Bike Shop Relevance Nowadays

We participate in a confidential e-list discussion forum of bike dealers, in which we all abide by understandably strict rules about repeating or relaying the opinions or specific writings of other retailers.  It only makes sense though that careful generalizations are permitted, at least to provide context for a topic discussed elsewhere.

Someone wondered whether Phil Wood was selling directly to consumers, implying a question of whether this was acceptable in terms of business practices favoring the Independent Bicycle Dealer (IBD).PW Fixed-Fixed

My response was that yes, Phil Wood & Co. has always been willing to work directly with their end-user and bypass the retailer.  They have however maintained a strict policy of charging at least what their retailers will likely charge, so there’s no real price competition.  Another factor I did not mention, but others indicated, was one significant advantage for retailers in having Phil Wood do this.  They have a long history of producing high quality intricate parts, and servicing so many years’ of those items would require us tying up capital in stock of hundreds of these pieces, and maintaining inventory of them, just to claim we can replace a pawl and spring in a 1979 hub once every 6 years.  I’m happy to do it too, but I’ll gladly permit Phil Wood to take that job, thank you.  They earned it.

Within my reply was contained a comment, “We’re not entitled to free profits.  We earn them by providing a service, to both the supplier and the customer, and it’s our job to convince the customer we’re worth it.”  This of course was not referring only to flat tires, bent wheels, and spring tune-ups, but really encompassing everything cyclists might expect from their bike shops; on the showroom floor too, including earning a fair share to help procure, install, ride, and possibly service a conscientiously selected Phil Wood product.PW Tandem

Another thread brought up our annual international trade shows, and whether we as retailers will remain as relevant as we have in the past, to our suppliers, to our customers, and even to the show itself.  Do our suppliers [and customers] need us, or are we just another “cog in the distribution chain,” eventually found obsolete?

A few of my own thoughts on the subject:

Some vendors may see us as valued customers, of a sort.  Some view us as partners, critical cogs in the distribution-chain machine, but dispensable when a more efficient machine is developed.  A few likely see us (IBDs) as barely necessary leeches, middle-men, sucking profits from what could have been their bigger bottom lines (regardless of whether this is actually true, and in many cases may not be, as this lengthy White Paper attempts to relate.)

Similarly some customers feel we are critical entities in their lives, sources of valued services, advice, and the best products and end support; hard to imagine living without.  They’ll occasionally pay a slightly higher price than they know can be found elsewhere because they also believe it supports our continued existence, from which they draw tremendous value they don’t always fund directly.  Unfortunately this often paints the IBD portion of our industry as charity.  Others think of us as fun places to visit, but only worthy of their hard-earned money when the value is clear and obvious in the moment.  Finally, a growing number seem to view the IBD as almost completely unnecessary service centers for tube changes and wheel truing, not a sustainable business model and, similar to the final example of suppliers above, just another place to spend more money than should be necessary.

Neither the manufacturers, distributors, nor consumers owe us anything not earned, not even an opinion on how to perpetually justify our existence into their futures, let alone our value or place in the industry’s chain of distribution.  By itself it doesn’t matter that we have 40 years of business behind us.  The experience itself matters, but then only if we can apply it for someone else’s benefit.  It doesn’t matter that we pay for all our business licenses and government mandated fees, collect sales tax (without compensation), are available for service and support 70+hours per week, answer hard questions for free, promote or support community and charity events, anonymously bolster or refer business to competitors, and strive after-hours to push the boundaries of our training and expertise abreast of what is provided to our customers through magazines, group ride wisdom, and social media, while still fairly paying employees, supporting our families, and paying the mortgage.  It doesn’t matter that we provide a conveniently dry, lit, and heated space to experience the products and perform the services.  None of that matters and, for the most part, little of it should… it’s the harsh truth, but it’s the real world.  What matters is the value we can relay to a customer when she’s standing before us with a checkbook.  She needs to leave our shops knowing she got a great deal, not because she paid a cheap price, or even because she subsidized our existence for when she really needs us, the next time.  She needs to know she got a great deal because we provided her with a level of service equal to or greater than what she paid, not just in the moment, but relative to her overall cycling experience.  Yes, it really is that basic.

Sometimes we may provide a high level of service and under-charge, and she still feels ripped off.  Other times we do something simple and charge too little, and she may feel exceedingly privileged.  An enormously overlooked part of our jobs is to accurately convey the true value of what we produce.  And yes, we need to produce something, not just present it.

