I’ve been fortunate enough, over the years, to work in a half dozen shops in various shades of PRO. These experiences have informed and shaped the way TATI has evolved and though very much a work in progress, over the past year or so, I think it’s finally found a bit of a groove. This year, we’re fortunate enough to have Hyde Park’s most talented young mechanic on staff – a move that has already brought smiles and nods of approval from the shop regulars and the local club scene. One day we were chatting a little about shop standards. His experience back in Colorado is with a large and established service department with clearly articulated service standards and a resultant high billing rate. TATI, on the other hand, is an extremely low volume, mostly custom shop that has existed in something of an operational bubble until now.
I thought for a moment, about all the shop’s inefficiencies, about my glaring shortcomings, and bit about my mentors and previous employers. My first experience in a bike shop was working for my coach. He was a grizzled, decidedly pre-war Belgian immigrant with gnarled knuckles and two missing toes. Back then, we learned to do everything by feel: perfect tire pressure, spoke tension, and torque were products of experience, repetition, and practice. Every new employee spent a couple of months down in the basement, gluing tires, overhauling bottom brackets, and chasing and facing frames before the real mechanics built them. Eventually we’d get to move upstairs, where we focused on cleaning and detailing completed repairs, topping off tire pressure for customers, and other glamorous jobs such as cleaning the parts washer and restroom. Quality standards weren’t written down anywhere, but we all understood what was expected of us and our work.
“Every customer is Eddy Merckx” the boss used to say.
A few years later, I worked in a shop owned by an Italian family. All sorts of wonderful steel rolled through that shop: Masi, Colnago, De Rosa, Pinarello. It was strictly a roadie shop, and a purely Campagnolo-affair. I am pretty sure that the monthly bill for shop grease (Campagnolo of course) was higher than the utilities. The head mechanic was obsessed with light weight builds, and went to great lengths to customize nearly every bike that came through the shop. It was here that I learned the art of drilling out chainrings and brake levers, shaving excess material from saddles, and building Mavic GEL280/330 wheelsets that wouldn’t buckle in the first corner. Contemporary carbon heads might be amazed to learn that it was quite possible to purchase a 7kg race-ready road bike over two decades ago.
While both shops were run by mildly demented European perfectionists, the Italians, perhaps because of their position in the pecking order of neighborhood shops (and the vast storage room upstairs), were famously slow in turning around bikes. I spent a lot of time apologizing to customers in those days, and swore never to run a shop in the same way.
I suppose it’s a good thing to not have spent a lifetime working in the industry. Like most startup shops, my original standard of service quality was self referential: perhaps a bit lower than the Merckx standard, but not by much. I want things done correctly and safely and beautifully, but not necessarily quickly. The latter is a bit of a problem for most folks, though. And that’s why I’m so glad to have some help this year.
Another local wrench once told me about his experiences at a well respected, high volume Chicagoland shop. I was stunned to learn that the service manager had assemblers overhauling bottom brackets and headsets on new $300 hybrids. That’s really great, I thought. That’s really great that I don’t work there. But he had a point: in many ways, it’s actually the cheaply made, pre-fab bicycles that need the most care and attention in order to properly work. Pride in worksmanship, and all that.
Not dealing with such bikes, I’m happy to not be faced with such a dilemma. My personal neuroses include tire wear and overall aesthetics. The former is a function of coming up as a very poor young racer in the age of sew-ups. I absolutely despised fixing my own tires, especially after spending many hours each week at work inhaling tubular glue. Not only could I ill afford to replace my tires more than two or three times per year, but it wasn’t until my third full year of racing that I had a spare set – so a flat invariably meant down time. And so I learned to religiously clean and inspect my tires every night, patching and smoothing over cuts and abrasions with super glue. It’s a habit that I practice to this day, and it’s proven especially useful for those customers running what are essentially race-day rubber (Schwalbe Ultremo, black chili Continentals, Veloflex and Challenge open tubulars, Michelin Pro3s). It’s included at no charge on every repair, and easily extends the life of a tire 20% or more.
Aesthetics are more complicated, and it’s one of the reasons that I prefer to build bikes from scratch rather than sell prefab. But every once in a while, a customer will bring in what could be a drop-dead gorgeous bike, were it not for one or two small details: mismatched stem/seat post, glossy and matte black on the same bike, a 3K weave fork on a UD frame, or worse. I try to be diplomatic, and bring up the issues carefully and respectfully.
I tell myself: “Maybe he’s colorblind.” or “Maybe he doesn’t know better.” or “Maybe it was on sale.”
It does take a while, these but eventually… slowly, but surely… the offending bits wear out, or are “upgraded” with more aesthetically and logically appealing stuff. It’s a pretty simple indicator of the number of visits a bike has made to the shop, actually. Few customers even realize that it’s happening, but it keeps me sane.