I did my first bike shop gig in College Park, Maryland back in the spring of 1986. It was short term; having just earned my B.S. in Elementary Education I had a little over two months before I world marry and leave the state, but the owner was happy to have a little extra seasonal, if unseasoned, help. Halfway through my tenure at College Park I turned twenty-five and toward the end of May I said hasta la vista to Maryland, joined my now wife in holy matrimony and headed to Hotlanta, Georgia.
I lived in Atlanta (Alpharetta, for those who care) for a little over eight years and wove some work in a couple Challenge Schwinn bike shops around my teaching job before settling into long term employment at North Fulton Cyclesports. In the autumn of 1994 I moved to Indianapolis where I worked at BGI for a little over three years. Occasionally, I would help out at a second of BGI’s three locations so technically I worked at two shops in Indiana. My wife got a slick job in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and I moved to Northtowne Cycling and Fitness where I worked for 18 years before heading to Florida. In Florida I worked at Outspokin Clearwater for a bit over a year and a half before I found a job at a shop a mere five, as opposed to 25, miles away from home.
If we count the shops where I have worked on our fingers we will have a single digit left (assuming you didn’t grow up in farm country and lost a finger to the fickleness of fate.) In any case, I have been “The New Guy” nine times in bike shops over thirty-one years and across the eastern half of the United States of America; a position that can be trying. The New Guy is different when one is young and green and knows little as compared to when one is old, mellow and well seasoned but being The New Guy is never easy.
For four-and-one-half months I played my latest New Guy card very close to my chest, being both respectful and deferential to all my coworkers, a demeanor that comes easily to me. The shop where I work is small. We have the owner, three full-time employees and three part-time employees. In addition to being the newest member on staff I am also the eldest, the most experienced and part-time. Fortunately for me, my coworkers, two of whom are younger than my children, are a crackerjack lot whose work and work ethics I applaud. We have fun and we get the job done, but as the new guy a big part of my job is biting my tongue.
I’m Guido Novum and these men and woman don’t know me from Adam. I need to be circumspect, diplomatic and open minded, three things I value and strive for. I was doing pretty well until the afternoon of Saturday, July 29th.
A gentleman rolls his Specialized Allez bicycle through our doors and “A,” my fellow coworker and the New Guy directly above me in tenure, asks how he can help. The customer, let’s call him S.A., has a new bike that isn’t shifting very well. The shop where he purchased it promised S.A. a lifetime of free bike adjustments-
and then went out of business two weeks later. (OUCH!)
“A” puts the bike up in the stand, diagnoses the problem as easily remedied cable slack, tweaks the derailleur’s barrel adjuster, tries the shifting again and pronounces, “All better!”
S.A. seems a bit miffed that “A” diagnosed and solved the problem in less than sixty seconds and “A” adds, “But I should go ahead and test ride it, just to be sure.” With these momentous words “A” heads out the door only to return shaking his head.
“Hey, Keith,” “A” says to me, “look at these cranks, will you? I think the left pedal is cross threaded.” ‘I think the left pedal is cross threaded,’ is akin to telling someone that his cat is on the roof when in fact the cat is quite dead. “A” knows the pedal is cross threaded because he felt it squirming beneath his foot as he pedaled and is trying to let S.A. down easy.
I look at the pedal and respond with an eloquent, “Holy crap. This is terrible.”
Which “A” responds to with a knowing nod and an interrogative of, “Think we can save it?”
I volley back with, “I really doubt it.”
Now, I should tell you that our service area is open and we have a short wall with stools on the other side. Customers can watch us work, hear our conversations and interact with us as we go. I looked at S.A. and said, “I think we’re gonna have to get you a crank arm but the good news is that it’s the left side and those aren’t usually very expensive. “
S.A. grimaces, an understandable reaction, and “A” looks at the right pedal and asks, “Does this look cross threaded as well?”
Poor S.A. has purchased a bike that has a few issues from a bankrupt shop that leaves him in a position of no good recourse. The bike’s problems aren’t manufacturer’s defects, they’re set up issues, things that a reputable shop would either have not created or would address after the fact.
Luckily for S.A., my prognosis for recovery was overly pessimistic. We removed both pedals, tapped the threads from the back side out, removed the TWO (Two? Two!) pedal washers that had been between both crank arms and both pedals (No, S.A. did not have an unusually wide Q-Factor requiring a Larry Craig Minnesota Wide Stance on his bicycle.) and when I reinstalled the pedals I snugged them down far more firmly than was required.
Why did I apply extra torque to my wrench? Because if that left crank arm was going to fail I wanted it to fail in my shop, not while S.A. was out riding. I explained what I’d done, “A” flipped S.A.’s stem from the more leisurely seven degree up position to the sportier -7 degree down position, removed the man’s rattling spoke protector/”dork disc” (I have a spoke protector on all but my racing bike but then again I am a bit of a dork.) and “A” again test rode the Allez to make sure all was a.o.k. This time “A” returned to the shop with a smile and a nod.
And this is where the trouble began. I am Guido Novum. I am no one’s manager, no one’s supervisor. I am, as the cliche goes, low man on the totem pole. There I am at the bottom and I’m about to stir up a little trouble.
I have moved on am working on another bike when I hear “A” say, “Yeah, I’m gonna have to charge you for the the work we did on the crank, but I’ll go ahead and take care of the derailleur adjustment for free.”
I am aghast.
S.A. declares, “Okay. I’ll have to go get my wallet from the car,” which is my cue to make an ass out of myself.
S.A. is out of the store and I walk up to “A” and ask, “Why are we working on bikes for free?” in a voice that none of my current coworkers has ever heard come from me. It is my indignant manager voice, a voice that is uncalled for and inappropriate for my position.
“A” and I have a short discussion about value, knowledge, making new customers, S.A.’s hard luck deal concerning the bankruptcy of the shop where he bought his Allez and a few other topics in the two to three minutes that it takes S.A. to retrieve his wallet. Just before S.A. comes back into the store I say, “Okay- I shouldn’t have said anything. I won’t say anything more,” in a voice closer to my avenging manager voice than to the mellow, So-Cal tones my fellow co-workers are used to. I say it, but of course I don’t mean it.
I am a smart ass. “A” is a smart ass and we smart ass back and forth a bit and once S.A. has gone his merry way we hash out that “A” did charge for the stem install/flip, tapping both crank arms and removal of S.A.’s spoke protector, so the only thing he “gave away” was the rear derailleur cable adjustment. I conceded that, as S.A. was paying for the other services that “A’s” actions were more appropriate than he had led me to believe vis a vis his statement to S.A. and “A” conceded that it was understandable that I would hear “free” and wonder what the heck wonder boy was thinking; especially as we had spent over 45 minutes working on the man’s bike and saved him from the greater expense of having to replace his crank- a fate that would likely have accompanied continuing use of his bike.
“A” and I are buddies. We have mutual respect and near constant teasing of one another which sits well with me. I don’t mind giving advice and adding knowledge at my workplace but it’s important that I temper this with circumlocutions and perhaps even mix it with just a tiny spoonful of pablum; after all nobody likes a boat rocker or a know-it-all.
As Kermit The Frog said, “It isn’t easy being green.”