Greatest Hits of 2016, Part 3: A wrenching feeling

• Editor’s note: As the year winds down, I’m taking a page from the mainstream-media playbook and reprinting a handful of this year’s “Mad Dog Unleashed” columns from Bicycle Retailer and Industry News. This one was published in the June 15 edition.

A mechanic: The nut behind the wrench that cannot be replaced.

A mechanic: The nut behind the wrench that cannot be replaced.

That wrenching feeling,
when the customer tries
doing his own assembly

“Men, you’ve been there. You build something like that and you’re done and you got a real little bag of important-looking shit left over.” — Tim Allen, “Men Are Pigs”

By Patrick O’Grady

The times they are a-changing, according to Bob Dylan, who should know. He turned 75 in May.

So how many roads must a man walk down? Well, for starters, there’s this one: The German consumer-direct outfit Canyon plans to bring its some-assembly-required bikes to America. Specifically, to Americans. The ones who don’t work in bike shops.

Some companies — Trek, Giant, Raleigh — have been loitering along the shoulders of this high-speed thoroughfare, allowing their customers to buy online and then pick up their bikes, fully assembled, at their local shops.

But not Canyon. They’re going Furthur, hoping to fill a big ol’ bus with customers that some companies’ lawyers don’t trust to operate the humble quick-release skewer, much less assemble a complete bicycle.

A colleague and I were joking about this the other day, as journalists are prone to do, because the only thing funnier than human suffering is profiting from it.

“Imagine all the late-night drunk internet shopping,” says my colleague. “Then a box of bike parts shows up at the door a week later. ‘Honey, did you order a hang glider?’”

Says I: “Yeah, right about the time the wife scores some goodies from IKEA. Before you know it you’re turning up at the Sunday club ride on something that’s half bicycle, half bookshelf.”

I quoted Tim Allen to him, the bit about assembling a gas grill, a small bag of important-looking items left over, and a wife with her hair on fire. Says he: “You could build a new Great Barrier Reef with all the extra parts and Allen wrenches in every kitchen junk drawer in America.”

But not a new wife. Not yet, anyway, though I’m sure somebody’s working on it.

Tool time. My dad used to build my bikes on Christmas Eve. We’re talking department-store beaters here, assembled with the humble hammer, crescent wrench, flathead screwdriver, bags of time, and that tool of tools, whiskey. Also, profanity, the Universal Solvent. Especially when combined with whiskey.

I could always tell I’d gotten a bike on Christmas Day when the old man sat slouched in his robe at the kitchen table, a Lucky Strike dangling from his lower lip and a mug of Maxwell House in one fist, sporting a pair of eyes that looked like Atomic Fireballs left over from Halloween and a fresh bruise on at least one thumb.

Oddly, the bikes thus assembled failed to kill me. But the ground was softer then, and so were lawyers’ hearts.

Some assembly required. Now, I don’t mean to pick on Canyon, which has simply cut to the chase, barreling smartly along the same road followed by the suppliers of nearly every other consumer product known to mankind.

And I’ve seen their 122-page “Bicycle Manual Road Bike,” which includes everything the home mechanic could possibly want, save for the hammer, crescent wrench, flathead screwdriver, bags of time, whiskey, and profanity.

Canyon’s BikeGuard container does include a torque wrench and mounting paste, however, for anyone who is not already torqued and/or pasted. That’s German efficiency for you.

Oh, what a tangled World Wide Web. It’s the way of the modern world, alas.

We quit buying books at corner bookstores, and now it’s tough to find one that doesn’t have “Adult” or “Used” somewhere in its name (sometimes both, which, eeeyeeww). Ditto music and cameras, computers and running shoes, kitchenware and furniture.

We shop on price, and convenience, and damn the sales taxes, full speed ahead. And somehow we never think it might be our livelihoods we’re selling down the river.

Unless you work in, oh, say, the book biz, the way my wife did. Or newspapers, the way I did.

If I had a hammer. They say you never hear the round that kills you. I certainly never thought journalism would be in its present parlous state — not the newsroom, anyway — and I’ll bet my wife thought bookstores would be around forever, too, though she got sick of them long before that rough beast Amazon slouched along.

And who knows? Maybe the corner bike shop is in that same leaky boat, watching the sharks circle.

I’m not so sure. I think of that customer, hunched over the workbench in his garage, with nothing more than a hammer, crescent wrench, flathead screwdriver, bags of time, whiskey, profanity, torque wrench and mounting paste, and I think there’s still some hope.

