Buying a bicycle has changed a lot from the days when the only option was to mosey on down to your local bike shop and ask for a recommendation or a shiny new rig you saw in a magazine.
The internet has made sure of that. It’s a different ball-game now, with so many different frames on the market, all readily available at cut-rate prices somewhere or other online, and the components to go with them all in the same boat.
The result has been the rise of the online seller and the gradual fall of the local bike shop, but with cycling – from road cycling to commuting and mountain biking – booming like never before, surely there should be more than enough trade to go around?
“If you want independent bike shops to be here then it needs to stop..."
The sad truth is that even with the increasing numbers of cyclists, there’s been such a significant shift in shopping tendencies in the past 10 years that many local bike shops have been left struggling. If people can save money elsewhere, they’re obviously likely to do so.
But what’s the real cost of saving some cash online? Are we at risk of losing many of the local bike shops which we rely on for maintenance, for putting a physical form to a purchase before we buy it and for those emergency accessories and quick fixes that we couldn't ride without? The answer if nothing changes, is undoubtedly yes.
“Bicycle shops in the past few years have had a big hit, mainly down to the internet," Chris Fowler told us. He’s been in the bicycle trade over 26 years and has been running Freewheelin’ Cycles, a traditional bike shop in Edinburgh, since 2001.
“There are wholesalers and shops going to the wall because people’s shopping habits have changed. The internet floods the market and undervalues things.
“The bicycle trade is one of the few trades where you can buy something for cost price on the internet. There are certain retailers that can sell stuff at a lesser price than I can buy it via a wholesaler.
“The customers are still there, but they’re just not going into shops. Not just my shop. It’s the same in the majority of bicycle shops around the country.
“You’ve got people undercutting you on the internet and happy to sell something in a box – not displaying it, not paying staff, just running a big warehouse, and some companies like Amazon and the likes not paying their fair share of tax. If I didn’t have to pay tax I could knock quite a bit of money off everything I sold as well!"
We all love the idea of the local bike shop no doubt; the community vibe of calling in somewhere close, the first-name basis nature of the set up, the fact that you’ve always got somewhere to go when the wheels have stopped running and you don’t have the slightest clue why.
But pay particular attention next time you’re in your LBS and you’ll probably see a few tell-tale signs of the times; the customer in the corner typing the names of certain products into Google to see if he can get it cheaper online, the rider in the changing room trying on t-shirts just to test out the size for ordering when they’re back at their laptop, or the guy out the door hosing down his bike to then go back and shine it up with the stuff he bought on Amazon.
This is obviously not true in every circumstance; but it’s become a common enough grievance to put real strain on the individual owners in the industry.
Chris continued: “Everyone wants everything to be as cheap as possible, and people might think if they come into the shop that we’re trying to rip them off because they can buy it cheaper on the internet.
“We’re selling at a recommended retail price though, and because somewhere else is selling it at a trade price, a cost price, we can’t compete.
“People sometimes come into your shop and ask to have a look at certain bikes, and you’ll show them the bike, give them an idea of what size they need, and they’ll take a brochure away. Then you’ll never see them again because they’ve ordered that bike off the internet. They use us and our knowledge because they don’t have a clue to start with, then decide to stab you in the back and shop elsewhere... which certainly doesn’t keep a roof over my head.
“I understand why people want things to be as cheap as possible, but if I see a brand new car for sale for £20,000, I can’t go onto the internet and buy it for the same price as the dealer would have for say £15,000 brand new. In the bicycle trade that happens all the time."
The game is certainly always changing, even in the age of online dominance. Whether or not changes in the future will be any kinder in to the local bike shop, though, remains to be seen.
We recently came across what is a pretty handy service for getting the custom-build mountain bike you’ve always been dreaming of at the best possible price. Of course, it’s entirely based online.
Bikologi isn’t the only custom-bike-build tool on the internet, but it’s probably one of the best. Hop onto the site, click ‘builder’ and you’ll find a process for putting a bike together that’s simpler than a kid who’s been home schooled by his favourite cartoon.
After choosing your frame, size and colour, it’s straight into components, with the options easy to flick through and sourced from whatever stockist offers the lowest price online, with an extra emphasis put on compatibility.
At the moment, Bikologi is still in its early days. You need to know your stuff to successfully build the kind of bike you’re after, and there’s a limited choice of frames on the site, though founder Brian Sweat is looking to expand the options, and fast.
“I was building a bike myself, a Santa Cruz Nomad, and I wanted to see it all together," he told us from his base in Salt Lake City. “There weren’t any good tools out there to do that, so I went ahead and built a little software app.
