The Venerable Bike Shop

San Francisco landmark American Cyclery

A love of gear is an expansive love. And it’s not a love that blooms in isolation. It grows from our infatuation with an activity and the gear is nothing more than the physical manifestation of that activity.

I won’t say that cyclists love cycling more than runners love running, but the devotion seems different, and—naturally—to our eyes, more enjoyable.

It should be no surprise that our love for the bicycle itself extends to the stores that sell them. If the bicycle is a good time waiting to happen, then a shop is countless adventures yet to unfold. In each of those bicycles—even the ones we wouldn’t buy—we see our lives as we want them to be: The excitement of dressing for a five-hour ride with friends every day of the week.

And yet, we love bike shops not because of what they are, but in spite of what they are. Few of us have the sort of shop we dream of in our backyard. Even when our buying experience isn’t what we’d like, or as good as we believe it ought to be, we continue to love bike shops at least as a concept.

I’ve been in plenty of shops that were professional enough, but seemed empty of passion and that seems to be where I draw the line. Unless a shop is doing something to excite me about my sport and make me feel like my riding life is important to them, I won’t really go in for more than chains and cables.

I think that may be why operations like Mill Valley’s Above Category and Studio Velo engender such fanatical love. They are to cycling what Miracle-Gro is to roses. Ah, to live in Marin County. Slurp.

So why don’t we love the average bike shop the way we did back in the 1980s? My memory of shops back then was that they were cool the way Fonzie was cool to me when I was in second grade.

Once I take off the rose-colored glasses, I can see that a retailer had a much easier job in 1986 than they do today.

The number of bike categories they had to address was much less. The shop I dealt with had road bikes, a few mountain bikes and at Christmas they’d get a few kids’ bikes. One or two of the bikes were touring models and the rest were traditional road racers.

Replacement parts held in stock mostly amounted to freewheels, cables, brake shoes, a headset or two and five sizes of ball bearings. Aftermarket upgrades amounted to one or two groups, a few choices in pedals, a couple of rear derailleurs and a saddle or two.

In all honesty, the clothing selection was lousy.

I don’t recall anyone angling for a discount back then. Of course, the most expensive bike my shop carried didn’t cost 10% of the annual income of its more affluent customers, either. Even college students could come up with $1000 to purchase a Campy-equipped Torpado.

All of the decoration around the shop involved photos of PROs riding the bikes the shop carried.

Retailing is a much tougher business today. Online competitors and deal-shopping consumers squeeze profits like a kid with a ketchup bottle. The number of models a brand offers has in many cases tripled or quadrupled and retailers are rewarded better pricing based on just how much they stock. The array of replacement parts a shop is expected to stock has multiplied with the ferocity of cockroaches in a dirty kitchen. And while a frameset could hang on a wall for three or four years without losing its relevance or value, the same cannot be said today.

So who’s to blame? Well, this is one of those occasions, like the economy, where there’s plenty of blame to go around. Consumers (us) can be faulted for wanting deals that ultimately undermine the service we get when we visit a shop. As they shave their margins, they shave their ability to sit on large amounts of stock and their ability to pay livable wages to their staff, which hurts their ability to keep employees who talk like Competitive Cyclist copy.

The shops can be faulted for caving to every request for a deal. If they all held firm like unionized workers, we’d all be paying list prices. Some can also be faulted for running their shops like sidewalk lemonade stands and not really knowing basic statistics that are key indicator’s for their business’ health or how to connect with consumers on an emotional level.

Finally, the bike companies get a buffet-sized helping of blame for their ever-increasing number of SKUs. Let’s ask the question: How many price points do you really need to hit?

Speaking of connecting with consumers on an emotional—even visceral level—I’ve got to ask why none of the bike companies out there have resorted to enticing men with sex. You know, busty babes? I’m guessing that shots of Lance Armstrong and George Hincapie stand in for traditional hard bodies for most women (well, if not, it works for my wife), so why not use the Bay Watch approach to luring more men into the sport?

I don’t mean to trivialize the issue, but a great many very large, very successful multi-national corporations resort to sex as a means to short-circuit men into purchasing their widgets. Given how ubiquitous the approach is, isn’t it fair to point out that the approach continues to be used because, well, because it works? Wouldn’t photos of Heidi Klum astride a Specialized Amira bring some new consumers into the sport, riders who won’t expect Dura-Ace at 105 prices?

I don’t really think sex is the answer, but it is such an obvious tactic that if bike companies and retailers are missing this one, I can’t help but wonder what else they are missing.

And yet, like the faults we find in our best friends, we’ll never stop loving bike shops. Around every corner, in nooks and basements, they never fail in their ability to fascinate and excite.

