Wednesday, September 30, 2009
The Myth of the Angry Bike Mechanic
NOTE: This blog is rated R for foul language.
Every so often I start getting a magazine in the mail that I never asked for. Usually the free subscription makes sense: for example, a bike magazine starts showing up after I bought bike parts mail-order. More recently I started getting “Outside” magazine, for no apparent reason.
I don’t care so much for “Outside.” In general, I don’t really like magazines. Most of them, I feel, put too little faith in the reader’s patience, attention span, and intellect. Instead of delving deeply into a subject, they just skip along the surface for a few hundred words and either don’t end up saying much, or put forth an idea they can’t support effectively. Still, I flip through “Outside” during certain daily rituals, out of some sense of duty. (After all, trees died, and journalists labored, to produce this magazine.)
One recent “Outside” article did manage to hold my attention, because it was really annoying. It has stayed lodged in my brain like a nut fragment lodges in your teeth, and just as your tongue gets tired and sore trying to dislodge the nut, I’ve been unpleasantly pondering for awhile now exactly what it is about this article that bothers me so much. I think I’ve finally sorted it out, and in this post will dissect and dismember the offensive article for your amusement and (I hope) my own mental release. I’ll also share a number of anecdotes to support my case and (I hope) further amuse you.
The article is titled “The Day the Insults Died” and carries the subheading, “Angry bike mechanics are going extinct. And that sucks.” (You can view the article here: http://outside.away.com/outside/culture/200906/bike-mechanics.html.) The author describes how he has been insulted and laughed at by mechanics who take issue with his lack of bike repair expertise. He calls this a “valuable public service” and suggests that shop customers have historically benefited from this “tough love.” He also posits that shops no longer have these angry mechanics, quoting the management of a couple of shops who say they require their employees to be pleasant and helpful. The author laments this evolution, portraying it as some sort of a sell-out. He finishes up by claiming that the bullying has moved to the web, particularly in the guise of Bike Snob NYC, a blogger who, he approvingly points out, recently excoriated somebody for having a shop build him a several-thousand-dollar Trek Madone with straight handlebars and rear-view mirrors.
The article isn’t a travesty—the prose zips along well enough, and I chuckled a couple times—but on close inspection I find it irresponsible on a number of levels.
For one thing, the author makes no effort to establish the truth of what he’s saying. Though he suggests that the angry mechanic was a widespread phenomenon, he only cites one account, and it is more of a scenario (“The humiliations go like this…”) than an actual occurrence. Perhaps he assumes his readers are all too world-weary to bother scrutinizing his hypothesis, and will simply accept it on faith. This would really be a shame, because—as I know from working in bike shops for more than a decade—what the author puts forth is not even true. (More on that later.)
From a logical perspective, the argument becomes more flimsy the more you think about it. Okay, let’s assume that the author’s own experience is representative of bike shop customers in general. And we’ll grant him, for the moment, his premise that bike mechanics of the past era were commonly arrogant and prone to rebuffing benighted customers. The problem now is that the author goes on to say that the tough love helped him learn to “learn the basics” and be more self-sufficient. Well, if this is the case, on what basis does he conclude that mechanics have changed? Clearly he has changed; maybe the reason he’s no longer snubbed and laughed at is that he’s no longer ignorant.
Or maybe he only felt like he was being snubbed; when he had “worried that the laughter coming from the back room [was] about [him],” maybe this was just his own insecurity, mitigated now by his greater knowledge and confidence. This is all fine, except that as the journalist he’s positioning himself as an authority on the bike shop industry, describing a cultural shift, rather than just telling the sad story of his own struggle with self-doubt.
But what of the testimony of the two people he actually interviewed for the story? One says, “We hire nice people” and the other says “We try to emulate the Genius Bar at an Apple store.” The author takes this as a sign that times have changed. But does he actually think that, at any point in the history of bikes, a shop manager would say otherwise? “Our mechanics are a bunch of dicks, and take every opportunity to humiliate customers.” Yeah, right. Just as the author’s bad experiences do not establish the existence of prevailing rudeness across bike shops, a couple of predictable quotes from responsible shop managers do not establish that the shop culture has evolved.
