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In praise of local bike shops: They're now more essential than ever

Local bike shop
Trevor Ward
31 Mar 2021

Infinitely more than just a retailer of bicycles, the LBS should be woven into every cyclist's life.

In these unprecendented times of the coronavirus pandemic, there are necessary restrictions on social interaction in place – flouted by many stupid and selfish cyclists when they should have known better – and a requirement for us to avoid all but essential journeys and visits to businesses.

The situation is changing daily, but for now many local bike shops are remaining open to provide an essential service to key workers using their bikes as transport, while keeping the rest of us rolling - whether that's on the turbo or out on the road for strictly-solo rides.

Many local bike shops are even changing their retail model to offer home delivery or collection and drop-off of bikes needing some TLC, meaning you need not risk catching or spreading corona by heading out unnecessarily.

Check the social media of your nearest bike shop to see what it's doing to adapt to this new retail environment and support it and other local businesses where you can - but don't join a massive queue of idiots standing within two metres of each other.

In praise of local bike shops

Few of us would visit our local supermarket to hold a lengthy conversation with one of the sales staff about the provenance of their tomatoes, or the pros and cons of pyramid-shaped teabags versus square shaped ones. Similarly, you wouldn’t go into a shoe shop expecting the staff to explain the specific vertical compliance of one type of heel compared to another. It’s different in your local bike shop (LBS), however. 

The people who work there love the things they are selling. Any interaction in a bike shop will transcend mere commerce. Advice will be sought, wisdom proffered.

The mention of a particular brand or component will trigger a forensic discussion of its merits. Throwaway opinions will be picked up, dusted off and put under the spotlight. Before you know it, the simple purchase of a bottle cage has turned into a debate about drag versus velocity.

Admittedly, some of this ‘wisdom’ can be so technical and esoteric it’s as if you’ve stumbled into a parallel universe where bearded men in cargo shorts are trapped in a dungeon chanting Latin profanities.

The mistake of many new customers is to nod along to this litany of rim widths, gear ratios and spoke counts in the hope a recognisable word or phrase will suddenly appear to illuminate the dark. It won’t.

Local bike shops

For many months I would visit my LBS with assorted problems – usually a mysterious creak emanating from a different part of the frame – and find myself trapped in the headlights as Steve or Paul who, not content with merely diagnosing the ailment, would also deliver a lengthy analysis of the probable cause and available remedies.

Eventually they would detect from the glassy look in my eyes that they had lost me in a quicksand of ceramic bearings and titanium cassettes, and recalibrate their conversation accordingly, usually including a healthy dose of flattery.

‘You’ve knackered it. It must be all that power you’re putting through it,’ they would say. Or, in the case of the mysterious creak: ‘It could be coming from anywhere. A carbon frame is a boom box for strange sounds. But let’s start with your front skewer. There, that’s fixed it.’

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are people who aren’t intimidated by torque wrenches and head tube reamers and who love popping into their LBS to have exactly that kind of conversation.

‘I once spent 20 minutes discussing the lost art of bar end plugs and ended up buying something I didn’t really need as I felt guilty about keeping the owner away from building a customer’s £3k frame or whatever he was doing,’ says one LBS fanatic I know.

Building a relationship with your LBS should be viewed as a rite of passage for every rider. It won’t happen overnight. View it as a kind of courtship.

Mutual trust and respect will have to be earned. Occasional stock shortages will have to be tolerated. But when your LBS owner finally utters those magical words for the first time – ‘Fancy a brew?’ – it will feel as rewarding as a professional bike-fit.

Cultivating such a relationship has traditionally been even more daunting for female customers. Those brave enough to enter their LBS would often emerge suffering a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder and a distinct sense of having been patronised.

Times have changed. Not only does my LBS, Angus Bike Chain in Arbroath, now stock more female-specific kit than ever before, owner Steve Smith – an ex-Royal Marine and formerly as stereotypically chauvinistic as they come – helped launch a women-only cycling group that now numbers more than 40 members.

Smith also sponsors my local cycling club, giving members 10 per cent off purchases. That’s another reason to love your LBS. They often put more back into the sport than just selling bikes and tut-tutting at the state of your chain.

But if there’s one thing sure to sour your burgeoning romance with your LBS, it’s mentioning the ‘I’ word.

As your friendly shop owner will happily take the time to explain to you, the internet may be a global repository of cut-price bikes, components and clothing, but, ‘how can you be sure you’ll get the correct fit, or does it come with a free service, and what happens if there’s a problem with it, can you just take it back to the internet and have them fix it for you?’

And God forbid you should ever resort to ‘show-rooming’ at your LBS, ie visiting merely to check out a particular product or try on a pair of shoes so that you can order the correct size from an online store later.

The world’s oldest independent bike shop, as officially recognised by the Guinness Book of Records, is Pearson’s in Sutton, South London. Owner Guy Pearson told trade paper BikeBiz: ‘We have been known to throw out the rudest show-roomers, but we also tackle it head-on, but delicately.

‘When a customer has tried on a couple of pairs of shoes, we ask, “Are you likely to buy these from us?” That often leads to a conversation about price but we’ll then counter with the setting-up service we offer. We often go from a lost sale to a purchase of the shoes and our cleat-fitting service.’

The UK’s 3,250 local bike shops (in 2015) are represented by ACT, the Association of Cycle Traders, which regularly invests in initiatives to make your LBS a more attractive retail option.

These include generous finance plans for customers, specialist bike insurance (covering your bike from the moment you ride it out the shop) and an accreditation scheme for bike mechanics.

Even global brands are doing their bit to preserve the tradition of the LBS. When Trek started selling complete bikes through its own website there was a twist: the bikes are delivered to a local Trek dealer for assembly, with the bike shop earning a service commission on each sale.

So even though you’ve ordered your bike online, you won’t be deprived of that staple of every good LBS – a detailed chat about the correct frequency, quantity and technique of chain lubrication.

This article first appeared on Cyclist.co.uk in October 2015

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