Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Bike shops are never "raking it in."

El Queso Grande had to solo one day while I was away. A repair and rental load that would have seemed ominously scanty when we had a full staff is more than enough to paralyze the shop with only one or two mechanics available, and only one of them very experienced. With El Queso Grande juggling all the chainsaws by himself, it looked to the untrained eye like a man barely finding time to open the cash register to stash away the shower of doubloons that must be coming from all these customers lined up at every door and counter.

Someone even said, "You must really be raking it in."

Bike shops are never raking it in. One nice young man with money to burn did buy an eleven thousand dollar road bike from us this summer, but that was one guy, one bike, one time. The average bike sells for maybe $400, with a clear profit of less than $100, after you extract overhead expenses. Probably closer to $10. Bigger shops are just making more of those average sales, with correspondingly higher overhead expenses. They might also sell more of the higher end bikes, but probably not a lot of the $11,000 variety. And more expensive bikes require lots more diligence, skill, and experience to assemble correctly and tune precisely enough to satisfy a customer who has dropped anywhere from $1,500 to $4,000 for what is now a mid-range or barely high-end bike. It still seems like a lot of money to most of us, even if the steady march of generational inflation has made it worth less.

Because of our short staff, we have had to turn work away. This is the first time since I started there 30 years ago that I have seen the management say we just couldn't do something. We've always tried to cram it in. Granted, it's partly because they've realized -- belatedly -- that life itself is more valuable than money, and that they have to get out of the shop to enjoy that life, but it's also because business itself is now so scanty that we couldn't afford staff even if we could find any. We have to make do with our own selves, and the couple of welcome fill-in people who will work specific days. And one of them just got a real job, coaching cross-country running and cross-country skiing at Clarkson University. His last day was Sunday.

When the rush of business ends, it dumps us into a weird solitude. The town still looks pretty much the same. The late summer sun spreads its golden light over the waters that are still warm, the green trees abuzz with cicadas. But no one jockeys for parking. No crawling, baking parade of motor vehicles inches through Main Street. No throng of pedestrians spreads out in all directions from the center of town. No money comes into the cash register. Because summer has shrunk to Fourth of July weekend and the first three weeks of August, that's it for major earning potential. Foliage tourism has dwindled significantly since the 1990s. Winter tourism for us depends on good natural conditions, which have become even more unreliable than New England's schizophrenic weather already was.

The changing climate and polluted world have led to such things as algae blooms that will kill your dog if it swims in an infected lake or pond, and a surge in tick-borne illnesses. El Queso Grande got anaplasmosis this summer, on top of his other challenges. In our country's asinine treasure hunt of a medical system, that entailed driving to labs "in his network" that he can also afford. That really cuts into the "raking it in." And that was after his carpal tunnel and cubital tunnel surgery: more overhead expenses related to remaining alive.

Summer is not a bell curve

Summer seemed to arrive sooner and last longer around here 20 years ago. It seemed to crank up at Memorial Day and go pretty steadily until Labor Day, with some peaks and valleys, but all on a pretty high plateau. Whatever has contributed to the decline, the shape has been distinctly different since shortly after the turn of the century.

Summer now is Fourth of July weekend, and August. Depending on the year, July might stay a bit active, but August is as close to crazy as we ever get anymore.

This summer, I left for a vacation trip at just about the worst possible time. Because the cellist has limited time at home with her out-of-state employment, we had to schedule the trip when she had the chance. I knew it would put me on the long-term shit list with my employer, but the cellist has limited time in more ways than one. I spend most of my time disappointing someone. I just have to choose who it will be. So I returned from the trip feeling like the guy who sneaked out of the Alamo before things got really bad, to hit the saloon and brothel. In reality my goals were more lofty than that, but the siege mentality of a small shop with inadequate staff leads to high stress and exaggerated emotions.

Because so many schools go back in session before summer technically ends, the crowds should drop right off this week. Because some schools are making a point to start after Labor Day, we might see more residual activity in this period of tapering. After Labor Day we'll get the early September rush of people who make a point to take vacation after the crowds are gone, when hospitality businesses might be offering discounted rates. That's what I used to do, decades ago, when I took vacations.

Has summer travel always been a business? Back 12,000 years ago, or even just three or four centuries, did seasonal travelers interact with fixed populations in ways similar to the economic exploitation of today? Exploitation sounds like price gouging, but it isn't always. It's just a matter of harvesting a resource when the resource is available. I've used the metaphor of hunting migratory herds to describe our handling of regular cycles of tourist business. We don't actually kill and eat them, and wear their hides -- except perhaps in some of the more remote hollows of the mountains -- but we extract as much as we can from them when they're here, knowing that they will be gone in a few weeks.

Trash talk

The 1990s were ugly. The sudden influx of cash from the mountain bike boom led to a surge in incompetence and dishonesty. People would drive many miles to check out different bike shops, in search of a little lower price or a particular brand that the magazines or their friends told them was the only one to buy. Shops a hundred miles apart -- or more -- would badmouth each other’s work.

