Shop talk

Local bike shops may thrive in the new reality. Rob Ainsley certainly hopes so...

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Illustration: Joe Waldron

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Public transport is restricting numbers, but there’s no more room for cars on rush-hour roads. But like my grandad used to say, as one door closes, another opens. Okay, the punchline: ‘Lovely man, my grandad. But a terrible cabinet maker’.

That newly ajar portal has a bicycle behind it. Having more short journeys done by bike isn’t now just a worthy-sounding aspiration. It’s a pressing economic imperative for getting to work without risking a packed bus or train.

Bikes never were the new black, rock’n’roll, or toilet paper. Nevertheless, there’s a run on them right now. Neglected bikes are being excavated from the garage, begged from Facebook friends, or snapped up on Gumtree – hopefully not from a furtive pseudonym on a mobile. The new owners, whose cycling knowledge may be as rusty as their chains, will need advice, help, backup.

You know something’s important if it has its own TLA (three-letter acronym). LBM, lean body mass; LBD, little black dress; LBS, local bike shop.

The LBS has been struggling, we know. (Though so have the internet box-shifters who hoovered up some of their business, apparently: today’s cut-throat neo-liberalism produces few winners.) Maybe now is their chance to thrive again. Because they can do things the internet can’t.

Bike shops were rightly deemed ‘essential’ during lockdown and could stay open. Like food shops and, er, off licences. Our LBSs in York are now rushed off their SPDs, partly through staff shortages, but also with new custom. 

We want these novice riders to keep cycling, even after everything gets back to normal, or the end of time, whichever is the sooner. The LBS is their first and most important introduction to our world. They should feel welcomed and supported in it, beyond simply getting new tyres and brake cables.

They’ll need maps, local route advice, contacts. Pointers to local groups who can show them safe, fun leisure rides with the kids – or day-ride adventures. Information on how to shop, commute, do the school run. Basic know-how: punctures, brakes. Security advice: that a lock should cost 10 per cent of  the value of the bike… or perhaps just the lighter the bike, the heavier the lock. And they’ll need a refuge when things go wrong. I had a mechanical in the countryside the other day: a pedal broke unexpectedly. I managed to one-leg it back to town and buy decent new pedals from a friendly LBS in time to rescue my journey. I couldn’t have done that with even the most express Amazon delivery. (It was ‘essential services’ all round: I was doing a supermarket run for a poor old person. No, not me.)

The LBS should be a social hub, not just a shop. Recommend places to ride. Have a notice board to buy or sell, join groups or find cycling buddies. Stock the often-excellent free cycling maps the council produce (but then don’t know how to distribute, beyond carpet-bombing libraries). Have staff who represent the range of customer backgrounds, who don’t roll their eyes at naive questions, who can discuss disc brakes or underwear. (Hydraulic beats cable-actuated for either.)

I’ve visited a lot of LBSs while researching routes for this magazine. Almost all get most of this right, on profit margins so tight you need a torque wrench to apply them. And it can’t be easy having that same newbie conversation for the thousandth time about lights/panniers/bad bike lanes, when there’s a workshop backlog, two off sick, and some clown on the phone asking you how business is.

But the LBSs who can do all the above, and still smile, will boom in the new bike-shaped reality. They’ll also help pack our streets and roads with new cyclists. And that will benefit us all.

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This article appears in issue 369 of Cycling Plus, on sale now. To subscribe to the magazine and receive a free Lusso Merino Jersey worth £65, head over here