We’ll have a Gay old time. I can build a bike if I have to. But I don’t want to have to. I like bike shops. The best of them have seasoned, veteran employees who do this all the time, like Gay, the “inspired mechanic” in John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row.”

“There is no term comparable to green thumbs to apply to such a mechanic, but there should be,” wrote Steinbeck. “For there are men who can look, listen, tap, make an adjustment, and a machine works.”

When the home mechanics’ service orders start stacking up like bad news in an election year, mechanics like this will feel like Yo-Yo Ma watching a howler monkey take the stage at Carnegie Hall with a banjo, a whoopee cushion and an air-raid siren.

But they will feel appreciated, too. And well paid, maybe even lavishly tipped, if there’s any justice in this world.

There are some things you just can’t buy online.

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20 Responses to “Greatest Hits of 2016, Part 3: A wrenching feeling”

  1. khal spencer Says:

    I often wondered why LANL appreciated that I could tap on the side of a million dollar mass spec and keep it humming along doing what mass specs do. What finally pissed me off was that although I had plenty of wrenches, micrometers, screwdrivers, etc. the lab was too squeamish to allow the whiskey and politically incorrect invective. As we know, those are critical to success. I guess I’ll be happy wrenching my bikes, where the Universal Liver Solvent and invective can be used appropriately.

  2. larryatcycleitalia Says:

    Mobile bike mechanics to-the-rescue! The brick-and-mortar’s will be pretty much dead anyway so these guys can come out and undo the consumer’s handiwork. I did it time or two with my own mobile repair scheme, one time a guy had me come out solely to unscramble his chain! Full house-call charge for 5 minutes of work. I’m ever more amazed at the mechanical cluelessness of bike riders, recalling Josh of Silca telling me about folks who just stared at his classic, push-on Presta air chuck – they had no clue as to how it worked!

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Service is gonna be a big deal for sure. I don’t have any idea how many Macs Voelker Research sold after the Apple Store and Best Buy came to Bibleburg, along with the Internets, but man, their service department sure kept busy.

  3. veloben Says:

    As a bike shop owner slash mechanic, there is money to be made in online bike sales. We get paid by some brands to build a customer’s bike (which is shipped directly to us) and some customers pay us. The smart one before they start or before they get in too deep.

    The real horror stories are, of course, Voldemart bikes. One customer got such a disaster I told her to take it back for a refund, It was unfix able.

    The best part of this business though is people. Our Oly rep is a mensch and our customers universally interesting and decent humans.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      Ben, I’m curious: Have you had many online purchasers complaining about fit or how the color “doesn’t look the way it did online?” Buying a laptop, book or camera online seems a fairly straightforward arrangement, but I could see how a bike deal might go sideways before everyone rolls away happy.

    • veloben Says:

      No complaints about color and we try to work with the customer to fit them to the assembled bike. Had a guy pick up a Faraday Porter S today. We sell these in the shop, but he bought on line and we built it up for him. The Faradays are nice electric assist bikes. Well built, good looking though I have some issues with how they route the electrics.

      All the models I’ve worked on will run the front hub motor if you turn the cranks in the stand while its switched on. Fun, but scary too.

      This new model didn’t do that. Took several hours of trouble shooting to discover I’d missed a service bulletin issued while I was off touring. Sigh

      Anyway all our online customers have been easy to deal with and generally well pleased with the bikes they picked out. Even the guy who stripped his left crank twice.

      They tend not to be deeply embedded in cycling culture, more like excited post-beginners.

  4. Mike Frye Says:

    The main problem I had with Kmart type bikes was that the quality level was so poor that you had to work extra hard to get things within spec. So generally I would charge more money than the bike cost to assemble it.

    Along with assembly I gave it 30 days free service. With a free tuneup as I did with the new bikes that I sold. On my bikes I give them two free tuneups and 60 days service.

    I never made money on any of the new bikes I sold. I did make money on the stuff they bought when they came back. I used to sell more gel saddles as opposed to the big guys I was up against.

    • Patrick O'Grady Says:

      I used to know some assemblers for a big-box chain. Paid by the piece they were, and not very well. Only way to make wage was to build the bikes as fast as possible, with predictable results.

      It gives me The Fear to wander the floor at a big-boxer and eyeball the bikes. I haven’t seen any forks on backward yet, but I’ve heard about ’em.

  5. DownhillBill Says:

    Our bike club buys 100+ bikes from Walmart every year to give away to underprivileged kids. I refer to them as bso’s – bicycle shaped objects. If you want things like round wheels that don’t wobble, look elsewhere. We usually have one or two every year that we condemn as unfixable. Once when I was assembling the single speed tiny kids’ bikes I had to make a trip out to the car for the scissors jack – only way to spread the forks enough to get the wheels in.

