Thursday, November 16, 2023

Single gear seeks partner for committed relationship


The simplest form of the modern safety bicycle is the trusty fixed gear. On the velodrome, the bikes are pared down to the absolute essentials: no brakes, no amenities. Out in the wild, a wise rider chooses lower gearing, a front brake for a little extra security, and fenders for the crappy wet weather in which the simple vehicle excels. I also recommend a two-sided rear hub, to allow for at least two gear options. Your choices are limited by how many cogs you might securely stack on either side of the hub, and by the length of the dropout to accommodate the difference in chain length.

I see people referring to any single-speed bike as a fixed gear. A fixed gear is a single speed (even with multiple cogs you can't switch quickly), but not every single speed is a fixed gear. It's only fixed if it threads directly to the hub with no ratcheting freewheel mechanism. The difference is critical, because a single-speed freewheel is the worst of both worlds. You only have one gear, but you lose critical advantages of a fixed gear.

With a fixed gear, you can't stop pedaling. This commitment scares some riders. You can get thrown if you forget and stop your feet when you have reached a good cruising speed or you're wailing down a hill. You can get launched if you dive into a corner too tightly and really dig a pedal in. One time on a rainy training ride I had a good line in the corner, but didn't know that the puddle I was aiming to ride through had a pothole under it that was about six inches deep. The front tire dropped into that as the crank came around, driving the pedal into the chunked-up pavement. I hit the road several feet from the bike. I pulled my face up from another puddle in time to watch the rear tire crawl off of the tacoed rim, allowing the tube to bulge out and explode. Lesson learned: never dive into water if you don't know how deep it is and what might be under the surface. Swimmin' hole 101 applies to bike riding too.

That crash was before the Maryland/Delaware district championships that year. The time trial that nasty summer was run in 50-degree weather and a stiff wind, with light to moderate rain. Real nice. The 108-mile road race a week later started under cloudy skies that eventually gave way to another saturating downpour. My elbow was still bandaged from the pothole encounter. And I flatted out of the road race with a couple of laps left.

A couple of weeks after that I slammed an obstacle while bombing around on a warm July night and was out of work for 10 weeks. How does that relate? I actually tried riding on the fixed gear while my right arm was strapped to hold my collarbone onto the top of my shoulder joint and my left hand was in a cast, because I was an idiot who couldn't be inactive. I reasoned -- if you could call it that -- that I didn't need to be able to grab the brake strongly because I could control speed through the pedals. True as it was, I did start to feel like I might dump it and slow my recovery even further. I was also unable to bathe myself because of the combination of medical devices attached to my broken parts, so I didn't want to have to wear congealed sweat for another couple of months. No one available to give me a sponge bath fit the fantasies one might have of such ministrations.

Once I was cleared to return to training -- I mean work -- in September, the fixed gear provided steady pedaling to rehab the lungs and legs. The atrophied, twiglike arms required more carefully selected weights and exercises.

Another nice thing about the fixed gear was that the rear rim didn't have to be dead straight for a good braking surface. I just stomped it basically flat and re-tightened the spokes. I don't remember when I finally got around to rebuilding it, but it was probably years later.

Now here, 41 years after all that, my present fixed gear is not the same bike, but it has some of the same parts. From late 1979, I always had a fixed gear for commuting and bad weather training. Here in New Hampshire, winter and its fringes last longer than in Maryland. If the winter isn't snowy, that means I get out on the bike during those months as well as in late autumn and early spring. With short daylight and cold air, the fixed gear provides continuous pedaling, which helps you stay as warm as you can when you're generating your own 10-20 mph wind chill. Winter riding is one of the trickiest activities to dress for because of that wind chill aspect. I much prefer cross-country skiing for a fitness activity. I would use it for winter transportation if I could.

This fall has presented many obstacles to regular riding. The darkness and winding roads stop my commuting among bulky vehicles that blind each other with their ridiculous headlights, so I have to carve out time from my days off work, when I'm doing every other thing I can't do on a workday. At best I get three consecutive days of riding. Staving off the muscle loss of age, I have to watch how hard I push, but also how much I slack off in between. It seems like there's about a two-day window between good rest and the onset of incurable sloth. A few weeks ago, I blasted out on the fixed gear for twentyish miles, feeling pretty good. The next day I felt a little worn down, so I chose a multi-gear bike. It was the heavy commuter, but it felt heavier than usual. The next day was cold and showery, so I reverted to the fixed gear, expecting to feel even more sluggish. Instead, the direct drive and considerably lighter weight combined to help me drive the bike and the bike to drive me. And there is a critical advantage of the fixed gear: the bike drives the rider. On a freewheel bike, you have to push the crank around. Sure, one crank arm brings the other crank arm around, but only your legs are doing the work. On the fixed gear, the motion of the bike itself keeps the chain moving. The wheel brings the crank around even if the crank isn't bringing the wheel around.

