Getting people on bikes, part II: bike shops


Continuing on with this cross-cultural exchange:

I recently bought a new bike myself, a Trek touring cycle, and the experience was pretty unpleasant in all the predictable ways. It’s impossible for non-obsessives to sort through all the options, and most bike shop employees really aren’t interested in helping.

So how does this work in Denmark, where cycling is ubiquitous? Has a thriving service industry sprung up to cater to all that commuter demand? Are bike shop employees as solicitous as sommeliers in a wine bar? Are new bike models displayed in spacious, gleaming showrooms, turning slowly on spotlit pedestals?

According to Cycleliciousness, the answer is: no. A more apt comparison might be the neighborhood pharmacy. Convenient, local, and no-frills:

There are scores of bike shops to choose from. Seriously. In a 1 km radius from my flat I would guess that I could find 30 bike shops. Competition is tough. Most focus on repairs and tune ups and repairing flat tyres. Sales isn’t always the primary source of income. A Copenhagener knows which bike shop is best and cheapest for repairs in his or her neighbourhood and the topic comes up in conversation with friends and neighbours. A bike shop has to be reasonably priced and friendly if they want to survive. Simply because the locals will pass by and head for the next shop if the service is bad or pricey. Word of mouth is a powerful thing.

If you’re buying a bike here, there isn’t a big emphasis on fitting and sizing. You, the customer, have been riding every day your entire adult life. So has the bike seller. There is no need for boring conversations about fitting or sizing. He’ll take one look at you and point out the right size. You’ll know he’s right. Enough said. You’ll check out the frame, the colour, the basics like brakes, etc. If you like it, you’ll buy it. You may shop around for a bit, but there is little more than that. The chances that you’ll actually test ride the bike are slim. You’re no expert, but when you ride every single day you have experience.

Bike shops are nothing fancy. They fix bikes as well as sell them. Most are small, local operations so they don’t have a lot of space. Some larger chains have bigger selections but the norm is a cosy little shop with a man with greasy hands smiling from behind his counter.

If you want to buy a fancy bike, like a racing bike or a mountain bike you’ll need to find a specialist shop. I don’t even know where one is if I need one. If you’re buying a bike like that, you’re probably going to ride it on the weekends as a hobby. If you need a bike to ride every day, you go to your local shop.

Sounds pretty good to me. I’d probably have sought out a specialist dealer, but then again, if I were Danish, I might not feel the need to hunt down a fancy touring bike to commute on…

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  1. Aaron A. - March 11, 2008

    So quiet around here…
    This has been an interesting series so far, but I’m not sure what the take-away is. I doubt we’ll see many bike shops being built if they don’t see the demand, so it’s up to us to demonstrate that demand. To be the change, so to speak.
    That said, a new bike shop just opened here in Anchorage. It just so happens that this shop was built right next to a new subdivision equipped with wide asphalt sidewalks that are well-separated from traffic. My personal observation suggests that these sidewalks are very popular with runners and bicyclists, and about a year after major construction ends, a bike shop springs up as close to this neighborhood as zoning laws will allow? Curious.
    — A.

  2. Adam Stein - March 11, 2008

    Honestly, I’m not sure what the take-away is either. It just seemed like an interesting thread to tug on. I tend to agree that public infrastructure investment (e.g., bike paths) is the trick to priming the pump on bike usage.
    And it will remain quiet here until we send out the newsletter on Wednesday…

  3. Erika Fox - March 12, 2008

    I filled my need for a new bike at my local recycling center where I volunteer once a month. It’s amazing what people throw away! I took the recycled bicycle to my local bike shop for a tune up and a basket. Then gave my old bike to my daughter for whom it was more suitable.

  4. JD Howell - March 12, 2008

    My humble opinion is that any mention of cycling, be it commuting, racing, recreational or other – can only assist in influencing others to partake. So whether a person sees a cyclist, is a cyclist or reads about cycling – that’s one moment more that they’re not fascinated with some other consumable that is or is not helping in the overall climate scope.
    I laud efforts by all parties to impart words or partake in cycling. I read somewhere that the efficiency of a bicycle is 300% greater than walking ! How better to improve the condition of our society and environment than to slow down and reduce our consumption this way. With the chief objection being safety and proper facilities (lanes, secure parking, less traffic) the best way to influence more is to do it every way possible !
    My greatest improvement has been a rack with bags to enable carrying groceries, planner, laptop, lunch, etc. I especially like the setup I have now on my Bike Friday tikit that allows a handlebar bag to carry my lunch and snacks, and a front rack that carries my briefcase. All this, and I can still fold the bike in a moment and roll it inside a store, sit it in a grocery cart, or stow it under a desk. This bike is a commuter’s dream to consider. Hope to see you out there, on my bike, of course…
    Visit for more…

  5. Jonah - March 12, 2008

    I agree public infrastructure helps prime the pump for demand but there are other, more directly correlated factors at play, most notably $4+/gal gas and overall urban planning. Shifting people’s decisions away from long-term investments like suburban McMansions and

  6. Dominic - March 12, 2008

    I agree that separate bike paths and bike lanes do a lot to encourage bike commuting. From my eperience it seems that fear (of traffic) is the biggest obstacle for most people (right behind distance). We need to start seriously evaluating how bicycles are treated in traffic. There is a strong might-makes-right mentality on american roads, this is why separated bike paths are so popular. I have no solution for this problem but I am afraid if we continue to ignore it we will be fighting an uphill battle convincing people to abandon their cars.

