Thursday, August 15, 2013

Bike Shopping

Important Math

Many bike enthusiasts will tell you that there is a formula for determining how many bikes you should own at any particular moment, N = T +1.  

In this formula, N is the number of bikes you would like to own and T is the number you currently own. 

There is a corollary to the formula, described as the “spousal adaptation” and it is 
L = A + 1

L is the number of bikes owned that will cause them to leave while A is the acceptable number of bikes you may possess at any time. This drives appropriate bike ownership behavior, whereby you have to thin the herd prior to making a new purchase.  A trade in may work but can be construed as cutting it too close, depending on the spouse.

You can justify until you’re blue in the face but the spousal adaptation will always trump justification, assuming that you wish to remain happily married.

After an excellent year at work, I was fortunate enough to receive a bonus of some substance. I asked MB if she thought it would be okay for me to earmark some of it towards buying a new bike. As usually happens, she was quick to say, “Yes, you deserve it!”  (I’m really a lucky guy.)

It’s not that my last bike wasn’t serving its purpose. I bought it off Craig’s list, 2 years ago for $200 and invested a bit more than that to make it road ready with new tires, stem, and a full tune-up. She had served me well for about 2800 miles, including three century rides.  But I knew the technology had changed dramatically in the sixteen years since this bike had first hit the road and I wanted some of that!

The Planning Stage

Bicycling Magazine publishes an annual issue with reviews about practically every make and model of bike available today. As a subscriber, I received this issue and thumbed through it, looking at all of the bikes that were in my price range of sub-$1500.  (I could have gone up to $2K but wanted room for accessories or tweaking, too.) This dividing line knocked out about 75% of bikes that they reviewed.  (I would no more spend $18,000 on a bike than I would $5,000 on a guitar; my talent and skill levels are similar on both instruments, by the way.)
The cyclists Bible

By the time I finished my research, I had a list of about eight or nine models that I wanted to test ride. I was anxious to do this as many of the reviews talked about the quality and nuances of the various models. I couldn’t imagine that they would be all that different, I mean it’s just a bike, but my curiosity was peaked. I scouted out all the local bike shops to find out what brands and models they offered, and then planned my test ride day.

All of the “experts” tell you to bring a pair of shorts (whatever you normally wear to ride) shoes, and a pair of pedals. I had all of those with me, along with my trusty iPad for note taking, and headed out to the shops.

Of Test Rides and Salespeople

I headed down to the first shop on my list, I’ll call it Sparky’s, with the hope of riding a Giant Defy. This model comes in a variety of equipment / price levels and at least one of them could fit the bill. The website indicated that they carried this model. The store is also the closest LBS to my house.

Entering the store, I looked around to see almost nothing but used bikes. There were a few new models mixed in but they were mostly big wheeled cruisers or kids models.  After milling around for a few minutes, I was approached by a slightly built (damn climbers) fellow who introduced himself (let’s call him Steve) and asked how he could help.  I explained that I was interested in a new road bike, had been riding an old Giant CFR-3 and was looking to spend less than $1500.  I told him I’d seen the Giant Defy on their website and was wondering if I could get a test ride.

(Full disclosure time. I train sales people for a living and have been in the sales world for over 30 years. There aren’t many things where I’m an expert but when it comes to professional selling and the sales process, I am. Additionally, I was skeptical about buying used because it’s impossible to know what the “correct” price is in the market. If you’re buying from a dealer, I think it could be very easy to be taken. There isn’t a Bike Blue Book, although there are some websites that attempt to help with that. If you don’t know what something is worth, then you’re the sucker!)

Steve immediately pointed out a used Giant Defy that was in the rack.
Sweet ride!
It was the correct size for me (56CM) and he started to talk about what it had on it, which was a nearly top of the line group. He then told me that, at $3800, it was a steal and, if I wanted, I could test ride it.  When I asked him how much the newer models had changed, he said, “Very little.  Besides, this is a much better deal.” While I was disappointed that he wasn’t listening to me, I decided that, if nothing else, I could ride something really terrific to set a bar for myself, even if it wasn’t the exact one that I wanted. I handed him my pedals and he rolled the bike back to the mechanic’s area to get them installed.

I rolled the bike out into the parking lot and took it on a ride of several miles. From the moment I got on the bike, I was amazed at how comfortable, solid, and quick the bike was! (It remains the best ride of all the bikes I’ve ridden to date.)

As I returned to the shop, I made a fairly sharp left turn and realized the front wheel had flatted in the last few seconds. I never heard it but when the wheel tried to skid out from under me, it got my attention and I really had to work to keep from smacking the pavement. I rolled the bike back into the shop and up to the counter where Steve was speaking with a guy I took to be the owner or manager.

