Saturday, March 29, 2008

Light bulb

I wrote this ten years ago for Velo Business, a short-lived trade journal published by the Velo-News folks in Boulder. My friend Bruce and I worked together at the Tour du Pont and later at the Tour de Trump, "driving" support motorcycles: Bruce carried race doctor Andy Pruitt; I carried Greg Miller, a Mavic mechanic. I lived in Berkeley at the time. I can't recall why I was in Colorado riding with Bruce when I found a needed a taillight bulb...

Hi Guys

My Tour DuPont motordriver buddy Bruce and I rode our motorcycles out of Boulder, looping through charming Lyons, Colorado. Lyons seems to be on the routes of lots of fun rides, bicycle and motorcycle.

We swapped motorcycles for a few miles up Boulder Canyon. As I followed him up the curving road, I noticed that one of the two bulbs in his taillight, MY taillight, wasn't burning. I'll fix that today, I thought.

Rolling through Lyons, we saw a line of used motorcycles, maybe half a dozen, in front of two open garage doors.

No sign announced it, but we were unmistakably looking at a primitive motorcycle shop, evidently a repair shop. We could see toolboxes, oil and paint cans and partially dismantled motorcycles in its poorly lit, messy recesses.

Bruce, I said, let's stop here and see if we can fix my taillight. Sure, he said, good idea.

A skinny guy in a good-ol'-boy undershirt greeted us, saying he wouldn't be open for a week or so but would help us if he could. I said I thought I needed a new taillight bulb. I asked to borrow a Phillips to take off the lens and look at the old bulb.

He dug out one of those reversible socket screwdrivers, put the smaller Phillips bit in position and handed it to me. He said he wasn't sure he had any bulbs but he'd look, and told me about an auto parts store down the road that would surely have one if he didn't.

He and the other four guys hanging around there spoke in what I'll call an unpolished manner. They were not urban sophisticates. They did not belong to trendy health clubs or talk about current cinema, but they were glad to see us. Hi guys.

I fought with the two tight screws and eventually got my lens off. The skinny guy found a couple bulbs after all, new or used, hard to tell. I took my old bulb out and stuck in one of his. Lit up fine.

He said, here, try this other one, maybe it's better. I did, and it was. Brighter. Super. Another roadside repair completed.

I borrowed a can of WD-40 to spray the lens screws. The guys watched me clumsily replacing the lens and never so much as chuckled. They chatted with Bruce and me, friendly as family, friendlier than many families, if I'm honest.

Lens reinstalled, I put the screwdriver back where I saw him pick it up, the WD-40 back on its shelf.

How much do I owe you, I asked. If you give me a dollar, the skinny guy said, I can replace that bulb. I gave him two dollars, borrowed on the spot from Bruce. We shook hands all around. The guy said to come back anytime, he'd be officially open soon. We said we sure would.

As Bruce and I rode away, I looked over at him and asked him if that had been a fun stop. Sure was, he said, nice guys. Really nice, I said.

You'd imagine a visit to a motorcycle store would be intimidating, a brush with more macho, badguy theater, beer-bar camaraderie than you'd wanna put up with. Typically, it's not like that.

In most motorcycle shops you don't have to prove you're worthy of respect. You're a good guy until you reveal somehow that you're not.

Thinking about that, I said: Bruce, compare that to a stop in a bicycle store where no one knows you. Might be a different experience, huh?

Good chance, he said.

Walk into such a shop. You can be a skinny, middle-class white guy with some college, a Bronco and an 18-speed bike with aftermarket wheels, just like the employee you ask to help you. May not matter.

Bruce and I were separated from the guys in the Lyons motorcycle shop by barriers of social class, education and accent. Didn't matter. We rode motorcycles: We were okay.

In the bicycle store, there's a chance that if the guy who helps you doesn't recognize you from photos in VeloNews, you're out of luck. If you're Sean Kelly, you're probably okay. But if you're not...If you're just a bike rider...You may get no respect.

Curious, isn't it? Hey, you ARE a bike rider. You're not a pain in the butt. You're in the shop to spend money. Still, if you want to be treated as more than a poser, more than a clueless consumer, you still have to prove who you are.

You somehow have to show the young man: Who you know, how fast you are or how many trophies store dust on your mantel. How many legs you've broken.

You do not represent a threat to this guy, right? You don't want anything he has. You don't want to beat him in a training ride sprint. You don't want to steal his girlfriend.

Why is he so wary? Why doesn't he welcome you the way the guys at the motorcycle shop welcomed my friend Bruce and me?

Those guys had next to nothing to sell us. They did not have thousands of dollars worth of parts, accessories and bikes displayed in their store. They were simply glad to see us, glad to have kindred spirits drop by their place of business on a beautiful day in Lyons, Colorado.

Did it matter that neither of us was Kenny Roberts? Evidently not.

After all, motorcycling is a hobby for most folks. The average biker rides 1500 miles a year, maybe a couple rides a month. If Harley dealers had to rely on dedicated riders (as many bicycle shops do) fewer Harley dealers would be millionaires.

By contrast, regular cyclists are ALL dedicated. Cycling demands dedication. It's way harder than motorcycling. Any cyclist has done hard things, climbed long hills, fought endless headwinds, been hot, been cold, been soaked. He or she has endured. Cycling's hard.

And cycling is more of a lifestyle than motorcycling. Most cyclists think about eating right, staying hydrated, getting quality rest. They think about performance clothing, about bike fit, about physiology, about victimization by drivers, on and on.

Cycling's hard. Bike shop visits shouldn't be. Cyclists or prospective cyclists deserve respect, Sean Kelly or not.

Cyclists shouldn't have to show no stinking badges.


Anonymous said...

Being of the 'athletic build', I used to get away with much in those situations. [He must be okay, look how tall he is]. However, as my hair grays, and the corners of my eyes wrinkle, I have become invisible. Really.

Any trophies I had would be from 'back-in-the-day'. You know, when things were made of steel. Had to be slower for sure.

B. Wally

Bilko said...

Why do so many of the bicycle shops come & go? The sport basically stays the same....

Thanks for the story..

Maynard said...

Hi bilco!

I thought a had a quick, glib answer to your (probably rhetorical) question, so I starting writing. And stopped and deleted what I wrote. And started again and stopped again and deleted it all again. It's a tough go for any small business, and the profit margins on bike stuff are silly small. Some people shouldn't work in retail. Beyond those two possible explanations, your guess is as good as mine. Thanks for reading! Maynard