The Day the Insults Died

Angry bike mechanics are going extinct. And that sucks.

    Photo: Illustration by John Cuneo

The Angry Mechanic, Translated

WHAT THEY SAY
You could do that.
WHAT THEY MEAN
Only a moron would do that.

WHAT THEY SAY
This is a lot of bike for you.
WHAT THEY MEAN
There's a Big 5 down the street.

WHAT THEY SAY
Our group rides are Saturdays at 9 A.M.
WHAT THEY MEAN
Our group rides are Saturdays at 8 A.M.

WHAT THEY SAY
Try tightening your barrel adjuster.
WHAT THEY MEAN
Maybe take up race walking.

The humiliations go like this. You walk into a bike shop with a crisis: a brake pad that's rubbing. A greasy-fingered mechanic with a chainring tat and a Cinelli cycling cap takes a quick look and says something about a barrel adjuster. You ask, "What's a barrel adjuster?" He glares at you—and then at your carbon-fiber ride—as if you've just ordered a Shirley Temple in a dive bar.

You feel invisible. You fork over the bike and your credit card and skulk out, worried that the laughter coming from the back room is about you. Of course it's about you.

Or, rather, it used to be. As you may have noticed, the Angry Bike Shop Guy has been going the way of the toeclip. Faced with increasing competition and cannibalized by Internet retailers, bike shops can't afford to belittle their customers anymore. Attitude is out; smiles are in. These days you're more likely to get a cup of coffee from a mechanic than a nose-ringed death stare.

"We hire nice people," says Andrew Crooks, who opened NYC Velo in New York's East Village four years ago with the goal of providing superior customer service. "We need people who have technical acumen, but if I had to pick, I'd rather have guys who are pleasant and will treat customers the right way."

Crooks isn't alone. Craig Staley, the general manager of Mellow Johnny's, Lance Armstrong's shop in Austin, Texas, positions his mechanics—who were traditionally hidden in the back, like Quasimodos in cargo shorts—at the main entrance. "We try to emulate the Genius Bar at an Apple Store," says Staley. "Ask any question, silly or technical, and they have to answer it."

Generally, that's a good thing—it's smart, if obvious, to treat customers like humans—but we're losing something by muzzling bike-shop misanthropes. Consider the role of the Angry Bike Shop Guy's equally angry cousin: the Indie Record Store Guy. As a kid, I used to visit Newbury Comics, in Harvard Square, where the aloof clerks (think Jack Black in High Fidelity) blasted Skinny Puppy and Erasure on a tinny stereo. When I asked for Huey Lewis, it was like requesting gonorrhea. They trashed me, but I kept going back, desperate to fit in. Eventually those jerks warmed me to the Smiths, the Clash, and the Jam.

Those guys probably weren't the best thing for business, but they performed a valuable public service. They taught idiots like me to fend for ourselves. We were never indulged. The same thing happened at bike shops: Dumb repair questions were treated like dumb repair questions, forcing us to learn the basics so we didn't feel like morons walking in with rusty chains. Hazing had an upside: I eavesdropped on smarter customers and studied my Euro terminology. I still can't glue a tubular, but I can tell my Assos from my Campagnolo.

I think we all secretly want—need—this tough love. Doesn't matter if you're a backpacker at the Trailhead shop, in Buena Vista, Colorado, or a wannabe Hemingway browsing for flies at Ketchum, Idaho's Silver Creek Outfitter. We like the brutalization and initiation, the status that comes from weathering the rudeness and finally fitting in. It's probably residual trauma from junior high, but gaining acceptance from our tormentors is a beautiful thing.

These days the bullying is mostly relegated to the Web. The most talked-about cycling blogger right now is the anonymous, wickedly brilliant Bike Snob NYC, who shreds riders for stylistic violations. Fixed-gear fashionistas are a prime BSNYC target=, and he recently blasted Jake Gyllenhaal for "rocking a pie plate" (a plastic spoke protector) on his rear wheel—a truly amateur move.

Lately, Bike Snob's been railing about what he calls "the World's Greatest Madone." Some unfortunate gent, with too much money and too much hair on his legs, had the audacity to be seen on a commuter bike assembled from a $3,000 Trek Madone frame, $2,500 Zipp carbon rims, and straight handlebars mounted with rearview mirrors. It's an astonishingly senseless configuration, but somewhere there's a store that built him that bike.

Maybe it happened at a friendly place where they poured him a latte and patiently nodded as he outlined the planet's dorkiest errand bike. No one snubbed him; no one dived over the counter to strangle him. The World's Greatest Madone proves that the customer isn't always right. Sometimes, he or she is severely wrong. An Angry Mechanic would have stopped the World's Greatest Madone from being born. But now it exists, and it's probably on its way to a Huey Lewis concert.

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