Tuesday, May 30, 2023

The Overhead Paradox

Customers will say that a high repair estimate is more than they paid for their bike. This implies that the bike is not worth fixing. But if you bought a good bike and took good care of it, it should last you fifteen, twenty years or more. If you have been paying someone else to work on it, of course you will end up paying more in service than you paid for the bike originally. But, given the general deterioration in quality and a rate of price inflation that has been romping merrily past the general consumer inflation rate since long before it was fashionable to bitch about it, the bike you buy for the same number of now-inflated dollars will be absolute trash compared to your old bike.

The exception, of course, is if your old bike was trash in the first place. The real trash tends to take itself out of the running just by wearing out completely, or dying of exposure as it's dumped out in the weather. But even a modest bike is worth fixing if you like it and it meets your needs.

Our first impulse at the shop is to figure out how to fix whatever anyone brings in. We've learned over the years to identify the few that can't be made good because they never were good, but anything with a shred of quality triggers the impulse to bring it back. Unfortunately, the shop itself costs a certain amount to run. I guarantee you that I see a tiny fraction of our hourly labor charge, but the rest of it goes to the keep the whole business solvent. More or less solvent, anyway. We have overhead. This leads to the paradox. A well established bike shop provides a meager living to a technician smart enough to do the work and stupid enough to keep doing it for a long time. Experience lives here. We've accumulated tools and parts so that we can work on anything back to about the 1950s, but we're still in the game, so we have co-evolved to deal with the whole time line through the decades to the ridiculously over-engineered bullshit of today. 

The ideal bike mechanic is also a highly skilled machinist, like my friend and mentor in Florida. She grew up in a machine shop and did time in retail bike shops in the Orlando area. She and her late husband set up a machine shop at their own home and withdrew from the retail scene. This meant that they could offer all kinds of specialty services without the overhead of a store front. Shops in the area still use her as a resource for the jobs that would tie up a work stand for too long and call for skills that the average transitory young bike mechanic will never even have known about.

I am not a skilled machinist. I grew up moving constantly, reading books and wondering what it would be like to live in one place long enough to have roots. We were not going to have a Bridgeport, a band saw, lathes, and other heavy, stationary tools in the garage. And my father was an officer, the military equivalent of white collar management. We were herded toward careers with cleaner fingernails. I was not a tinkerer. We engaged in some tool use, but only to repair or refurbish something we owned, not just for the sake of working on it. This mostly meant paint and planking on a wooden sailing dinghy more than working with metal and grease and oil. My gateway to mechanics was the used 10-speed I bought in 1975. It held no secrets, wearing its drive train on the outside.

I like classic bikes because they don't require a lot of work. The type evolved through the 1990s, gaining some actual improvements even as the technofascist complexities came to dominate. If I think about it long enough I can pinpoint the last change that really was an improvement. Probably interrupter brake levers. Just about everything since the early years of the 21st Century has been mostly either to make a previous bad decision work a little less badly or a classic example of "just because you can doesn't mean you should."

The overhead paradox mostly affects owners of older bikes and cheaper bikes. I've had customers go ahead with an expensive repair even after I told them it was a poor investment, because they had some attachment to the bike. I've had customers abandon a decent candidate for repair because they didn't want to spend the money on it, preferring in some cases to buy a new bike of lower quality just because it was new.

Most new bikes today have some form of the same features at every price point. Cheap bikes have flimsy derailleurs, stamped sheet metal chain rings, way off brand cable disc brakes, and heavy, floppy suspension. Bikes that still have rim brakes might have stamped sheet metal brake arms that shouldn't even be legal. To get reasonably robust examples of the modern idea of componentry, count on spending more than $1,000.00. If you're really going to try to ride like you see in the videos, spend more than twice that. Working on any of that will take time and require treasure hunts for parts, but less of the old-school skills that will die with my generation. And how much does it really matter when civilization itself may coincidentally die about the time my generation does anyway? The Baby Boomers lived as if they would be the last generation to need the Earth's resources, and it's looking like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sure, other generations have followed and reproduced copiously, while guzzling a large share of what's left, but the Boomers set the tone in the 1980s. The values have been passed down long after they should have been replaced with more thoughtful progress.

Meanwhile, we're still here, and riders are bringing in beloved old steeds in need. One rider brought in his old Puch road bike from the 1970s.

                                                     It was 100 years 50 years ago
He's been riding it more or less like a "gravel bike." It will do it, because the roadier end of gravel bike geometry is basically like a general purpose touring bike from the 1970s: a little slack, a little long, with room for a somewhat plump tire. Of course the modern form has evolved into more specific geometry suited to loose surfaces, allowing for wider tires, and designed around the current ridiculous 1X drivetrains. But his old rod would do what he wanted for far, far less than a new bike with modern problems. I put on interrupter brake levers and aero primary levers, along with 27X1 3/8 knobby tires. Off he went, happy with the improvements.

