I hate bike shops.
Okay, that's not true. Actually, I love bike shops. In fact, when I'm in a neighborhood without a bike shop, I experience the same sense of unease that I do when step onto the subway and someone's not wearing pants.
Still, even though I love bicycles, when I need something for mine, I find myself making excuses not to visit the places where they are sold and maintained.
So why is this? It's because bike shops are full of attitude, right? After all, who needs the High Fidelity treatment from some shop rat or curmudgeonly owner.
Wrong. I mean sure, some shops are staffed by people who fit those stereotypes, but I've been around bikes long enough to know that the customer who feels persecuted is often operating from a position of deep insecurity. This is only natural. American consumers have been taught since birth that, The customer is always right, yet since then we've been manipulated, mistreated, and lied to for so long that we've become deeply defensive.
If you've ever bought a car from a dealership you're basically a victim of abuse, so of course purchasing a costly piece of cycling equipment in a retail environment is going to trigger your PTSD.
No, the real reason I hate going to bike shops is simple.
I owe everything to bike shops. As a kid I spent hour after hour drooling on the glass display cases full of BMX components in my local bike shop. Every once in a while maybe I'd drop a handful of loose change on it and buy some dice vale caps or something, and nobody ever shooed me away. When I got older, it was another bike shop that set me up on my first real road bike, encouraged me to try racing, and eventually let me join their team. And when I became an insufferable know-it-all and started writing books about bikes, shops across the country were gracious enough to host signings and put together rides for the occasion.
How can I ever repay that? I certainly can't do it by continuing to buy lots of stuff from them. As a longtime cyclist I've amassed quite a bit of spare components, and besides basic wear items like bar tape and tires, I'm pretty well set. (And even wear items last awhile when you're spreading that wear across a large fleet of bicycles.) I'm also competent enough by now (but just barely) to install and overhaul most of this stuff myself, and at this point in my cycling lifecycle I'm disinclined to embrace the technological "advances," such as electronic shifting and disc brakes for road bikes that would render my vast supply stores obsolete.
All of this means that when I do visit a shop it's usually to buy a single bottle of lube or something, and due to my guilt I want to make the transaction quickly and without drawing any attention to myself. I also never have any questions for anybody, nor do I want to hear their opinions, because like anybody who's been riding for x amount of years, I've evolved into one of those close-minded curmudgeons who thinks they know everything.
So basically, I've evolved into the world's worst bike shop customer. I've also come full circle, since when I visit a shop today I probably spend no more that I did when I was twelve. (Adjusted for inflation, of course.)
But how guilty should I feel, really? Are bike shops in trouble? Well, a recent report indicates that while there are fewer independent bike shops, they're making more money, which I'm sure is oversimplifying it. It also suggests that these shops are focusing more on repairs, as well as on "urban" bikes. This makes sense: people are buying stuff online, but bike commuting is up in cities across the country, and even the bike you bought on the Internet needs to be repaired.
And what of the Internet? While I certainly pity the shop owner who can't compete with online retailers on price, I suspect dealing with confrontational customers armed with a bunch of misinformation they cobbled together from Bike Forums and Reddit is, in a certain way, worse.
Of course, the very best bike shops offer something no virtual shopping experience can, though what that "something" is varies from city to city and from shop to shop. Some shops organize great rides, others sell books and host speakers, and still others serve coffee or beer in addition to just bike stuff. But all these extras share a common denominator, which is that regardless of how old you are they allow you to be that kid drooling over the glass counter. Whether you're a child getting your first bike, or you're a new commuter, or you've been riding a while and want to try racing for the first time, you need a place that's going to stoke your excitement and indulge your imagination.
In a shop like this, the phrase, "I can probably get that cheaper on the Internet" never even crosses your mind.