The Bike Shop Experience

I worked at a bike shop for a couple of months recently. I have lots to share. Firstly, I’d like to express my gratitude for the opportunity to work next to some of the finest bicycle mechanics and specialists in Grand Rapids. I learned a lot from their tutelage, and have discovered some of the keys to learning even more, as there is always much to be learned. I’ll divide my experiences into pros and cons.

Cons:

  • The Pay: Although the experience is nicer than working at a fast food restaurant or stocking shelves somewhere at night (both of which I’ve done), bicycle mechanics almost everywhere make less than $20 per hour. In my case, I made $13 per hour. This was one of the determining factors in my decision to quit working at a shop. I make better money at home, and without the stress of a demanding environment. Also, it sucks to be driving home from work at the shop and see a sign at Taco Bell advertising $17 per hour. “How does being a skilled laborer pay off here?” That’s what I’d ask myself.
  • The Service Gap: Bike shops have a lot of overhead. There are amazing service teams out there that can can fix big problems. We replaced a bottom bracket on a 1990’s titanium Eddy Merckx road bike that was seized hard into the BB shell. All told, 5 mechanics had their hands on it. We got it out. That’s a good service team. But it was an Eddy Merckx. It was worth it to the client to pay shop rates to have his expensive bike fixed. But what about an old Schwinn, Motobecane or any other specimen from the 70’s-90’s? As many times as we accepted these bikes for service, we turned them away. Much of what went beyond the cost of a tune-up ($150) was cost prohibitive for the client. So what happens to those bikes? They get donated to a charitable organization, perhaps. Or they get scrapped. And the client is out the door. At the $200 price point, they are attracted by bikes at big box stores–places that cannot service a bike. Their Specialized Rock Hopper is in the pile at the scrapyard, and they’ve just bought a crummy new bike with, among other defects, brakes that will not articulate evenly on both sides–ever. This is how bike shops fail clients. And it’s not really their fault. They have bills to pay.
  • Service Interruption: I did not like having to answer phones and attend to incoming clients while performing an overhaul or tune-up. I wasted time and brain power coming back to the project and remembering what I had or had not done in order to call it done. I’ve spoiled myself in my own shop, as I can work uninterrupted. I don’t have to answer the phone. I can let my kids fight if that’s the kind of morning they’re having. I can work and I can stop at a place that makes sense. Again, in a small shop environment, I don’t know how the shop could do better. It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation all the time.
  • The Grind: I will not lie. Wrenching full-time at a bike shop is a job for younger people. I am 48 years old. I did feel up to the job on the cardio-vascular level, but the level of manual output expected from a shop mechanic is considerable. My hands and feet hurt a lot after wrenching for 8 or more hours per day. Especially the hands. They never hurt like that before. What I brought home every day to my wife was a very tired husband who slacked on home responsibilities and delights.

The Pros:

  • Peer Review and Master Mechanic Oversight: This is the most valuable part of my shop experience, and I wouldn’t have gotten it without going out and getting it from others. My bosses and the other mechanics either corrected things I was doing wrong (who knew a chain could be installed backwards?), or gave me long-sought-after affirmation that what I was doing was right. In many cases, especially as regarding vintage bicycles, I knew more than the other fellas. Most of the time, I was learning a new trade altogether. There are rear derailleurs with clutches now. There are motorcycle brakes on bicycles now. A modern high-end full-suspension mountain bike is as complicated as any engine from an engineering point of view. But I’m not afraid of them anymore. There’s a manual for it. That’s what the other auto-didactic mechanic taught me there–“Open Shimano’s schematics pages and learn, brother!”
  • Camaraderie: During the Covid-19 epidemic, I wrapped myself up tighter than a drum. I stayed home. I masked up. I stayed away. And I got really depressed. I spent two months working at the shop, and it helped me come back to the fold. I got to talk to others about bikes all the time. I got to make jokes. I got to be a clutch player in a demanding environment, and that helped my ego substantially. The ego is what brought me back home to wrench, however. Social dynamics are a double-edged sword, and as Forest Gump famously put it, “That’s all I have to say about that.”
  • Swag: So here’s the thing. When you work at a bike shop, reps from Shimano, Cannondale, SRAM, and other companies visit your store, and they give you free hats and t-shirts. I treasure swag, as it tells others in public who you are and what you do. Others in the know will see your swag and think you’re cool. Which, if you work in a bike shop, you probably are.

So what now?

Because we are blessed with a modestly advantageous financial standing in our family, I was able to invest in myself quite a bit in the last two weeks. I’ve purchased some tools that I already had–but better and more ergonomic versions of them, such as Park Tool’s T-handle hex set, and a bigger and better tool chest to go next to my smaller and older Crafstman set. I don’t ever want to open a bike shop. I am a boutique operator in this environment. I have a set price for tune-ups and overhauls. Sometimes I spend too much time on a job–there was more to fix than I thought. Sometimes it’s a cinch and takes half an hour. But every time, I come out on top, as do my clients. So let’s go!

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