Simon Usborne was clearly hoping for fireworks when his polemic against bike shop staff was published in The Independent on 5th November.
He started his article with an inflammatory question: "Why does it appear that to work in a bike shop you have to be a bastard?"
He didn’t state which bike shops he meant but it appears to be the larger chains, you know, not Halfords, independently-owned, and there’s lots of them, especially in London, where Usborne lives.
He specifically excludes "most independent shops, where the nice people seem to work."
Usborne wrote: "I feel more intimidated walking into certain cycle shops than I would a Paris branch of Prada."
On Twitter, a reader agreed with Usborne’s portrait and said bike shops were intimidating "because it’s a sectarian religion "and they’re always suspicious that you might not be one of the elect."
Usborne believes certain bike shops have a sneery attitude that ought to be expunged, but he also seems to be attacking certain cyclists too:
"There remains an ugly tribalism in cycling. It’s a hangover from the time when cyclists were viewed as virtuous deviants who espoused a holier-than-thou, I’m-doing-the-world-a-favour smugness. You still see it in the aggressive rider who bangs the windows of an errant car, the preachy green type who sneers at drivers through exhaust fumes and, I suggest, the typical bike-shop worker."
Urging bike shop staff to lighten up, he wrote:
"You’re not saving the planet, you’re not superior, and you’re not in a tribe. You’re riding a bike, which is the easiest thing to do after walking. More and more people want to ride – and buy – bikes, which is great because it’s helping to erode the perception of cycling as an alternative activity, or hobby. So get over yourself, enjoy cycling for what it is (a nice way to get around) and smile a bit."
Now, the BikeBiz Mystery Shopper has sometimes reported an off-hand attitude in some shops, and has been on the receiving end of condescending lectures on bike choice, but this is outlier stuff, it’s hardly the norm otherwise bike shops would have ceased to exist long ago.
Perhaps Usborne could work in a bike shop for a couple of days and experience a few choice customers. Customers who are obviously sizing up a bike or a pair of shoes but who plan to buy online. Customers who think bike shops are charities and shouldn’t charge an arm and a leg for "just replacing a tube." Customers who want to haggle, but wouldn’t do so in Asda.
But such customers are also outliers, they stick out but they’re not the norm.
On the whole, independent bike shops tend to attract a higher quality of customer (depending on the catchment area, of course…) Sell higher end kit and you’ll get higher end customers. Not necessarily richer customers – it’s an oft-repeated anecdote that loaded BMW drivers often squeal like children when told the price of bike repairs – but nicer customers.
Unlike in many other retailers (high-end hi-fi is one of the exceptions) bike shops attract enthusiast customers. And bike shops tend to be owned, and staffed, by enthusiasts. In many ways it’s a meeting of the minds, like-attracting-like. OK, so this is a rosy picture of bike retail but is it any more extreme than Simon Usborne’s polemic?