I know the effect well. I wasn't being reminded of its existence when I enjoyed its effects that day. I was only reminded to share it again for anyone who hasn't experienced it. Even my lightweight road bike is more fatiguing to ride than a fixed gear when I'm already tired. If I can ride downhill with a tailwind, or on a route with no climbs and no adverse winds, the road bike is great because I don't have to pedal at all where the going is good. But wherever I have to put forth effort, particularly on a climb, the fixed gear can feel better because of the free lift that my off leg gets on its way back to the top of the pedal stroke.

Coasting on the fixed gear consists of loosening up the legs while maintaining a smooth, precise pedaling circle. You get smooth or you don't last. For a sustained descent, I will stop and flip the wheel to the high gear side. I also have the brake to help, although resistance pedaling and turning like a skier can help scrub speed while maintaining flow. You can't do skier turns with motorists or other riders around, but on an empty road it's a great way to control momentum while keeping a smooth pedaling rhythm. Riding the bike on freestanding rollers will teach you smoothness in a hurry. Just don't try to practice your turns there. If you even imagine turning while you're riding rollers you will end up on the floor.

Twenty (or so) years ago, after my younger colleague Ralph had been fixed gear riding for a while, he applied his analytical mind to it and reported his findings. I had said that you have four speeds: Sitting, standing, weaving, and walking. He observed that pushing back on the saddle and grinding at a low cadence could be a more effective way of climbing than standing on the pedals. While this technically falls under the category of sitting, it's different enough from staying in a more neutral saddle position and trying to keep a higher cadence that it qualifies as its own thing. And you can combine some of these, sitting and weaving, for instance, or even standing and weaving, to surmount steeper grades. As long as you can get the pedals around you're still moving forward. So fixed gear riding expands your power range, making you (possibly) less dependent on shifting as frequently on your multi-geared bike. This applies particularly to grunting in a low gear more than ultra-spin. Diving down a steep descent with a freewheeling system, just coast. 

Decades of riding take their toll. Cycling of any kind is not complete exercise. It does not build bone density, and it uses your legs in one plane and a limited range, regardless of the gear. I notice now as I get closer to 70 than 60, that my hips don't like too much high intensity cycling without mixing it up or at least taking more rest days to break up long stretches of riding. Way back in my 40s I noticed that the end of the commuting week left me feeling a bit ragged. And the arc of the whole season built nicely to a peak in July that felt like it would never end, but in late September I felt like a dragonfly, still fierce but now tattered from the constant flight. This effect has only become more pronounced with age. The continuous pedaling on the fixed gear allows no rest en route except for "fixed-gear coasting": relaxing the legs and letting the bike drive. That still requires a little input to keep everything aligned and smooth, compared to freewheel coasting, where you can actually backpedal a half revolution to drop your heel on one side and then the other, stretching the back of the leg.

Sometimes you just have to hop off and admire the view. Savor each ride.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Microshops and Major Chains: Economies of Scale in the Bike Industry

 If anyone really gave a crap, that could be the title of a doctoral thesis or seminal study of the current state of bike retail economics. However, just as bicycles themselves are everywhere you look and yet often never seen until after the moment of impact, so does the sprawling global bicycle economy never outshine the public's concern with the global petroleum economy. I'm in the business, and even I can't be bothered to dig up statistics, if there are any, to support my observations.

Occasionally I will do a web search to see what bike shops are operating in a 50- to 100-mile radius, more or less. Who is still open? Who is new on the scene? From one search to the next, which of the new startups kept going? For most of the current century, I noticed small, very focused shops starting up in small towns that weren't always on major through roads. Some had luxurious looking websites while others were distinctly more quirky. At the same time, the consolidation trend among the major players had been driving big shops into more concentrated population areas. Most of the big shops are bike-only, but some multi-sport shops have managed to retain their accounts with Specialized or Trek, at least for now. With those two, you're only as good as your last quarterly sales figures. If you can keep up your representation while still selling downhill skis and hockey equipment, great.

