Monday, December 18, 2017

The new winter

Looking at long range forecasts as autumn arrived, I saw what had become a familiar profile for northern New England: above average temperatures, with an equal chance of above average, normal, or below average precipitation.

Precipitation is the hardest to nail down, followed by specific temperature. Everyone laughs at the weather forecaster, or complains about inaccurate information. A lot of variables influence the amount and type of precipitation. This is much more true when the temperature fluctuates above and below freezing. Long term averages behave more tractably. All you need is the trend.

As the actual season grew nearer, the shorter long term projections turned colder and wetter. This seemed to track with the La Nina situation in the Pacific, and the injection of volcanic dust into the upper atmosphere. Those had been ingredients for serious cold in the past. Now, superimposed on the overall warming trend, their influences seem restrained. The cold has not been as deep, for as long, and precipitation type covers a range that includes rain much more of the time. Even when storms stay all snow, it is wet, clumpy snow.

The phenomenon popularly called the Polar Vortex has become unstable, shifting so that bitter cold can drop in and hang around, particularly late in the winter when people might be looking forward to busting out into the growing sunshine. This is especially true of cyclists who may have some serious trainer fatigue, or be looking forward to using the car less, and the bike more. Completely car-free citizens will really welcome more benign conditions.

A rider who has taken advantage of winter conditions that allow for cross-training may have trouble finding them. Cross-country skiing doesn't require deep snow if there's smooth ground to hold a few inches on which to slither. Then you just have to find the time to get there on a regular basis. Runners adapt in various ways, to continue their program through snow and ice. At shallow snow depths, these user groups may be sharing space.

One winter, when I still lived in Maryland, I went out on a fresh snowfall of about five inches. You could enter the Naval Academy grounds quite freely then, so I skied from my neighborhood to the Academy, where they have a lot of well-mowed grassy fields and lawns. As I slid across one smooth, white parade ground, I noticed a runner high-stepping through the white stuff on a roughly parallel course. Without directly acknowledging each other, we each tried to make sure that we did not look like the silly one. I came out the winner by a slim margin.

Proper ski conditions were rare in tidewater Maryland. In New England I expected that they would occur more regularly. That was somewhat true. It's significant that the indigenous people of North America invented the frame-and-lacing snowshoe rather than the sliding boards devised by the natives of Asia and northern Europe. Terrain and snow type here initially favored the snowshoe. Skis immigrated here with Europeans and have needed help to assimilate. The most popular form requires constructed facilities and uses machine power to carry sliders to the top of a hill. Cross-country skiing  became a sideshow.

When I started working in the ski and bike business, it was a good way to be a professional athlete of sorts. It enhanced the business if I rode a lot and skied a lot. I was never the kind of uber-consumer that industries love, so I always had a frugal angle, but as gear improved I could help customers justify the purchase of it, and help them keep it operating, because I had tried it out myself. The conveyor belts got out of control in both ski and bike industries as the century turned. It's gotten harder to find good long-term investments in equipment, but it's not impossible. The growing trend toward a less throwaway society helps. We'll see how long it takes industry to notice and accept it rather than try to undermine it.

Because the basis of my riding was commuting and transportation, I look for ways to escape from the constant financial drain represented by car culture and consumerist entertainment. The lifeblood of an economy is cash flow, but you can't flow what you don't have.

Tuning and maintaining the human engine calls for balanced use. Pure cycling does not provide that. In pure bike commuting season I miss regular opportunities to walk. My commute is long enough to take up all the slack time in my day and then some. I used to change to a mix of activities in the fall and winter, but those have gotten harder to piece together as I have less energy overall. Opportunities to ski on workdays have vanished. At either end of the work day, conditions are often unsatisfactory or even downright dangerous, as temperatures rise above freezing during the day and set up hard at sunset. Indoor training seems convenient, but you have to set up, suit up, and clean up, turning a scanty half-hour workout into a full hour project. Subtract that hour from the necessary routines of meal preparation, housekeeping, and transportation. And you still need to stretch. Every option costs money and time.

Back in 1979, I set out to see how good a life a person could have on a modest income. This meant eating well, getting beneficial exercise, and enjoying some sort of intellectual stimulation and creative outlet. Eating well does not mean gorging on rich food It means being tastily but properly nourished based on whatever you can learn about what those terms mean. My financial status, tenuous and doomed as it is, is still better than it was when I started. In 1979, I would have been jacked to get $5 an hour, and could barely imagine the wealth of $10. I nursed the fantasy that I would produce creative works that would earn me more money to finance some travel and greater adventures, but the quest was never a straight-up pursuit of money for the sake of money. It was about a balanced life that anyone could achieve.