  7. Ollie D. - March 12, 2008

    I think slamming US bike retailers is not constructive. If I were a novice, looking for a new bike and read your post, I would be turned off about buying a new bike. No, not all bike shops are created equal and then, of course, you have the big box stores which is discussion for another blog. Anyway, give credit where credit due don’t just blanket the IBDs.
    No get out there and ride!!!

  8. Zac A - March 12, 2008

    How to increase bicycling numbers?
    The first challenge is the perception of safety. Once you get enough people feeling safe, cycling often, it attracts more numbers, which (under the right conditions), can further improve safety & participation. Even $109/barrel of oil isn’t going to convince someone to take what they perceive as a ‘risky’ transportation solution.
    The second is leadership. Get CEOs and middle managers cycling to work, and pretty soon you have a trend.
    The third is furnishing quality infrastructure: showers & changing rooms, safe parking, bike lanes, traffic calming, sales & repair resources, maps, etc.
    Thankfully, this is a whole lot easier than putting a dog in orbit.

  9. Aaron A. - March 12, 2008

    I think slamming US bike retailers is not constructive… give credit where credit due don’t just blanket the IBDs.
    I don’t think Adam was slamming anybody. There appears to be a gap between cheap disposable bikes from Big*Mart and sturdier $500 bikes; it’d be hard for one store to adequately serve both markets, so buyers either have to choose from self-service at the box store or harcore cycling fans/salesmen who will talk over your head if you let them.
    Personally, I found the people at a certain outdoor equipment coop to be very helpful. I knew I wanted the bike for commuting, which means mostly roads, but also the occasional short stint on a dirt trail. I then confessed that I’d need a little extra help, because most of my bikes until now had come from Big*Mart. They guided me toward a relatively low-end bike with a good reputation and a handful of awards to its name. We talked a little bit about fit, but overall it was a simple decision for somebody of my stature. It’s still snowy here, so I haven’t spent much quality time with my new bike, but so far I’m pretty happy with the experience.
    — A.

  10. Monty - March 13, 2008

    Cycling in this country is seen as ‘exercise’ not as ‘transportation’. Almost all of the cyclists I see on the road are not heading to or from work — they are exercising. The issue is how we communicate to the masses that bikes can be used to travel to work. How do we convince businesses that they should encourage this through shower facilities, lockers, and so forth. Most importantly, how do we make motorists (and government) understand that they need to bend over backwards for cyclists since that is one less person driving a car.
    Get all those things taken care of, and suddenly there will be tens of thousands more cyclists out there. That said, I am not holding my breath. I would love to have company out there on my commute, but so far, it is pretty lonely.

  11. Marcia A. - March 13, 2008

    I’m with Ollie D. in regard to this article generalizing independent bike shops…”and most bike shop employees really aren’t interested in helping.” I live in Northwestern PA, and there are numerous small bike shops with patient, helpful owners and employees. I’ve found an awesome shop with a staff that is truly dedicated to helping people of all walks of life get into whatever form of cycling they are interested in. Whatever corner of the country one lives in, seek out a reputable shop. They are out there.

  12. Zac A - March 14, 2008

    re: Monty #10
    Frankly, you’ve probably already taken the hardest step – doing the bicycle commute yourself. Now you are already leading by example. The goal then, for you, is not to get everyone out of their cars, but to aim for incremental improvements in participation. Figure out what might be most effective at your office: being snazzy sharply dressed AND a bicycle commuter (attacking the perception of grubbiness), annoyingly mention how you cycle commute and all that it’s done for your fitness and lovelife, working with management to calculate the health cost improvements, pose the idea to management as an easy ‘greening’ of their office operations (and a bonus-related challenge for the employees too)…whatever the hook on your bicycle evangelism, and start small, get those few really committed, and keep growing slowly. If you get this, you can start to get numbers that will present meaningful opportunities for management and government.

  13. Blake - March 17, 2008

    In Austin there are probably 20 bike shops within 15 minutes of where I live (biking distance of course). This goes with supply/demand.
    But one interesting thing to note is that several months ago the city council was looking to pass a helmet ordinance. The bicycle community was adamantly opposed and were able to convince the city to creating a bike safety task force. The bike culture here is strong, but the infrastructure is barely adequate.
    The city concluded that increased numbers and better infrastructure would be much safer than requiring all riders to wear helmets. This is particularly true for newer cyclists.

  14. JOe Betancourt - April 7, 2008

    Hi i also struggle with what i want on a bike & after spending 850.00 on a mountain bike to ride to work & town found out it was all wrong! there are no mountains in Chicago the tires kill what ever speed i picked up in seconds. the handle bars where all wrong……. you name it for my next bike I chose a custom builder. Rich spend over 45 minutes asking questions on what I wanted after a 3 week wait I now have the perfect bike. I encourage every one to try a custom builder radder then the bike farm approach .