Wednesday, October 31, 2007

You Can Take the Boy Out of Berkeley...

(Written for the Rivendell Reader, this piece was never published. Grant Petersen was gratified but embarrassed by the attention)

Often, even if at the moment I need nothing material to complete me as a cyclist, I browse the Rivendell web site or paper catalog. I invariably find myself smiling as I read Grant’s writing.

At the risk of embarrassing him, I’m telling you that I love his “voice” in print. This is Grant’s magazine, but this is my page. I can say what I want….

I don’t do everything he suggests, and (like you perhaps) I’m not the precise person he has in mind as he writes, but I love his attitude. I love to watch him draw lines in the sand. All ye Roly-Poly Righteous step over; narrow-tire types can run along home.

As I read the A. Homer Hilsen copy on the web page, it seemed to me that Grant’s position and mine on one aspect in particular are identical. That aspect has nothing to do with Hilsens or Crystal Fellows or Kookaburra Woolwash.

Grant and I are reluctant to assist bike customers with expensive purchases that will not result in benefits that our customers will perceive, immediately or later.

We know that many people have lots of what is called disposable income and that some of them delight in using a bit of it to buy bikes and parts. We applaud that impulse.

But if X-amount of money will buy a product that will provide mechanical and emotional satisfaction now and down the road, we suspect that spending 2X for one percent more sizzle violates some rule about diminishing returns.

Grant and I both came out of Berkeley or its environs in an era when no one had any money or (if they did) they concealed it from others. We didn’t wear blue workshirts, Woody Guthrie-style, but we liked the look.

We came from a time when if you were a new rider, you bought a new-rider-style, mid-range bike: a Sequoia or RB-2 or Fuji Newest, not an Eisentraut or Masi.

We felt that buying a Masi for a first bike was overreaching. What would you do for a second act? Were you able to appreciate such a vehicle’s functionality? If you couldn’t discern its superiority, why buy it? Why pay for differences that aren’t distinctions?

You wouldn’t buy it for what it said about you, would you? As a sort of an embarrassing advertisement?

Those questions seem foolish and quaint now, don’t they? Trust me, Grant and I are still asking them, three decades later. If you can’t discern an enhancement in performance, durability or serviceability, why spend the extra money?

Here’s the passage from the web site text that prompted me to write this. Grant is talking (He’s writing, but it SEEMS as if he’s talking.) about Shimano’s XTR rear derailleur, a good extra-cost option, he says, if you’re building up a new A. Homer Hilsen. He goes on to say:

“You might want to go for an XTR or other superlight cassette, too. We can price them for you, and steer you toward the right stuff, and we'll be careful with your money, making sure you don't do anything foolish or spend more than necessary.”

And about hubs:

“Phil hubs jack the price way up there, but they are Phil hubs, after all. The stock Shimano LX hubs are a great value, really good hubs, and you shouldn't feel funny about getting "only" Shimano hubs on a bike this great. They are worthy, or we wouldn't recommend them. But if you've always lusted after Phil, and you can handle a several hundred dollar upcharge, why not?”

That’s ol’ Grant, watching out for you as you spend your money. Both of us, Grant and I, (and lots of other good people in the bike-biz) retain that Aquarian reluctance to lavish other people’s money on bike purchases.

We want those people to ride their bikes, to be happy with their bikes, and to think of us kindly for selling them such wonderful bikes. We’d like to think we treated them fairly and advised them wisely, just as we would a friend or family member.

Because our customers are cyclists, they do seem like friends or family. They’re often kindred spirits, especially (in my view) Rivendell people.

Certain customers do not appreciate that sort of attention from sales folk. They’re used to buying the best. They feel sure that more money means more bicycle. They distrust a salesperson who assures them that they’ll be happy with less. What’s the angle?

Maybe they will be happy with the LX hubs; maybe they won’t. Why take a chance?

As longtime cyclists and people who work in the bike business know, bikes are not nearly as different from one another to ride as they are different in price. You can pay ten grand for a racing bike today; it’ll be cool but not twice as cool as a bike that costs 1/4 the price.

Bicycle salespeople are told to start at the top, meaning to show customers the expensive models first. If the customer has a lower-cost bike in mind, he or she will say so. It’s easier to start high and slide down the price scale than to start low and sell up.

If you talk about lower-priced bikes first, you risk insulting your customer by assuming that he or she is limited by budget. And again, it’s tough to rave about $400 bikes and then accommodate an upscale customer by praising bikes that cost five times as much.

Rivendell Reader articles often feature sub-$400 bikes. I’m sure, though we’ve never discussed this, that no one at Rivendell assumes that everyone who wants a Hilsen can afford one. And they marvel at the joy and utility experienced from low-budget bikes.

Because Grant and I know that low price is no barrier to fun awheel, and because we were raised on Dust Bowl ballads, we encourage spending what’s appropriate – even if you could easily spend more.

The LX hubs truly are “really good hubs,” even if they suffer the stigma of low price.

Oh….all that having been said, write and tell me: Are you the precise person Grant has in mind as he writes?


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