. . .Where Somebody Will Clean Your Chain
Uncharacteristically I’m going coyly to slide past the obvious innuendo in the title and simply note that recently I had to take Gypsy Rose into the bike spa and it got me thinking about what I value in a really good bike store.
The DC area is blessed with quite a few bike stores, although given the relative popularity of cycling here (meaning relative to most places in the US where biking ranks only marginally above replacing the grease filter in your range hood as a desirable activity) I always feel that there should be a few more. There may be a Capital Bikeshare stand on virtually every corner but you have to hunt out the bike shops. We are, however, lucky that most of the places you can go to get your bike serviced do a pretty good job. But there’s a difference between a bike store that offers an acceptable level of service, and one that creates a welcoming feel. And most of the places I’ve experienced in the DC area will do an acceptable job of repairing and maintaining your bike, and give you good sales advice, but it still feels like a bit of a chore to go there.
That’s why I’ve found myself consistently coming back to Bicycle Space, even though it is a long way from being the closest store to me; moreover it usually means a bike ride through the homicidally dangerous streets of Washington DC. (Sure, the City has been putting money into striping bike lanes and such, but it hasn’t been able to do jack about the one thing that makes DC such a dangerous place to cycle: it is filled with people. Moreover it is filled with people afflicted with a lethal combination of stupidity and arseholery, the vast majority of whom are, due to a cosmic oversight, authorized to operate automobiles). But the place has a welcoming feel that makes me want to go and spend some time (and, yes, money, because as the poet said, “Time is money, money time,–that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”).
Bicycle Space has, in its short life, had a rather peripatetic existence, moving premises in response to the changeable winds of the DC rental scene but always remaining in the general vicinity of the Convention Center. Currently they are building a new retail space on K street, and while that place is under construction, the shop is residing in a “pop-up” at 700 5th St. Northwest. “Pop-up” is hipster speak for “temporary” or, more usually, “that idea I had for which I maxxed out all my credit cards and used all my retirement savings but which farted and died leaving me destitute and divorced.” In this case, the store inhabits the shell of an old Burger King, which is atmospheric in more ways than one: last time I was in there a mysterious fried food aroma suddenly began to permeate the store. They never did track down the source, but I imagine that much like the arteries for which it is destined, the fat in the food lodges pretty much everywhere and is as hard to get rid of. The current space certainly has none of the charm of the previous location, where the store front featured an eclectic mix of bike merchandise. It is unashamedly temporary, so there’s a lot of making do, constantly at war with a barely contained chaos.
Escaping the Cult
But the place still has the vibe I’ve come to value, which boils down to this: you feel like you belong there. It is a little more complex than that, however, because the “you” in that last sentence means, in the case of Bicycle Space, as broad a sample of “yous” as possible. Bicycle Space is, by design, a place intended for ordinary cyclists. That, sadly, has not been the case with a lot of bike stores in the past; even more distressingly, it is still not the case now. There are still too many bike stores whose look, feel, and service approach is shaped by bike racing culture: supporting the amateur cat racers and/or selling the professional cycling fantasy (“Spend $10,000 on a bike and you too can ride like Lance Arm. . .well, okay, maybe not him, but somebody awesome!”). That has, historically, meant that bike stores have pitched themselves mainly at men, and two groups of men in particular: striplings in their twenties, and mid-life crisis athletes.
There’s nothing wrong with having stores that cater to the actual and fantasy racing cultures as a niche, of course. That, however, is the problem: that culture hasn’t been understood to be a very tiny niche group relative to all cyclists. It has, rather, been assumed to be the culture of all cyclists. Not surprisingly, women in particular have found those kinds of bike spaces to be alienating: they walk into a shop and (still, unfortunately) it will be highly unlikely they will see a single woman on the sales floor, and a virtual certainty there will be no women wrenching. Moreover, the racing shops are filled with twenty-something and forty-something men talking obsessively about what those two groups obsess about in any context: performance. Cue a female eye roll and a prompt store exit.
It is not, however, just a “male-female thang.” RaceCult stores are also not that welcoming for new cyclists or for cyclists who don’t see themselves as racers, or as cyclists who bike a lot but don’t even see themselves as athletes. . .which is to say most of the biking population. I can’t stress too strongly that this is not in any way connected with how friendly the staff in a particular store may or may not be. Naturally, being obnoxiously lacking in people skills doesn’t make for a great retail experience for the customer. The real problem is the way in which people deep inside a particular culture lose the ability to see that they are in fact inside a very specific culture and, furthermore, to empathize with people who haven’t always lived in that culture. Consider, then, what it is like for someone who “just wants to buy a bike” when they step into a RaceCult store: the first thing they are going to be confronted with is a series of bikes, prominently displayed at the front of the store, each of which would put a sizable dent in their kids’ college fund, and some of which may barely resemble a bike beyond the basics of a chain, pedal, and wheels. Again, in an ideal world, this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem. Such a customer would sensibly conclude they have wandered into the wrong store, and wander out again in search of something more their style. It is not, however, an ideal world. What is such a customer to do if the vast majority of bike shops are in fact RaceCult shops?
