How To Lose The Yellow Jersey

I owe a local bike shop a debt of gratitude. I had one of the best retail experiences of my life there, once. And, now I have a lovely, restored vintage bicycle to show for it. And then, well, they blew it.

Here’s what happened: About ten years ago, when we first moved PEMBAbase from [wherever I happened to be living at the time ] to an office in downtown Madison, I decided to become a bike commuter. I had this old Italian road racing bicycle that I bought new in 1982. I hadn’t ridden it in a long time, so I took it into a local bike shop to be turned into a commuter.

I wheeled the old Benotto into the shop. It had rotten tires and it was caked in dust and cobwebs. I had seriously neglected this bike, for a long time. I said,”I have this old bike, and I’d like to turn it into a commuter.”

The shop owner, a curmudgeonly guy who smells strongly of tobacco, said,”No, we won’t do it.”

This was strange. I asked,”Why not?”

He was looking the bike up and down. He said,”I can break the reasons down into categories: You want it by aesthetics, philosophy, or by practicality?”

This was intriguing: “Gimme all of them,” I said.

“Okay,” he said,”Number one: What you’ve got there is a vintage bike that – while not museum quality at the moment – really belongs in a museum somewhere. It heralds from a time long-past when standards were set by brand and by country. The parts on your Benotto are all Benotto, and they’re all built to a long-abandoned Italian standard. Aesthetically, this bike is perfect and we won’t touch it.”

He continued: “Two: This Benotto was one of the last of those that were made in the Italian factory, before they shipped production to Mexico. Because this bike belongs on a wall somewhere and not on a road, we’d be doing a dis-service to you, the bike, and the cycling community if we were to make major changes to it, so – philosophically – I’m opposed to it.”

Then: “Lastly, it wouldn’t work. The standards on this bike are all unique to Italy, in that era. It would be difficult to find a commuting handlebar – for instance – that would fit your stem. As a practical matter, it’s a race-bike and there isn’t clearance for fenders, which makes it a no-play as a commuter, as far as I’m concerned.”

He looked at me, and said,”I could go on, but I think you get my point.” He then took me on a tour of the store, and pointed out several bikes that – for far less money – would make far better commuter bikes than my old Benotto.

In that moment, I fell back in love with my old bike. I resolved to be a better owner to it, to ride it as it was, and – someday – to restore it to its former glory. Several years ago, I did just that. It’s stunning now. I love riding it. Taking it out for short rides is a treat. The experience of riding it, I refer to as “Lunch with Grandma,” because it’s so smooth and so sweet.

So you’d think that this bike shop would be my favorite in town, but it’s not. I’ve gone back to that local, specialty bike shop a number of times since. While I’ve tried really hard to spend money there, I’ve met frustration every time.

Once, I decided to buy an inexpensive beach-cruiser as a fun, get-around-town bike. This bike shop had one that I liked. I test-rode it around the neighborhood and decided to buy it. While in the store, on a whim I decided to replace the tires on my performance triathlon bike. (For you bike geeks out there, it’s a Cervelo P3C, so pretty high-end.) I was standing at the register with a bike in one hand, and my credit card in the other.

“Hey,” I said,”While I’m here I need some performance road tires for another bike. What do you have in the high-end in 650’s?”

The shop owner pulled down a pair of plastic-looking commuter tires from the ceiling and handed them to me: “They don’t make race tires in that size – so this will have to do.”

I looked at the stiff, knobby, hard tires he handed to me and said,”Um, yeah, I’m pretty sure that they make performance tires in 650. I mean, I already have some on my bike.”

“No, they don’t make them – you’re wrong. You might have custom one-offs on your bike. You won’t find any better tires in your size for your bike, anywhere.”

Huh, I thought. No, I’m not wrong, and these tires are crap. I said,”Hey, well, okay – you might be right. But I tell you what, I’ll just come back for this later, then.” I put the kickstand down on the bike and left it there by the register. I went to another local bike shop, and bought new tires for the Cervelo. I never did buy a beach cruiser. (Instead, I began building one from parts I’ve collected on eBay, but that’s another story…)

I’ve had many other similar experiences at this shop, since. Most recently, yesterday I went in to buy some fenders. I did this under duress, quite honestly. This shop was my last local option. I had already been to every other independent bike shop in town, and nobody else carries metal fenders. I’m finishing up a fixie project, and while I have and use plastic fenders on many of my bikes, I decided that – for pure aesthetic purposes – this bike needs metal fenders. I had already seen the fenders in the store, so I was just going in to purchase them.

I selected a pair of hammered Honjo fenders, with a retail price of $120. I said to the shop employee,”Hey, I’d like to get these.”

He said,”No, you don’t want those.”

I said,”Pardon me?”

He said,”These” – pointing to a pair of plastic fenders on the same rack, retailing for $40 – “are cheaper and far more durable.”

“Thanks for pointing this out,” I said,”But I’m buying these for aesthetic reasons, not for performance. I’ll take these.”

“Well, okay,” he said,”but it seems stupid to buy a pair of fenders that I can crush in my hand when you can get a decent pair for a third the price.”