The most annoying aspect of the article is how the author champions the blogger Bike Snob NYC as our savior, the new torch-bearer of the supposed rude mechanic tradition. I’m not at all sure that BSNYC would welcome this designation; the purpose of his blog isn’t to sell bikes, after all. The author suggests that by mocking the multi-thousand-dollar commuting bike, BSNYC is performing a public service by carrying on the tradition of the angry mechanics’ tough love. The author concludes, “The World’s Greatest Madone proves that the customer isn’t always right. Sometimes, he or she is severely wrong.”
To which I respond, what’s so wrong with blowing a whole bunch of money on a bike, if you have the money and feel like spending it? Would the author rather that guy spend his money on a GMC Yukon, or maybe a jet-ski? Perhaps the author wouldn’t have a problem with the guy spending so much if he didn’t opt for a straight handlebar and the mirrors—but isn’t that the guy’s own business? What makes more sense: a traditional (though tricked-out) racing bike the guy doesn’t feel like riding, or a unique bike with modifications that make it more enjoyable for him?
The real absurdity of the author’s position is this: the mechanics who had shamed and humiliated him in times past were basically snobs themselves. They felt that if he didn’t share the knowledge that they had, he didn’t deserve their respect. You’d think having suffered like that, the author would appreciate a sport that welcomes those who don’t want the bike shop to be their proving ground. But instead, the author joins the ranks of the snobs and encourages his readers to follow suit, mocking the guy with “too much hair on his legs” for outfitting his new bike as he sees fit. The author is like the bullied freshman who, upon becoming a junior, perpetuates the cycle by bullying the new batch of freshmen. This is not what cycling, and society, need. Friendliness and acceptance may not be cutting-edge hip, but they do help sell bikes.
Why do I care?
Okay, so the author is a snob, and has written an article that encourages others to adopt his snobbery and his wise guy attitude. Why should I care? The magazine cost me nothing, and I didn’t have to read the article. I think my revulsion has to do with yet another hypocrisy: the author makes sport of bagging on posers, but as a journalist he’s kind of a poser himself. He’s probably pretty proud of his nervy prose, but where’s the diligence in his reporting? Who is he to play the expert about what goes on in a bike shop? Wouldn’t the article be much more compelling if he found some angry mechanics, rehabilitated or not, who could explain what makes them, or had made them, so rude? The whole essay seems like something he just drummed up, without subjecting it to any intellectual scrutiny.
Furthermore, I don’t like his vision of what this sport ought to be: an elitist realm where you can—and should!—be mocked for having hairy legs or handlebar mirrors.
And finally, I don’t like where this author, and others like him, are taking magazine writing: towards this ironic, too-cool, edgy, punchy style where attitude is king. Does this arrogant, snarky essay really match the general idea of “Outside” magazine, which ostensibly seeks to celebrate and promote recreation? I have to think this article would scare a lot of readers away from cycling, if they buy the author’s suggestion that bullying and exclusivity are integral to the sport.
Perhaps what keeps this article from falling completely flat is that many readers probably have had a bad experience or two at a bike shop. I remember as a kid of nine going to a Boulder bike shop, the High Wheeler, with my mom. As she talked with the owner, I idly messed around with a floor pump. The owner didn’t yell at me, exactly, but gave me a stern lecture (“these expensive things are not toys” or some such thing), and—shamed and embarrassed—I started crying.
A couple years later, I was in the same shop admiring a Team Miyata racing bike hanging from the ceiling, and give the front wheel a spin. One of the mechanics came and lectured me about the bikes being on display for potential customers who might actually have the means to buy one. I didn’t cry this time, of course, but boy was I pissed.
