Thursday, August 19, 2021

COVID's killing Specialized

 Specialized Bicycles is dumping small dealers like a centipede shedding injured legs, in a desperate attempt to save itself from the mess that the bike industry started making for itself back in the 1990s, when technofascism combined with outsourcing to create the repeated waves of obsolescence poured on consumers from factories in distant lands.

When the pandemic hit, it wiped out production first, because the factories were all in areas close to the source of the disease. Because of the nature of the disease, and the inertia of human greed, the illness managed to spread rapidly around the world, taking down all of the systems of the global economy. Then the guidelines of social distancing led to an unprecedented surge in outdoor activities, including biking. Shrunken supply met voracious demand.

I don't know how many -- if any -- of the other major companies, like Trek or Giant, are also shriveling under the strain. Specialized was our last major line. Major or minor, we have had no bikes to sell since the spring of 2020 anyway. Almost none, anyway. We received the odd token here or there as supplies dwindled.

Specialized thinks that it is acting in its own best interest, but how are the hundreds of customers who have bought Specialized bikes from us over the years supposed to get the proprietary parts that the industry has made the norm since the epidemic of "innovation" that hit us in the 1990s? Maybe consumers will be able to order directly from Specialized and then go to a derelict dealer like us to have the work done. Maybe the era of the independent bike shop is truly over, and customers with a bit of mechanical inclination will become their own mechanics, under the tutelage of online video experts.

Many more people are trying to do their own work now, bringing them face to face with the obsessive changes forced on them by an industry interested solely in pumping complete bikes out of massive factories, year after year. Maybe consumers will achieve what beleaguered shops had no hope of doing. Maybe they will rebel and vote with their wallets for technological stability and real product support.

It's a long shot. I tried to wise people up when the whole mess was getting started in the 1990s. Instead, they lined up in hordes to lap up the sweet bait that the industry poured out for them. Because riders in a boom don't generally last longer than the brief lifespan of an abused bike, most of them were gone too soon to have to deal with the ephemeral nature of the innovated bicycle.

Most of the innovation has gone into how to make mid-level and entry level bikes reprehensibly flimsy. A year or two ago I was saying that a good $500 bike was a thousand dollars now. Recently I had to revise it to at least two grand, and even then the $500 bike of the 1990s has much more solid basic componentry. It may not have all the moving parts and modern look, but it has a better shot at longevity.

Longevity is out of fashion. Indeed, as we screw up everything from the environment that supports all life to the democracy that supports diverse cooperation, longevity may be an unrealistic goal. Live hard! Die young! Have nothing but fun and go out in a fireball.

In the end, Specialized probably won't die from the pandemic. It will probably shrink to a manageable size, as other companies that have been in its shadow grow to similar size, and serve whatever there is of a riding public in smaller, more regional ways. One can only hope that this leads to some standardization of componentry and simplification of design so that riders are confident venturing beyond the reach of their specific brand's kingdom.

 In the 1970s and early '80s, bikes were simple enough and used enough similar standards to allow small shops to serve riders at all levels at least well enough to keep them riding. The first edition of Sutherland's Handbook was about a quarter the thickness of the tome by the turn of the century. Simplicity allowed for a broader base of support, spread among more manufacturers and independent retailers.

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Delta dawn

 Checking my email this morning, I saw a "heads up" from the chair of the zoning board on which I serve. These usually involve pending applications, but this time it was to let us all know that she'd gotten a positive test for Covid-19 when she was getting ready to travel to Canada. She was vaccinated in April, and is asymptomatic. We don't sit close together at meetings. No one sneezed, coughed, guffawed, or shouted. But the case we concluded most recently was the toughest one we'd ever faced, and required multiple continuations lasting more than two hours each time.

I made immediate arrangements to get a swab rammed up my nose this afternoon. Because I've technically been exposed, I have to take the long form test, which takes 2-5 days to give results. What does this mean for our shorthanded shop? I haven't heard back from upper management. However, because I have invested in shop-level tools for years, I can do a lot of work from home. That being said, there's a few things I don't have. Bleed kits, for instance. And I don't have the spare parts, lubes, and cleaners in shop quantities. If I were to be pinned down here for an extended period, the business would have to recreate the main shop as much as possible here at the leper colony. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.

In case anyone reading this has been lulled into some degree of the false sense of security permeating the nation right now, let me suggest that we should all return to a higher defcon immediately. At the shop we are all vaccinated, and had relaxed mask requirements in keeping with the public mood and the state's relaxation of vigilance. However, noting the surge in cases not only in the hottest spots of sociopathic unconcern in the name of "freedom," but in our own relatively protected state, we'd been discussing whether to tighten things up.

Whatever the results of today's test, I'm covering up again and avoiding any place where people don't. Given the national laxity, that means avoiding any place with people in it. Can't avoid the grocery store, but I'll be back to shopping like I'm trying to retrieve essential items from a building filled with toxic gas.

Maneuvering against a disease that exhibits such a wide range of results among its recipients is a lot harder than dealing with a tangible foe, or even a disease that has a smaller range of clear-cut symptoms. If Covid made everyone who got it start bleeding through their eyeballs within hours, and coughing up actual chunks of lung within a couple of days, we would have had less trouble convincing people to take it seriously. Sure, there would have been holdouts, but they would have helped to weed themselves out much more quickly.