Support from suppliers turned into demands for fealty way back in the 1990s. It wasn't complete and abrupt, so some of us managed to drag out the divorce, but seeing the end of the relationship as it played out in 2021, the path becomes clear. In the current climate, some small manufacturers have considerable prestige in their categories, but boutique builders are usually not for the poor and middle class. The major chain brands offer a full spectrum from the staggeringly expensive down to the pricey-but-approachable and cheesily equipped low end bikes. The microshop end of the retail spectrum may not be cheap, either, although their low overhead can allow for some very competitive prices if the sole proprietor can get by without hiring expensive help.

All help is expensive. As soon as a small shop needs a staff of more than one, overhead ratchets up. Each employee adds at least their payroll costs. On top of that, they cost money to train, and every staff member represents another chance that someone will make an expensive mistake, too. These days, with so many generations of parts and so much need for systems to be perfectly coordinated, it's really easy to order something that doesn't match, if you're in a hurry and trying to juggle too many responsibilities at once.

Because I wasn't a bike nerd from early in life, and I'm not much of one now, I learn new history every day from bike nerd social media. Often it's historical tidbits about small bike brands from back in the last century. Some were very small, artisan outfits. Others were small factory operations. From the late 19th Century into the early 20th, bikes played a solid role in European colonialism. Motorized vehicles weren't ubiquitous, so the force-multiplying capability of the bicycle made it a legitimate and respected tool. Bikes held a big role in citizen transportation in Europe and the UK through the end of the Second World War. Throughout the period, with the primary material being steel, production of bikes was highly scalable from a local builder up through big factory operations like Raleigh. Even in the US, before the explosion of affordable automobiles, bikes played utilitarian roles in areas where the distances covered and loads carried fit their small size and low horsepower.

Bikes illustrate the problem common to all human powered vehicles: the vehicles change shape depending on their intended use. You wouldn't take your $14,000 S-Works Tarmac to the downhill mountain bike course any more than you would show up at the nearest criterium on your $9,000 Trek Rail. And I just noticed: Mountain biking is still cheap fun! Only $9,000 as opposed to $14,000. That's a whopping five grand in your pocket to spend on beer or put toward a tricked-out van to drive to trail systems around the country. Those examples are less than a sliver of the variety of shapes and sizes of machine that can be called a bicycle. They do represent the challenge facing a shop because their support needs are quite different. You will spend a lot more money over the brief, tumultuous lifespan of your mountain bike than you will on the road bike in the same amount of time. Whoever does your maintenance and repairs has to be ready for you. Trash a rim so that the tubeless tires no longer seat? Thrash your rear suspension pivot bearings? Blow up a shock? Snap a derailleur hanger and bend a $750 rear derailleur? Gotcha covered! Maybe.

Granted, most riders don't fall into that price range, but occasionally someone will treat themselves to a really nice bike without considering the downstream -- or downhill -- costs of ownership. Even the mid range will take a bite out of your paycheck. And it all has to work pretty near perfectly, or it doesn't work at all. What you'll limp out of the woods on is one thing. What you'll put up with day after day in your chosen form of active leisure is something else entirely. That POS needs to shift cleanly. The dropper post needs go up and down like an elevator in a classy hotel. The rear suspension linkage can't be sloppy. All of the bike's joints need to move as smoothly as a leaping gazelle in the prime of life, before it becomes creaky lion bait. Someone has to keep that mechanism in satisfactory condition so that you can take it out in the dirt and pound on it again. Maybe that's you. Maybe that's someone else. Whoever it is needs tools, parts, and work space.

Forty-four years ago, when I got out of college and based my personal economy on using a bike for transportation, I realized that I couldn't count on a shop for repairs, because I had to leave for work before they were open and didn't get back from work until they had closed. Already steeped in a self-reliant philosophy from my early mentors, I invested in tools, and tried to keep commonly needed parts on hand. I wasn't likely to break anything unusual on my commutes, so I only needed inner tubes, maybe a tire, and cables. Racing, I might break something more unusual, but more likely it just picked up another battle scar and kept going. It wasn't until I rode in the local cyclocross series that I tore off a derailleur and learned about that little peril of trail riding.

I couldn't afford to ride mountain bikes these days. Not the way they're being ridden now, anyway. Biking was great for a working class person when the equipment was solid and simple, because the biggest expense really was the purchase of the bike itself. Learn to maintain it, and decades of fun stretched before you. When it moved off road, potential damage increased in frequency and expense, but a smooth rider might still enjoy many trail miles without having to fuss too much over maintenance or replace an expensive part. You had to work within the limitations of the simple equipment. More demanding riders pushed for better adaptive equipment to meet their needs, driving the costs up for everyone, and flushing casual participants out, or relegating them to crappy, cheap versions of the state of the art. Now your routine expenses include renewing your brake fluid and rebuilding hydraulics as necessary, replacing your tubeless tire sealant at the recommended intervals (LOL), and rebuilding your shocks at the appropriate times, on top of gear adjustments, chain lube. Fine if you're into that, but added costs that the ancestral bike never had.