  6. DownhillBill Says:

    A bike shop friend who was delivering giveaway bikes to a major company (Capital One) for assembly _did_ see one with the stem inserted into the seat tube or vice-versa….

    A bike shop owner doing assembly for another chain told me he was required to use an electric impact wrench on the seat bolts so they wouldn’t slip.

  7. Mike Frye Says:

    I remember working at it department store earlier in my career and I saw them put together about 300 bikes in a four hour period with impact wrenches. At my shop I could get maybe four bikes together at the same time and I was pretty quick. If I was truing a wheel the farthest way out of true it would be is the weld bead on the seam of the rim.

    The funny thing is if you look at the quality level of the highest end department store bike and the lowest end bike shop bike they are relatively similar. It’s really hard to describe if you know that the bearings on the hub are just a little bit too tight but, you can “feel” it.

  8. Patrick O'Grady Says:

    Here’s another question for all you shop dudes and dudettes: What’s the absolute rock-bottom price for a decent quality bike that won’t scare a noob away from cycling? I’ve reviewed a couple sub-thousand-dollar bikes that I thought were pretty OK, the cheapest running around $800.

    It seems to me that a buyer can get a lot more bike for the money today than he could Back In the Day®.

    • larryatcycleitalia Says:

      Back in my LBS/IBD daze the cheapest thing we’d sell (and work on) had to have stainless spokes, Q/R alloy wheels front and rear + alloy cranks (square taper BB). They were low-end MTB’s (suitable for bike paths and easy trails) with a price around $400. Adjusted for inflation over 20 years the price is about the same today, no?

      • Mike Frye Says:

        Im thinking its about $700.00 now. Anything under that is treated as disposable.

      • Patrick O'Grady Says:

        I was impressed with a Felt V100 I rode in 2015. Retailed at $849, which I thought was insanely cheap. It goes for $999 now.

        If I had asked my dad for a thousand-dollar bike Back In the Day® he’d have laughed, taken another sip of his martini, and replied, “Walk.”

      • veloben Says:

        Define cycling.

        We don’t do much in the road bike space for new sales. Lots of repairs though.

        Community cycling is where we are trying to make some room. Mostly Yuba Mundos and Boda Bodas. My V4 Mundo has displaced the 2004 Volpe as my bike daily beast of burden. OPUS makes some very solid general duty bikes and the prices have gone down this year!

        Brooklyn Bikes makes very nice, simple, pretty and reliable ride around town/commute in a non-competitive way SS, 3spd hub and 7spd bikes for around $400. We have an OPUS 10spd AL road bike on sale for $849 or so.

        A basic bike is about $370 and a high-zoot long tail cargo bike without electric assist is about $2500 and a Faraday with electric assist is also about $2500.

        What’s the tag line from Ralph’s Spoilsports Motors?

      • Patrick O'Grady Says:

        Cycling is hard to define, isn’t it? Here in Albuquerque we have the usual exercise fiends — bike racers, triathletes, fitness riders — but we also have a ton of commuters. Lots of folks sporting backpacks or racks ‘n’ sacks, even out here in the ‘burbs.

        Opus does nice work. I’ve not ridden a Yuba, but I’ve seen them at Le Show. Like that Mundo, do you? I’ll pass the word to the neighbors, who with two rugrats and one car are in the market for a cargo bike. Any other recommendations? Dad is already doing a bike-bus combo to get back and forth from work, but mom could use a two-wheeled station wagon.

      • veloben Says:

        I do love the Mundo. My co-owner (who you met last year) has a Big Dummy and we think the Mundo is the better choice for families. Yuba makes a range of kid containment accessories to go with the variety of Mundo versions. The most basic version is under a grand (by a buck) and goes up from there.

        We’ve customized Mundos with blue-tooth speakers, bike carriers, extra bags, holiday lights, horns, stickers and trailer mounts (my Lab gets a trailer ride to the beach). The thing will carry 200Kg plus the mom/dad pedaling. It reminds me of my 1966 Land Rover with a better electrical system.

        Surley’s Big Dummy is the original long tail. The riding is different. Where the Mundo is solid and serene the BD is a tiny bit more aggressive in handling. It will carry kids and stuff just as well however.

        Extra-cycle has a well received product, but I have no experience with it.

        Your friends are welcome to contact me if they want to discuss.

        Happy New Year my friend.

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