Thursday, July 28, 2011

getting good bikes for cheap

There's a popular theory in stock market investing that holds that all stocks are priced fairly. If a stock is inexpensive, it's because there is a fair bit of risk that offsets the potential upside. If a stock is expensive, it's because it has been deemed, by sophisticated analysts and institutional investors who know more than you do, to be a solid, low-risk investment. Obviously, very few stock market investors, even if they outwardly believe the fair-price theory, put it into practice, since almost every investor is endlessly looking for the bargain that nobody else has discovered.

And this is exactly what happens in the used bike market. Like the stock market, the non-expert stands to get burned, again, and again, and again. A well-regarded name-brand means nothing if one or more of the previous owners was a hack mechanic who screwed everything up (not an uncommon situation). As often as not, the used bike was ridden or abused within an inch of its life. If the buyer gets a good deal, but then needs several hundred dollars in new drivetrain parts and labor, it's very quickly not a good deal anymore. Even more problematic is that framesets often sell for more money (or at least more quickly and easily) than a complete bike. A common situation here is that a customer will bring us a used frameset and a hodgepodge of mixed parts, asking us to make it work. In general, the mix of used parts has to be substantially supplemented by NEW parts from our inventory. Again, it ends up costing a lot of money, and it's still a mostly used, half worn-out bike. The little gremlins that make a bargain-priced used bike more trouble than it's worth are not always obvious, even to the trained eye.

There are success stories in used bike shopping, of course. Every so often, one of our very experienced and knowledgeable customers will find something collectible or cool at Goodwill or at a yard sale for a shockingly low price. Or maybe you have a friend who buys really nice new stuff, uses it minimally, changes his mind, and offers his cast-offs to you for a song. To keep with the stock market analogy, this is kinda like being the janitor at Google who received stock options way back when, and is now a billionaire. Most people do not have friends like this.

The most common way that people get used bikes is by finding them on craigslist or eBay. The problem with these is that hundreds of other people also see the ads. If it is truly a bargain, there are people who make it their business to be ready to buy, at the doorstep, cash in hand, before you've even finished reading the ad, If it's not a deal, then you can pat yourself on the back for having the good fortune that nobody else bought it before you did.

I hate to discourage people from trolling the used bike market, because it keeps us busy this time of year making the used bikes ride-able. On the other hand, I also see that used bike shopping is fraught with risk, unexpected costs, and very, very often, is not the best bang for your buck.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

bicycles in a tough economy

In addition to the obvious - transportation, fitness, fun, maybe even green-ness - bicycles and the bicycling lifestyle also provide a benefit that, in my opinion, doesn't get enough attention: liberation from dependency on political and economic factors.

Here in Minnesota, we just experienced a prolonged state government shutdown, which was resolved with a divisive political deal that seems likely to produce an even more severe budget problem in a year or two. The federal government is now apparently facing the possibility of an unprecedented default on its debts, and few of us can guess where that will lead, even if it doesn't happen. Many of our customers and friends have experienced layoffs and career transitions that resulted in personal financial challenges. Gas prices have bounced around, and now seem to be holding steady well north of $3/gallon. Through it all, people who ride bikes have continued to enjoy riding bikes. During a grocery run on my Surly Cross-Check fixed-gear a couple weeks ago, I was fortunate to observe this sunset while riding my bike.
Dramatic sunsets never get old, and they are equally available to anybody, especially to people who tend to ride bikes during the evening hours. Absolutely free. I doubt a rich man, from the seat of his luxury automobile, could enjoy these things more than I do.

Once you have a decent bike or two (or six), riding the bike is pretty much free, regardless of how much money you make, and regardless of the state of public affairs. Sure, tires and other parts wear out over time, but it's probably true for most of us that a typical month's worth of gasoline and car maintenance will cost more than a typical year's worth of bike repairs, if we're smart about it.

I was musing over breakfast this morning that I have not been a regular driver in more that seven years now! I have the HC shop truck, but it has been idle for at least 2 months. I doubt it has more than 100 miles on it for all of 2011. I find driving and keeping up with the expenses that go with it to be generally stressful, but riding my bike, even in suboptimal weather, is generally a good time. I expect that this will continue to be the case, even if the proverbial shit continues to hit the proverbial fan.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

More bike tour info

In two weeks, I will be departing on a week-long bike tour, and you're invited to join. The tour will start in LaCrosse, Wisconsin on August 7 and conclude in the same city on August 13. I have talked to a number of potentially interested touring companions, but I have little idea who is actually willing/able to go through with it. If you are planning to attend and haven't recently told me you're planning to attend, please send me an email, preferably with a mobile phone number. This will help in the event of cat-herding. I don't need a firm commitment at this point, but it will be nice to know if you're coming on August 7.