The bike business attracts competitive people. I showered plenty of napalm on other shops’ bad workmanship. The apparent easy money in the mountain bike market led to a surge in "bike shops" and increased bike sales through more generalized outdoor sports stores. Between the unprepared merchants and mechanics, and the bike industry's own rush to dump poorly designed and barely tested products into a market loaded with consumers unable to judge the merits of the so-called new improvements, there was plenty to criticize.

With the fragmentation of the bike market, all that seemed to have subsided. Overall participation dropped, and the riders who continued to ride fell into multiple categories, none of them dominant. Addicted bike collectors with sufficient funds and time might ride in several categories, but those riders are a minority. Special interest riders seek the shops that specialize in their interest, or patronize large shops that can afford to have stock in each category, and staff to cover the range of complexities. You hope so, anyway. A lot of it is just absorbing and regurgitating industry propaganda, as it was in the darkest years of the mountain bike boom. There was no time to study it all in depth, as it blasted out of the firehose. The term "retro-geezer" was coined at that time, to describe cranks like me, who critiqued the avalanche of temperamental junk that creates six problems to solve one.

The parallel lines of complicated machinery ridden hard by novice enthusiasts is ushering in a little resurgence of trash talk. Our shop is in a town with a year-round population under 7,000. Of those, only a small handful will use anything non-motorized for recreation or transportation. This is America, and normal people drive. We draw from surrounding towns, but they have even smaller populations. This makes it impossible for us to stock in depth in any category except the most basic recreational path bikes, and even that market seems to have gone a little soft this year. When one of our customers does business voluntarily or involuntarily with another shop, they sometimes share that other shop's scathing assessments of our work and knowledge. And I silently critique every bike that comes through my work station from some other mechanic's hands. I just don't bother to share my observations with the customers. I share them profanely and profusely with my fellow mechanics, on days when there are any, but that's as far as it goes.

Trash talk was a symptom of the hyper-competitive bike market of the 1990s. Now it is a symptom of the competitiveness born of famine. But competitiveness itself is a symptom of the belief that there's something to win. Part of what has driven fragmentation is habitat loss. Bikes are looking for places to thrive, or at least survive. It's Darwinian speciation, as the basic pedal-powered ancestor adapts to specific niches: varying levels of technical trail; gravel roads; sedate paths; roads; BMX tracks; freestyle parks. Shops don't shape customer interest. Customer interest shapes shops. We fight a constant battle to remain competent and relevant.

Friday, August 02, 2019

That which does not kill me...

That which does not kill me provides adrenaline and a bit of draft. Sometimes it provides quite a bit of draft.

As much as I resent being a disposable citizen because of my cycling habit, I can’t stay pissed off all the time, and constant paranoia is exhausting. If you really want to avoid all risk of collision, don’t go out there at all. Good riding habits will save you from most causes of cycling mishaps. The rest is up to your fellow road users. You may learn that certain places or times in your riding area are best avoided.

Commuting puts us all on the road at the same time. That increases traffic density and impatience. I used to think that drivers would see that I was having a better time out there than they were, and that it would inspire them to give biking a try. Instead, it only inspires resentment. In 40 years as an adult bike commuter, I have inspired four or five people to take it up. None of them still do it. Most of the people I used to ride with have quit.

Sometimes I’ll hear a vehicle behind me and wonder if it might be the last sound I ever hear. You have to find a balance between insouciant denial and hypervigilance. You might not hear the one that gets you. Or that snarling truck could turn out to be as bad as it sounded. All this goes through your mind. Is it worth it?

Rear view mirror users recommend them, but the mirrors for a bike are either dinky or obtrusive. And you have to be looking at the right time. Much of the time, the view in front of you is far more important than trying to assess the shrunken image of what is overtaking you. The worst parts of my commute are where I would have nowhere to go to escape an attacker coming up behind me.

My experiments with lane control have led me to abandon it for the most part. Drivers are single-minded idiots when it comes to overtaking a cyclist. They routinely swing far over into oncoming traffic to pass without slowing, rather than take the hint and wait behind me for a good gap. The worst of them make a point of squeezing me at the same time.

Here in the Land of the Free, getting hit by a motor vehicle launches you not only into the pain of the crash and the complications of treatment and recovery, but the financial disaster that goes along with it. When perpetrators routinely flee, you won't get compensation from them or their insurance -- if they have any. Reports of cyclist injuries in Canada and Great Britain conspicuously lack the usual links to GoFundMe pages to try to defray a tiny fraction of the medical expenses. That's always hovering over us as well.

When I sit in the car day after day, I can feel myself dying of the inactivity. When I ride the bike day after day, I can feel the pace taking its toll in a different way, with the threat of a crash also looming and fading in my awareness. I am forced to ride harder than I want to when I'm dealing with traffic. By the third day I feel fatigue. By the fifth day I'm really ready to take a couple of days off the bike. The distance matters. Riding just under or over 30 miles a day in hilly terrain takes more out of me than short hops in a fairly flat town would. All of this contributes to my mental state.

I do my best to appear as emotionless as a machine. A driver sits inside the bodywork of the motor vehicle, screened by glass that is apparently hard to see through from both directions. A cyclist is the bodywork. Masked perhaps by sunglasses, and topped with a helmet, the rider is the larger part of the total machine. Eyes front. Cadence steady. React to nothing. Appear invulnerable, even though we all know it isn't true.