don't like about the Apex glove are the poor grip provided by the texture pattern and the tightness of the gauntlet. The gloves are hard to pull on. I usually take a large. The overall fit of the large on me is good once I'm in it. But getting in there takes a lot more effort than pulling on the old Windstoppers. This is especially bothersome if I pull them off while I'm riding, to fiddle with something that needs more dexterity than the glove will allow, like my phone or camera. I will ordinarily do this riding no-hands without a second thought.

Getting the gloves off is no problem. Getting them on is not unmanageably difficult, just more trouble than the easygoing Windstoppers. It takes more fussing to get the jacket sleeves tucked into the gauntlets and all the drafts blocked before resuming speed.

As bike work picks up at the shop we're getting a few amenities in order for the coming season. Management delivered a nice box of black nitrile work gloves so the greasy grunts don't have to absorb quite as many lubes and solvents through our skin.

I've been doing this job for 24 years. Maybe this is too little too late. But at least it keeps me from grunging up my violin. As my colleague Big G observed from his own musical experience, "you don't want to clog up the brass windings on your guitar strings."

"I noticed last year that if I was eating fried chicken the tips of my fingers would end up cleaner than the rest of my hand," he said. We toyed with the idea of replacing the abrasive hand cleaner in the bathroom at work with some pieces of fried chicken. The gloves are a better solution.
I like how they look, too. They go with my customary easy-care black attire. A black shirt only gets darker the longer you wear it.

The nitrile gloves are loose enough and tough enough to remove and replace many times. They're not a single-use item. I won't know what to do with myself when my hands aren't scuzzy in bike season. But I guarantee I can get used to it.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

What are you worth?

"How much is a bike tune-up?"

Good question.

How are prices set?

Anyone alive today was born into an economy already in progress. Things cost a certain amount when we first became aware of them. Those prices have been adjusted up or down (mostly up) during our lifetime based on forces most of us do not control. Maybe no one controls them, even the people who can manipulate them to some degree. That's beyond the scope of this inquiry and the reach of any researcher. Everyone hides at least a little something about their finances.

As we enter the work force we may take a job in which our price is already set. Some workers get to negotiate, but the employers with whom they negotiate know the upper limit of how much they're willing to pay.

Service providers compete with each other. Some can charge more than others based on various factors. A customer has to do a lot of research to consider all the qualities of a service provider before deciding which one is worth the price. How many people really do all that checking? How often do you have the time, let alone the inclination? We use shortcuts like advertising or reputation or personal acquaintance.

Business for profit is based on the concept of charging more for something than it is actually worth. Profiteers tell us that this extra is the money put in reserve to cover shortfalls later or to reinvest in the business to fuel further growth. This is separate from the amount of the consumer price that covers material costs and overhead. How much is reasonable? No one can say. How short will the next shortfall be? What great innovation will a business want to pursue, for which they'll need ample funds?

In the bike business shortfalls can be caused by numerous factors. Ugly weather can keep people off their bikes. Ugly social climates can keep people from feeling like they have any place to use a bike at all. Competing activities can draw down consumers' funds.

On the service side, someone always seems to need something repaired. These numbers can fluctuate from season to season and within a season, but they never seem to drop to nothing. In the repair shop we can be the victims of innovation more than the beneficiaries when restless manufacturers unleash their latest improvements on the world, requiring a whole new inventory of spare parts and several expensive, specific tools.

The monetary values of materials and time are derivative. At some point in the dim past were the original numbers based on something tangible or did the whole process start from arbitrary values? I doubt if anyone knows. That's the factor that makes all our arguing about public and private money impossible to conclude. We're always bitching about relative values even if some participants think they're absolute. And public and private money come from the same pool. Some is drawn up through one vascular system, some through the other. Government funds, theoretically, are collected based on an agreement among the citizens to pay for certain things. They're gathered from each of us for the benefit of all of us. The bitching starts when someone who does not feel the benefit starts to feel ripped off.

What does all this have to do with the price of a tune-up? Any element of the economy feels the effects of pressures on other parts of the economy. What's a fair price? Am I paying for the shop owner's speedboat and his kid's private school and college? Could I go to the shop run by someone with cheap hobbies and no family and pay less? Maybe. But if a market area supports a certain level of pricing, the person with the lower personal overhead can charge only slightly less than the schlemiel with the maxed-out credit cards and put the extra money aside. We're not talking about enough to make an account in the Cayman Islands worth opening, but it illustrates the very easy way in which pricing is invisibly subject to the ethics and life choices of the business owner. It's not really unethical to offer a better price, draw business to yourself, and still make more margin than the other operator who has shackled himself to a set of inescapable personal expenses.

