What do we want in a Local Bike Shop?

Interesting article in the Wall Street Journal about trends in bike shops.  Here’s a taste:

Around the country, bike shops are shifting gears. The National Bicycle Dealers Association 2013 survey of 4,000 establishments found that 12% have coffee bars, 11% offer spinning classes and almost 5% serve beer. About 1% offer massages, yoga or full-service restaurants.

I hope that Australia does not follow this particular trend.  Sure, bike shops can benefit from engaging with their customers on more than one level and that benefit goes both ways.  But there’s a limit, surely.

They don’t have shops like they used to

In the 1980’s Newcastle NSW was second to only Adelaide SA for the number of bike shops per capita.  There was a dominant LBS owned by a famous cyclist.  Great range, good prices and nice staff.  Families bought bike after bike from there; 2 or more per generation.  But the only things I ever bought there were New-Old Stock (NOS) parts to upgrade my existing bike; a Sugino triple crankset, 105 brake levers, Deore front and rear derailleurs.  In hindsight, I should have bought a brand name bike from him, but I convinced myself that a custom bike would be a better choice.

Sadly, I purchased my custom bike from what I later discovered was one of the most complained-about bike shops in Newcastle.  The wheels went out of true within metres of the shop, the frame weighed a ton, flexed like a slinky and was missing braze-ons for the shifters, bottle cages and a dérailleur hanger.  I had bought a dud for the same money that I could have bought a proper machine.

Then there was “Dodgy Maurice”.  His hovel of a bike shop was my favourite because there was always so much to discover in there.  Invariably Maurice would show off some exotic groupset, frame, pedals or wheels and would always make the same two statements about the item [read with an outrageous French accent]:

  1. “zis is the only one in Australia…”, and;
  2. “…but you cannot buy.”

If you were prepared to dig around the dusty cabinets you could find some parts for that old bike.  It was a bizarre experience that I couldn’t help but share with my cycling friends.

Europa Cycles had unusual and exotic bikes and beards.  These guys were serious, the brands were serious and the prices were serious.  The mechanic rode a fixie to work 2 decades before it was fashionable.  The first shop was in the middle of Hunter Street near a liquor store; an odd place for either since no-one lived in the city.  They moved next to the Greater Union Cinemas in King Street.  They once let me use their workshop to re-lace my rear wheel onto a new rim after I’d slammed into a gutter sideways, only charging me for 6 new spokes and a few minutes of truing and centring instead of a full hour.

Canberra’s bike shops are generally very good. (Oddly enough, one of the few that does serve coffee is the one I would not recommend as the staff are too busy chatting to themselves to bother serving customers.) It is easy to find a shop that you like and just spend all of your money.  My current favourites are The Cyclery (who service my Cannondale) and Bike Culture (from whom I bought my Trek Domane 4.5).  No coffee, no masseur, no chakra realignments.  But both have very knowledgeable staff, a great range of stuff and comprehensive bike fitting services.  (Have I mentioned how essential comprehensive bike fitting is yet?)  What else could you possibly want from your LBS?

As Bernard Black once said, “Coffee and books is a fad!”  If I hang out at a bike shop it’s because I want to explore all the cool bikes, cool accessories and cool tools, not drink free trade mocha lattes.  That’s for the end of the ride.

BTW, I hoping to visit some groovy bike shops in Japan, including the “Above Bike Shop” in Kawasaki, home of the “Starf***ers” brand crankset.  Worth the price of the tickets alone.

2011 London riots looted bike shop
“I asked for SOY!” 2011 London riots looted bike shop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

New Road Bike… at last

Finally bought a new road bike.  After months of test rides, research and calculation I have finally ended the frustration for at least one bike shop by buying something. What a thing the Trek Domane 4.5 is.

A Trek Domane 4.5 yesterday.  Mine is not quite as clean

The options

My existing road bike was adequate; surprisingly so.  After the heavy wheels of my MTB, it was great to accelerate comparatively light 27″ wheels.  But as I repaired one part and then another and found parts hard to come by (where’s the eccentric bike shop owner with loads of dust-covered New Old Stock) I considered a new road bike.

My first thoughts were to buy a Cyclo-cross bike, which have only recently appeared on the Australian market.  Why not get a frame capable of taking wide or skinny tyres with braze-ons for mudguards and racks and powerful disc brakes.  I could ride on- or off-road by swapping wheels.  That would be great for blasting good times on the smooth tracks that would never be beaten.  Among others I considered the Specialized Tricross.   However, the reality is a bit harsh: you pay more than an equivalent road bike, the frame is heavier and less compliant.  The ride was not much smoother than my steel bike, despite the wide tyres.

Immediately after, I rode a Specialized Roubaix Comp.  The ride was so soft by comparison to the Tricross that I thought I’d broken it.  The frame was so plush and compliant that the footpath bumps dissolved, but the Pavé seat post was bendy to the point of being disconcerting; the saddle rotated rearwards under light pressure from my hand let alone my weight.  It felt like the sag on my MTB before I pumped up the rear shock.  A few weeks later I tried the same bike with a solid alloy post and found it much nicer.  Though I was assured that I would get used to the sensation.

I checked out the Trek Domane.  A week before one of the staff at Bike Culture offered his 62cm 6-series Domane as a test ride, even allowing me to ride the Federal Highway if I so chose. I rode a mere 7.5km (I’d already ridden the Fed a bit that morning) with a stupid smile on my face.  The ride was smooth and lovely despite skinny tyres pumped to the max and my riding over bumps.

While I was still making my mind up I stumbled upon the Cannondale Synapse.  Apparently half of the people who test the Synapse and the Roubaix chose the Synapse.  Having ridden it I think that I can understand why; the damping seems to be throughout the frame, not just rotation at the saddle.

Comparison

These bikes are sold at full retail with no discounting, though you might get some extras thrown in.  Then along comes the Tour de France and suddenly the specials come out. Both Trek and Cannondale dropped their prices by 20%, but not Specialized.  My research (well, research conducted by Velonews) showed that the Roubaix was best at absorbing big bumps but the Domane and Synapse were equal or better at small bumps.  The Trek seemed to offer more for the money and had allowed for fitting mudguards.  I’m sure that a proper accounting would show any differences to be minor and/or justified by other factors, but take 20% off and it’s hard to stretch to the Specialized.  The Cannondale looks boss with its paint scheme and bold decals and 20% off put it under $3000 for Ultegra groupset with nice wheels or under $2200 for 105.

The decider

Three great bikes and two great bike shops; so how to decide.

It looked like I’d blown the Trek with the last three 62cm Domanes sold out in the previous week leaving only a 60cm 4.5 in the shop. But I had a quick test ride with the saddle at maximum height and it felt the right size.  Perhaps I was in-between sizes.  Brent at Bike Culture put my name on the bike to hold it, but insisted on a fitting before he would sell it to me.

Thursday’s fitting was an immediate success.  Brent had dropped the saddle 20mm from the maximum I’d ridden it at a few days before.  Now wearing my cycling shoes and pedals (as opposed to my mountain bike boots and plastic pedals) combined with the lower saddle the size seemed to be almost exactly right.  A second opinion from George and a wider saddle (with titanium rails, no less!) shifted slightly forward and the job’s a good’un.

After the fitting I kept my pedals on the bike… I guess I’d made up my mind.