Thursday, 19 July 2012

Get your bike fixed?

The other day I visited my favourite bike shop, Bikefix in Lambs Conduit Street. The owner mentioned that they get some bad reviews online, so I checked it out next time I got to a free wifi cafe. What a lot of negative comments! Of course all bike shops get that sort of review, it's not that Bikefix has a monopoly on negativity, but it does seem a bit above average. Actually it's quite a special place, full of odd bikes and nice accessories that you would never see anywhere else, and a complete antidote to the On Your Bike type of bicycle supermarket. You might even meet some interesting people there, especially if talking bikes is your sort to thing.

So why the comments? The issue here seems to be a huge comprehension gap. It's a bit like when I try to explain to my wife what's going wrong with our loft conversion: I'm an architect but she knows absolutely nothing about the practicalities of building, so I end up sounding like a condescending arsehole (so I'm told). We just don't speak the same language, although being an architect I can at least draw pictures to make things clearer, but it's also a matter of different priorities, different values. Bike shops are like that. You come in with your typical ordinary bike and you know there is something wrong with it. Maybe the chain keeps coming off, or it won't change gears any more. Probably you've already decided how much it's worth to get it fixed and you hope to get it back in time to ride home that evening, if not within the next fifteen minutes. Now, the staff at Bikefix are without exception bike nuts, like most proper bike shop staff. They know about every kind of bike there is and probably have some heavily customised machine of their own that they change around every week to make it cooler, or faster, or just plain different. What are they going to think of your ordinary bike? Well, to keep it short, they are going to see more wrong with it than you do. They know what they would do if it was their bike (strip it right down and replace most of the parts, throw out those luggage racks and all those unnecessary bolted-on bits, maybe even a quick spraycan job to brighten up that dismal dull silver-grey finish). What can they do about your problem? They know exactly what will happen if they just replace the bit you think needs replacing: the chain will still come off, or the gears will be ok for a week and then start to seize up again. So they explain what they see as the way to sort it out permanently, and of course it's five times the figure you had in mind, maybe more than you paid for the bike in the first place. And it will be ready on Thursday, not today. After all, it takes time as well as parts, and shops only exist to make a living wage. Of course that's not what inevitably happens - most repair jobs are actually quite straightforward - but you can see the scope for frustration. That's one route to disillusionment, but maybe also inspiration to put your money in the right place and invest in a decent bike, whether by ditching your old piece of crap or by getting it to work nicely.

At the other end of the scale, some of the gadget freaks who like expensive bikes are among the most persnickety people in the world. Is that a proper English word? It certainly feels like the right word to describe that particular combination of uncertainty and obsessive attention to detail. Take a look at a specialised bicycle forum if you don't believe me, or have a laugh at the one review of Bikefix on Time Out. These people know enough to know what they don't like but not enough to know how to achieve what they do want. A no-win situation for everyone involved, potentially.

Do satisfied customers wrote reviews? I once bought a lemon-yellow Brompton there. They have an excellent online system for choosing all the different options for colours, gears, type of handlebar etc. but after I did that I went in to finalise the order. They didn't like the colour but they didn't try to change my mind, and warned me accurately about what was then a long order time. It certainly didn't occur to me to find an online review site and say how the yellow was exactly as lemony as I hoped and the bike had absolutely nothing wrong with it. Between the two extremes, Bikefix is a pleasure to visit and they can usually do or get whatever it is that you want. Within reason.

Monday, 2 July 2012

Post industrial landscape in East London 3/3

We rejoin the Greenway where it crosses the A12. There is now a brand-new bridge (not yet open) and a pedestrian crossing in case you don't care to climb all those steps. Like the way the Greenway itself has been improved for the Olympics, it's stylish and imaginative. It's interesting to see the way the Olympic landscaping incorporates bits of old concrete and metal, unusual seats designed by students and bits of arty sculpture to make something interesting out of what was really a bit grim. There are security guards here too, but only patrolling the perimeter of the Olympics site and presumably only for the duration of the event.

We stop to admire the ornate Victorian buildings at Abbey Mills pumping station. After that the improvements fizzle out and the route is somewhat older, cracked tarmac and concrete, endless terraced houses both sides, and little roads that cross over the Greenway at intervals. These junctions all have metal gates, randomly wide open or locked shut, and those annoying bicycle barriers where you have to get off and push your bike underneath the bar. You can just about straddle the crossbar to squeeze under without dismounting. Seeing my strained expression a passer-by advises me to "watch yer head". It's not my head I'm worried about though. "Oh yeah, see where you're coming from there mate" he sniggers. Time to move on.

We ride the remaining four miles to Beckton uneventfully. Completely losing the route at the A13, we climb the giant spoil heap known as Beckton Alps to see where we are. The bottom of the 'Alps' is a nice winding path through the trees, but higher up, inexplicably, we find the top, the open bit with the view, is completely surrounded by a high metal security fence. Fortunately some public-spirited person has removed a few railings so we can squeeze through, minus bikes, and climb to the top. What a view! This must be the only place where you can see the whole of the city spread out before you: Greenwich, Canary Wharf, the Gherkin and the Shard, Stratford and the Orbit tower at the Olympic site, all spread out in one amazing vista. It's the one photograph I take all day, knowing a photo can't hope to convey the scale of all this.