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  1. cyclocross

    Nice pic of my old shop. That place really is the epitome of “A love of gear is an expansive love”! The basement is an amazing museum of cycling history. Too bad they don’t have more room to show off the collection.

  2. grolby

    You know, I really think that not using sex to sell bikes (much; some are catching on. Assos has the bizarre strategy of using softcore porn to advertise its womens’ apparel, which seems counterproductive) is one of the positive aspects of the bike industry. It’s positive mostly in the sense that it doesn’t make a major negative point even worse: bike shops and cycling in general is very much a boys’ club, and quite unfriendly to women. And in spite of “womens’ specific” this and that, we haven’t been able to crack this problem. I think it’s a culture thing, not a merchandise thing. But seriously, trying to use sex to sell more stuff to men would probably be worse than useless; the bike shops would not gain all that many men, and they would lose even more women. Women are the great, untapped market of cycling, and both sellers and riders have not figured out that women must be reached out to as equals. Unfortunately, the bike industry alternates between treating women as idiots and as sexual objects to draw men into the sport. That’s not really a recipe for success. I’m glad that the situation isn’t getting any worse than it already is.

  3. Touriste-Routier

    At the risk of drifting of the underlying point… Let us not forget some of the European Firms’ efforts in the 70s to use sex as a sales tool; it may not have sold many bikes, but it sure did sell a lot of posters! This followed up on the dawn of the safety bicycle, where images of women were frequently used in marketing posters o both sides of the pond.

    Warning- these links are to some of the famous cycling posters that show nudity…–regulators_ban_nude_nymph_poster—50226711–images–cycles-gladiator-1895.jpg

  4. SinglespeedJarv

    Northwave and Marzocchi use busty babes every so often, or at least used to and like grolby, I’m glad that it isn’t common.

    I’m trying to think back to when I was younger (before the internet). I used to construct dream bikes, knowing that I’d never own them. Probably a Vitus 979 with Campag Delta brakes (yes, I know, they’re rubbish, all Campag is rubbish). But somewhere as I got older, probably around the time I be-friended a bike shop, I found that I found excuses to buy the better stuff while barely being able to afford it. I looked for reasons to justify an upgrade rather than go for the cheaper option. But I still bought my gear from a bike shop, not the internet.

    Currently – my road bike that I can’t ride, an aluminium LOOK circa ’99 – I’m rocking 9spd Tiagra and hand-built tub wheels. I’d love one-day to be able to buy a brand new high-end bike with all the gear, but I can’t ever see it happening.

  5. Dan O

    Great post…

    I worked in a bike shop off/on from 1981 – 1986 or so. As you spelled out, a different universe back then. Bikes had no real model years, models didn’t change as often, there was less choice, road bikes were king and mountain bikes were just starting to take off. We also sold a lot of BMX bikes as well. Most expensive bikes in the shop were a Team Miyata and a Raleigh Professional. Both went for about $1250 at the time.

    Clothes selection? Next to none. A few jerseys and shorts. Nobody bought helmets back then. And yes, we had the pro pictures hanging up as well.

    Shop was closed every Sunday, then closed Wednesday and Sunday during the off-season. All us mechanic and sales types were basically laid off in late fall, came back for the Christmas rush, the adios until spring. Low pay, no health benefits, no paid vacation – nada. Why did we stay? At the time, many of us were college students and/or slackers, we liked bikes, and the shop I was at, had a cool group of people at the time. Many are still my friends today, 25 years and 3000 miles later.

    Retail today is a completely different deal. In some ways better, in some ways total overkill. When I flip through Trek and Specialized catalogs – why so many models? Many overlap each other. Yeah, I know – different price points, etc.

    Stiff competition from other shops, finding great people at low pay, long hours, big inventory cost, online competition, etc. The list goes on – not an easy business to run.

    Even so, I’ve thought of opening a shop myself many times. Why? Because when it’s done well, a cool setup and a hub of local cycling culture.

    Sex to sell bikes? I think that’s lame and most riders will look right past it. And it’s been done already by a few companies, as well as the usual trade show schtick. Does it get attention? Sure. Does it open wallets? Doubtful.

  6. Randomactsofcycling

    My beloved Fiance has a line she rolls out when I tell her I am going to the LBS:”don’t be an ATM” (that’s Automatic Teller Machine, or hole-in-the-wall). She surmises that everytime I go in there if they push the correct buttons I simply start handing over cash……….

