Wednesday, March 14, 2012, in Northern Illinois. It should have been 35 degrees and raining. It should have been windy. It should have been a terrible night to ride gravel.
Bib shorts and short-sleeve jerseys. 65 degrees. Sweating. Cranking hard on some newly graveled spring roads. Too much fun for March. The Vaytanium never ceases to amaze me with how it can translate skittery, sketchy gravel into forward progress–for a rider in the Midwest, a bike like the Vaytanium simply makes sense.
And the Cyclocross Speeds that I run on it, while they’re nearing the end of their useful life, have been great tires. On that note, I’ve long been intrigued by the concept of tubular tires/wheels…not because I want them, but because I don’t really understand them. For a lighter rider like me, the tire pressure difference in what you can run with tubes vs. tubulars doesn’t really justify the tubulars. My lingering tubular doubts were reinforced when Nevdal (origin of the verb, “to Nevdal ™”) suffered a flat on his rear tubular. We limped it back home by repeatedly giving it a blast of CO2 to get a few miles. (And by limped it back home, I mean we rode into the wind on Route 23, back into town at a speed in excess of the route #. That guy’s an animal). Better ride than I had any right to expect in March. It is going to be a good year.
Following the ride, I partook in the best ten dollar bottle of bourbon that you’ll find.
Ten High and El Milagro corn chips. I’m telling you–I was living the good life last night. Everyone knows that the best bourbon is made in LA.
One. Awesome Shop.
In the background of the Ten High pic, if you look closely, you can see an arm and shoulder. Here’s a better pic of the background action.
Tobie from North Central Cyclery went with on the gravel ride, on his very pretty Ti Salsa La Cruz. Post ride, while others were enjoying the above-referenced corn-based refreshments, he was working on the mountain of spring tuneups that the shop has…until 11:30 at night.
I frequently post on here about the merits of local bike shops (LBS). I also frequently post on here about North Central Cyclery. Why is that? In the interests of full disclosure, I am not an employee, agent or representative of NCC. I don’t in any way profit from the company. But some of my best friends–and some of the people that I hold in the highest esteem–work there. Tobie, shown above, Chad (Hand of Midas, et. al.) who is a frequent commenter and rider on RATG, Frank (who will start coming more into the fray as we get into road riding season this spring), Jeff (possibly the most genuine person I’ve ever met) and Eric (one of the most fun, creative people I know, and purveyor of the Transit Interface blog linked on the right side of the page). So yes, I am invested in NCC…but my investment is in the friendships that I have there.
It was a year ago that I got the Vaytanium from NCC. It was about 2 years ago that I got the Big Dummy with their assistance. And it was about 1.5 years ago that I got the Rumblefish. How did it start? I was riding more and more, and was driving past after work when I saw the cool bikes in the window. I walked in and started browsing, and there was no high-pressure sales pitch. There was no snooty attitude, or holier-than-thou vibe. It was just a group of cool guys who were helpful, and who were cycling enthusiasts. They encouraged me to look, to test-ride, and to ask questions. And I did. I started visiting more frequently, looking more in-depth, and getting to know the people there a bit.
Since that first visit, friendships have developed that I value immensely. Is that part of why I shop at NCC now? Yup. But it isn’t part of why I started shopping there–when I first went there, they didn’t know me from Adam. (And the friendships that developed came about because I was stopping by the shop and ogling the cool bikes and enjoying the relaxed vibe. The bike shop was the egg that hatched into the chicken of my friendships. (Did I really just write that?)). So what is it about a good local bike shop that makes it worth shopping there over bonktown, hucknroll, amazon, performance, or any other big box/e-tailer?
1. Personal relationships. I don’t mean just friendships–I mean having people who are there at the shop every day, that you can talk to. If you get advice today, you can go back in a month and give feedback on the advice. If Chad at NCC sells me a tire, the next time I’m in, he asks how it is doing. If I buy a tire at Performance, the cashier doesn’t know me. If I buy a tire from Amazon, I might get asked (by a computer) to post an online review, via email. The personal relationships mean 3 things: a) it means that I get the best product for local conditions, based on the accumulated knowledge of local riders; b) it means that I can share feedback and improve that local knowledge base; and, c) it means that when I have a problem, I’m not on an 800# with customer service–I can go in and talk to the person who sold me the product, and resolve the issue immediately. From a consumer perspective, I get better customer service with an LBS because there is immediate, direct accountability.
2. Better advice. As noted above, a good LBS gives good, local advice. The Bike and Bean in Sedona provided amazing advice about local trails (and lead local rides on those trails). From a business perspective, a local LBS has a relatively fixed market in which they operate. There are 40-ish-thousand people in DeKalb, Illinois, and a larger number of people within reasonable driving range. Those are the audience that NCC is relatively captive to. So rather than viewing the goal as selling as many products as possible to a faceless mass of credit cards (e.g. Amazon), a good local bike shop views each customer as a long-term relationship. Amazon would prefer if I used whatever component group they sell that provides the greatest profit to them. NCC would prefer that I use whatever group that will provide the best service for me–because they want a long-term relationship and want me to be happy with the product they sold me. As I talked about with the Vaytanium build, they talked me into SRAM Rival, rather than Force or Red, because it was 95% of the performance for 50% of the price. And the group has been flawless. If they would have advised using Red, I would have spent a lot more–and not received greater functionality. And frankly, I probably wouldn’t have realized that I had been dinged. I could have been an easy mark–I wanted a high-end product and lacked the knowledge to know what to ask for. But that’s not what a good LBS is about.