And we need to latch the shop door each night knowing we were fairly compensated for those services, whether repairing a flat tire, addressing a warranty issue, or developing and executing an ingenious solution to a complex problem.

Likewise manufacturers and suppliers are not obligated to attach assumed values to the services we provide.  They’ll see it when it shows up (or doesn’t) in their own bottom lines.

As IBDs, we’re only cogs in the machine if we’ve chosen and elected to stubbornly hold that position.  Cogs are easily replaced, and machines become more elegantly designed (cog-less) by nature of our free market.  It’s up to us to either convince the customer and our suppliers that our cog-in-the-machine model remains ideal (through example), make ourselves an indispensably superior cog, or participate heavily in the on-going re-design of that fancy new replacement, potentially cog-less distribution model so that it still somehow includes us.

Maybe it’s high time we sought the opinions of our customers.  What do you think?

Motorcycle Handling and Chassis Design: the art and science

Foale, Tony
Spain. 2002.
ISBN 978-8493328610

When I first heard of this book, probably around the time it was published, I just… had to have it.  At the time it was challenging just to figure out how to get one.  Entirely self published and distributed from Spain, this treatise is arguably the most definitive writing on the hows and whys of handling in single-track vehicles.  As should be obvious from the title, it’s not about bicycles, but you don’t need a deep imagination to recognize how much can be learned about bicycle geometry from studying motorcycle dynamics.

Bicycles of course do appear in the text a couple times, and are used to experiment and clarify some of the physics principles governing steering and lean-angle.  We must however bear in mind an important point about the differences between motorcycles and bicycles with regard to analyzing their handling characteristics.  On both machines the rider is a critical element to be considered as part of the machine.  The motorcyclist however is a relatively small percentage of the machine’s (bike and rider) overall weight, often less than 35%, while of course a bicyclist comprises the vast majority of the machine’s weight, rarely less than 80% for adults.  Add to that the sheer differences in power, and these have profound effects on the vehicles’ centers-of-gravity, and how the rider manages the CoG.  Tony FoaleAnother distinction (of many) is wheel and tire size, weight, casing design, pressures, and forces.  Although mostly the same effects exist in the tires and wheels of both machines, the magnitudes of those forces are so vastly different that we must be very careful with any assumptions we make about their similarities.  In numerous instances a line of understanding, in terms of handling design, cannot be directly applied between the two vehicle types.  Nevertheless this book provides tremendous insight, at the very least, into the sorts of things a serious bicycle designer should be considering and trying to understand.

Motorcycle Handling and Chassis Design is one of my favorite books on my shelf, but I’d only recommend it to others who are also interested in the rather dry details of handling geometry in bikes.  The clarity in the writing, the comprehensive analyses, hundreds of photos, diagrams, and graphs, and the well thought out explanations are astounding.  Sure it reads a bit like a text book, but anyone would be hard-pressed to explore and report on such a technical topic more effectively.  The author‘s brilliant efforts to go light on mathematics, but instead illustrate with practical theory and experience, must not go unrecognized.

I understand a new edition was released in 2006.  I have not seen a Spanish version, but my paperback copy is entirely English, and written so well it’s difficult to imagine it having been translated.  The latest edition claims to be even better than mine.  Hmmm… What’s a book junkie to do?

tandem fitting

Most folks familiar with us also know Diane and I have been an avid tandem team since 1998.  For many years, having first-hand expertise, we also fitted and built quite a number of tandem bikes for customers, including several very customized bikes.  Some of the more common early questions in selecting a tandem are about fitting, and whether the numbers on our singles are transferrable.  The super-short answer is a likely yes, but… it’s heavily qualified, and you probably know by now that short answers don’t come easily to me.  Having just fielded such a question, here are some thoughts about the basics:

This isn’t true for everyone but, for many of us, fitting a tandem is a bit different from how we like to ride our singles.

Generally the stoker wants to be a little more upright, because she (or he) can be, since she’s tucked out of the wind anyway, and usually wants a better view of passing scenery.  Additionally, as long as you’re confident the rear seat-tube will be a good length for her saddle height, knowing exact details of her final fit parameters is rarely critical ahead of time.  The rear of the bike is so highly adjustable that you should need little more than confidence that her parameters can be met once you have the actual bike in front of you.  Note too that (for most stokers) she never stands flat-footed over the bike, so top-tube clearance is usually a non-issue.