  7. Robot

    I go to a couple of LBSs. One really only does repair, not gear. The other one does it all, and I always go in wanting to spend money, but mostly they sell a bunch of generic stuff, Pearl Izumi (christ, can we just stop with the Pearl Izumi), Specialized and very little that’s compelling or stylish in any way. Despite being a total bike fanatic, I’m not their bread and butter customer. Their target market is the beginner, men and women they can sell a first $1k road bike too and a pile of solid colored jerseys. I don’t blame them. You have to follow the money. It was the same when I ran a guitar shop. We sold a lot more knock off Stratocasters than we did vintage Les Pauls. Real life is often just a lot less sexy than I want it to be.

  8. Champs

    There is an insane number of groups because of all the manufacturers with different margins and price points to hit, mostly three digit, not four.

    Higher upmarket, you might get away with throwing a Chorus cassette and derailleurs into a Record build if it gets the price under some thousand dollar increment. If you start pricing at $2001 instead of $1995, people might start asking questions like why the European sounding name commands such a premium over the suspiciously similar Chinese bike with different paint. Build up an “illegal” Trigon with Red, put it next to a 7kg Colnago with Record “where it counts,” i.e. whatever makes it cheaper without looking so, at about the same price point, watch which bike sells faster.

  9. travis

    I have been working in shops off and on for the past 6 years or so and am consistently frustrated with the state of the brick and mortar bike shop. Of course the Elephant in the room is the internet. Most smaller mom and pop shops can’t keep up with the internet and what it offers customers in terms of pricing. What they can offer is customer service but even that is difficult as they have a pretty high overhead which as you mentioned makes it difficult to retain great staff.

    Discounting stuff for a good customer to help them out is one thing, but it does seem today that just about everyone wants us to discount bikes 15 to 20% which we cannot do in most cases as the margins on bikes are slim at best. I really would love a world where different shops could offer different products and services and be able to make a living at it and pay their people a living wage. All of your points were well thought out as to the causes of the demise of the LBS. Don’t really know where I am going with this but just saying.

    1. Author

      Everyone: Thanks for your terrific comments. I should clarify that I’m not advocating using sex to sell bikes, at least not in the traditional busty babe sort of way. I asked that question in a mostly rhetorical way. I see it as perhaps the canary in the coalmine for marketing. Truly, I suspect there are opportunities that have been missed where it could be used subtly but effectively. But the bigger issue is that if the only efforts to use sex in marketing cycling have been ham-fisted, then we’ve got to wonder just how much else has been missed when it comes to marketing cycling to newcomers?

      And for the record, I don’t see the demise of the bike shop as even remotely imminent. I have no problem with the idea of the standard mom and pop shop that just does the bare minimum going under. Fine by me. Smart shops are selling service—real service as characterized by fittings, testing and coaching in order to offer something that Internet retailers, no matter how good they are, can’t touch.

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  11. Souleur

    Points well taken Padraig. The marketing side of it is interesting, and if ‘sexy’ didn’t sell, don’t go to Las Vegas Interbike:-)

    Cyclists are somewhat an unusual breed of human. We are not the norm and this interesting observation is a self inflicted wound we have done to ourselves. Most hobbyists will gladly support their local shop, they will commune there, they congregate, they spend.

    But it is exceptional that a LBS is a cut above. I have a LBS and he and I are good friends. He respects me and asks me as many questions as I ask him when I frequent it. He is ridiculous small, him and his wife are only employees and his inventory is nil. He is struggling to make it and I feel a loyalty to him, so i go.

    However, when I go to one of a few others in the big city when I travel for dinner, their college aged kids come out and are typically more insulting than helpful. They stock very mediocre goods typical of a 105 mentality (as robot mentions), more low end junk than they ought, and I don’t fault them for it other than it becomes accepted by the local gene pool as ‘normal’. There is absolutely NEVER a campy drivetrain in the shop. I realize I am a total fanatic about cycling, perhaps the exception and not the rule, but when I go to some LBS’s I just am not inspired.

    Then there are a very few LBS that are inspiring, some that have totally sold out, that are as much freaks about thread pitches as I am, who see huge differences in lubes, insane arguements between rolling resistances of clinchers & tubulars…like the Above Category shop (which I would love to visit one day), or like bike Big Shark. They unapologetically build the best, no crap. They deck out their shop w/the best and the owner is beyond totally commited to the local scene of cycling on all levels.

    Kudos for those who do it right!

  12. Josh

    seeing a photo of Liz Hatch in the drops on a hot day, jersey cracked down a wee bit for “ventilation”, typically causes money to start dribbling out of me like, well…….umm, where was i going?

    attitudes at the LBS are the most frustrating part of the experience for me. the common thread through the article and comments is that patrons (i refuse to use “consumer” to describe actual people) form connections with shops where the proprietors and employees demonstrate respect and care. when people (especially newbies) are treated instead with condescension and disdain, how can they be expected to feel like they’re entering a world they actually would want to be a part of? seems like a lot of foot-shooting to me. very frustrating.

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