All of these factors are widening that gap between the small specialist and the corporate cornucopia. In an area like ours, no longer truly rural, but still with a much smaller year-round population than summer population, survival depends on being able to exploit different revenue sources. Some of our winter customers are also summer customers, whether their primary residence is here or not, but a good percentage seems to come only for one season or the other. We couldn't survive as a bike-only shop, let alone as a narrowly focused category shop. In bike season we still have customers who need service in several bike categories, but we only have the same space and limited personnel to meet those needs when demand is at its highest. In bike stuff demand tends to go from nil to highest overnight some time in the spring, and remain near peak until late summer or early fall. I wouldn't have time to rebuild your entire suspension in peak season even if we did have the parts, tools, and dedicated work space. And in what you consider the off season, we're servicing a completely different set of customers with completely different workshop needs. So the fickle and needy bike customer looks elsewhere for quicker gratification.

In the outdoor outfitter store where I worked for a few years in the 1980s, we had some climbing hardware, an ice axe, and a few pairs of top-of-the-line full-shank leather boots. We almost never sold any of it, but customers looked for things like that as proof of our worthiness to sell them fabric-and-leather lightweight hikers, day packs, synthetic-fill sleeping bags, and cheap tents. It enhanced their shopping experience, and didn't cost us too much, because the equipment was changing fairly slowly at the time. Once in a while we would sell a pair of the heavy boots to someone who couldn't be talked out of them, even though they would have been better served to get a mid-weight, even if it was full leather, but that was very rare. Otherwise, they just stood proudly at the top of the boot display, showing that we really spoke mountaineering here.

In the bike business, browsers will judge the worthiness of a shop by what bikes and accessories are on display. Because the up front cost is much higher, and bikes are made obsolete every year by their manufacturers, we can no longer keep what we called drool bikes in stock to impress the tourists. If your drool bike is out of date, it makes you look as bad as if you didn't have it at all. I've had strangers greet me perfunctorily, cruise the lineup, and walk out with a smug smile. They don't want to engage until they've judged us by appearance. If we don't display whatever the secret token is, we're not worth their time. I'm not much of a people person, so I don't mind when someone doesn't want to talk, but as a clinical thinker, it provides me with information about the impression we create. Is it worth what we would have to pay to set a more attractive tableau for these browsers? The calculation never ceases, but so far the answer is no. We continue to hang on in the precarious gap, neither micro nor major, pulling in bare sustenance.

Saturday, November 11, 2023

Cycling's Inferiority Complex

 Way back in 1980 at my first shop job I learned very quickly that I had no skills with customers. A couple of people brought in a very rusty old bike and asked for an estimate. I started going through all of the things that it needed to be in its best possible shape. Their brows furrowed. Chins might have quivered. They wavered between crushing disappointment and rising outrage. The manager, a bike shop veteran for many years, stepped in and provided the lowball, bare minimum estimate to get the bike functional but still decrepit. They were immediately charmed. I shriveled away like a vanquished demon.

The manager operated under the principle that some money was better than no money. Not every bike can be saved from abuse and neglect. I was always trying to get people to love their bikes and get hooked on the good stuff. Every person who worked at the shop was doing it at least in part for the discounts. On the retail side, a quick discount could turn a browser into a buyer, or a buyer into a loyal customer.

Avid bicyclists are always trying to get friends into it. Worse yet, we try to get romantic partners into it. That works about 0.0000312 percent of the time. The fact that it works at all, however rarely, keeps poor idiots trying, year after year. In a broader sense, the bike industry, bike retailers, and cycling organizations are all trying to win friends. C'mon! Try it! We know you'll love it, no matter how much you hated it the first (dozen) times you tried it!

In the 1970s, the bike shops I frequented all seemed to have the same welcoming attitude. Paradoxically, shops have developed the image of being snotty and condescending just because of the inescapable technical complexity of the deceptively simple machines, and the fact that we do try to establish dominance over anyone who appears to be challenging us. But our public image always fights against the perception that our machines must be stupidly simple because they don't have motors.