“I come from a software engineering background so it kind of came naturally, and I also understand how to build a bike. I understand bottom brackets, how to set up a chain to make it just right. I’ve built a dozen bikes. Not many other software engineers in this world know how to do that.
“The idea is to give people a different experience of how to build a bike. You can walk into a bike store and buy a bike and get a really sick bike, and that’s that. Go drop your $10,000. Or, for a lot of people who have an experience with bikes, even with all the modern standards, you can build a bike pretty easily."
Now, that may not sound all that bike shop-friendly, but Brian also plans to roll out a feature that will connect local bike shops with Bikologi, meaning they could profit from the system as well by building the ride that the biker wants, but does not have the experience to put together themselves.
He continued: “Modern bike components work really well and you can build the bike exactly the way you want, or take it to a bike shop for a couple hundred bucks and they’ll do it for you.
“When you’ve finished your build, there’s going to be a button that says ‘Send to Local Bike Shop’, where a couple things could happen; you can search for the nearest bike shop around you that carries the brand or you can send the bike you’ve built as a contact form to that LBS.
“Even though the bike shop can’t advertise that they can build at our advertised price, they can still build it just as cheap. It’s just a way to keep everyone involved. It was never my intention to undercut anybody – just to give the user a tool to do something cool with.
“I’ve got three or four shops in Salt Lake City we’re going to try the system out with, then we’ll open up a form online to let local bike shops sign up. Every local bike shop I’ve shown really likes it."
Could this be the future of bike building? Due to the knowledge required to build a bike on Bikologi in the current format, that seems unlikely for now. If they could make the tool more beginner-friendly though, it could become an important player, and Brian admits that they are currently looking into that.
“People say the local bike shop is dying but I don’t think it is. I think it’s modifying..."
He also refutes the claim that his idea is a futuristic one at all though, saying: “It’s just a visual builder. In the automobile industry this is old. It’s just in this industry that the idea is novel".
The other question that remains is whether the rise of bike builders would deal another blow against local bike shops. The answer to that, is probably not. It’s not their purpose and it won’t be their reality.
The key for the local bike shop will always be in their unique brand of expertise. You can Google away at how to perfectly tune your suspension or take care of your bike, but unless you have someone who can do it properly it’s not going to be any good, and when you go to your local bike shop you can get more than that – the crucial quick fixes, the local trail tips, the tuning tips from a mechanic who’s probably been doing it since before front suspension.
Brian, for one, is pretty sure that they’re here to stay in some shape or form, concluding: “People say the local bike shop is dying but I don’t think it is. I think it’s modifying.
“Local bike shops are at a disadvantage because all the big guys are just knocking prices off and nobody can compete, but I like being able to talk to somebody and saying ‘hey, I’m racing here this weekend, what should I do with my damper?’.
“I’ll never buy a bike at my local bike shop but I’ll still spend a lot of money there getting my suspension tuned just right, buying components and so on.
“It used to be before e-commerce that you walked into your local bike shop and you bought a bike. With the advent of e-commerce, that took that out, but where the bike shop comes in is that you can say ‘I want to buy a bike, here’s my budget’, and they can pick a bike off the floor and modify it for you exactly the way you want or they can build it for you themselves and work with you hand in hand. It’s a more personal experience and I don’t think that’ll ever go away."
We hope for our sake and that of the cycling community that Brian’s optimism is spot on, but the final words of Chris from Freewheelin’ foreshadowed a bleaker future.
“I think more and more shops are going to take a downturn, more and more shops are going to close, and as a result, when you have fewer and fewer shops doing repairs, eventually the ones that are able to ride it out should be fine.
“If you want independent bike shops to be here then it needs to stop."
It would seem that ultimately, that is far and wide the case. In the same way that the likes of Spotify, Amazon and iTunes have shut down an abundance of music retailers on the high street, the closures of small bike shops around the country are inevitable if the industry continues along the same path.
It’s a perfect example of money talking, and the head attached to the arm that’s handing over that money staying awkwardly silent. Everyone in the world of cycling loves the romanticism and ethos of the local bike shop, but the majority of us love saving money even more.
You’ll miss the mechanics and the quick fixes if they do disappear though. When you realise you can't get out for your Saturday ride without a new inner tube, or when there’s a weird sound coming after every pedal stroke and the nearest bike shop is half a city away.
Is that worth paying a little bit more for in store than it is online? We’re saying so. And if the cycling community knows what’s good for it in the long run, it should probably agree.