Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Jammed Chain and Local Bikes Shops

As I was out for a walk in a pleasant spring shower during my lunch break, I saw a stranger than usual sight in the university district. A middle aged woman on a panniered mountain bike was kicking her way down the street, 4-year old style, pausing in each empty parking space to catch her breath.

I eventually caught up with her (progress was slow). Before she could kick away again, I asked kind of hesitantly if she needed help with "anything."

"The chain jammed a ways back," she said. Which made perfect sense of the strange situation. I wondered just how far she had persistently kicked along.

Closer inspection revealed that the chain had overshifted the smallest cog and wedged forcefully between cog and seatstay. Fortunately, it was a quick release wheel, and I showed her how to loosen the wheel and slide it out to free the chain. I mentioned that she should also have someone adjust the derailler as soon as possible.

Working at a community cycling shop, I've seen many bikes simply retired to the garage for this sort of behavior, and bike commuters become drivers again. Usually, it happens to people who would have no problem paying for repairs. Many bike shops are intimidating, though, that's for sure. They must seem especially intimidating if you have an old MTB commuter with a jammed chain. That's not what an average bike shop wants to see coming through the door. Maybe it should be?

I don't understand much about the bike shop business. As I understand it, most aren't doing very well. If that's the case, why doesn't the model ever seem to change? All I see are lots of highly specialized bikes for competition, few useful accessories, and very little reason for a non-competitive cyclist to come in the door unless their bike's hopelessly broken.

I wonder if commuters/weekend pootlers (hey, I'm one of them!) aren't as well received at some shops because there just isn't much to sell them? The jump from commuting/path riding to a road racing bike is absurd, to be sure. The jump to a current suspended mountain bike isn't far behind on the absurd-o-meter. What makes the current bike shop model unprofitable, and could a better model include a wider audience like commuters, non-competitive enthusiasts, and utility riders?

Is there a market for cyclers? If so, I wish one of our 5 local bike shops would give it a try. As it is, I have a gift certificate to one of them, and I still can't get excited enough to stop by and spend it! I'll probably just buy 20 tubes or something.

8 Comments:

Anonymous scott clark said...

Similiar situation here--there are fancy-new-bike shops, and there is a commuter-friendly shop (well, at least one) that will do real-world repairs, but isn't a typical spotless retail storefront. He sells Surlies and some lesser bikes, but doesn't have a showroom to speak of. I'm comfortable (actually *more* comfortable :) with a scruffy hole in the wall, but maybe most beginning commuters would prefer something that looks like a "normal" shop but is welcoming and has the bikes and parts they need.

10:37 AM  
Anonymous Jim said...

Hey I'm glad you got around to allowing anonymous (non-Blogger) comments. You have a nice site. Good writing. It's becoming one of my regular stops.

Here in Minneapolis, we have a couple bike shops that are a bit more devoted to the commuter type rider (we have a lot of commuters, relative to other American cities, I've heard). Unfortunately, such shops, as cool as they are, seem to be run by people who know a lot more about bikes than about running a business. One of the better ones is so hard to find that it is absolutely inconceivable that any casual street traffic or other prospective new customer would find it by happenstance. And the stuff they carry (steel bikes, leather saddles, single speed stuff, etc) was so far out for the average cyclist indoctrinated to the sterile franchise bike shops, that most just don't get it. That shop is going out of business and is for sale (I thought long and hard about it until my wife found out).

But most of the shops here do small repairs, some better than others.

I think people are scared of the bike shops, in part, because of the racer-dominated hierarchy of the business, as you said. But more than that, I think it's just intimidating to take any machine in for a potentially expensive repair for people who don't know a sprocket from a headset. These folks, like the woman you met, are nervous about getting taken for a $100 repair on a bike they probably paid $25 for at a garage sale. I really don't understand it - the mechanical parts of bikes are so simple, yet many riders never take five minutes to spin the pedals and shift the gears (rear wheel off the ground) to see how things work. I know plenty of folks with multi-geared bikes who don't know how to change gears, and are scared to try for fear that they will wind up stuck for life in the wrong gear. I know one girl, a coworker of mine, who wanted to throw away a perfectly good (almost new) bike because it was hard to pedal. I shifted it to a lower gear, and the problem was solved. She told me she would never shift it again because she thought she wouldn't be able to get it back to where it was.

12:21 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

Hi Jim!

Glad to have you reading. I've really enjoyed your blog's development.

I appreciate the comments. My wife and I, um, "visited" Minneapolis last summer (plane trouble getting home to Missoula). We were simply floored by the number of bike commuters. I realize that MSP is probably 10 or 20 times the size of Missoula, but still, wow! We thought Missoula was the world-beater for cold climate cycle commuters.

I work one night a week at the local community (i.e. free) bicycle shop. A lot of folks like the woman I met are directed to us from local bikes shops who either don't feel like working on an old bike or honestly don't have some weird part or other.

I'd say maybe half of these cyclers are excited to learn about fixing their bikes. The other half, though, just can't be bothered. Once they find out our volunteers won't do all of the work for them, they often just leave.

I used to get kind of annoyed at the second group, but then I realized the double standard at work. I wouldn't expect someone to be able to (or even want to) fix their own car. These are people doing "a good thing" by commuting on a bike. It's ludicrous that they can't get their bike worked on even when willing to pay. And, I don't think having to buy a newer bike shop bike for $500 is any solution either.

A friend of mine received a grant and started a bike building/repair program at the local alternative high school. It has been an amazing success. They have a fully equipped work shop and have become bike shop-level mechanics in about a year of class. Awesome!

Wouldn't it be great to see this type of program in schools at even younger ages. What a great way to learn practical science! And, it would turn out a generation of people who are truly trnasportation independent. Yeah, dream on, but someone has to do it!

3:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You mentioned that most local bike shops aren't doing well. The shop where I work, Sammamish Valley Cycle in Redmond WA, is doing well and has been doing well for as long as Mark and Chris Thomas have owned it. We succeed by being very eclectic. Everybody who works in the shop is some kind of a bike geek. Everyone working there could be making more money elsewhere doing something else. But we love bikes. But that's not enough. The main reason we succeed is that we listen to people. Many, many times I'll have someone come into the shop saying that they are looking for a new bike. I'll ask them about what kind of riding they want to do, what they are riding now, what they do or don't like about their current bike (if they have one). Often customers are amazed that I don't wind up selling them a bike. Sometimes I wind up selling them a stem, or a saddle, or fit them to their current bike, or fix their shifters or something else. Sometimes I send them to another shop in the area that I know will have the kind of thing they are looking for. They think I'm loosing bike sales. I'm not, I'm getting another rider out where they can have fun on a bike. And people talk to each other. And they send more people to our shop.

And by the way, if you buy tubes at your local shop, they'll love you (or they should!) Tubes are by far the item with the highest profit margin of anything in the store.

Kent Peterson
Sammamish Valley Cycle
Redmond WA USA

8:39 AM  
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