In terms of revenue dollars, our best year ever at the shop was 2008. That was the year gas hovered around $4/gallon for most of the summer. At the time, these high gas prices were believed to be a catalyst of the housing crash for obvious reasons: people can buy a bigger house if they're willing to drive a long distance to get into town. Driving a long distance implies buying a lot of gas, so gas price sensitivity is an issue. A trade-off that seemed affordable with $2 gas was completely unworkable with $4 gas. Obviously, the housing and mortgage fiasco was more complicated than that, but in my half-assed opinion the gas prices played a major role in triggering the meltdown. Either that or it was a coincidence that both happened at the same time.
From our point of view as bike shop rats, we saw MANY people coming in not to buy a dream bike, but to resurrect some 30-year-old 10-speed for commuting. There was desperation in their voices. They told us that commuting by bike was a last-resort because it simply was not possible to keep paying for gas. Apparently we weren't alone in this observation. It was impossible to find a supply of 27" tires that summer as bike shops across the country gobbled up the usual modest production runs. Everything in that size was sold out everywhere. Cheap ones and expensive ones were nowhere to be found. The New York Times style section did a review on a dozen or so models of 27" tires (we have a copy of the article at the shop). Yes, 27" is an obsolete size, but it was the most common size during the 1970s bike boom. And those formerly gleaming bike-boomers are the dusty, neglected machines that were being called back into service in 2008. The distributors and tire-manufacturers were caught flat-footed, when demand for tires in this size multiplied overnight from marginal to arguably the most popular replacement size (for a few months).
It was a good year for us to sell bikes, too. For people who still had a house and a decent job, $4 gas provided a slightly less urgent, but still financially compelling motivation to either begin commuting by bike or to splurge on a nicer bike. At the time, Surly had somewhat recently introduced a Long Haul Trucker complete package that was ridiculously cheap. I think it was $895 for the whole bike, and later it was $985 (still cheap!). We sold lots of those. If you bought one of those back then, rode it for 3 years but kept it in decent shape, you could probably get most of your $895 back out of it on the used market today, but, truth be told, you probably wouldn't want to sell such a great bike unless it was to buy the same bike in a different color or with a different wheel size (I know at least 3 people who've done that).
The price of that model in 2012 has risen to $1275, which is still a great deal, and if anything illustrates how under-priced these bikes were in those days. The latest model has some neat improvements, the most obvious and intriguing of which is the beefed-up fork with added rack eyelets up near the crown. My Curt Goodrich custom touring bike has a similar feature, which makes for some ultra-sturdy rack mounting with a wide variety of available racks. There's also a disc-brake version of the LHT scheduled to land in a few weeks, and for the tall people, a new 64 cm frame size. Also, in recent years, Surly has delved further into the ultra-utilitarian bike market with the Ogre and Troll, not to mention the Big Dummy and a couple trailers for those who have more to carry. The perennial favorite Cross-Check is another solid option for those who don't necessarily want a more tank-like ride. I ride a Cross-Check daily, and if circumstances forced me to choose just one bike for everything, this would probably be it (a tough road bike that can take front and rear racks and 45+ mm tires? Perfect!).
Why am I reminiscing about 2008, and rehashing my strident belief that every committed or aspiring cyclist should have a LHT (or one of the others listed above)? Because it is happening again, except worse (or better, depending on your viewpoint). These will be desperate times for the petrol-dependent. Yes, even as cyclists, we all are dependent, one way or another, on petroleum-based energy, but if you have to drive everywhere, you're going to feel the stiff one penetrating more directly into your finances. The sleek and sexy bikes with frames made of space-age ultralight materials and cutting-edge boutique parts might be appealing on a bike geek level, not to mention to impress your friends and/or intimidate your rivals. But if you're into solid, reliable, absolutely no-bullshit transportation, get a Surly with mid-level Shimano or SRAM parts (the stock package is usually a good place to start), and be confident that you made the right choice. Yes, there are fancier bikes out there, but fancier is not better, and in many practical ways, it's worse.