"Wild Side could be a sex shop," says Richard, and as I arch an eyebrow over the selection on offer, the pleasure and the pain that awaits should you saddle 'em up and move 'em out, I have to agree. But that's not what he meant. The merchant of velo was opening a window to his brainstorming session 15 years ago as he struggled to come up with a name suitable for changing horses in midstream should the need arise.
I'm spending the day in Tunbridge Wells, which at a dozen miles from home is more or less my LBS. The eponymous 'Disgusted' is either writing letters about all the conspicuously shiny SUVs in the streets, or driving one. His neighbours are here, debiting £3000 for carbon fibre spun into dreams, frame-spotting the constellation of titanium that glitters grayly from the ceiling, stocking up on slime 'n' slicks or one of a thousand other cyclist sundries, clothes shopping on the floor above (complete with a couch suitable for dead faints should you suffer jersey sticker shock), or checking their beloved into the service department A&E.
Like many, I've always had a love/hate relationship with these places: love the good ones, hate the bad ones. There's nothing worse than exchanging perfectly good money for perfectly bad customer service. Having served time on both sides of the retail counter, I thought I might try working at a bike shop for a day.
Watching Richard, it takes a single short conversation to realise that I'm not cut out for the job.
In walks a customer:
"Can I have a tube?"
That's how you make money in the bike biz. I would've just sold him the tube, in as pleasant a manner as possible, but forgoing the easy profit of the easy pitch.
"I'd better not keep looking at bikes," says a man staring at a Bianchi. "You're selling me nothing today - for once." He's smiling. He'll be back.
I wander into Casualty. Another mistake. Three of the people here were trained by Ken Bird, former Tour de France mechanic for the British team. My ability to repair a flat tyre in slow motion isn't going to win me many friends. So I watch and listen, Gallic radio in the background as it's July and Lance is busy winning number sept. "Do you speak it?" I ask Gary, who "came with the fixtures and fittings" all those years ago.
"I speak cycling French," he says, attending to the latest offering the Park workstand holds for him.
Gary is The Man. He's the one everybody comes to when they want to bypass the learning curve. It's a burden - you can see it in his tired eyes as he attempts to do ten things at once, including explain to me the frustrations of dealing with often clueless suppliers whose warranty work the shop is obliged to process. He points to a wheel: "It could be an apple or an orange to them."
It's a lovely curiosity shop of banter. Pick up any conversation, set it down anywhere.
"Bakelite: what an underrated material," says Martin, a former research chemist, halfway through a riff which began with the suitability of mahogany in bicycle manufacture. "Wouldn't it shatter?" asks someone. "We'd just sell them another," explains Andy, who used to stamp hallmarks for the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths in London. He peers at me under his long hair and over his wire-rim glasses: "Beneath this hippy exterior beats the heart of a raging capitalist."
That's as good a cue as any for me to seek out John, who's in charge of sales and marketing and currently holding court behind the front counter. "You have to find out about the person. Not just what they want now, but their aspirations." His latest customer is a postie who's obviously delivered a lot of letters in his time. Today he's collecting a fantastically expensive De Rosa styled like a 50s car fresh off a Detroit assembly line ("The bling of bikes" - Martin). He came, he saw, he bought less than 48 hours after his heart first skipped a beat. Others spend months planning and piecing together a pleasurable means of locomotion costing less than some saddles. I exaggerate. Not by much.
bicycle," says John to the postman as he's wheeling out a chunk
of his retirement fund.
Next up is father and son. Progeny is interested in gravity. "Is that a downhill bike?" he asks, gesturing at a design which only existed in science fiction in his own lifetime. "It's certainly not an uphill one," Richard answers. Having paid for it, he knows his stock, in the showroom and in the basement where even more money is tied up as fashions change and internet discounters take their toll. Like everyone else these days Wild Side has an online presence, but fortunately "people still like to talk to someone who knows what they're talking about."
A former mountain bike racer turned runner, he gets a rush out of spec buying. The De Rosa was just such a gamble. Yet there's always a little voice at the back of his head reminding him to keep an eye on the bottom line. He's got seven employees to support and rent to pay - and the landlord wants to hike it by 50% next year.
Bearing in mind
that hardly anyone gets rich in this game, business is pretty good.
It wasn't always. Back when the government was busy building funeral
pyres for sheep, the entire recreation industry felt the heat. "We
couldn't pay our VAT. The government couldn't understand why...."
It took two years to get over the worst of foot and mouth until hands
started reaching for wallets again. (Not all disasters are created equal:
the recent London bombings found some bike shops in the city up 600%.)