As I think of it, some bike people can be really caustic bastards. But even that stems from the inferiority complex. Genuinely strong and secure people don't have to be assholes. That doesn't mean that every insecure person is an asshole, only that the truly great are always truly good. Some insecure people are sycophantic grovelers or codependent people pleasers.

Then there's financial insecurity. I returned to the bike business just before the market exploded in the feeding frenzy of the 1990s. Money was pouring into the industry, but individual shops had to battle furiously to make sure that enough of it came to them. Lots of players went into the retail side. Price competition was brutal. One chain in Connecticut put all of its competitors out of business by price matching and giving free service for life. We pored over their ads and press releases, trying to find how they were faking it, but they weren't. Supposedly, they also paid their mechanics fairly well, as bike shop wages go. I don't know if it was a calculated strategy of long-term loss or if they had income that wasn't obvious, but they did prevail in the long run.

"We'll pay you to be our friend" has worked in many forms in the bike business for many years. I can't count all the times I totaled up a repair bill, realized that it would lead to a lot of nasty words, and planed off what I could to avoid the hassle. A classic case occurred this week, when I redid work on a bike that the other technician had misdiagnosed, and altered the bill to reflect what the customer had asked for and what was actually done. I removed parts that had been installed in error, but performed adjustments that had been left undone, so the total bill was slightly higher than it had been with the unnecessary parts. I noticed later that the shop owner had written a completely new ticket, discounting my labor to get the price below a maximum that had not been included on the original ticket. If I'd known that the customer had an upper limit, I would have done the discount myself. It's not only an example of how bike shops have to eat sh** just because customers don't value either their bikes or our services, but also of poor internal communication in the shop itself. You get used to being insulted in this business.

I might be able to recall every one of the few times that I've held the line on a big bill and had to deal with an ugly scene. Some people specialize in ugly scenes just to get that discount. When we identify those customers, we give them a farewell party at which we actually get paid one time for the work we put in. Then we stand in the flames of their wrath as they pay that final bill and darken our door no more. It's happy-sad. It's a shame to think about how they're going to badmouth us afterwards, but a great relief to have one less thing feeding our ulcers.

Over time, the constant need to overcome the lowball image leads to feelings of guilt over legitimate prices. I know that even the simple old equipment can't endure ignorant and uncaring technicians. You pick up all kinds of little details over years of doing the work. I also know that I wasted my earning life in a stupid job that would never in any market area pay any sensible adult enough to justify spending those years. I'm a special kind of idiot. The fact that I'm not living in a single grubby room or squatting in a tent on the back of somebody's woodlot is due entirely to luck. My life is a series of accidents. I still assert that a mere bike mechanic is worthy of respect and a comfortably livable rate of pay. Take a break here to explore for yourself the wildly divergent economies in different regions of the country and parts of the globe... I have imagined myself squatting in front of a shelter made of scrap wood and tin roofing, facing onto an unpaved street in a crowded city in the Global South.

A precarious existence in a privileged society can look very cushy compared to one where everything is more obviously subject to capricious destructive forces. Our shop here in Resort Town is heated in winter, cooled in summer, has indoor plumbing, and everyone old enough to drive has managed to obtain and support an automobile. But income depends on the public's recreational interests from year to year, in activities that have seen mostly downward trends. Those trends were interrupted during Covid, when the public suddenly had time and interest, and the business had nothing to sell them. The slump resumed as the economy recovered.

Participants in any sector of the bike world can't believe that the outlook overall is weak, because they are immersed in their chosen aspect of it. The mountain bikers are convinced that the boom is still booming. E-bike riders see plenty of their own kind, especially in more densely populated areas where support is more available.

DIY videos and helpful friends with a workshop in the back of their saloon take the place of the rival shops that forced each other to live on suicide margins and give more for less. The technolemmings who buy into the notion that every change is progress have no patience with another point of view. We're free to have the point of view. They just won't be around to listen to it. When anyone does bring in their mountain bike these days, I wonder why. Gone are the days when I was the go-to problem solver in this town. The industry has specialized in producing problems faster than I can keep up with them. Mountain bikes have replaced one set of vulnerabilities with another, much more frustrating set. Parts and labor cost more, but the potential unreliability in the outcome makes me nervous about charging what we should. But that's just when dealing with the already addicted. The general public has the same dismissive view of bikes and biking that they've had since at least the 1950s. Muscle cars would always be way cooler than muscle-powered vehicles. Loud noise! Cloud of smoke! Flashy paint job! Back seat you can get laid in! We were never going to beat that.