It’s 9pm on a Thursday night, and I’m shopping for a set of disc wheels. There’s not a bike shop open in the metro-Boston area, but that doesn’t matter anymore because any wheel maker worth their salt has a website that will tell me everything I need to know about each of their products including the price. I can either buy direct from the builder, or I can buy from any one of dozens of online distributors. If I was desperate for human interaction, as an absolute last resort, like if the zombie apocalypse happened and I was riding around looking for human survivors (and disc wheels) I could even wait for a bike shop to open, walk in and buy wheels there, assuming money was still even a thing.
OK. OK. OK. Simmer down.
It’s not the zombie apocalypse, and I actually love bike shops. I have a ton of friends who own and operate them, and I can’t go by one without wanting to go in, if only to hide from a marauding zombie horde. Despite all that, it seems very fashionable to hate on the LBS. Bike shop employees are surly and rude. They never have the part you need, and anyway you can get whatever you want cheaper on line, and cheaper is better. Always.
Everybody knows that bike shop employees are surly and rude because they’re young, iconoclastic or underpaid, sometimes all three. And we want them to be that way, because that’s what gives cycling its edge…even if it makes buying a WiFli derailleur and a handful of Gu’s a little more painful.
Also, they don’t have the part you need because of the proliferation of parts and their haphazard distribution. The cost of a functional shop inventory has gone through the roof over the last decade, and the manufacturers have all shifted a large part of the risk burden for their own sales forecasting onto the shops with large minimum orders and the lure of increased margin.
And the reason you can get it cheaper online is because simultaneously the manufacturers don’t manage their distributors well enough, with parts finding their way to giant, international etailers only too happy to ship into domestic markets otherwise protected by dealer agreements. Oh, and etailers don’t have to pay retail rents.
Within the industry there is a palpable and growing tension between e-tailers and their bricks-and-mortar competitors. How many times have I heard the story about the customer who spent two hours in the shop going over a parts spec for a new bike, only to go home and buy it all online. How many times have I heard about riders eager to show up for shop-sponsored rides, but unwilling to so much as buy lubes and tubes from their hosts?
A lot. A lot of times.
This week’s Group Ride asks, do you shop at your LBS or online, or some combination thereof? And if you don’t do business locally, why not? Do you worry about the disappearance of the LBS? Or the big-boxing of cycling retail? Or do you consider yourself an expert, beyond the level of the snarky sales clerk, fully independent and only in need of product to sustain your cycling lifestyle?
I was a middle-class kid, as tormented by boredom as by the peer pressure of my preppy cohort. Bound for college and an easy passage to comfortable adulthood, nonetheless I acted out in all sorts of ways. I listened to punk rock bands and drank too much and did all the drugs I could. I grew my hair, and then I shaved my head. I rode a bike.
There is power in alienation, in embracing otherness and using it as a motivator. There is power in the anger that comes from being treated differently, even when the difference is small or manufactured. The greatest conformists among us still want to be rebels. It’s an attractive image, rebels in our minds, if not in our realities.
Our twenty-year-old selves were self-styled iconoclasts. We wrote bad, angry songs and reveled in having no money. The bike was an integral and functional part of that manufactured poverty, an expression of the freedom we wanted, mainly from other people’s reasonable expectations.
The truth is that, even with our tattoos and ardent devotion to the most unlistenable music, we were never so unique. In a country of 300 million people, even being one-in-300 makes you part of a counter-culture, one-million strong. Maybe none of the old punk bands we idolized made a lot of money from selling records to willfully poor kids after their shows, but that doesn’t mean a million or more people didn’t find a way to know and love their songs.
Cycling is that same brand of marginal, at least here in the States. We the be-lycra’d few, with our too-thin bodies (sometimes) and our shaved legs often hold ourselves apart, a smug counterpoint to the football-loving masses. Cars and bikes might as well be sharks and minnows. Are you with the sharks? Of course not.
Cyclists are different. We wear small funny hats and shoes we can’t walk in. We obsess over races that take place in France and Belgium and Italy and Spain, races with strategies as transparent as pond water. We are worldly, thoughtful, nuanced.
More than 70,000 of us took out race licenses with USA Cycling last year. According to the League of American Bicyclists there are about 57 million of us in total, cyclists. We are not minnows. We are not marginal. These are not sexy truths. This is not fist in the air stuff.
I’m older now, and though the music in my headphones is still loud and inaccessible to most of my peers, I’m turning out spreadsheets, booking orders, and plotting marketing strategies like a grown up. I am usually planning my next tattoo, but the ink never runs because I spend the money on hockey skates and summer camp for my kids.
I’m not dangerous. I’m not weird.
Still, rebellion is motivation. Every time I pull on layers of wool topped with Gore-Tex I rebel against the weather. Every time I cut the corner of someone’s backyard to get to a trail some kids have thrashed into the woods, I push back against the constraints of adulthood. It’s bullshit, small stuff, but it works for me.
Motivation is priceless, and sometimes you have to get some flavor of aggro with yourself, with society, or with the laws of physics, just to get out the door. I sometimes shudder to think of the poses I struck as a young, angry man, except they brought me this far. They put me on my bike.
And thank god for that.