I bought a bike last month. It’s the first one I’ve bought in a long time. I bought my current blue road bike about 17 years ago when I moved back to Pittsburgh. What happened that day was that I accidentally bought the perfect bike. Having ridden it for so long, I have come to realize that without even trying, I managed to get a bike that fits perfectly, handles just the way I want, and in general is just “right.” Every once in a while I would try to convince myself to drop money on a new bike, but it would never work out because I’d just take the blue one out and it would be perfect again. What’s a hobbyist shopper to do?
This year I finally decided that the old bike was starting to get a bit creaky. It started making noises that I didn’t like. And, I got tired of the skinny tires. Aside from my normal shopping tendencies, the skinny tires were only reason that I did spend any time looking at other bikes. I wanted to find one just like nice blue one, except with a frame that would take wider tires. I never managed to get tires wider than about 25mm onto the blue bike. When I tried, they would rub on the frame. I kid you not.
Over the years, I built a fixed view of the bicycle market in my mind. It’s not important exactly how this market looked. The important thing was that I was always convinced that the bike I wanted was not in it. You could get road bike frames that took wide tires, but that always meant using cantilever brakes. And I hate cantilever brakes. It’s just a thing. Dual pivot side pull brakes are the best bicycle brakes ever made. And they are what should be on a road bike.
For the longest time, not many companies made such a bike. This meant that finding the bike that I wanted always involved expensive boutique brands that catered to my particular specialized whims. This was good because it made me feel special and superior, which is important in all of the major dork hobbies. The truth is that while this was probably true up until a few years ago, I learned a funny thing while shopping for my new bike this year. I learned that I was wrong.
The bike that I ended up getting is from a brand called Surly, which I have talked about here before. I was ready to go to my local bike shop and ask them to buy me a Surly frame and allow my to put some custom parts on it. This particular frame is relatively inexpensive, takes the fatter tires that I want, and looks like I think a bike should look. Anyway, when I went to a couple of local stores, I learned three interesting things in this exercise.
Surly had been bought by a large distribution company called QBP, or Quality Bike Parts. When I first ran across Surly, they made what seemed to me to be fairly niche bicycle products. Odd shaped bikes for people who wanted odd shaped bikes. Now it turns out that they have been bought by the largest distributor of bicycles in the country.
QBP, in fact, is so large that every single shop in my area is basically just a dealer for QBP. On the surface they look like they still deal in “Trek” or “Specialized” or “Surly”, but in fact it all comes from QBP. Every single store I went to had a computer terminal that was permanently logged in to the QBP web site.
It is apparently economically impossible to get a local store to build you a custom bike. It must be that the margins on selling the frame and parts at retail are so low that you don’t make back the cost of actually putting together the parts list and building the bike. Every store that I talked to would rather sell me a bike they had on the floor than build me something.
My status as a consumer of unusually configured bicycle equipment also took a final deadly blow. While in QBP store #2, I described the bike I wanted, sure that they would not have anything close. Instead, the manager walked over to the wall of carbon fiber bikes that they sell to the racer wannabes and pulled out exactly what I asked for. It’s a road bike made by Jamis that is simply a full-out road bike designed to be able to take slightly wider tires than average. It’s even made out of carbon fiber. I had been instantly mainstreamed. I was flabbergasted. I even almost bought it. I think it actually might have fit a bit better than the Surly. But carbon is not for me.
In the end, I ordered a complete Surly Pacer from the store I’ve gone to for years. They got it in, built it up for me and I rode it away. My first long ride on the bike indicates that the bike is a bit small. My blue bike must have been slightly larger than its paper measurements. All these years I’ve been on a 56 in stead of a 54. The drivetrain is also not as smooth, reflecting that fact that the bottom of the line Shimano parts in 2010 are worse than the bottom of the line Shimano parts from 1998. These are all minor issues. I can have some store switch them out for 105. However, I am happy with the ride of the wider tires. They smooth out the marginal Pittsburgh pavement to a degree that makes my slightly more comfortable, and this is nice. This bike will serve perfectly well. After I get used to the size I’m sure it will slot into my brain as the “perfect” bike.
Still, I think the blue bike is still more perfect.
Postscript My other badge membership in the official club of retro was my Brooks leather saddle. These seats are purported to have various mythical qualities. I just like their shape, but I hate how one ride in the rain ruins them. Anyway, apparently these have also moved out of the basement and into the minds of the masses of bicycle consumers. I saw two at my local store the other day. I guess I’ll have to get another one.