Thursday, August 30, 2012


Yesterday, I worked my last shift as a co-owner at Citybikes Workers' Cooperative.
Not unlike a certain British monarch who gave up his throne in favor of love, I have abdicated my burden of reponsibility in favor of doing work that is spritually and emotionally challenging, fulfilling and rewarding, in an atmopshere of mutual care and guarded optimism that feels very far away from the paranoia and cynicism I encounter in too many corners of the bicycle industry.

Since I have already shared my reasons for giving up ownership and my thoughts about the cooperative in general with the folks that needed to know, I won't go into nitpicky detail here. The truth is that I've learned a lot from my nearly two deaceds in the bicycle industry, and I value those lessons -- and the friendships I've made -- very much.

But what I will say is this:

1. The bicycle industry continues to pay low wages that few people can live on without help from a spouse making more money. The average worker with a minimum of three years' shop experience spends 8 to 10 hours per shift on the service or sales floor and brings in an average gross wage of somewhere between $12 and 15 an hour. In most cases, there are no health benefits. It is almost impossible to earn enough money to buy health insurance or save for retirement; most bike mechanics make enough to pay their bills and enjoy a movie and a beer now and then.

Most bike shop employees enjoy a generous discount on parts and in many cases they can receive in-store credit towards parts purchases. That's good as far as it goes. If you spend more than a couple of years in the bike industry it does not go far. I have yet to figure out an ethical, legal way to parlay my parts discount into enough money to cover the cost of an annual visit to the dentist and I have all the bicycles and parts I will need for quite some time to come; so my parts credit remains largely intact.

2. Unless you know the right people and are willing to sacrifice personal and family time to work your ass off to get ahead, there are relatively few opportunities for growth and advancement beyond the sales or service departments of most bicycle shops. This is especially true if you are a woman, even one with mechanical aptitude and experience. Even after a decade of open discussion about the gender gap in the bicycle industry -- especially for women aspiring to become mechanics -- it remains huge and little is being done to address it in a meaningful way.

3. The bicycle industry remains shockingly ageist in its regard for the over-50 crowd.

While most shop owners say they value the knowledge and expertise of more mature workers, relatively few find ways to keep them on staff once their physical syamina begins to falter. I'm not talking about 80-somethings, I'm talking about 50-somethings for whom those 9- and 10-hour days become too difficult to manage regularly. In the bicycle industry, once your sales numbers fall or your mechanica output slows, most shops will find ways to encourage you to leave. Thankfully, that hasn't been the case at Citybikes -- in fact, Citybikes continues to seek innovative ways to keep more experienced workers around -- but in the end most small shops cannot afford to pay someone to turn a wrench when his/her body begins to slow down and efficiency begins to suffer.

3a. Too many shops continue to relegate the aging Baby Boomer market to the sidelines in favor of continuing to promote the trickle-down from racing that the industry is notorious for nowadays. Racing bikes cost more money up front, don't last as long and require more frequent service because if the tight tolerances of their delicate componentry -- meaning more money for the shop that knows how to ride that wave. A shop selling a $400 commuter bike to a grandmother who wants to ride to the store and her part-time job won't make nearly as much money. That's not prejudice, it's math.

4. The older I've gotten, the less interested I've become in lycra. I admit that there are still days I look at the image of the lycra-clad roadie a little wistfully -- but the emotion is no longer strong enough to make me want to go out and get a road bike and ape the pro peloton anymore. My middle-aged belly and my penchant for flat pedals pretty much cancels out any longing that may remain. So now that I've become a plainclothes cyclist, I find I shop for bike-related stuff far less often, so I spend less time in bike shops as a consumer. Considering my ongoing ambivalence about capitalism and retail in general, this is probably a positive development. I hope it will translate into more time to enjoy riding for its own sake.

I am fortunate that I am able to transition into work that is physically less demanding, mentally and emotionally stumulating and meaningful, and still allows me to live a bicycle-centric life. I know that my fellow teachers and many of my students respect me for my commitment to living without a car and I am hopeful that eventually I'll see a couple of bike racks outside the place where I teach.

(Funny side note: a student who recently learned that I do not own a car asked me if I live off the grid. Obviously, I still have a lot to teach about my bike-centric choices...)

The leap is not without risk. In fact, my income will probably remain the same and could even fall a little as a result of giving up my Citybikes ownership and the guarantee of hours that goes with it. But what I will gain in other aspects outweights the scariness of the risk involved. I will plunge in, work hard, pay attention to everything around me and see what happens.

Meanwhile, I am enjoying these last few days of summer. Even as I rehearse music and meet with students and plan my lessons and schedule fall class trips and all the rest, there is still a little bit of time left to get outside and ride my bike in the middle of a weekday, and that feels precious to me right now.

So off I go.
Last night there was a sunset.
This morning I awoke to a sunrise, hopped on my bike and started pedaling.

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