The view from the repair stand

by Gautam Raja

When you identify as a cyclist, and the owner of your local bike shop calls and asks if you’ll come in when you’re free and work on bicycles, you don’t say no.

As a cyclist it’s a matter of pride that I don’t go to a shop for repairs, upgrades, or maintenance. A bike shop in the LA area charges $20 to fix a flat tire, and upwards of $70 for a basic tune-up, so it’s not just enthusiasm or convenience that leads to buying the tools and learning how to do it yourself. Especially when, like most cyclists I know, you own more than one bicycle. (The one task I am happy to pay someone else to do is wrap handlebar tape, a fiddly and demanding job I can never get right.)

And so by virtue of my hobby, I have a decent grounding—I can, for example, build and true wheels, measure and “break” a chain, pull cranks, and adjust brakes and derailleurs (though I’ve had to learn a lot to be able to do this well enough for paying customers). When bikes come in, C. the owner calls me, and I ride down and spend a few hours a week as the shop mechanic, or “wrench” as they are often known.

In my last Cuff I wrote about how one of the first customers I encountered was a gang member. That really summed up C’s shop—it’s not a high-end enthusiast store with carbon fibre race bikes, and full suspension downhill machines, but a family and community gathering point. And so, I’m attaching or removing trainer wheels from incredibly heavy children’s bicycles, dusting off and tuning up rusty old garage finds, and helping fix issues on commuter bicycles while their owners wait to get back on the road.

As the mechanic, I’m virtually invisible, and I feel like I’m part of a world I’d normally only ever see in passing. From this vantage point I don’t see the rich capitalist country so many people imagine, and I sometimes feel like an imposter there because my life, less than a mile from the store, is so very different.

It might cost $20 to fix a flat, but don’t think for a second that C. is getting rich. As the retail market transforms, his store is both a throwback and a glimpse of the future. In a comment on LinkedIn, someone said how a big-box store essentially turns customers into warehouse pickers, and as this business model rightly loses to e-commerce, once again the experiential store, the community gathering place, the shop where enthusiasts give advice and suggestions need to become the new retail.

C’s store is a short walk from a giant department store brand that sells cheap bicycles. So many of C’s customers are people who buy from the department store, and then need help with assembly, repair, or upgrades, because of course, nobody there is trained specifically on bicycles, and there’s certainly no mechanic on the staff.

And so C is stuck in between, where his little bike shop makes up for the shortcomings of the chain store, but isn’t really a place where people come to buy. They buy cheap elsewhere, and then pay up to half or more again of the cost of the bike to have someone like me go over it, truing brand-new wheels that are bent, adjusting brand-new brakes that wouldn’t stop you, and tightening dangerously loose parts on the brand-new machine that somebody is going to entrust with life and limb.

First published in Gulf News, April 24, 2018