For the captain, on the other hand, it’s a good idea to know most of the details about how his fit will be accomplished.  Although his single bike’s dimensions can be transferred, and that’s a great start, beware here too his fit requirements might be slightly different, to accommodate the longer bike and rear-load, as well as possible differences in ride approaches, such as aggressive sport riding on singles versus more relaxed touring on the tandem.  Everyone’s preferences and cycling goals of course are different, but these are the things we consider.

Finally, if you haven’t yet much tandeming experience, beware you will both likely spend far less time out of the saddles than you do on your singles, at least initially.  When only on our single bikes we tend to thoughtlessly make adjustments, stand, and accommodate comfort needs automatically.  Very little happens on a tandem without intention, forethought, and verbal communication, especially at the beginning, so we tend to just sit and pedal until issues become unbearable.  Remember too that the captain must be able to very confidently stand over and stabilize the bike, sometimes on un-even terrain, with the stoker mounted.  This doesn’t affect how the bike should fit him while pedaling, but it might be a factor in determining its basic size.

We always used to do at least a full fitting for the captain, and sometimes for the stoker.  We would certainly confirm basic dimensions for the stoker, but occasionally customers already knew what they wanted, which is great too.  We would however insist on finalizing fit details once the bike is built and ready to ride.

The Secret Race

Coyle, Daniel & Hamilton, Tyler
Bantam Books. New York. 2012.
ISBN 978-0-345-53041-7

I’ve lost count of the number of times The Secret Race was recommended to me, after I had read it.  Co-authored by Daniel Coyle, this mostly first person history of Tyler Hamilton’s experiences with performance enhancing drugs in the peleton is quite possibly the most forthcoming account of drug use in professional cycling we’ve yet seen.  It’s not always easy to stomach, and of course there’s no way to know just how truthful or complete Tyler’s side of this story is, but most fellow skeptics seem to agree, the exhaustive details make a lot of sense, and are too deep and interconnected not to believe.TSR

By Lance Armstrong’s third TdF win, I was one who believed most successful professional bicycle racers were at least occasionally guilty of drug use, particularly Mr. Armstrong.  That’s not meant to be an I told you so, as for the most part I don’t care, but it may help to illustrate just why I’ve been rather bored with the controversies over the years.  I don’t like it, and certainly never approved, but it hasn’t interested me much either.  This book has, so far, been the only exception.  Once I started reading it, I was as hooked into the story as anyone.  The excellent writing certainly doesn’t hurt.

Speaking of the writing, my partner Diane interviewed the author, Dan Coyle, on her Outspoken Cyclist Radio show, back on October 6 of 2012.  He happens to live, at least part of the year, here in northeast Ohio.

Eric’s Big Day

Waters, Rod
VeloPress. Boulder. 2013.
ISBN 978-1-937715-23-6

Erics Big Day, is a whimsical children’s book that takes young Eric on a journey to visit his friend Emily in the next town to share a picnic.ebd

Eric packs his knapsack with a multitude of items including a large balloon and some sticky candy, all of which it turns out will come in handy as Eric meets bicycle racers on the road along the way who need his help to cross the finish line.

The book is beautifully illustrated in a pen and ink with color wash style that is reminiscent of a New Yorker magazine cover or a French panel of sketches.

Although the story is meant for children 4-8, some of Eric’s clever fixes for problems along the way will remind many of us of the things we have done to keep our bikes on the road when we had nothing but a dollar bill to stuff into a torn tire.

reviewed by Diane Lees

lubricating a chain

Never forget the most important factor in a well-running drive-train is cleanliness, and this dramatically affects the frequency at which you should be lubricating your chain.  As a general rule I recommend applying fresh lubricant every 100 miles (160 km) ridden plus after each ride in wet conditions.  For most folks this is likely a bit frequent, but it isn’t long after practicing regularly before you can determine for yourself when to clean or lubricate your drive-train.

Note that if you intend to switch to another brand or type of lube, the chain should be clean to start.  Some lubricants very much prefer to start on bare metal, so this may require removal and soaking in biodegradable degreasing solution.  Hopefully you’re happy with the lube you’ve been using, so you can simply add oil and clean all in one process without removing the chain.