I was ready to walk at this moment – how often do you tell your customers that they are stupid for wanting to buy the expensive stuff? But, this is literally the only place in town that has these fenders. So, I swallowed my pride and said,”Well, thanks again, but these are the ones.” I took out my checkbook.

“Um, we don’t take checks,” he said. And this would’ve been fine, but he continued,”We never have, we never will, we’ve never taken checks for as long as I’ve worked here, so if you don’t have cash or a card handy, I can’t sell you these. Sorry. We don’t take checks.”

In that moment, I decided that no, I didn’t have cash or credit handy. And would never have cash or credit handy in that shop, ever again.

So all of this is really a rather long way of saying that you can be a high-end specialty shop that caters to a certain ideal, that advocates for your culture and your own identity, and you can do so without alienating your customers. We in #OIBIZ have come a long way in this regard, but – from time-to-time – we still hear reports of elitism, snobbery, and difficult buying experiences from customers. There’s a fine line between being high-end specialty, and to being elite, too elite for your customers.

We’d all do well to remember this.

Epilogue: My absolute favorite local bike shop (one of them, anyway) where I’m on a first-name basis with most of the staff was more than happy to special-order me a pair of fenders just like the ones in the shop down the road. And – as always – they were more than happy to take my check.

9 responses to “How To Lose The Yellow Jersey

  1. This sums up why I can’t stand going to most bike shops. I have a road bike in mind that I want but haven’t tried out yet and I am too nervous to go try it because I worry the experience will be so bad and I will have to start over again.

    Thank you for being such a great example of how to live with integrity, Brad.

  2. Back when I managed outdoor retail shops I would hardly ever hire gearheads for this reason. Hire newbies with infectious enthusiasm. Your customers will thank you.

  3. We’ve got a combo bike/fly fishing store here in Lewisburg that is similar. Reading your piece gave me a touch of PTSD. I’ve sworn off the shop many time, and then find the trauma fading enough that I try again in a moment of need. Always disappointing. The latest was the lie that the “bank” wouldn’t let them take my credit card for a small purchase. I left him holding the item while I went to the ATM, but decided to not come back because the lie was so bold.

    We’ve got another bike shop in town now, run by mostly nice folks, so I think this guy’s days are numbered.

  4. Amen. Thanks for the post. The snobby, “I know more than you” attitude prevalent at so many bike shops is the primary reason why I hate going into bike shops. Reminds me of the humiliation of vinyl shopping back in the early 80’s where buying the wrong punk rock 45 would get you laughed out of the store. Why bother to tie up inventory dollars on crap you wouldn’t buy and hope nobody else will either. I don’t get it. Maybe a bike shop employee could explain this phenomenon.

  5. I am still amazed at how they stay in business given how poorly they treat everyone. I haven’t been in there since 1985, when they told me “sew-ups are stupid.” I.e., I’m stupid.

  6. LOL! If you read the reviews of this shop on Yelp, etc you will see either pure AAA or F- and none in between. Andy and crew are for particular customers only and all other should get lost. I believe most of his $ is made via Ebay with no face to face interaction (good for him) thus don’t anticipate any punishment for snobbery anytime soon.

    This shop is the epitome of bicycle shop snobbery, I never go there but would love to own one like it!

  7. Hey everybody: Thanks for the comments! I don’t know what to think of this place, honestly. I love poking around the shop, but I’ve had nothing but weird experiences there after that very first one. Ironically, I often give the first story as a “doing your customer a favor” example.

    But then the favors got a little twisted, and a little self-serving. And I always get the feeling that I’ve been pre-qualified either as somebody who likes cheap stuff, or that I don’t actually spend real money on bikes.

    Which is kinda funny when you think about it.

    Oh well…

  8. Brad, I think you are on to one of the most important issues in your industry here. When people are enthusiastic about their sport/hobby, they can lose the perspective of the novice, or economically challenged enthusiast. I want honest advice about quality and durability rather than hype about the latest 2% improvement that justifies 50% more cost.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked in to a shop, whether a bike shop, paddle shop, fishing shop, REI/EMI type store, and just been stunned by the prices. I don’t choose to afford such expense most of the time (our best bag is still the Moonstone from 1993!), and snooty, unsympathetic store workers can send me running for the exits. To be honest, I’ve just sort of stopped shopping, because it has become window shopping, and I’m too practical to enjoy that.

    On those rare occasions that I can’t do without new gear, I try to find the best deal on the internet. If I had a shop that I felt was respectful of me, and that tried to give me the best possible deal (that I could actually afford), I would be loyal to the end.

  9. Last week I went over the handlebars on my newly built vintage fixie. It had a pristine Trek frame from 1982, and – ironically – it was the bike that inspired this post. (Needs metal fenders.) Sadly, I destroyed the frame in my wreck.

    Here’s what my good friends at Williamson Bikes sent to me, yesterday:

    “We have our feelers out [for a new frame for your bike.] Tono has made some phone calls on your behalf and our Trek rep was in the shop yesterday, so I showed him your frame and asked him to look for you. -Matt”

    Now that’s how you KEEP the yellow jersey!

    Thanks Tono and Matt!