I would like to point out, though, that my own experience notwithstanding, these were not the mythical “angry bike mechanics” of the “Outside” article. The same shop owner who chastised me for playing with the pump gave free bike-repair clinics to anybody who wanted to learn how to fix a flat or adjust a derailleur. He wasn’t good with kids, that’s all. In fact, a couple years after our awkward first encounter, he hired me to work in his shop, alongside the mechanic who had chided me for touching the Team Miyata. Like the owner, the mechanic ended up being a really good guy.
So was Jon (not his real name), the angriest-looking mechanic we had there, a dyed-in-the-wool blue-collar type with a handlebar mustache, who wasn’t generally put in contact with customers. (At this shop, the mechanics stayed in the back and dedicated salespeople manned the front.) On one occasion, though, Jon wandered up to the counter just in time to receive a customer who had come in with a Phil Wood hub.
oooooo“New hub please,” the guy said flatly.
oooooo“Huh?” Jon asked.
oooooo“This hub carries a lifetime guarantee, and it is defective. New hub please,” the guy said smugly. Now, Jon was actually a pretty good-natured guy, but something about this customer’s attitude must have set him off. “Well, the hub does have a lifetime guarantee, but it’s for the lifetime of the hub,” he explained. “And this hub is dead.”
Man, the customer just blew his stack at that point, screaming and yelling and generally wigging out until Jon burst out laughing. By this time a normal salesman had approached and taken over, apologizing and explaining the joke and getting the guy a new hub. Granted, the customer had a right to be ticked, but would he be right in concluding that Jon was a jerk to everybody, and/or that other mechanics are just as bad?
The truth about ignorant customers
Anybody can be rude, and anybody can get angry, but it’s absurd to believe that there was ever a type of mechanic who resented his customers’ ignorance. After all, your helplessness is the tradesman’s lifeblood. I worked in seven different shops across four different cities between 1982 and 1995, and I never once met a bike shop professional who didn’t favor the totally unskilled, unlearned customer over all others—so long as this customer has money. The highest-margin repair in the industry is a simple flat repair, and a shop’s repair department could do no better than to fix flats all day long. Why ostracize a customer for not even knowing how to fix a flat, when profitable repairs like these help put the shop owner’s kid through college?
As for bike sales, margins are so slim you’ll lose money if you take too long on the sale, so you can’t do better than a customer who lets you tell him what he needs and then buys it. Half the reason shops sell bikes in the first place is to cultivate long-term customers who will buy expensive sunglasses or bike shoes down the road. The ignorant customer will come to rely on you to advise him on what accessories are compatible, what shoe size he needs, etc. Bike shop staffers will bend over backward to get this relationship off on the right foot, and shaming their customers on the basis of ignorance would never occur to them.
Meanwhile, the half-educated customers, steeped in the quasi-knowledge gleaned from magazines and catalogs, are a lot more hassle. They’re more likely to think they can get a better deal than you’re offering, and in considering a $300 bike will pepper you with half an hour of pointless questions (e.g., “Do you have anything in this price range with Araya RM-20 rims?”). I could strangle the irresponsible “Consumer Reports” writer who advised readers never to pay the price listed on the bike’s tag, assuring them that this was a just a starting point for negotiation. (At least in the Bay Area, this is exactly the opposite of the truth; the bike manufacturers put a limit on how cheap you can sell their bikes, and most shops here are always at that minimum.) Furthermore, it’s the savvy customers who pick your brain about exactly what products they should buy, only to go buy them mail-order.
Good mechanics behaving badly
The “Outside” article would have you believe that the old-school mechanics behaved rudely because they were just rude people. I think the more accurate explanation is that almost any mechanic can be rude under the right circumstances. (Malcolm Gladwell, in The Tipping Point, explores this idea at length, describing the theory of the “fundamental attribution error,” which is the mistaken belief that behavior is entirely predictable and a function of one’s character.) In short, if a mechanic is angry or rude, it’s probably because he was provoked.