Of course anyone can live a balanced life, if one accepts an early death. Old age is expensive. But what do you do if you fail to kill yourself in pursuit of your dreams? Then you have to choose a voluntary death based on your principles and your taste. With a normal human predilection to survive, it's hard to kill yourself outright, even if you know it's the best thing for the species and the economy. And a lot of the shortcuts, like cancer and other diseases, are painful and creepy and sad, as you feel your body rot out from within while parts of it are still vibrant and viable. How do you know when you've had the last piece of fun you will ever have, and that this is the perfect time to leave?

Thoughts like this make hitting the weight bench and jumping on the treadmill seem pretty pointless and stupid. We're constantly shown propaganda that makes us question whether we deserve to live. If you're not working three jobs and filling every day with either billable hours or transit time from one job to the next, you're a slacker and a drain on society. In the anthill or the beehive, you work until you die. They don't have weekends and vacation. They have jobs. Even cartoonists brag about their workaholic habits. Partly they make a virtue of necessity, constantly producing work and sending it around because the returns tend to be small compared to the time invested. Take a vacation and some other scribbler will get one of the dwindling number of paying gigs.

The arts in general work on slim margins. Musicians have to practice to remain good. Visual artists have to make the art. Writers spend hours alone, going nuts in ways that they hope readers will enjoy. Performers need something to perform, an audience, and a venue. When work is commissioned, you have a payoff to look forward to...or an advance you've already spent. Otherwise, it's all on spec.

It's snowing steadily right now. I have go out and get a few thousand steps while I can. It's medicine.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Industry icon advances service boutique concept

At the beginning of the week, my employer directed my attention to an opinion piece in Bicycle Retailer, written by Onza founder Dan Sotelo. In it, Sotelo described the end of the independent bicycle dealer and suggested that service take the forefront for brick and mortar establishments. This includes assisted on-line shopping. He described the service boutique concept I had been thinking about for about ten years. It included in-store terminals so that we could help our customers choose compatible, high-quality parts and bikes.

The germ of my assisted online shopping concept started at the end of the age of mail order, when the 1 1/8" threadless headset became the most common standard, and suspension forks were evolving year by year. Someone with a four-year-old fork with blown-out seals could get a newer model on closeout from a mail order source and have us plug it into the bike for only a little more than a full rebuild would cost on a fork that had seen hard use and might have more issues than just seals and bushings. Yeah, it's parts replacement instead of mechanics, but it was also more cost effective and got the customer into something newer that might be supported by the manufacturer for a bit longer.

For as long as there have been internet sources, our shop has welcomed the purchasers of those bikes and parts to get the service they will so desperately need to turn their on-line deal into something reliably usable. We also service big-box boat anchors, with the caveat that something made to low standards will never achieve high standards.

Something assembled far away, by technicians working for low wages, will not provide years of reliable service right out of the box. You may be able to slap the pedals and handlebars on it and ride it, like the advertising says, but it will have been built to industry standards, not to the higher standard that really confers some longevity in the real world.

Last week, a guy brought in a fixed-gear winter trainer I'd built for him in about 1997. All the bearings were still in adjustment. Granted it isn't his primary ride, but it has to have seen some mileage in 20 years. His road bike of about the same vintage was similarly in adjustment, with more use. It had also needed a few tuneups through the years, because of the temperamental nature of brifters, but the structural fundamentals -- any bearing that could be adjusted and needed to be properly secured -- had remained where they were properly assembled.

Because so many people are either bored or intimidated by the inner workings of their simple machinery, they will flock in even for mediocre service by technicians barely worthy of the name. I'd been thinking about a piece titled "Their bikes are beneath them" to explore the concept. The less discerning will take any work that doesn't obviously fail, just for the sake of having someone else do it. Real riders who, for some reason, have not learned how to maintain their own steeds will look for a higher level of precision.

I decided years ago that my standard was, "best possible outcome for this particular bike." The big-box boat anchor will always be horrible at best. If I can bring it up to horrible from abysmal, that's the goal. If a bike has been abused or neglected, it cannot be perfected. But it can usually be better. I try to discuss the customer's goals when the bike is checked in, but I don't always do the check in, or the bikes come in during a rush of business in which we have no time to make a detailed inspection. And sometimes I just feel solitary and uncommunicative. Sorry, folks. Workin' on that. "Grumpiness of mechanic does not reflect quality of work." In fact, the inverse may be true, but that's another whole essay.