The tired point bears repeating, that disease prevention goes further than individuals protecting their individual selves from infection and whatever damage it brings them. My friend is fine. She had no inkling that she had been spooged. She just got the test as a routine part of getting clearance to travel. Her result also bears out the wisdom of testing everyone before allowing them to put others at risk. We've settled on certain categories that qualify as riskier, for which we're grudgingly "allowed" to test, by the freedom fighters who safeguard our liberty to be sociopathic assholes.

Monday, August 09, 2021

With power comes confidence

 As I rolled into town one day this week, I saw three riders coming toward me on Center Street.

Center Street is also Route 28 coming north out of Wolfeboro. Thus, it channels not only local traffic, but through traffic as well. Because Wolfeboro is off the direct line to much of anywhere, the volume of things like truck traffic and through travelers is fairly small, compared to a hell run like Route 25 on the other side of the lake. But Center Street is one of Wolfeboro's arteries. I do not ride it northbound to get out of the downtown area, because the slope, the lane width, and the temperament of the drivers make it one of the more stressful and unpleasant stretches, and it can be avoided. The Cotton Valley Trail lies to the right of the corridor, easily entered and exited when headed out of town. For anyone who doesn't want to ride the trail and can handle a bit more of a diversion, a road route goes out Route 109A to Beech Pond Road to Trotting Track Road, which intersects Center Street/Route 28 North just beyond the narrow bendy bit.

When I see riders coming out on Center Street, I always want to explain their other options to them, but I never can. We're both in the flow, paying attention to our survival. They're virtually always roadies or the odd occasional misdirected mountain biker. 

In the shop, I hear from many people that they avoid the road at all, let alone intimidating stretches like that part of Center Street, because they're afraid of motor vehicles. That's probably the biggest deterrent to riders. Imagine my surprise then when the riders I saw tooling merrily up the slight grade, taking the narrow lane in a chatting, amorphous formation were three women on upright comfort bikes. But they were on e-bikes. They were not blazing along at 30 miles per hour, but they had considerable assistance to maintain a speed that looked to be no higher than the low 20s. They felt like they were moving well, so they didn't worry about going at about half of the average motoring speed through there. Their demeanor might have changed if some irritable asshole had harassed them. But they looked completely at ease in that moment. Motorists were handling it well, for the brief time in which I could observe.

I will get glimpses of other smokeless moped riders on Main Street, which is also a state highway, and Wolfeboro's other artery. Most of them probably have summer homes outside of the downtown area. Some of them used to ride bikes powered by muscle alone, but age or convenience have persuaded them to accept assistance. The people best able to afford a car alternative around here also can afford -- and do own -- multiple cars. The e-bike is only a baby step toward a future that actually has fewer full-sized motor vehicles in it.

From a motorist standpoint, it matters little whether the pedaler in their lane has electric assistance or not. The riders are no more maneuverable than someone relying solely on their legs. A bike moving faster up a hill actually takes longer to pass, making it marginally more inconvenient for drivers to get around. Someone in the mood to go faster than 40 mph will find 25 just as aggravating as 20. They might even find 12 or 15 more acceptable, because they can get by more quickly.

With motor-assisted riders occupying a bicyclist-shaped space on the road, all riders gain as more motorists get used to dealing with more riders. It backfires if too many of the riders blaze around like no laws apply to them, but if the increase is mostly riders behaving more or less vehicularly it might serve to shift the balance of power as a beneficial but unintended consequence.

If the percentage of riders to motorists shifts in favor of riders, the pressure to have separated infrastructure drops, because pedaling on the existing system becomes more of a norm. If pedalers become the majority, all infrastructure becomes bike infrastructure. Then we will no doubt end up fighting among ourselves based on who goes faster with less effort. You could have some little old lady beating you with her umbrella as she paces you on her pedelec. It's a bright future indeed.

Saturday, August 07, 2021

Endless weekend

 We've reached the part of summer where every day feels like Saturday. Saturday doesn't mean the same thing in a bike shop as it does in the normal world, especially in a resort town. Saturday is peak intensity, the opposite of a day of leisure.

A particular day might seem like a slow Saturday or a busy one, but any summer day can bring in a sudden crowd of people with the day off, looking for something fun to do. It's a very different pattern from winter's ski business, in which the peaks are solidly on the weekends, or on designated short vacation periods.

Particularly now, in the Summer of Denial, a population restless after a lost year is ready to push the limits of safety and gather with their naked faces, as case numbers spike in some regions and crawl gradually higher in others. Our particular part of New Hampshire has notched up to Moderate, while an adjacent county has reached Substantial transmission. We're seeing more masks, and wearing our own again much more of the time, but it's not general. 

Last week, a local man came in for some repair work. In conversation it emerged that he had never masked and he refuses the vaccine. He told us that all you need is hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin, and that masks clearly don't work because the guidance on them has not been consistent from day one. He is always affable, even when he can see that we disagree completely with his position. He's the same guy who wouldn't buy a Fuji Wendigo fat bike because it was named for a demon and he believes in God. And yet his regard for the gentle savior does not extend to such small gestures as wearing a face mask. He's a member of the Superspreader Church of Christ, down the street, where they gathered throughout the early rise of the pandemic until they spawned their very own cluster.

The shop remains shorthanded. It's always hard to find competent help, because we need someone smart enough to do the work and dumb enough to do it for a living. Failing that, we at least need someone who can show up on a regular basis and perform many of the basic mechanical tasks that confront us. We have no new bikes to sell, but repair demand is still high. Parts can be hard to get, but enough come through to keep us going. We're getting killed on freight, because we have to pounce on things as soon as they are available, rather than waiting to fill out larger orders at longer intervals.