Wednesday, March 1, 2017

four and a half years on: no regrets

In September 2012, I walked away from the bicycle industry to pursue my dreams of a career in Jewish education and music. I packed up my tools and apron, loaded up my trailer, and rode home on a sunny day that was also the day before the start of Yom Kippur (the Jewish day of atonement).

Since then, there have been ups and downs, both professionally and personally. And while I missed the steady flow of mechanic work early on, that feeling passed after less than six months because I got too busy with building my new career. And over time, I have grown more certain that my decision -- and my timing -- were spot-on.

Today, while enjoying a ginger brew at a local shop, I spotted a copy of BRAIN: Bicycle Retailer And Industry News on the reading rack. BRAIN is the magazine for industry insiders, never meant to be seen by the public. And yet, here it was sitting out for anyone to see. So I picked it up and flipped through it.

One thing caught my eye immediately: the number of articles discussing the slump in sales of bicycles and accessories across the board. Imports of cheap bikes from Chinese and Taiwanese factories have dropped precipitously. Sales of sporting bikes, road and mountain, have also dropped off. And the public, when they do shop for bikes and parts, is choosing online shopping more and more over a visit to their local brick-and-mortar store.

Those of you who know of my complicated relationship with retail -- with the quest to make and sell more and more things and its impact on the environment and on society -- will not be surprised when I say that I not only got out in time, I won't go back. There is no point in my returning to work in an industry that continues to depend upon a business model so fiscally and ethically outmoded that it will collapse under its own weight.

Nope. Not for me.

Instead, bicycles have become a hobby and a sideline. I find donated bicycles and fix them up for the poor. And I take in tune-up every spring from friends and family as a way to make a little extra grocery money. I charge about half the hourly rate that the local shops charge -- I have virtually no overhead and get most of my parts for almost free by scavenging -- and I enjoy having something completely different to do between music gigs.

But I am all about recycling, repairing and repurposing, so I will not help anyone assemble a brand-new bicycle out of the box (your shop should be doing that for you, not me; and if you bought it online you deserve to build it up yourself). And I don't really think that disc brakes or shocks are bold new technology worth touting -- I admit I'm a retrogrouch -- so I don't deal much with those, either.
I sand old brakes pads to give them new life and another hundred miles of use; I clean old chains and if they're stretched by less than a quarter of a link-length, I reuse them too. I turn chainrings around so the other side of the teeth can be used. And I patch tubes, of course; my own rear tube has about ten patches on it, all still holding fast.

So when I read that the bike industry is doing the cockroach on the corporate floor because sales have slumped sharply, I cannot help but feel a little smug. In the last year, import business fell off by over $250 million, and average value of stock declined by 14 percent. Those are HUGE numbers, and they are not the kind of numbers the industry wants its public to know. (Which is why I always shake my head when a shop leaves its copy of BRAIN out for the public to read.)
People aren't buying new bikes like they used to, for lots of reasons:
--the New Economy;
--falloff of interest in -- and organizational support for -- entry-level racing;
--urban infrastructure has not kept pace with demand for bicycle safety, forcing more people into motor vehicles;
--the preponderance of NEW STUFF around the world, more stuff than we can possibly consume and wear out.
The last good year for the bicycle industry was 2007, when I was still working full-time at Citybikes. And it was a banner year for us; bonuses were huge and we were flush enough that the Board voted to deposit money into IRA accounts for every owner.
That didn't last.
Within three years we were back in the hole again and so was nearly every other shop in town.
By 2010, several smaller shops had closed their doors.
By 2012, I had worked my final season. I left at the end of September.

Earlier this winter, Citybikes closed its Annex location, and condensed its operations into the smaller, original Citybikes location. They've gone down to a skeleton crew and don't plan to hire too many seasonal workers this spring. Last week, I went to a swap meet to pick up some deals on used tools and parts. On good terms with the remaining old-timers, I had a nice time chatting and catching up. But I didn't miss it. I didn't miss the endless meetings, the worry about profits, or the nights staying late to finish up a job for a demanding customer who ultimately wouldn't appreciate my hard work or my expertise as long as their bike was ready on time.

So here I am, building my new career slowly and steadily, and the only backward glances I have given the bicycle industry have been to wonder how long it would be before things began to fall down. I think I am beginning to have my answer. While there may be small recoveries, cycles of growth and contraction, there won't be another great bicycle boom like the ones we've seen in the past, at least not in my lifetime.
Looking ahead, I am laying in a small stock of older parts -- refurbished freewheels and cassette freehubs, patched tubes, buffed brake pads, found nuts and bolts and more -- so I can service the older, drama-free bikes that make their way to my humble little work space. I won't bother with the shiny new stuff anymore, because I don't need to.
I'll keep fixing bicycles as long as I have tools and my hands hold out. But I don't need to buy a bunch of new stuff.
There is PLENTY of old stuff to go around.
Waste not, want not.


Unknown said...

Demographics may have a lot to do with the decline of the bicycle industry. As we age, we ride less, wear out less stuff, and the "new bike fever" loses its appeal. I know a lot of affluent people who used to buy a new top of the line bike every few years, and lately the attitude has evolved to "meh". They have what was the "hot set-up" in 2014, and the 2017 offering doesn't get them excited. Some of these people have given away more "old" bikes than I've owned. I'm the odd one out in our group by riding the last new bike I bought, back in 2003.

The millenials may discover bicycling at some point and spur the next bike boom in a decade or so. But they have to pay off enormous student debt, buy homes, establish themselves, etc., before they'll be looking for ways to dispose of cash.

I recall a quote attributed to Anna Schwinn to the effect that the last smart people in the bike business were the Wright Bros. because they found a way out.

Jay said...

I am curious to know if the end of "Lance Effect" has also contributed to the decline in sales. Its end seems to have brought out much more variety in bicycles with emphasis on practical use. However, i guess that is not translating to more sales of new bicycles.