Low quality and high technology both work against the mechanic in search of the closest thing to perfection. While the purchasers of low-end bikes tend to acknowledge the notorious crude workmanship and shoddy materials found at that price point, some of them have to be coaxed through a short learning curve to get there. Much of an independent bike shop's customer contact falls into the category of counseling. Owners of expensive bikes can present much greater challenges, because they feel that purchase price should confer some immunity to malfunction. That was actually true, about 30-40 years ago. Well, mostly true. The equipment was all made to the same pattern. Expensive equipment was made much more precisely, out of better materials. Maynard Hershon decried "a 21st Century shifter held in place by a 19th Century wingnut," but the wingnut worked. When it loosened, a quick twist snugged it up again. On a high-end bike, you got a high-end wingnut. And the matching faces of the shifter held together by that nut -- actually a machine screw -- were more precisely matched. I don't miss down tube shifters, but I also don't scorn the wingnut purely on the basis of its ancient origins. Your 21st Century bike is propelled by a human built on a very ancient design.

For a small shop in a rural town, providing assisted internet shopping may not pay for the computer terminal necessary to give the customer a place from which to browse. Even in a more populated area, customers who like internet shopping because it is convenient as well as cheap will not make a special trip to the bike shop when they don't suffer that much from the inconvenience of selecting the wrong thing. They're already accustomed to shipping things back and forth a few times, or just making the best of it when something arrives that isn't quite right. Internet shopping puts a lot of product in circulation, and eventually leads a customer in desperation to seek out the nearest surviving bike shop to try to put things right. That may be the best we can hope for.

Promoting service likewise calls for a gamble by the shop that a certain clientele will flock to the dinner bell if a certain service is offered. Suspension service on mountain bikes springs immediately to mind, because that was one of the major dividing points when the stunt man style of riding took mountain biking down a carefully constructed course of obstacles and jumps, away from the main stream of general pedaling. Suspension and hydraulics require clean work spaces, dedicated to that work if possible. It's harder and more time consuming to try to do decent service on something that requires clean oil and grit-free seals, when you're working in a small clearing on a bench that sees regular invasions of grimy junk. So you need infrastructure. Then you need tools.

Tools are a profit center for specialty parts manufacturers. They don't do shops any favors on price. Maybe if a shop is part of a well-funded chain it can get a better deal, but that's a world apart from mine. The true disciples will tithe as necessary to remain in good standing with the faith. The world of esoteric bike parts is minuscule in the global economy, so the price of specialty tools also reflects their relative rarity in the ocean of cash flow. But it's still major coin for subsistence farms like our little outpost.

When bikes were simpler and the range of diversity was narrower, we could benefit from the summer influx of cyclists of all sorts. We would stock some things that were too rich for the local market, like internal parts for Campy Ergopower brifters, just to rescue the vacations of unfortunate riders who happened to be here when the little ratchet spring failed, rather than at home. A little bouquet of them gathers dust even now, on a hook above one of the work benches.

With both electric bikes and electronic shifting gaining market share, we're faced with more expensive investments in tools and parts to prepare for technology we do not endorse, which seldom drops in. Living as we do on a slim margin, we are canaries in the coal mine of bike industry economics. No one pays attention to the dead canaries anymore, except to sweep up the carcasses before rolling out a red carpet for the next wave of expensive bullshit. Maybe some day the electronic technology will settle down to the ageless reliability of a 19th Century wingnut. Until then, it's just a magnet for foolish money buying into a conveyor belt of obsolescence.

Since the 1990s, the bike industry has used customers as test pilots. They do not call attention to this, so customers think they're buying something that not only represents the state of the art, but also durability. I suppose as younger generations grow up without the memory of a 24-inch single speed that lasted for all the decades that seemed to pass between age 8 and 14, the idea that a bike is durable will fade from human expectation. But it seems remarkably persistent for now.

In the 1880s, the newborn bike industry was surprised by how many working-class people shelled out what was a hefty amount of money to buy a penny-farthing ordinary bike. They had not realized how many potential customers would recognize the value of such simple personal transportation. But that was when the purchase price was by far the biggest financial hurdle to ownership. The value continued with the advent of the safety bicycle, and even persisted well past the middle of the 20th Century. Minor increases in complexity did not lead to precipitous drops in reliability. An earnestly striving human could enjoy a nicer lifestyle that rewarded both frugality and personal effort. Because it was hard to exploit monetarily, it has been hammered relentlessly by the modern world. I don't see a business model that can overcome that philosophical divide. Meanwhile, for all you strivers out there, I'll do my best to help you keep your bike going.