What makes shops like Bicycle Space useful, therefore, is not simply that they cater to “ordinary cyclists” but that by that phrase they understand something much broader than the unintentionally dismissive category that RaceCult cycling often assigns those people: “recreational” riders (this is one step away from sending people down to Walmart or Dick’s to buy a bike). Being an ordinary cyclist is not about what you ride or even how you ride, but rather why you ride. You aren’t riding to affirm your burgeoning manhood or to nurse the flickering remnants of its decline. You are riding because you want bikes to be a part of your life (a part, note; not the whole of it) and because days on the bike are generally much better than days off the bike. Your “ordinary” riding may involve commuting, it may involve long rides on the weekend, on- or off-road, it may involve touring, in a more or less organized way, or sometimes in an outright disorganized way. It may involve the extraordinary ordinary: epic cross-country journeys or the more contained epic awesomeness of randonneuring. Indeed, if your ordinary also involves the occasional cyclocross race or throwdown at the local crit, then the “ordinary” tent is big enough for you as well. It is a world of people where “ordinary” and yes, okay, even “recreational” bike are not synonymous with crap; it is a world where you can drop as much money on a pimped out hipster fixie or a luxury kitted out beach cruiser as on a decent entry level race bike. If you have seen some of the merchandise available for “ordinary” bikes (panniers, etc.) you know that here, as in the RaceCult world, one golden rule prevails: there is no limit to the amount of money you can spend on a bike.
By no means is Bicycle Space a patchouli-scented unicorn sticker kind of place. All the people I’ve met there are quite capable of wanking on about carbon lay-ups and the arcana of tire pressures. They built me a first-class wheel around a dynamo hub. They seem to know their shit. Yet one of the things that I enjoy about the place is that the people who work there also seem to have an aesthetic sensibility about bikes that is–and this is the important part–not dependent on speed or efficiency. People in bike stores all over the world talk about beautiful bikes and cool bikes. All too often, however, those assessments are heavily dependent on a utility supposedly attached to the bike or specific feature: it will make me more awesome in some way (make me faster, or look faster). But to enter the truly geeky realm of bike appreciation, you have to start loving bikes and their bits and pieces as pieces of abstract engineering and design excellence, beautifully suspended alongside their designated function.
I’m over-stating here to make a point. I have a lot of bits and pieces on my bike that work the way I need them to. But our world is filled with bike bits and pieces, most of which do what we need them to do. So when I have a choice I increasingly opt for things that speak to me as objects of beauty as well. Bicycle Space as it was (and, presumably, as it will be again) was filled with exactly this kind of thing. Yeah. sure, you could put a svelte little toolbag on your bike that would hold a pencil sharpener and a band-aid. Or you, could buy a Brooks saddlebag, which will hold approximately the same thing, cost three times as much, weigh several roadie-heart-palpitation-inducing grams more, but look way cooler!
I also freely confess that one of the reasons I like going to Bicycle Space is that it seems that whenever I encounter a new person there, they take glance at my bike, give a meditative nod, and say something pithy like “nice build.” So going to shop is for me and my bike what posting what you had for breakfast on Facebook is for normal people. Of course, this could all be just good sales technique. As a technique, however, it isn’t exactly the effusive over-affirmation that you get on Facebook (“You are so cute! You are such a badass!”).
Dirty Filthy Things. And not in a Good Way
Bicycle Space doesn’t cater to everyone; if you are looking for a high-end carbon triathlon bike you are probably SOL. Nor is it my idea of the ultimate bike store. It would need an attached cafe for that. Or a brew pub. Or better still, a combination brew pub and coffee shop. But the place is still good for whatever ails yer bike. I took Gypsy Rose in because she’d accumulated a few issues while biking over in NZ recently. Much of that biking was on dirt roads with a load of gear. Throw in some precipitous technical descents and it wasn’t surprising that my back wheel had developed a rather unsettling amount of play, and my rear disc pads had burned down to nothing. Couple that with a problem with the lighting that I couldn’t seem to diagnose, and it was clearly time for some professional help, if only to make sure that nothing else was about to fall off (adjusting wheel bearings is also one of those things I’ve learned over the years that I can do, but would prefer not to). They fixed everything, and Gypsy is ready to hit the road again.
But the real reason I like this place has nothing to do with any of that. Since I got back from the far side of the world, I hadn’t had the bike out, and I also hadn’t had the chance to clean the drive train. Truth be told I also didn’t relish trying to do that in either a freezing garage or a dimly lit basement. My chain wasn’t covered in the kind of apocalyptic filth I often rip into others for, but I was still pretty embarrassed about it. If I’d taken that into other bike shops (as may, in fact, have happened in the past), someone would have said something.
When I picked up Gypsy the drive train was immaculate.
And no one said a word.