Where and getting to and from
I am planning to use Amtrak to get to LaCrosse on August 7 and return on August 13. Amtrak is a fun and useful service for bike touring, despite some minor cost/inconvenience with using Amtrak's bike boxes, being aware of luggage services at each station, etc. If you are going to make use of Amtrak service also and you'd like a little coaching, feel free to contact me. Of course, the tour starts and ends in LaCrosse, and there are other options for getting to/from LaCrosse. If on schedule (not by any means guaranteed), Amtrak gets to LaCrosse mid-morning on August 7. Whatever mode of transport to LaCrosse you choose, please try to be ready to roll by mid-day, possibly later if Amtrak is running late. If you are going to take Amtrak, please let me know. Also, buy yourself a ticket.

Where will we sleep?
The general plan is for camping in campgrounds every night on the tour, and I have planned a loose schedule that puts us near campgrounds at the end of each day. If the nightly stopping point is near a motel/hotel, that may be a nice break from camping. In any case, it should not be assumed that hotels will be available every night, so come prepared to camp. I am not making any reservations in advance. I find reservations to be too constraining for a group of freewheeling mofos like us. I will probably do a little research ahead of time, just to know the lay of the land, but camping/motel flexibility will be an important virtue.

What will we eat?
I enjoy eating at small-town diners. When I'm tired of diner fare and/or when diners aren't available, I stop at grocery stores. This is not a back-country tour where you'll need elaborate cooking equipment and a week's worth of astronaut food on the bike. I expect diner stops and/or a grocery store stop pretty much every day. I will probably bring a compact stove for boiling water for morning coffee. If you have 1-2 days of food/snacks on the bike, that will probably be more than ample to get you from one refueling stop to the next.

What if something unforeseen happens?
I never plan for unforeseen events. Those who do plan for every possibility have 150 pounds of stuff they never use in their panniers. I'd suggest being prepared to fix a flat tire or five. That means: bring a few tubes, a patch kit, and a pump. A patch kit and a CO2 inflater is probably too optimistic. Also, bring some basic tools that will work on your bike. If your hubs have nutted or bolted axles, bring a wrench that fits the nut/bolt. Most likely, among the participants on the tour, extra tubes and tools will be available, but it's still a good idea to have your own basic kit. And make sure your bike is in good working order. I can help you assess that now, if you're not sure. Aside from bike stuff, I'd suggest packing clothes that will be appropriate for cycling in varied weather conditions. It could be hot, and it could rain and you might get a chill. It probably won't snow. Perhaps be prepared to swim/fish/hike/read, if the opportunity presents itself. In general, if you find yourself wondering if you NEED some piece of heavy/large equipment, leave it out.

There is a certain amount of self-reliance on this ride. I don't really want to babysit anybody. On the other hand, it is a friendly group ride, so I'll probably be happy to help you with a mechanical issue or give you some water/food if you run out and may otherwise die. Don't worry if you're not fast - it's not a race...the bigger concern is that you'll be too fast! Also, bring cash! Your AmEx card may be worthless in some small towns, but almost everybody takes cash.

Any questions, email me.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011


Grant Petersen of Rivendell Bicycle Works has been trying to popularize the idea of bicycle micro-touring, which he calls the S24O - short for Sub-24hr-Overnight. Grant's goal is to encourage bicycle touring among people who, for various reasons, cannot commit to leaving home on a bicycle trip for many days, weeks, or months. Bite-size bike touring.

I did one of these trips last night after work. From the time I punched out last night until I was cooking breakfast in my kitchen this morning, the total elapsed time was under 12 hours. I'm calling it a S12O. I took relatively few photos, but here are a couple to give a flavor of the experience:

I already had panniers on my bike, which contained the usual tools, tubes, pump, and locks. I added a sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and tent, and off I went into the local wilderness. Once the traffic on a nearby highway died down for the evening, and my fears of roving serial killers dissipated, it was a most pleasant night to sleep out in the woods.