He's got a soft spot for cold callers. Shows me a little pump which works by pulling on a cord. It's not selling well: "Too clever for its own good" is the verdict. "His tablet will read 'He was a trier'," says Gary.
Time for lunch. I haven't earned it, but I'm taking it, next to the subterranean parking lot of forsaken bicycles. A few have been here long enough to celebrate their birthday, racking up a £5/day storage fee which is largely theoretical. "You'd think they'd want them back," Gary shakes his head. "Some people die. Some are in the Antibes. Tunbridge Wells is a strange place." He enjoys all of three minutes of peace before being called back upstairs. No wonder he's so thin. As I'm not burdened by specialized knowledge or anyone hammering at my head to get at it, I'm free to kick back and study the pile of cycling magazines. There's a calendar for Orbic Bearings on the wall. I'll let you guess what's on it. Those don't look like bearings.
Upstairs an anonymous mechanic is discussing tricks of the trade at his former place of employment: "People are allergic to pumping up tyres. I don't know why. If [the owner] wanted you to buy a certain bike, he'd adjust the pressure accordingly." This sounds interesting, so I race up, pen at the ready, to source the quote. No dice.
Back on duty, or
whatever you want to call it, I head to the first floor. This is mostly
Will's domain. "Get a picture of him doing some work," suggests
Richard. A onetime photographic lab technician, he now inventories technical
fabrics and keeps the helmets and shoes tidy. I try on a pair. Put them
back neatly. Rummage through the triathlon swimsuits and baggy BMX gear.
Restlessly prowling I find myself in the workshop again. It's open at both ends, and so constantly draws me in and spits me out. "A Moulton is a technical marvel but looks like it's built out of spanners," says Andy, pondering substance over style. Hard to disagree. At one point everyone gathers around to study the buttons on an old-fashioned toeclip strap. "We're now entering the Elysian fields of cycling," Gary intones soberly. "Oh, what a nice crank," exclaims Martin pace Julian Clary.
Executing a sharp right hand turn I find myself studying the selection of panniers. Nearby are the powders and gels that cyclists use for fuel when bananas aren't handy. I almost trip over a kiddies bike that looks remarkably like the one that sparked my long-running love affair with two wheels. Richard isn't keen on the pint-sized profits but adult-sized labour costs, not to mention the often aspirational quality.
As you might expect from the name, the shop has a knobbly heritage. These days it's divided into roughly equal measures offroad, "leisure", and road, though some measures are more equal than others. There are bicycles here that look to me like they should be towing farming equipment; thoroughbreds that to the untrained eye appear to have a distinct Blue Peter heritage ("Today we will be gluing together bits of carbon fibre"); stately machines crying out for wicker baskets and baguettes.Everything is sold with a bell as per government regulations. Ping! It's not the world's greatest bell.
What do the keepers of the bikes ride, themselves?
Martin never really clocks out: he's a time triallist. He's got a De Rosa Dual. I've seen him fiddling with it in the workshop, sussing out a headset that keeps coming lose.
Richard's another De Rosa fancier, and has chosen the appropriately named King. The carbon-fibre is complemented by the titanium in his shoulder, installed after an unpleasant encounter with Mother Earth a few years ago.
Gary is happy on a Specialized S-Works with Neutron wheels. Don't know what those are but they sound fast. He has a racing background and spent years on the European circuit. These days he accompanies the Wild Side -sponsored team, making sure they get fed and watered. He's perfected the 30mph hand-off so his arm stays in its socket.
Andy's on an eternally morphing Surly Cross Check. Some days it's a single fixed, other days, freewheel with nine speeds, each presumably surlier than the next. He realised long ago that all kinds of bits can go onto a bike and it's fun to change them. Regularly.
Will's is a Curtis XE handbuilt steel job, which suits him for the Spanish terrain he favours.
John used to ride a Merlin but now prefers the Specialized Tarmac.
Nice for some. The problem with actually stocking bling bikes is that there are only so many well-heeled posties, even in T. Wells. You can have it sitting out there for customers to drool over, but by the time most of them have saved up for it, fashions have moved on and meanwhile it's been taking up valuable space. Turnaround is the key.
A bicycle is its own perfect getaway vehicle. So far the shop has been spared grand larceny. I can just imagine the chase scene. The smaller items, on the other hand... "We should probably write 2 - 3% into the figures for petty theft," sighs Richard.
As they close for the evening it's time for me to ruefully acknowledge that I've been a pretty useless employee. No sales made, no shelves stocked, no phones answered, no tyres pumped. Surely I can make a contribution. Something the shop owner said a little earlier gives me an idea: "If I can pick up a vacuum cleaner, they can do it."
There are worse jobs.
Cycling Plus, December 2005