Rather than allow old and dirty or excess lubricant to overspray or drip inside your house, this is best done outside, or at least in your garage.  Hanging your bike, using a repair stand or car-trunk/hitch rack, works great.  All you really need though is to lean the bike, standing on its wheels, fairly straight and upright against something solid.  The drive-side should face you, and pedals and chain can spin freely backwards without striking anything.  If you’re feeling especially clever you might find a way to secure the bike so it leans toward you slightly, helping to prevent excess lubricant from spattering onto your rim’s braking surface.

You probably have two options for application: drip and spray. Drip is usually more economical, is certainly less wasteful, and easier to control.  With spray you’re paying more for the propellant and spray mechanism.  Although spray is faster to apply, it is also messier, and usually requires more time and effort to clean up afterward.  For either option you will also need a dry shop rag or a couple paper towels.

Using a drip:
Choose an easily identifiable link, such as the reinstallation pin or “master” link, if possible and position it on the lower section of chain just behind the front sprockets.  Carefully drip one drop of your favorite lubricant on each roller all the way along the lower chain until you’re as close as you can comfortably get to the derailleur pulleys beneath the rear cogs.  Stop, and rotate the crank backwards just enough to move the most recently lubed link forward to behind the sprockets again.  Repeat beginning from there, applying along the chain until you reach the pulleys.  After doing this about 3-4 times you should be able to tell that you’ve reached the first link you lubricated, the entire chain is oiled, and there’s no need to go further.

Put the bottle of lube down and spin the crank backwards several times with your right hand, allowing the chain to flex over the gears and through the pulleys, permitting the fresh lube to penetrate the tiny rollers in the chain.  Now pick up a rag or paper towel and, gently wrapping your left hand around the lower chain, continue rotating the crank (with your right hand), drawing the chain through the rag in your left hand.  You can stop and re-situate the rag as many times as you like.  If it becomes saturated before you’re satisfied, switch to a clean rag, spinning while you wipe off the excess.  What you’re trying to do is wipe off any lube from the exterior surface of your chain.  Don’t worry… you’ll never get it all, and what you do get should not be there anyway.  The lube that will make your chain run smoother has already penetrated and you can’t wipe it off. What you are wiping away however includes lots of road grime and abrasive dirt, so you’re lubing and cleaning simultaneously, and minimizing the excess that could attract more grit, which wears your chain and gears as you ride.  All the lubrication your chain needs will remain inaccessible beneath the rollers.

Using spray:
This is nearly identical to the above procedure except that you simply spray the chain, with your left hand, just as it passes over the rear cassette cogs while you rotate the crank in your right hand.  This generates quite a bit of over-spray, and you’ll want to be careful not to get much on the braking surfaces of your rim, or rotor if you have disc brakes.  One nifty thing about doing it this way however is often you may feel in your hand a noticeable drop in resistance, especially if some time has passed since the last time this was done, serving as a demonstration of how beneficial a lubed chain can be.  Again, when you’re finished, be sure to wipe off all the excess you can with a rag or paper towel.  This keeps the chain relatively clean, which is just as important as keeping it lubricated.

LeMond’s Pocket Guide to Bicycle Maintenance & Repair

LeMond, Greg
Perigee Books. New York. 1990.
ISBN 0-399-51511-9

An impromptu gift from my dad, and an interesting manual, if for little more reason than it’s an early attempt of Mr. LeMond’s at publishing.  There really isn’t anything profound in its advice, but today it may come in handy for anyone hoping for a deeper LeMond1understanding of the mechanics of a racing bike from the ’80s.  It discusses things like repairing a tubular tire, overhauling loose crank bearings, changing freewheel cogs, and adjusting Campagnolo delta brakes; largely outdated by now, but well organized and still good information.  One of the more interesting parts, for me, is the “Acknowledgements” page.  Here, Greg discusses not only influences through previously winning Le Tour de France, but offers fresh (at the time) comments on his hunting accident, involving his brother-in-law.  Greg LeMond’s first tour wins, and news of his shooting, were all at a time when I had a teenager’s enthusiasm for our sport, to which Greg contributed significantly, and any advice about how to work on my bikes was welcome.

By this time nearly everyone has seen it, but in case you haven’t, here’s an illustration of Greg LeMond’s mechanic skills, working on a bicycle.