If you were to somehow catalog all the unpleasant interactions at bike shops throughout history, you’d find that mechanics are not solely to blame. Over the years, I have observed certain patterns of customer annoyingness, and have assembled here, for your amusement, a brief survey of the types of customer who can bring out the worst in a bike shop employee.
Seven highly annoying customer types
The penniless kid
Perhaps because I was shamed at bike shops as a kid, I tend to go easy on the penniless kids who mistake a bike shop for a hangout. I worked at a shop not far from a bus line, and every day we got a lot of kids right around the time school let out. One kid in particular always used to have me take down this BMX bike so he could sit on it. His questions were generally simple enough: “Is this bike fast?” I would answer, “Dude. It’s hella fast.” Delighted, he would squeal, “Really?!” This went on, week after week, month after month, and though I admired and enjoyed his enthusiasm, I would tell the other guys (as soon as he’d left), “Just once I’d like one of these kids to actually buy something.”
And you know, one day, an astounding thing happened. The kid sat on the bike for awhile, and then said, “I’ll take it.” It was an expensive bike , a GT or a Dyno with a rotor and everything, and the kid laid out four or five hundred dollar bills on the counter, and I wrote up the tag. After that I never again questioned a kid’s right to sit around the shop and dream. (I shouldn’t have been surprised. Remember my tale of getting chided for touching a Team Miyata? Within a year I had my first Miyata; two years later I had my first Pro Miyata; another two years and I had the first of three Team Miyatas.)
The insurance fraudster
On several occasions I’ve seen customers getting insurance appraisals for damaged or stolen bikes who have either subtly or overtly asked the shop to inflate the price tag. Needless to say, these people are scum. I had one boss who politely declined to play along, while being very careful to acknowledge that he had no problem with what the customer was trying to do. I lost a lot of respect for my boss that day.
One time, I got to handle a fraudster on my own terms. I was taking some garbage to the dumpster and happened to overhear the guy talking to his buddy as he took a mangled bike off the back of his car. “I’m not even going to get the bike fixed—I just want to really stick it to that bitch who rear-ended me,” he said. Sure enough, the bike had clearly taken the brunt of the damage, probably sparing the guy’s car in the process. He went through the front of the shop, while I went through the back, so he had no idea I’d overheard his comment.
He asked for a repair appraisal, and straight-out asked me to “bump it up a little.” I pretended to be totally innocent of what he was asking, and took his bike to the shop area to look it over. I told the other mechanics, “No matter what you hear me say, don’t interrupt or intervene.” Then I proceeded to write up the lowest repair estimate in the history of bikes. “You really lucked out!” I told the customer, smiling brightly. “The damage isn’t nearly as bad as it looks. We can straighten that frame out, and all the wheel needs is a few new spokes and a basic truing. I’ve got a spare handlebar grip I’ll throw in for free. A little touch-up paint and we’re done!” The frame was totally caved in, the wheel pretzled. In short, the bike was completely totaled. I wrote it up for like $50. My shop pals were aghast, but not as much as the customer. He was furious, and snatched the repair tag from my hand and demanded to get his bike back. After he left, my pals said, “You’re so lucky he didn’t have us fix it.”
oooooo“Not really,” I replied.
But wait, this story gets better. At that time my brother Geoff worked at another big shop in town, and right away I phoned over there and described the situation. “If he comes in there, you have to write it up for less than $50. And then call me back and tell me exactly how it went.” To my delight, Geoff called about half an hour later. “It was glorious!” he said. “That guy was so pissed I thought he’d burst a blood vessel.”
The expert advisor
On many occasions a friend has asked me to help him or her buy a bike. I’m sure it’s tempting for a bike shop guy to resent this intrusion into his dialog with the customer, and many see the advisor’s supposed expertise as a challenge to his own. On occasion, I have clearly alienated myself and my friend from the salesman. My friends deferred to me rather than the salesman, and I’m not shy about dismissing a salesman’s less useful suggestions.
