Fostering a cult of achievement in your customers makes everybody better, and sells more tyres

The end of the year is often a time for reflection, and a musing on what's to come. This year – as we hurtle towards 2019 – is even more poignant for me, having just turned 50 right about the time of this writing. My plan is to do a 50-mile ride, on a 50-year-old Peugeot PX 10, on my 50th birthday. Anyone who’s ridden a vintage bike knows this will be an accomplishment. It might be a real L’eroica ride next year on that bike, or perhaps on my more modern but still antique first racing bike, if I can swing the expense and time.

For those more obsessed with the latest press fit bottom bracket standard (which might start creaking after six months!) than with history, L’eroica means heroic in Italian and is the pre-eminent vintage ride. The rides require pre-1987 bikes – which generally have threaded bottom brackets – and clothing.

The original L’eroica is held on Tuscany’s famous strade bianche white gravel roads, and sister rides are all over the place. A version in Japan is likely replete with Fujis, 3Renshos, and the (in)famous Dura Ace AX component gruppo. There’s a Spanish event where I hope you’d see some Zeus machines and parts. A Dutch rendition might show you that Gazelle made more than ‘Dutch’ commuter tanks. There’s an event in South Africa, a California coast edition in the US, and of course a June event in the Peak District where my brother could ride his 1972 Bob Jackson. And more.

The future
L’eroica and 1968 PX 10s are the past, which I spend too much time worrying about, clearly. I need to spend more time pondering the present, and the future. This thought came to mind when reading BikeBiz September’s musings on the closing of Portland’s Velo Cult, the type of shop just recently heralded as the future of bicycle retail by GearJunkie. It was a ‘destination,’ retailer that was part bike shop, part craft beer, and part performance centre. But it didn’t survive in a bike city like Portland.

This got me thinking. I’ve seen a few ‘coffee and bike’ lifestyle bike shops close as well. What is the future? For all of us, not just the shaved leg set or the virtuous daily commuter or the hardcore dirt rider. We are all cyclists.

One thing is clear: We need more people on bikes and wearing out tyres and clothing and bringing new people into the sport who need bikes. We need more entry-level, mid-level, and high-end. They feed each other.

Currently, we are competing with electric scooters, video games on steroids, virtual reality, electric skateboards, sloth, the ever-present handheld device, the constant call of narcissistic social media, and more. While rolling up a cycling commuter thoroughfare the other day, I saw two grown men on hoverboards roaring down the lane. Tres moderne.

And I’ll say that the jury is still out on bike share schemes – are they good for the broader industry, or not? Seeing discarded neon bike-share bikes lying on their side all over metropolitan Washington, DC, now joined by electric scooters, just bothers me on some level. As a rider who leans toward the competitive side, I understand that ‘bikes as transportation’ and ‘increasing modal share’ and such is important from an environmental standpoint as more and more of the population lives in urban environs. And commuters wear out tyres and brake pads and need new lights and mudguards from time to time. And e-bikes are a very real car replacement option for many commutes. And it is just good for everybody, on many levels.

But I also think that as an industry, we focus a bit too much on the urban. Not everybody lives in Portland or London. I get it, I live in an urban area and do my short commute by bike more days than I do not… but not everybody lives in cities. When I see figures saying 89 per cent of the UK lives in cities or 80 per cent of the US, I think that’s probably a broader definition of urban than I have in my head. I understand the top-down approach that wants more cycling as transportation, and support it within reason. And what happens once we have monorails and moving sidewalks and driverless cars and other commuting options not yet imagined? Will sloth pre-empt bike commuting for many? Will work-from-home schemes become preponderant, making commuting to work less common?

The once and future king
As is apparently my nature, I look to the past when pondering the future. What got me started down the road? It was down the road, not the cycle path, to be sure. During the bike boomlet of the early to mid-80s when I went the way of the wheel, it was about the freedom that comes with riding a bike and the accomplishment, and ultimately it was also about competition. Not just with others, but also with myself as I sought to increase distances or average speeds. Accomplishment, something that transcends.

Bike lanes and commuter subsidies for cycling had nothing to do with me becoming a cyclist. There was a sense of doing some good ecologically, but it was secondary for me. 

I became a cyclist in the 80s. The zeitgeist was accomplishment and fitness and self-improvement. Couple that with a roaring economy, and the LBS I worked at changed from one where we sharpened ice skates and sold plastic airplane models along with the bikes, to a real shop serving recreational and more serious riding. We helped others accomplish mildy to outrageously audacious things. Many customers lost some weight and became weekend warriors. One got second place in the 850-mile nonstop Boston-Montreal-Boston randonneur ride in 1992.

What does this mean or matter to us as an industry today? Personally, I have come to realise with years that cycling fully made me. That’s what I want to transfer to others… not everybody needs to be an athlete, but everyone should challenge themselves and accomplish. Much of what I do in the shop and elsewhere encourages – in a cheery way – accomplishment. I want my zeitgeist back and I’ll be a happy warrior encouraging it.

I try to get parents to get the kids off the stabilisers before the kid turns ten. I tell recreational riders or newbies about the safe, pleasant places to ride. I encourage people who start to show some real enthusiasm after riding a bike for a year or so to broaden their riding, perhaps even getting a second or third bike. Many do.

A fellow bike shop guy helpfully started up a century training group. I encouraged them in an email to take that to the next level by doing a flat, easy and safe local 200km randonneuring Brevet as the next step. That way they’ll use more tyre rubber and wear out more chains. And they’ll be jazzed if they’ve done it! I keep bringing up randonneuring. While that is a tad obscure, there’s a branch of it called audax, French for audacious I think. Audacious accomplishment.

I know that not everybody can ride 100km or 200km, or even wants to. But I love helping people who have never ridden ten miles accomplish what to them is a big deal. As bike shop people you know well that many customers have never ridden 20 miles at once. Make that happening for a septuagenarian, or a 35- year-old who’s realised they no longer have the metabolism of a teen, would be fulfilling for all involved. What can you do? Think about what got you started for starters. And then think about how this fits into the modern world.

And maybe history can repeat itself. 100 years ago, the bicycle was about transportation, and it was also about racing and speed and accomplishing great ride distances. I think focusing on both as we move forward makes some sense. Save the world while making (or saving) yourself. 

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