Have you ever felt patronized in a wine store? How about a record shop? Somehow the boys who sell records always seem to be judging your devotion to Rick Astley. If you’re not an expert in arcane roots music, it feels as though you’re trespassing on their time and space.
Bike shops can be worse.
Until last year, I rode sturdy hybrid bikes with the happy ignorance of the post-industrial age—this machine works, I know it works, and there is no need to know how it works. So when I inherited my mom’s road bike last spring, I knew next to nothing about components or maintenance.
My first stop was my closest bike shop—let’s call it Local Bike Shop #1. This is a sleek outfit that specializes in racing gear and deigns occasionally to sell hybrids to the locals. I was wearing street clothes and wheeling my new/old bike, a well-loved Trek.
ME: Hello, can I ask you a question?
PERSON IN FULL SPANDEX BEHIND THE COUNTER: (tiredly) Yes?
ME: My mom gave me her old road bike and I think I want to get it fitted. How much would that be?
PERSON: (smirking) Why?
ME: Well, isn’t that what you do if you have a new bike? To make sure it fits you?
PERSON: I don’t know. Are you going to ride it more than, like, a few miles? Cause you really don’t need to get it fitted. That’s more for athletes.
ME: (annoyed) Well, I want to commute with it, 22 miles round trip.
PERSON (dismissive) Well, you don’t need a fitting. (Looks past me at a racer next in line)
I left, feeling like it was 1961 and I was a woman trying to break into copywriting on Madison Avenue. He practically called me “sweetheart.”
I went around the corner to a new bike shop—Local Bike Shop #2, for the sake of this column. It was a different world: people actually smiled. I asked timidly about a fitting. The shop’s owner admired my bike—he had a thing for old steel—and told me, matter-of-fact, that I should ride it awhile first. He was kind but not patronizing. He answered my questions but did not lecture. It was, in other words, an ideal LBS.
Over time, I came to LBS #2 with countless inexperienced questions—my gears are clicking! my spoke is popped! why am I getting flats every week?— and they treated me like a person, not an idiot. They taught me only as much as I wanted to know. When I admitted that I’d never actually filled my own tires, one of the guys sat patiently with me while I practiced on a store bike.
Later, I had to venture to a bike shop in Manhattan, where they apparently see inexperienced women as a chance for a large commission. I found myself at LBS #3 downtown, after a smash up on the West Side left my back wheel so bent I had to carry my bike. A grease-stained gentleman took a cursory look and assured me sweetly that I had to replace my “very rare wheel” for $120.
Suspicious, I put my bike in a cab instead. Sure enough, my own shop trued my wheel and charged me 12 dollars. How many accident-shaken young women had LBS #3 conned with that “rare wheel” line? Why are bike shops, like car dealerships, sometimes the kind of place you have to take your boyfriend to get a fair deal?
Women with bikes and no mechanical expertise: practice your confident stance. Don’t be intimidated. Ask the questions you need to ask! And learn to change a tire. Even if you never actually do it, knowing that you could will give you an air of bored sophistication that even the racers will have to respect. I haven’t changed one yet, myself, but here is a poem about when I do:
HOW TO CHANGE A BICYCLE TIRE
First loosen up the nuts that hold the wheel.
Remove the wheel and then deflate your tube.
You have a tire lever, I assume.
I’m chic and practical in sweats. I know
I’m set to take control of this bike’s fate.
I find the nuts—I think—and off they go.
No lever, but a nail file works as great.
One lever in; another slides around.
You take the tire and tube completely off.
Now patch your tube! Replace it if you like.
I try my fingernail, but it won’t fit.
I find a second file and slide it round.
The tire’s off, along with other bits.
The bike’s in shiny pieces on the ground.
Replace the tire, one side first, then ease
the tube inside, with nothing pinched by rim.
Use thumbs to work the tire’s other side.
I’m using thumbs and smoothing pinches! See?
I’m independent, capable and sleek.
My hands are greased, my pants ripped at the knee.
It’s as authentic as I’ve been all week.
Before inflating, use your thumbs again
to check the tire isn’t pinching. Now
Inflate it slowly, slowly, and you’re done!
The bike seat’s somehow lost. The chain is knotted.
I, joyful, pump the tire to one-ten.
Oh, thanks! I know my efforts are applauded,
And you know I’ll gladly change your tire again.
Micaela Blei writes about urban cycling in both poetry and prose. Her recent pieces include a meditation on Biking in Winter and a review of the bike-friendly video for Sun Airway’s “Put the Days Away.”