Sunday, May 17, 2020

Bike boom flash mob

The pandemic has sparked a nationwide -- and possibly wider -- explosion of interest in biking. I should take time to research this thoroughly, but I've been too busy dealing with the influx of repair work.

The abrupt rogue wave of biking interest threatens to swamp the bike industry, which had been declining steadily for years, fed only by interest in limited sectors like smokeless mopeds. Smokeless mopeds reflect the general trend toward lower numbers of unit sales and higher individual unit costs. The demands that new technology places on shops hit small, independent shops particularly hard.

A recent article in Forbes Magazine drew parallels between the 1970s boom and the present one. We must be in a boom if mainstream business magazines think it's worth filling column inches with it. But the author, Carlton Reid, is actually a bike person masquerading as a general transportation writer.

Reid blamed the failure of the 1970s boom in part on "cheap imports." Cheap imports? Can you say WalMart? For that matter, scan the floor on any bike shop today and you will see almost nothing but imports, cheap and otherwise. Even the boutique American bike builders rely on imported components, even if the brand name on them is technically American. In the end, the article does correctly state that the 1970s boom fizzled out because Americans simply lost interest. It tracks nicely on the way we lost interest in ethics and an inclusive society a few years later.

The bike business used to be an outpost of freedom. The machines were simple enough that shops could sell and service a lot of them with fairly low overhead costs, and individual owners could easily master the care and repair of their machines, if they were so inclined. The 1970s bike boom relied heavily on the public's interest in reducing petroleum use, and the sense of freedom that bikes represented. The fact that the Baby Boom was bringing the biggest surge of youth and optimism in human history didn't hurt sales, either. A lot of people were feeling frisky. Small shops were easy to start and could expand as needed to serve local interest.

The arc of the mountain bike boom reflected a similar pattern, but with the fatal flaw of rapidly mutating technology. In the 1970s boom, buyers were advised to buy a bike with the best frame they could afford, on which they could hang nicer and nicer componentry as their budget allowed. There was even a progression of upgrades: do the wheels first, then the brakes, then the drive train. Change the saddle to one that suits you. Dial in the stem length and bar width. Maybe you'd prefer to do derailleur and crank upgrades before brakes, because "brakes are just for stopping." Owners were encouraged to think of their bikes as just a starting point for improvement and personalization. When the mountain bike boom took off with the advent of integrated shifting systems and experiments in suspension, the things an owner could change incrementally dropped rapidly to nearly nothing.

The 1970s bike boom coincided with a recession. So did the late 1980s to mid 1990s of the mountain bike boom. This could have contributed to public interest in recreational transportation that didn't require the expense of fuel, licensing, insurance, and vehicle registration. As the economy took off in the later 1990s, complexity and expense of the bikes was also rising. And then in about 2000 the public wandered away again.

Expensive gasoline in 2008 almost brought us back. We saw a huge increase in bike commuting for about a month and a half. Our floor stock had already shifted mostly to path bikes, some road bikes, and a handful of low end mountain bikes, reflecting the kinds of inquiries we were getting from our clientele. Anyone who had kept mountain biking after the boom busted wasn't even asking us anymore. We didn't see those customers until the last couple of years when they suddenly re-emerged, expecting us to have carried a torch for them during their long absence. And they hardly constituted boom numbers at best.

If you take a starving person and stuff them with food, they will probably die. If you take a hypothermic person and suddenly rewarm them they will probably die. If you take a moribund industry and suddenly slam it with consumer demand, it may not die, but it won't be able to sustain a boom. Add the fact that production and distribution were already disrupted by the coronavirus and the boom falls off a cliff as soon as stock on hand sells through.

On the repair side, we are inundated, and none of the repairs are cheap and quick. It's a classic example of how you can be working your ass off and still lose money. We don't outright lose money on each individual repair, but the time it takes to make it reduces the margin we can devote to overhead expenses and necessary re-supply. Many of these bikes look like they were buried in someone's back yard for several years and were dug up only because a quarantined person was rototilling for a garden and hit them. Or they were under an inch of greasy dust in the back of a garage. Or hung under a dripping plumbing pipe in the basement. Mixed with these are the beloved steeds of regular riders who want them back as quickly as possible.

