Wednesday, February 4, 2009

OCD At The Bike Shop

It occurs to me that I've never actually fessed up on-blog about my sordid past in the bicycle business. I've done time with a wrench in five bike shops (in four states), starting when I was a mere towheaded tyke of 18. Three of those shops are now out of business -- and I'll leave it to the reader to draw your own conclusions about that little factoid.

The shop that probably had the most influence on me as a bike guy was a small-but-busy bike, racquet and ski place (name withheld to protect the innocent and the guilty, though it's one of the two in five that survived me) where I put in a blissful bumming-around year after collecting my first useless degree. The bulk of what we sold was remarkably dull, as this was the mid-90s era of the ubiquitous $250-$400 rigid/hardtail mountain bike. If pressed, I can probably still fake my way through a spiel about the miniscule differences between the Specialized Hardrock and GT Outpost circa 1995, since I sold about a warehouse and a half of those things to college students packing parental cash.

What I did learn from that shop, however, was an obsessive, relentless, dictatorial, damn near insane attention to detail that I've never been able to shake since. My first new-bike assembly took me all of twenty minutes... on my first attempt. By the time the manager got through ripping me open in front of my new shop-mates and showing me (step by excruciating step) how to do it right, we'd spent most of a day. There was a 25-point
checklist, for Pete's sake! Torque values! Shop-standard angles for brake levers! All seat tubes had to be flex-honed so they wouldn't leave zig-zags on the seatpost. And woe unto the rookie who didn't pull the cables out of their housings so said housings could be cut down to the proper length before the cables were greased, reinstalled, pre-stretched, and readjusted. Leave those big, floppy loops of factory-installed housing out in the breeze and you'd catch grief for a week. It wasn't enough that the pre-V-brake, pain-in-the-ass cantilevers stopped the bike; they had to do it with perfect bilateral symmetry, their pads square with the rims and toed in just so. Oh, and don't forget to wipe up any grease splooge (because you'd greased damn near everything) and polish the frame to get your fingerprints off. Then, take it for a test ride to make sure you didn't miss anything, sign that checklist and hang it from the bars with the owner's manual so everyone knows it's one of yours... and so the guy next to you knows who to ream if he finds a mistake on the floor that slows him down and costs him a sale. The head mechanic actually had a unique way of crimping on aluminum cable ends so he could recognize his own assemblies when they came back for 30-day checkups or future repairs.

Over the top? Probably. But I can't walk into a shop today without judging everything I see by those same insane standards. If I feel a loose headset, see a sagging tire, or notice a row of bikes with their brake levers all akimbo, my gut says, "Sloppy work done by people who don't care about bikes. Take your money somewhere else." Now before the wrenches of today start piling on, trying to tell me how fast they have to crank out assemblies just to keep up, let me don my Grumpy Old Mechanic apron: We did it in a college town shop. You think you have to move a lot of bikes? Try it on a campus of 20,000 during the first week of classes. And every bike that crossed the threshold from workshop to sales floor -- from the cheapest Hardrock to the most expensive team bike replica -- had to get that same obsessive attention to detail.

If you can't hack that, just sell it to me in the box. I'll do it myself.

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