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Bike shops come and go...

Posted: March 22, 2006 in Cycling

...but mail order chains are here to stay

I remember when I first got into riding. I mean seriously into it - not talking about my high school Huffy here. There were a lot of good bike shops in this area, including the one I did most of my business at. Most of these shops carried the high-end stuff of the time, including Merlin, Kestrel, and even Paramount, along with staples like Cannondale and Trek. In addition to the many local bike shops was a mail-order chain retail store. It was small and hidden away in the corner of a strip mall, but the serious riders knew where to find it.

Almost 20 years have passed since I picked up my Cannondale Criterium frameset from my favorite bike shop, and it's been around 10 years since that shop ceased to exist. With it went many of the better shops in the area, but not only has the chain store remained, it's moved into a larger location, and it's also spawned siblings. They now have more than a few locations in the area, and while the prices remain quite attractive, the service leaves a bit to be desired. Not the customer service, mind you. I'm talking about the service department.

One of my standards for judging a bike shop is how their bikes are set up for test rides. I've compiled a short list of things that I've found to be signatures of poor service departments, and it goes something like this:

  1. Stem adjustment in relation to front wheel. There's nothing worse than steering 3 degrees to the left in order to go straight. Doesn't anybody eyeball these things?
  2. Brake caliper centering. C'mon guys, it just takes a turn of a screw on most road bikes these days.
  3. Handlebar rotation. Trying to use the drops when the handlebar ends point at the crank is challenging to impossible. Likewise, the hoods are pretty much useless when you can read the logos on the end plugs from your normal riding position.
  4. Seat rotation. If you're going to eyeball my seat height, please eyeball it a little better so the nose of the saddle isn't drilling into my adductor muscle.
  5. Shifting. It's understood that a bike that shifts properly on the stand might shift "funny" during a ride, but at least get it shifting well on the stand in the first place. If I come back in 30 seconds with the chain jammed between the chainstay and chainring, I'm probably not going to buy the bike.

It should be a given, but I've had shops fail on one or more of these too many times to remember. Unfortunately, I've had incredibly bad luck with more than a few of the items almost everytime I've test-ridden bikes from the various chain store locations. Maybe it's just bad luck, but when I test-ride bikes from my current local shop, they're spot on. Every single one of them. Every time.

It's a shame that the "bottom line" of price has gotten to be more important than the service and support available at a quality shop. What's even worse is that any of these mail-order chain stores could be just as good as the LBSs at service. They have the same pool of talent available to them. Who knows? Maybe the better techs don't want to work at a chain store, but I can't see why they'd mind. Cheap prices on components, plus discount.

I try to patronize my local bike shop whenever I can, and whenever I can is starting to be most of the time. The prices on complete bikes are competitive with the chains, and while the prices for small items are more, I often get cut a break on something else, so it comes out in the wash. Not to mention the gas savings (3 min to the LBS, 30 min each way to the chain).

Given past experiences, supporting the LBS makes more and more sense, and I want to make sure they stay around a while. Besides, the chain store will always be there.

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