“How did you like the ride?”

“It was great until the front wheel went flat out in front of the store. It’s amazing how much better the drive train is than on my old bike and the ride is terrific.”

“I can have the tire fixed in no time if you want to take it home with you.”
(Now, I appreciate an assumptive close as much as any sales trainer but this was the kind of thing I expect from a car salesman not in my local bike shop.)

“I told you, I didn’t want to spend over $1500.”

“Oh, I heard you. I just know that when someone tells me that, that’s not what they really mean.”

“Actually, it’s exactly what I meant. I have a budget and plan to stick to it. But I also wanted to ride a Giant Defy and this appears to be the only one in your store despite what the website says. I also told you, I was looking to buy a new bike, not a used bike and you haven’t shown me a new one, yet.”

At this point, the owner/manager spoke up.

“Show him what’s available; in his price range, the only Defy he could get is the ‘cheap carbon’ version.”  The way he said “cheap carbon” it sounded as if he thought it was made from recycled bird dung or something equally as valuable. Nice.

Steve went to the computer and began pulling up Giant’s website as he said, “You know, you really ought to ride that Litespeed I have over there; it’s titanium and it’s really sweet. And it’s only $2400.”

“Steve, you seem to know a little bit about selling. Has anyone taught you about effective questioning techniques, coupled with active listening skills? They come in real handy when you’re trying to find out a customer’s needs and wants, in order to close a sale!”

“Are you in sales?”

“No, I train sales people for a living. Right now, you and your boss are failing miserably, too.” I smiled as I said it. “I’ve got a few more test rides to make today so I’ll take my pedals and be on my way.” He went back into the mechanic’s area to retrieve them. The “boss” focused intently on his computer screen and pretended I’d already left.

Steve came back, handed me my pedals, and said, almost sheepishly, “I can probably get one of those Defys into the store by the end of the week so you can see it, if you’d like.”

“Thanks, that’s good to know. I’ll give you a call later today and let you know if I want you to do that.” I turned around and headed out.

While I loved the ride, I was really pissed. He could have easily sold me a bike if he’d listened to what I wanted and his boss hadn’t disparaged what I was interested in buying. (Just because you wouldn’t buy one yourself doesn’t mean you shouldn’t sell one to a customer if that’s what they want. Dumbass.)

Next stop was a shop in the city, Carytown Bikes. I had spoken to Bill there the week before and he was glad to get my pedals onto a bike we’d talked about then, so I could take it for a ride. His technique was far more polished and he suggested that I ride the carbon version of the Cannondale bike first, to get an idea of how it felt, before riding the aluminum model. The carbon model was slightly over my budget but I wanted to compare to see what I might be giving up. I was also interested in understanding how it differed from the Giant I’d been on earlier.
Good people, downtown shop!

I took it for a spin around Carytown and the surrounding area, covering ten miles at varying speeds and terrain.  Much to my surprise, the ride was distinctly different and I didn’t like it. It felt harsh and stiff. The performance was good but I just didn’t feel good on the bike.

I got back to the shop and told Bill that I wasn’t keen on the ride, telling him that it felt harsh to me. He swapped the pedals onto an aluminum model and I headed out for the same course.  Once again, the ride was really unpleasant to me, even stiffer than the carbon model. I just couldn’t see myself spending hundreds, possibly thousands, of hours on this bike, complaining about how it felt or ever getting used to it.

When I got back, I thanked Bill for his time. He probed for how I was leaning and I told him that based on the feel, I didn’t see myself buying a Cannondale at this time.  If anything changed, I’d get back to him. He nodded, pointing out that many things can be changed on a bike but the frame feel isn’t one of them. I appreciated his candor and knowledge, wishing we could do business but it wasn’t to be.

On the way back out of town, I stopped at a fairly new shop in the West End where I had planned to try a couple of brands.  After waiting around for 15 minutes and being ignored, I left. It was as if I was invisible. (I worked in retail for many years. There are some things about it I’ll never understand. Like not seeing customers.  WTF?)

Performance Bicycle makes the grade

My last stop for the day was Performance Bikes, a chain out of Raleigh NC; they have over 100 stores in the eastern and western parts of the US.  I really wanted to buy from a local store but, up to this point, none of them seemed to want to sell me a bike. (Carytown did but their bikes didn’t match up for me.) So here I was at a chain, going against the conventional wisdom of most people in the sport, not buying from the local guy.

Reid immediately took care of getting me set up to ride a Fuji Gran Fondo in carbon; interestingly, I had to fill out a form and leave my driver’s license behind while I rode which wasn’t required anywhere else I rode. Some things about chain retail never change; policies must be obeyed!

