17 January 2008

The Spiritual Experience of the Bike Shop (aka the most heritical thing I've ever written)

First off I need to make three apologies of sort:

1) I apologize for imitating Bikesnob NYC a few days ago. I couldn't resist the opportunity, though, when I saw that Schwinn.

2) I apologize for my continuous Pawtucket-bashing (although it won't stop). I do it because I know Pawtucket can take it...tough love of sorts. Pawtucket can be humorously insulted because Pawtucket has good self-esteem, Pawtucket knows that the insults pointed towards it are only jokes which are probably subconscious ways of telling Pawtucket that it's loved, and Pawtucket is big and mature enough to fight back if needed. If I intended to be cruel, I'd pick on some place like New Bedford or Fall River because that would legitimately be messed up (because those places really are legitimately messed up in a not-good sort of way).

3) I apologize (in advance) for offending people of any and all religions.

Today was flipping cold and the real possibility of frostbite kept me indoors. So, I went to my favorite bike shop in Colorado Springs (Bicycle Village...they may be a big-store almost-chain sort of bike shop, but they're shop is superb, they'll always get you back in the road in the minimal amount of time, and they have good prices on all their merchandise). It was nice because I was the only shopper in the place the time that I was there - making it even more of a zen-like spiritual experience than normal.

Now, when I'm in a bike shop I like to look at EVERYTHING in the store. I like to spend a good hour or so in the shop, and when I can't then I feel a bit empty inside. Even if I'm just buying something mundane like a tire or shoe cleats, I'm still gonna look at the nicest bike in the shop and drool for a couple of minutes. Normally I like to do it in solitude, but if I'm there with a fellow bike-racer or if someone in the shop is a knowledgable hardcore cyclist sympathetic to my cycling views (and ultimately understanding that while I may be looking at a $6000 bike for ten minutes, I don't want to buy it, and I don't even want to test-ride it because then I'd be cheating on my own committed relationship with my bike), I'm cool with sharing the experience as well. Looking at a Lemond might evoke powerful images of, well, Greg Lemond, as looking at a Bianchi or a Giant might evoke other strong emotions related to overweight German cycling superstars and blood-doping.

So, in a weird sort of way, bike shops are like churches. At least for a very small minority of the population with Kermit the Frog chests, ripped shaven legs, and sub-45bpm resting heartrates:

The Megastore (aka Megachurch)
Colorado Springs is home to Bicycle Village, as well as other landmarks like New Life Church. The megastore phenomenon cannot be found in Rhode Island. It derives its strength not from the quality of its products (because there's really no money to be made from selling racing bikes), but from the quantity of its selection - and there's something very alluring about strength-in-numbers. It makes more money than God from naive souls who know little about what cycling is all about (it's history, culture, meaning, etc.), but who just want to make cycling a part of their life. Then, with the passive background support of the megastore, its customers continue to evangelize and spread the sport of cycling to other souls. The results are a mass of families thronging to bike paths on sunny weekends on crappy (but shiny) mountain bikes, and great numbers of overweight hairy-legged men and their stay-at-home wives paying $200 to ride a century in full Team Discovery Kit on $600 aluminium triples to spread the good word of cycling and piss off traffic in the most awful way imaginable.

The 100 Year Old Bike Shop (aka the Catholic Church)
This is the oldest bike shop in town (I suppose in the case of Rhode Island this would be Caster's, owned by the same family since it opened in 1919). It too has strength-in-numbers, but it sticks to the value of its time-honored traditions and strengths to gain followers...rather than the glamor and glitz of racks of Team Discovery jerseys and sixty different models of low-end mountain bikes. If you damaged some carbon fiber by over-tightened a screw or took apart your freewheel without knowing what you're doing, this is the shop you go to to confess your sins and get things straightened out properly. They're not going to make fun of you or shun you for what you've done; they've seen it all in their long existence. They also probably have at least a few vintage posters of Eddy Merckx and Greg Lemond hanging on the walls for you to pray to.

The Older 'New' Shop (aka Continental Protestant-type Church)
This is the shop that was the first to open and challenge the Old Bike Shop (see previous section). For Rhode Island, this would probably be East Providence Bicycle (open since 1951). This type of shop opened to provide an alternative bike shop, and to make cycling more accessible to the masses. Today, it contains less exotic high-end road bikes that seem foreign and scary to most people just getting into bicycling, and remains committed to its core of accessible mid-range Treks, Specializeds, and Giants. As time has passed, though, it too has begun to earn an image of also being a bit archaic, old school, and steeped in its ways. If you've committed a repair-sin against your bike, though, don't look to this place for reassuring and heartfelt service. It's staple is selling stuff - not repairing it.

The Newer 'New' Bike Shop (aka American Protestant-style Church)
When the Older 'New' Bike Shop began behaving like (or was perceived as behaving like) the Old Bike Shop, then a plethora of newer responses sprouted in the scenery of modern cycling culture. This would be Providence Bicycle. It's a decided rejection of the old-school cycling shop, where there's good moral support and the people in the shop know your name. Indeed, there's a fine line between this and the Megastore - although the line is still clear. In this shop, the focus is still in the equipment. There's usually a whole range of bike brands available, from the core staples to even a few exotic European types. If you want, they've got the highest-end equipment available, but they still reel in a lot of money of of lower-end recreational bikes. They're not afraid to evangelize the sport of cycling, whether it be supporting an upstart local team or selling some generic jerseys, but it's still done in pretty good taste. With its hand in so many jars, though, it just doesn't seem overly passionate about any branch of the cycling world.

The Cycling Purist Shop (aka the Synagogue)
Now, I don't mean a shop solely dedicated to bike racers (that would be cool, but they wouldn't ever make a profit). I mean a shop like The Hub on Brook Street in Providence. This is the kind of bike shop that really isn't a bike shop; it's a bicyclist's shop. There are rules that seem strange to outsiders - like they will refuse to service a 'department store bike' or a bike with a powertap because powertaps are unkosher. They are closed on strange days and open at strange hours...because they all want to go out and ride a lot, too. Once you have proven that you, too, are a cycling purist and are willing to commit to a bicycle as your primary means of transportation, primary competitive sport, and primary passion in life, then you too are forever a part of this shop's culture.

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