In our first few days of contact commerce after weeks of locking people out I can confirm that customers are a great way not to get any work done. Yesterday was our first Saturday with the doors open. We sold almost all of our remaining assembled floor stock of bikes, which meant that no one was doing any actual wrenching a lot of the time. Customer interaction is made more cumbersome by the need to mask up, sanitize, and maintain distance, but without the precautions brought on by the disease we would have more people in the store, and added demands like rentals. And a few people have been fractious or irate about the precautions. That hasn't blown up into a full-fledged incident yet, but we're only talking about a few days so far.

The fact that we are busy gives some people the mistaken impression that we're making bank. Far from it. We haven't been able to fill stock on bikes, clothing, and other categories that help support the needs of the store. We haven't sold anything but the few bikes we managed to get from the incomplete fulfillment of our preseason orders. Repairs have required special ordering a lot of parts, which means we get pounded on shipping. You may get free freight on your consumer internet purchases, but businesses have to fork out. We are probably subsidizing all that free freight for the retailers who are destroying brick and mortar commerce.

Summer income will be diminished by the sensible restriction of travel and interaction. Then comes the usual doldrums of autumn, followed by a winter seriously in doubt. Our winter business relies entirely on human contact: ski sales, ski rentals, lessons, and ski services for people going to areas where people gather in crowds to use their skis. Winter tourism relies on lodging, dining out, and squeezing into buildings when not out in the cold air. As badly as we are hurt by fickle weather, if people can't even show up it won't matter how good the trail conditions are.

If the ski business is a complete bust, I would push heavily to get people to bring their bikes in for real in-depth service when we have time to dig into it and they don't have the urgent desire to get out on them. Complete overhauls are not cheap, but I can assure you that an annual "tune up" is not adequate to take care of the inner workings of most bikes. This would also be the time to get your suspension pivots rebuilt, and all the other time-sucking minutiae of modern bike ownership. It's all part of the cost of ownership. Would such an appeal work? I don't know if we'll even get to make it. And if we get a ski season, winter is the worst time to bring bikes to us.

For now, we just have to get through the current wave of demand.


mike w. said...

The standout comment to me was about "cheap imports" in the early 70's. When i was wrenching we got a lot of these department store bikes, many of which were beyond safely repairing. Store-brand bikes from Sears, Montgomery Ward, Penny's, Western Auto, & Murrays, Huffys, Ingersols, Rollfasts, etc.- were all made in the USA. A decent French or British-made "starter" bike could be had for about $150 or so, but the Department store heaps cost about half that. i envied the shops that could afford to turn away bikes they didn't actually sell. i recall a sign on the door of the Yellow Jersey in Madison that said, "We do not service (dept. store) bikes. Sorry. No Way."

Rob in VA said...

Recent 'data points' from the internet confirm that this boom is being seen in many other developed countries, such as Australia. Here in the Land of the Free, it appears that 'comfort', hybrid and low-end mountain bikes make up most of the recent incremental sales volume - mid/high end road bikes aren't much of a factor, from what I've read. Which leads me to speculate that few of these new or reborn cyclists will become avid long-term cyclists, and (unfortunately) won't result in a sustained surge in service or upgrade activity for bike shops. I'd guess that 2021 won't look much different than 2019, but we can hope.

My parents gave my bride and me Schwinn Varsity bikes as a wedding present in 1973, right in the midst of the ten-speed boom. Hate to think what they paid for those bombproof juggernauts, but at least we squeezed 4 decades of service out of them while being easy to maintain. However, they were about twice as heavy and less refined than the bikes I pieced together as a preteen, from 'junk' bikes discarded by wealthy folk living on the lakeshore a few blocks away from my family's modest home. By the time I was 10 years old, I was riding a Bianchi sporting components I'd probably recognize in a museum now...and had learned to work on and appreciate the hardware of that era. Your comments about the technological obsession of today's bike industry resonate with me.

Hope you continue writing, your insider's view of the cycling industry and wry sense of humor make for great reading.

Orang Basikal said...

I still have, somewhere, the typed and copied handout on how to buy a bicycle provided by Dade Cycle to its customers, which I received on my first visit there in 1973. Among its maxims was that you got what you paid for, that a good bike could last you a lifetime, and that components were sufficiently generic in design as to be easily replaceable and upgradeable. Still possible on some bikes, if you're a traditionalist.