3. Better service. A good LBS views service as being equal to or greater than sales in terms of importance. That means a number of things. First, it means that they have to do great work–whether it’s spec’ing and building a custom ride like the Vaytanium, or whether it’s doing a tune up on a kid’s BMX bike as in the picture above. Every bike. Every time. That means having good employees who are accountable. At Performance, if someone does a tune-up and doesn’t get the derailleur set right, that means an annoyance because the customer comes back and they have to re-do it. At a good LBS, it means there’s a problem–because Dean couldn’t ride his bike last night…and everyone knows that with Dean’s family and his work schedule, Wednesday is the only night during the week that he can reliably plan on riding. It means knowing your customer, his family and life, as more than a “Performance Club Member Number.”
4. Cooler products…that you can touch. At Performance, they analyze every product that they sell…each product has to have the ability to sell XXX,XXX units through their stores before they’ll start stocking it. There’s no really unique, really cool, or really custom options. Sure–online you can find anything…for example, HucknRoll sells fat bikes. But it takes an LBS to have cool stuff that you can touch. NCC had a ton of fat bikes this winter…Moonlanders, Mukluk 2s, Mukluk 3s, Ti Mukluks, Necromancers, Pugsleys…in stock. You could see, ride and inspect them. You could decide if they were what you wanted. Or you could look at a Surly Pacer…or Big Dummy…Or Vaya…or Rumblefish…or a custom Waterford or Ti Seven that they’re building up. How can you decide to buy a fatbike without riding one first? The people that go into Performance and buy a Fuji cross bike may never know what they’re missing by not test-riding a Chili con Crosso…and that is a true loss on their part.
5. Culture. Today, NCC is a hub in my life. I know that I’ll be at the shop a couple times per week. With good weather and good luck, I’ll make the Wednesday night shop ride and the Saturday morning shop ride–with some of the greatest people I know. And if my schedule permits, I might get past the shop just to ogle the newest bike that they’re building (like an Ultegra Di2 Madone). Those are highlights of my week–things I look forward to. And if I’m lucky, I’ll be at the shop, or on the shop ride, at a time when Nevdal, one of the Pauls, Chad, Mattias, TJ, Jeff, Joel, Mike, Dan, Viktor…or one of the myriad of other great people that ride with the shop are around. Because a good shop builds a good culture that attracts good people.
I could keep going…but that’s enough for one blog post. The underlying point is that there are values that you get with a LBS that you don’t get online or at a big-box. I trust NCC enough that I don’t cross-shop on prices. I get an idea of what I want, I talk it over with them and refine that idea, and then they tell me a price. Just as my clients trust that I’m being fair with them, I trust that my LBS is being fair with me. And by fair, I don’t mean selling at cost. I realize that an LBS is a business–and even though it is a business run by friends, I want them to be prosperous. I want Tobie’s family to be supported. And I’m going to have cycling business somewhere–so I want my money to go to local companies that will keep local employees and invest in local properties and local causes, rather than being shipped back to the corporate offices in New Jersey.
When I first started shopping at NCC, before I knew and trusted them, I did cross-shop on prices. And ya know what–they were competitive. Not always as cheap as buying it online, but competitive. When I got the Mukluk, could I have bought it cheaper elsewhere? Perhaps–had I ordered it from HucknRoll, I might have saved a tiny bit by avoiding sales tax, etc. But I couldn’t have test-ridden from HucknRoll. Does that mean that there are douches out there who test ride at an LBS and then buy online? Sure. I know of some of those douches myself–and frankly, I lose almost all respect for them. Why? Because they’re stealing.
When you buy a bike at an LBS, you’re getting a product (a bike) and a service (advice on the bike). Does it make sense that an online e-tailer who doesn’t have to have a shop for people to walk through, doesn’t have to have employees who know about bikes, doesn’t have to have inventory available, built-up, to test ride, and doesn’t have to deal with the intricacies of knowing its customers individually can save money? Absolutely. It is much cheaper to keep bikes in boxes in a locked warehouse and sell them via the internet, as compared to keeping an attractively, stocked store with knowledgeable employees. And if you want to live in a world where the only advice you can solicit is from internet forums and bike blog blowhards like me, then by all means, shop online and post on MTBR about how local bike shops overcharge. Or go into an LBS and steal their bike advice service by using it, and then buying online without paying for the service. Yeah–some might think that’s extreme, but that’s how I view it. It’s intellectual theft. When you walk in the door of an LBS, do they charge you $20 to talk to you about bikes? No–clearly not. But did you ever consider that they have to pay an employee to take the time to learn about bikes, and then talk to you about bikes…and they have to cover that expense without directly charging for it? If you take that service, take their advice, and then buy online…well, you might not be a thief from a legal perspective…but I’ll stick with my assessment. You’re a douche.
To the extent that there is a cost differential to buy local, that is a price I gladly pay…because I have learned the value of good advice, and I have reaped the benefits of a good LBS.
There’s some stuff in this post that has the potential to be controversial. Let me reiterate: I am not an NCC spokesperson; these views are not theirs. These are my views. And I don’t think this analysis is limited to NCC. Milltown Cycles looks like an amazing shop–and I hope to get to visit it someday and talk with the owner, who seems like a great guy. BPPhil from Salvagetti Cycles in Denver was amazingly knowledgeable–and I hope to get to see his shop some day as well. Covered Bridge Cyclery (with Platypius, of Road Bike Review fame) also looks to be a cool shop. There are LBS out there just like NCC.
Go. Find one. Become a customer. Ride. Rinse. Repeat.