The Future for Bicycle Mechanics? Electric!
By Edward Benjamin April 2016,
Senior Managing Director eCycleElectric Consultants,
Chairman Light Electric Vehicle Association,
Recovering Bicycle Shop Owner,
I claim to have some affinity for the trade and skill of turning wrenches on bicycles. Although I also acknowledge that I am out of date in many ways, having sold the bike shop in the early 90’s after working in such stores since 1969. Since selling the store, I have operated a consulting company, and one of the opportunities of that job, is the chance to observe, study, and think about the industry. Something I was always too busy to do when I was working in a store. And my long tenure in the bike industry has lasted through a number of important transitions and changes that may not be familiar to many of today’s industry participants.
In 1969, Schwinn had just dumped most of their distributors. The industry was adjusting to that, and to the onslaught of European made (mostly French in my area) bicycles that were lighter, faster, and more sophisticated than the normal production from the USA companies. We had not yet experienced the amazing value and quality of the Japanese produced bikes, and Taiwan was a mysterious island in the exotic East that we knew nothing about. China….was Communist China, a dread place that politicians ranted about, and we know even less about. (OK, politicians still rant about China, and we are still ignorant, but the issues are somewhat changed.) We were vaguely aware, back the, that they had bicycles in China.
A “quality bicycle” arrived by rail freight in those days. A boxcar could hold, I think, 600 bicycles, and said bikes were heavy. A couple of teen aged bike racers could unload one in a day. While the wheels were installed, there were so many parts left to install and adjust that it took most mechanics 45 minutes or longer to assemble a bike that weighed between 35 and 75 lbs. And that bike would NEED a free 30-day tune up, as nearly every part of the bike would lose it’s adjustment. Bearings, brakes, gears, and spokes all needed attention. And the paint….sucked. Tiny flecks of missing paint were standard.
When a bicycle needed repair, in my town, the customer took it to the bike shop, it was written up on a repair tag, tucked into the back room (at one shop the “back room” was a barn that could hold 45 days back log of repairs) and pulled out for repair. After the repair was done, the bike returned to the back room, and the customer would retrieve it a few days to a few weeks after bringing it in. If a part was needed that was out of the ordinary, such parts could take a long to time to arrive. Even if the shop was in the same town as a former Schwinn distributor and most parts were within a 30 minute drive as a result.
All training was on-the-job. Howard Sutherland was yet to publish his book. John Barnett was in school, Park Tool was in business, but nothing like the powerhouse it has become. Tools came from Eldi, or European names I have since forgotten. Schwinn had some tools made by Snap On, but no one could afford those. Pay was minimal. There was no future in the job, and most mechanics worked at this only as long as it took to find a better job. Some were bike racers, and that kept them at it for a longer time, but eventually low pay and low prestige drove most out. (Telling a girl that you worked as a bike mechanic, in the 1970’s, was a real test of her nature.)
In the 70’s. a full Campy equipped bike with a state of the art frame, was about $300 USD. A fortune at that time. Mine came from Mel Pinto. A used VW was about 200. A new VW was less than 1600 as I recall. The adult customers, many of whom had grown up on farms (yes really, even in the cities) and were handy with tools themselves, regarded fixing a bicycle as a very simple task, not worthy of much money. For the most part, bicycles were for children in those days. Or maybe for insane people who raced bikes (dozens of them in my state) or for people too poor to afford a car. A very sophisticated bike was the Schwinn Continental, and if you have worked on one of those, you are schooled on what has changed.
Moving forward in time, bike systems became more sophisticated, bicycles became part of USA culture and accepted for adult use. An American won the Tour De France (!!) and then another American did it again and again..(Sort of…). Professional teams, Triathlons, BMX, Freestyle, Mountain Bikes (!!!) emerged. But the model for bicycle repairs and assembly did not change all that much.
In the 1980’s, many bike shops started to ramp up service levels. Repairs became, more and more often, while you wait, or “come back tomorrow” instead of a week or more wait. Bike assembly became a 15 minute task courtesy of Giant Bicycle’s 85% assembled. And the quality of all the parts, as well as the design and execution of the manufacture became so good that bikes could be shipped directly to consumers, with acceptable results. Even those sophisticated systems for gears, disc brakes, cycle computers, and more could be easily handled by most consumers. But the consumers of today mostly did NOT grow up fixing the family car or the tractor. Millennials mostly find nut turning tools a puzzle, and want to know how to ask the operating system of the bike “what is wrong”. The situation of the bike mechanic did not improve. Pay sucked, and while schools existed, most mechanics still learned on-the-job. Not a career.
If we catch up to the present, there are some very serious changes occurring, that will destroy bicycle-service-as-we-know-it, but also open some exciting new doors.
Shipping a bicycle to the consumer has become a widely used distribution model. Sold over the internet, supported by telephone, email, and IM. In case you have not noticed, there are fewer bike shops all the time. Some are bigger and more successful, but the number is going down. And more and more brands are offering weasel words about why they are selling direct to the consumer and cutting the brick and mortar dealers out of the channel. (Yeah, I know…there are some models that compensate the dealer.)
This work around the dealer is happening for several reasons:
- Bikes today are light in weight, well made, and easy to assemble.
- Delivery of information about the bikes is often more consumer friendly over the internet. There is no need to find a bike salesman anymore. And the internet has better info, more complete info, and …. reviews! and price comparison! And is never grumpy, tired, or telling one that girls don’t need a $7,000 road bike.
- Cutting out the retailer adds 30% or more margin, or allows a 30% or more discount to the consumer. That money can be spent on advertising and product.