I took a half hour ride, a bit hillier than in the city, covering about ten miles. The bike felt really good, nearly as good as the Defy which was over twice as much, and while the gearing was one step down it also felt very solid. So, here was a bike that was $100 above my price range that felt good, was equipped the way I wanted it and was really good looking, too!

As I returned the bike, Reid told me that it was a great weekend to buy because it was a “Triple Points Weekend.” Frequent buyer club members usually receive 10% of their purchases back in the form of points to be used for future purchases. This weekend, that amount was tripled so I’d get nearly $500 back! That would more than cover the accessories I was looking to add. He also pointed out that purchasing there includes lifetime adjustments, a professional fitting was included, lifetime satisfaction guarantee and several other services, too. (The power of big retail is alive and well!)  I thanked Reid for letting me know and told him I’d call him later if I wanted him to hold and prep the bike for delivery in the morning.

Decision Time

I went home, mixed a drink and considered my options. 

The Fuji had the second best ride with a great price, including the chance to get all the accessories I wanted without spending any more money. In the end, I’d be way ahead of the deal. When I replayed my shopping experiences to MB she said, “Why are you even considering these other places? And you hate it when you have to deal with gear snobs and bad service. Go buy the Fuji.”

I called the store and told them I would be coming in first thing in the morning and asked them to prep the bike for me. They took down my name and promised me it would be waiting.

The Best Laid Plans….

I got to Performance about 15 minutes after they opened and was greeted by Jay, the store manager who looked to be about my age. I told him my name and that a bike was being held for me and should be prepped and ready to go.

He immediately got that look on his face that I hate to see. ‘I have no idea what this guy is talking about but I’m going to pretend that I do.’  I’ve seen it dozens of time over the years, to the point where I almost laugh out loud.

Jay walked quickly to the back of the store and reappeared a couple minutes later. Now the look was, ‘I can’t pull this off. Better come clean.’

“I’m sorry, I can’t seem to find it. What kind of bike was it? I was here last night and I don’t remember anybody saying anything about this.”

“It’s a Fuji Gran Fondo, matte black finish with some red trim, with a 105 group on it. It was right here (I pointed to the empty spot in the rack) yesterday. I called about 7 last night and told the guy I spoke to that I would be in this morning to pick it up and prep it for me.”

Jay nodded and began walking toward the back of the store where the mechanic area is and I followed him.  He disappeared behind a wall and I heard him rummaging around back there. 

Suddenly, I heard him say, “Here it is! Found it.”  He reappeared carrying the bike.

“I’m really sorry, Brian, nothing has been done to it yet. Do you mind waiting while we prep it? It’ll take about 30 minutes or so.”

“That’s fine. I’ll go get a cup of coffee and be back shortly.” I replied. Jay placed the bike in a bike stand and started directing one of the mechanics to work on it.
In a half hour, I was back. The bike was ready to go and Jay got me on my way in short order, with the bike loaded onto the car rack. I planned to return the next week, after the points had hit my account, to pickup accessories.

First Ride

There was family stuff going on so I couldn’t ride immediately that day. Late in the afternoon, though, I was able to take it out for a shakedown ride. I told MB I’d be back in an hour or so.

I changed clothes, stuck a spare tube and CO2 pump in my jersey pocket (to prevent a tire from flatting. They only go flat when you aren’t prepared, you know what I’m talking about) and took off. I was extremely curious to see the difference in performance, if any existed, on one of the regular courses that I ride.

The course I rode is just over 18 miles and it’s got a couple of fairly stout little climbs.  As I headed up the street that runs in front of my house, I felt very comfortable spinning along. Since I didn’t have a bike computer on it yet, I couldn’t tell how fast I was going but it felt faster than normal. I immediately thought, “I must be experiencing new bike syndrome.  It must be faster because it’s new!” I had cued up an app on my iPhone so I’d be able to get a pretty good idea at the end but the phone was in my pocket and for now it was all about feel. And it felt good, so far!

At the first climb, it seemed to be much easier riding than I was used to and I shot up the road in a taller gear than I normally do. Definitely faster. I pedaled another couple of miles and came to the second climb, easily the tougher of the two. It felt like I flew up it! Wow! Maybe new gear does make a difference.

I continued on, becoming more and more unified with the machine, liking it more with each corner. By the time I turned back into my driveway, I was convinced I’d made the right decision.  I unclipped and stopped, reaching into my pocket for my phone to click the stop button on the app.

I was surprised to see that I’d ridden this course in 53:03 beating my previous best time by over 5 minutes! That was far better than I was expecting.  New bike syndrome? Maybe but it’s continued for the past 6 weeks and that’s long enough to be statistically significant. 

This new bike has a home!

And a name!  Meet Fast Eddy!