On Sunday, I volunteered at the Makers Mill, a community "makerspace" that hopes eventually to offer a work space for community members to make and repair things. They offer classes in various skills ranging from textiles to woodworking to welding to jewelry making, as well as art classes. I helped them a little with their initial planning for the bike work area. With all of the YouTube experts in town who smugly avoid our shop, I figured that there was a deep pool of expertise waiting to bury them in helpful mechanics. Turns out that those people are apparently too busy elsewhere.

The problem with something that inexperienced people think is really simple is that they meet someone who knows a little about it and they assume that's all there is to know. Thus the person who knows a little must know more than enough. Volunteer organizations are staffed by whoever is willing to show up on a regular basis. Who has the time and the desire? That's who will be there. I am not the one with the most time. But I have been there enough to rip the lid off of the crypt of horrors that is the true depth of arcane bike knowledge. And they have hardly seen any of the really demonic new crap.

Late in the afternoon on Sunday, the owner of the Puch arrived at the Mill, hoping that we could snug up his brakes (I had had to fabricate cable knarps to make new bridge wires for his vintage Weinmann center-pulls)

The brake adjustment was simple enough. And oh, by the way, his seatpost seemed to be kind of stuck.

I had not messed with his seat position when I worked on the bike before. I clamped it in the work stand around the seat tube of the frame itself, suspecting that the OEM seatpost was probably too short to extend far enough to hold the work stand clamp anyway. I had not determined that the post was rusted into the frame, but the news did not surprise me. I might even have dripped a little penetrating oil down along it so that he could try to dislodge it later. 

Later had now arrived. I had advised him to go after the seatpost with a pipe wrench and not worry about destroying it. He'd chewed into it, but had not moved it. These struggles don't usually end well for the seatpost. We crushed this one in a big vise as we tried to twist it loose. Then we sawed off the protruding part before attacking what remained in the seat tube.

Stuck seatpost removal is always like trying to dig your way out of a jail cell with the handle of a spoon you stole from the dining hall. It's a grim, long process of scraping. We enlisted the Mill's machinist, but he's not a bike guy. I provided some guardrails to protect vulnerable parts of the bike while he addressed the generic problem of an aluminum tube stuck inside a steel tube, cemented by rust. We were hampered by the fact that the machine shop there has mostly a motley assortment of donated tools with lots of duplications of things that were not the right size for the job at hand. We managed to cut down and chisel away some of it, but more remained beyond the reach of the tools we had. The machinist took the frame to his home lair where he will work on it with his more extensive resources.

Because the Sunday event was free, the owner of the bike was not paying for the two or three people working for almost two hours on his soluble but time-consuming problem. Thus we sidestepped the overhead paradox. The cost was borne by the volunteers working for free. I did get some food and social credit for it, and I was happy to help keep a worthy old bike on the road, but I would starve to death if I did it all the time.

Used bikes can be great if you know what you're looking at. Prices fluctuate depending on demand. A seller who knows what they have, dealing with a buyer who accurately assesses the bike's value, are liable to settle on a higher price than if a generic scavenger just sells it as "a bike" to some random rube. But even then, the buyer might be a hard chiseler who doesn't know the value, but is determined to hold down the price, or a knowledgeable enthusiast who is also determined to hold down the price. Or the generic scavenger might have an inflated idea of the price, aided by a time in which used bike prices are running high, like in the demand surge of 2020.

The overhead paradox affects modern stuff as well. We had a jammed 11-speed pod shifter that I might have unjammed, given enough time, but a new pod cost less than my time. New shifter pods for seven speeds and up cost about as much as we charge to open up an old pod and clean out the congealed grease, which is usually all that is wrong with them. But the procedure takes longer than yanking the old pod off and slapping in a new one, so when the shop is buried it's a better option if we have the part in stock. The unfortunate consequence is that a fixable shifter pod goes to the landfill. The small businesses at the bottom of the economy end up bearing the major responsibility for stemming the avalanche of waste getting dumped into the environment. The bicycle industry doesn't support the activity of bicycling, it supports itself. Bicycling is just a side effect.

For the moment, we're too dumb to quit trying to fix things that people want fixed, but upper management can no longer ignore the mounting costs. We have no handy off-site magician like my friend in Orlando, but we can't afford to be that magician as much as we used to. I have a lot of tools at my own secret headquarters, but the shop still has a few more tricks that I haven't invested in, and I don't want to burn too many of my days off doing what I do on my days on. I would much rather teach skills (and a jaundiced attitude toward tech-weenie bullshit) than be a servant to the willfully ignorant. The owner of the bike should make at least part of the journey with me. At the end of it, they should come out more independent than when they started. If I can learn this crap, anyone can, but knowing it does make you more valuable. No, any idiot can't just do it, but any regular person can learn it if they can bring themselves to focus on it. The citizen rider becomes the citizen mechanic and a freer person as a result.