But if you ask me, a bike shop salesman should welcome the expert advisor. As the salesman, all you have to do is give the advisor a chance to shine in front of his friend, and then he’s your friend too. And half the battle in selling a bike is helping the customer to feel confident in his choice; who better to assist with this than the disinterested expert advisor?
Twice, my friends bought an expensive bike on the spot (a rare thing at most shops) based on my recommendation, with the salesman seething as he rang up the sale. Another time, I happened to be dealing with the owner of the shop, and after accepting my friend’s money he offered me a job, which I took.
The would-be warranty
I think just about anybody who worked at the High Wheeler (or the “Thigh Feeler” as we called it) in the mid- to late-nineties could recite the following from memory (and probably does from time to time, to this very day):
“I was just riding along, minding my own business, not bothering anybody, not a care in the world, when all of a sudden, out of the blue, for no apparent reason, with no provocation whatsoever, [fill in description of extensive bike damage here, or gesture toward ruined bike, or say ‘Wa-ka-PANG!”]…”
The bike is usually totaled, or at least the fork and one wheel, most often the frame. And yet the customer insists that he didn’t crash, didn’t hit anything, that suddenly the damage spontaneously occurred. The typical response from the mechanic varies from flat-out denial that this could be the case, to a wordless eye-rolling gesture, to an incredulous “Are you kidding me?!” The most successful reaction I’ve seen, though, is when the mechanic took the guy aside and whispered, “Just between you and me, totally off the record … just how much air did you get?”
The irresponsible parent
At UC Santa Barbara I worked at the student bike shop. Most of our customers hadn’t owned bikes in years but, like everyone else, rode cheap cruisers to and from class. In a stark reversal of the “Outside” writer’s hypothesis, mechanics here bent over backwards for the most helpless of the customers, who tended to be female and pretty. (The male customers were probably just as ignorant but afraid to admit it.) We wouldn’t just fix these girls’ flats, we’d give them a half-hour lesson in flat-tire repair, just to smell their freshly shampooed hair a little longer.
I was wrenching away at this shop one day when a slightly older guy came in—must have been a grad student. He had a three-speed with a flat tire. I noticed that only one handbrake was working. “So, do you want me to hook up the other brake?” I asked. He declined.
oooooo“Would you like me to take that old baby seat off for you?” I offered.
oooooo“No, I still use it,” he replied.
oooooo“Let me get this straight: you carry a child on this bike, with only one working brake?” I asked.
oooooo“What if your other brake goes out?”
oooooo“I’ll worry about that.”
oooooo“Look, I can’t let the bike leave the shop without either two working brakes, or no child seat,” I told him. (Okay, so this was rude.) He made a big stink about this, but I was firm.
oooooo“Get me the manager,” he said, finally. Ah, I’d been hoping he would say that. My boss was the nicest guy in the world, but also a father of young children. As the customer’s gripe began, my boss was all ears, quite ready to discipline me as necessary—but once he figured out what the guy was asking for, he really let him have it. We all gathered around to watch; it was like a public execution.
The disgruntled jackass
This young dude stormed into my shop with a bike wheel, glared angrily at me, and yelled, “You fucked up!” He looked vaguely familiar. I asked him what I’d done.
oooooo“You sold me the wrong length spokes!” he cried.
oooooo“Oh, yeah, I remember you. You were in a rush and I eyeballed it. Here, give me the wheel and I’ll try again.”
oooooo“Oh, no, you had your chance. I already went to the Link and they got me the right length spokes.”
oooooo“Oh, okay, then let me give you your money back.” The amount would have been under a dollar.
oooooo“I don’t want my money back,” he retorted.
oooooo“Let me get this straight. You don’t need any spokes, and you don’t want your money back. Well then, why are you here?”
oooooo“To tell you that you fucked up!”
oooooo“Okay, fine, I fucked up, I’m a terrible person. I’m sorry. Now, is there anything else I can help you with?” At this, the guy finally had no comeback, and stalked out of the shop. My boss, who had been around the corner but within earshot, came over. “Why didn’t you tell him to fuck off?” he asked.
oooooo“You mean I’m allowed to do that?”
oooooo“Sure. If you’ve been reasonable, and you’ve done what you can, and the guy is still being a dick, you can tell him whatever you want,” he said. I filed this policy away for later.