When I perform work in my own shop, as opposed to what I do for my employers, I have to figure out what seems like a fair hourly rate as a basis for my pricing. This is still based on the numbers received from the evolved economy in which I find myself operating. I suppose the dedicated profit seeker just keeps pushing the price higher until customers balk and then backs off a bit to make them happy again. Whatever you make, that's your operating budget. If it's never enough, go into a different business.

On a temporary basis, the method of pushing the price to the breaking point and then dropping it just enough to get wallets to open again is exactly what most businesses in tourist economies do. You want that now, while the rest of your group mills around impatiently? Ka-ching! In two or three months you'll all be gone. You are the cash crop. Prepare to be harvested. Look at it from the point of view of the people who live where you are visiting. The rest of the year there may be no outside money coming in and no local economy to speak of.

On a larger scale, price pushing goes on all the time to see if more revenue can be squeezed out of a market sector. It has nothing to do with what things cost to produce and deliver, and everything to do with the quest for more return, even temporarily. Consumers balk. Companies compete by lowering prices. They lower overhead by paying less for production. All that chiseling comes out of the pockets of people who work in the supply chain from beginning to end. Then they have less money and demand lower prices.

The two ways to have more money are to bring in more and spend less. But since money is the circulatory fluid of the economy, a penny saved is a penny not earned by someone else.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Exotic cross-breeds and lovable mutts

When I started paying closer attention to bicycles in 1975 a bicycle was a means of personal expression. At least it seemed that way to me, because of the people around me when I got into it.

My older brother built his touring bike from a frame with the help of Diane, who lived in the neighborhood and went to the same high school I did. She had grown up in the family machine shop, so no piece of machinery was untouchable. In high school she could build a bike from all its separate components. In less than ten years after that she could build a bike starting with unconnected tubes and lugs.

Componentry came from an international buffet of enticing offerings, limited only by your budget and whatever nationalistic threading on your frame could not be changed. In the hands of Diane, even the paint job could acquire many custom details. She specialized for a while in painting frames to match the rider's favorite beer cans. When a proud mechanic at Dade Cycle got a Strawberry she dug out an old junker and painted it up as a Blueberry.

The notion of a bicycle as a collection of parts has stuck with me forever. Ideally the total will be greater than the sum of the parts, but everything was open to tweaking, regardless of your budget. A complete-gruppo bike looked boring. Okay, all Campy Record was nice, but we're talking the old days of Record, Nuovo Record and Super Record. Their stuff is nice now, but the exotic shifting systems and carbon fiber have added extra technological headaches to what used to be a simple process of buying something beautiful for the one you love.

It's hard to find that kind of individualistic quirkiness in a lot of commercial bike shops. The industry has invested a lot in making the machinery mysterious and astounding. Thirty speeds! Frame made out of resin-impregnated hummingbird eyelashes!

With boring regularity someone will look at a price tag and say, "for that kind of money, I want a MOTOR! Haw haw haw!"

Sadly, the product that intrigues consumers the most HAS a motor, as electric bicycles are hailed as the next big thing. That's right: the smokeless moped is luring some customers back to cycling after they'd given it up, or convincing them to try it for the first time because now you don't have to face the world alone. Your helpful electron friends are waiting to lend their power so you can zip along the bike path or lane without panting, sweating or a license.

Batteries weigh the same amount charged or flat. How about rocket-assist bikes? Oh wait, it's been done. But we haven't seen a production version yet. That will keep the drivers off your ass.

I've really digressed here. I started thinking about what I value about bikes and bicycling because I think a lot about what I would have in a shop of my own. Into this mix went the newest Surly offering, the 29-er Krampus. I thought about all the bikes I own and all the bikes I could own if I had the funds. And then with a sound like a needle being snatched off a record, which to my generation signifies the abrupt end of a thought or action, my minimalist side kicks in. Skrrrrrit! Hold it!

I know what bike I would have if I had one bike. I'd keep the Traveler's Check, built up with my commuting/light touring parts. But the human engine can be fitted to many vehicles. Each one of my bikes fills a niche. Each can be modified easily to conform to changing needs within that niche.  I have given up ultra-light weight and exotic materials with no regrets at all for the sake of appropriate weight and versatility. That's what I would sell. Rather than chase the fashions and ride the breaking wave of changing technology, I offer lasting value.

Hardly a recipe for riches. Perhaps not even a recipe for much business at all. We'll see if it ever gets tested. But the other day someone drove from Albany, NY, to buy a Surly Long Haul Trucker from me. No one has ever driven a distance like that to buy any other brand of bike. Maybe we just don't carry trendy enough shit. But I'll put my money on reliable bikes for practical riders. And I'll put practical riders on reliable bikes as long as I can get them to come here. Or to wherever I happen to be operating.