- Nearly any assembly related task can be learned on YouTube. (Is there anything you cannot learn on YouTube?)
- Brick and Mortar stores have not done the job that the bike brands think needs to be done. While bicycle shops are one of the few small retailers till surviving as a category, their power to move product is not great enough to keep all of the brands loyal to them.
- Service as most bike shops is not so good. Lightly trained staff, poorly paid, and looking for their next job is more common than not. When a customer has a problem that YouTube cannot advise them on, and they turn to the bike shop…the bike shop may not be much help either.
So being a bike shop owner, or working in a bike shop, in the traditional model, sever more challenging. A career in a bike shop is, as ever, not promising for most people. But…in most of life, when one door is closing, another is opening. And that is the case here.
Bicycle Technicians as a stand along business is a very interesting development. Perhaps in a truck. Perhaps in a low overhead storage unit. Maybe in a bike shop or adjacent to one. In China, I was fascinated to learn that a big bike shop in Shanghai offered no repairs. But…I was informed…on the sidewalk outside our door, you will find several good mechanics.
Those mechanics, with shop stands and compressors, has seemed to be part of the store operation. But were actually independents. Owning and operating a truck or storage shed based business that goes to the bike shop, or to the consumer, or to the mass merchants to repair bikes is a low barrier to entry, low overhead business compared to a traditional bike shops. And it allows the the tech to be a business owner, keeping the margins instead of sharing them with the store owner and that store’s substantial overhead.
For a store owner, working with such an independent tech offers lower investment in training, tools, and turnover is no longer a problem. That in turn allows the tech to invest in training, tools, and a future. To have a career and be in control of that career. While I am sure there are readers that know more about this than I, here are the opportunities that I see:
- The stand alone, or mobile bike technician should be able to afford actual training. Going to schools, attending seminars, monitoring and learning about changes in technologies that allow the tech to service the more and more sophisticated bikes of today.
- Software, connectivity, blue tooth, updates, and more — see what I say about electric bikes below. Having the right set of dongles, access to the latest updates for controllers, user interface, system communications is about to become as important or more so, than having a spoke wrench. Most bike shops are not in the right mind set to find this an easy adaptation.
- Tools of all sorts. From spoke cutting / threading machines from Wheel Fanatyk to the computerized battery analyzer, and the dongles mentioned above, the tool investment for a bike repair operation is growing fast. This is a barrier to entry for bike store, but also a cheap investment in competitiveness for a service operation.
- Convenience for the bike shop. Instead of having the service department paralyzed for a day trying to figure out how to fix something. And then having to buy a special tool. Just call the bike service truck, and they will fix it in the parking lot BEHIND the store. Consumers will be impressed with the fast service, seemingly done by the store.
- Delivery and service of bikes sold direct to the consumer. Instead of resisting or bemoaning the direct-to-the consumer model, joining and enabling it is an obvious opportunity.
- Responding to the service calls that will be generated by connected bicycles. Being notified by the phone bank or text that a subscriber is standing by the side of the road with a flat tire – and going to that consumer to fix that flat – is going to be part of bike service in the future.
But Electric Bikes are now, and will be even more, the biggest opportunity for bike techs.
The USA bike shops are staffed, today, with folks who are often bicycle enthusiasts. They have strong legs, regard an accelerated heart rate as a good thing, and can go faster on a manually powered bike than any ebike they have seen yet. Yeah….and most of them are scraping for cash all the time.
Examine this list of facts:
- Americans love bicycles. Really. We just don’t ride them much. We are not in good shape, there are hills, and wind, and sweating is not acceptable to much of the population. Electric bikes, however, flatten the hills, allow old fat guys to ride like they were teen agers, and cancels the wind. Oh…sweating is optional. The ebike allows a vastly greater part of the population to enjoy cycling.
- Americans generally regard anything with a motor as being a better value and more attractive than anything that does not have a motor. Thus worth more money both to buy and to maintain.
- Electric bikes get ridden more. That may not be intuitive, but we can observe that ebike riders buy more tires, log more miles, than most riders of manual bikes. That, in turn, means more service work, more parts sales, and more customers having more fun.
- Electric bikes need a test ride to sell, and a salesman to explain them. That is good for the stores, as a test ride is tough to offer over the internet.
- Electric bikes need a new battery at some point, and that is a major parts sale. As good as selling a bike again.
- Electric bikes are more and more often, smart bikes, connected bikes, and very sophisticated bikes needing expert attention for service and updates.
- For most of today’s bike mechanics and consumers, an ebike is an enigmatic mystery. Actually very simple to work on, but given that most bike guys are mechanical by inclination and experience, electronics, magnetics, electrochemistry, and software is something that needs to be learned. Important note: That stuff is actually easier to learn than the mechanical stuff.
- Schools exist. The Light Electric Vehicle Association runs a LEV technician training seminar in two locations about once a month. LEVAssociation.com Most of the advanced propulsion systems and bigger brands offer seminars to train techs on their systems.
- Electric bikes make more money per sale than manual powered bikes. In Europe, ebikes are the main event for the entire bicycle industry now. Same in Asia, and soon to be the case in North America.
- Electric bikes are the big shining opportunity to make money for bike brands, bike shops, and service techs.
- Not many bike mechanics are comfortable fixing ebikes, today. Less competition. And more chance to charge an appropriate amount for the work done.
My opinion: We will have fewer bike techs, but they will be mostly self employed, make more money, be better trained, and have a genuine career.
We all face a bright, electric, future.by