The disgruntled jackass, part 2
A middle-aged man appeared in my shop and yelled at me, “I had my tire fixed here and the damned thing is flat again!” I told him to bring the bike over so I could take a look. “Sorry about that,” I said. “I’m guessing either the tube we put in was defective, or there was something sharp stuck in the tire that we didn’t notice.”
oooooo“Well, I’m not going to stand for that!” he fired back.
oooooo“It’s okay, I’ll get it taken care of.”
The guy looked me up and down, and I guess he wasn’t impressed by my neon green t-shirt, my filthy shop apron, and my GT baseball cap. “Oh, you will, huh? What could you do about it?”
oooooo“Well, I’m the manager, so I’ll do whatever it takes to make sure you’re satisfied.” I thought this would be an absolutely foolproof response, but oddly, it wasn’t.
oooooo“Ooh, the manager! Well, good for you. I’m leaving. I’m going to the other store to talk to Martin.” Martin (not his real name) was the owner, and my boss. In the moment, I was absolutely stunned, and just sat there staring as the jerk rolled his bike out the door. Then I was kicking myself for not responding. Remembering my boss’s policy on unreasonable customers, I immediately called over to the other store. Jack (not his real name), one of two English lads working there, answered.
oooooo“Jack, it’s Dana. Look, there’s some asshole on his way over there to talk to Martin. He’s all bent out of shape over a flat repair that didn’t hold, and I tried to help him out but he was a total dick about it.” I described the guy and his bike so Jack couldn’t miss him. “So when he arrives, tell him, ‘The manager at the other store gave me a message for you: go fuck yourself and don’t ever set foot in either of our stores again, unless you want to go talk to him some more about your flat tire.’ Then call me back and tell me all about it.”
Jack was happy to follow my instructions, and awhile later he called me back. I asked him how it went. “Oh, it was brilliant,” he said. “I told him, ‘Yeah, mate, the manager at the other store has a message for you: go fuck yourself and don’t ever come back here, and if you have a problem with that, take it up with him.’”
oooooo“And what did he say?”
oooooo“He said, ‘Do you have any idea who I am?’ I said, ‘None at all.’ He said, ‘I’m the mayor of Kensington!’ I said, ‘Well, jolly good for you. Now fuck right off.’”
The bike thief
Sometimes, a thief will grab a bike from the showroom floor and take off on it. Usually the element of surprise is enough, and he gets away with it. But most thefts involve some kind of cunning, such as a phony driver license. It’s not uncommon for a female perpetrator to employ her feminine wiles in this treachery.
One morning a young, pretty blond woman took a nice mountain bike out for a test ride, and when she was gone for more than fifteen minutes I figured I’d been had. I hadn’t actually seen her driver license, because she’d left it at our other shop across town and rode one of their bikes over to my store. This seemed pretty clever—after she took off, I wouldn’t be able to scrutinize her license and recognize it as a fake. I called the other shop; they said the license looked legit. After another twenty minutes of waiting I grabbed a bike and set out looking for her, but what were my chances, really, of stumbling across her? I made my way to the other shop and looked at the license myself. It did look legit—mag stripe, good photo, even the little holograms. I called my store back, and found out she had finally returned.
I rode back and talked to her. She seemed to have no idea that forty-five minutes is way longer than a test ride is supposed to last, nor did she give any reason for being gone for so long. I should have been really ticked—she gave me a good scare, after all, and wasted a bunch of my time. But there were extenuating circumstances: she did end up buying the bike; she didn’t waste more time by exhausting me with pointless questions; and, she was pretty. So I didn’t get angry. In fact, I married her.