For most of the last two centuries, the best place to buy a bike (whether that’s road bike or a vélocipède) has not been online. Once production moved out of the LB (local blacksmith), sales activity moved to the LBS (local bike shop).
In more recent years, LBS sales have come under threat from bike chains and from direct sales on the internet. But as we stand here in 2017 (or sit), where is the best place to buy a new bike (and do we have much choice anymore…?).
Your intrepid reporter, Le Mont of the Daily Velo, attempts to make sense of it all. (And fails. The End.)
Internet Retail Apologist Laments The Demise Of His Local Bike Shop
I got something of a jolt the other week. I discovered that Samways Cycles, a (local) bike shop in Derby (the UK…) had closed down after over 80 years of trading. The owners (the Samways family) cited the pressures of the internet, with online retailers selling at prices that the independent ‘bricks and mortar’ retailers can’t compete with.
I bought my Trek Domane from Samways in 2013. At the same time I bought a pair of Specialized Road Elite (ha ha ha) shoes.
It’s a shame. It was a good-sized store with a strong range of quality products. It wasn’t full of naffery. Exactly the sort of place that I would happily browse around (if forced to go shopping…).
They also seemed to have a good website which I assume did some online trade. They had a sizeable workshop operation, which (again I assume) will have done a reasonable trade servicing all those bikes that people now buy on the webternet.
And yet this appears not to have been enough to sustain the operation, in the face of competition from the online storezillas…
Online Retail Prices Versus Wholesale Prices
Which is about as tedious a sub-heading as you can get (I certainly try to do better here at the Sportive Cyclist Service Course – SCSC…).
Mark, owner and wrenchmeister at Cyclehub in Ashbourne, told me the last time I was in, that the prices for bikes and components sold by online cycle retailers are essentially the same as what distributors charge independent bike shops and mechanics. I can well believe this to be true.
Mark runs a workshop, so he makes his money through mechanical whizzbangery and cyclo-fittery (at very reasonable prices). He’ll generally recommend customers buy components online and then bring it in for him to fit to the bike.
The consumer saves money doing it this way (and I guess Mark avoids the customer service hassles of dealing with product – returns, defects, etc – sold at little or no margin for him).
Brick and mortar businesses that rely primarily on selling bikes and bits have to compete in this arena. And often can’t.
Who’s A Hypocrit(erium)?
I can’t go around lamenting the demise of the local bike shop. Despite the in-store bike and shoes purchase (plus the odd component that I’ve bought via Mark at Cyclehub), my cycle buying over the past few years has been heavily weighted towards the online stores.
In fact I’m a double-crit.
These tend to be affiliate links – if you click a link and buy something, I may* get a commission (and I’ll be very grateful to you, dear reader).
(* You might well have clicked someone else’s affiliate link as well, in which case it might be them that gets the pennies).
I am incentivised to encourage you to buy bikeswag from bikewebshops.
I will say now though, if you find one of my articles helpful (say a buyers guide or summat) and you want to go away and buy a related product from your local bike shop,
I will hunt you down and inflate you with my track pump I would entirely support your decision.
Chances are you won’t though.
Oh what we’ll do for next day delivery, having a huge choice to pick from and finding a little bag of Haribos as a gift in with our order….
Life is busy. It’s difficult to find the time to make a trip to a bike shop (that’s assuming you can find a good one near you, which has the item in stock).
It’s no coincidence that many of my own bike shop purchases have taken place on holiday.
I’ll have done some research ahead of time, sought out a good LBS and will have gone with the specific intention of dropping some cash there (almost like charitable donation, albeit one with some pleasureable velo-browsing beforehand).
Bike Buying In Days Of Yore (How I’ve Bought Bikes In The Past)
Let’s get back to the topic.
The best way, historically, to buy a bike has been in person, at a (local) bike shop, with the help and advice of a knowledgeable shop assistant.
Bike buyers were conditioned to expect the bike purchase to be a multi-visit experience. Even if the bike model you wanted was in stock in the correct size, you’d expect to pays yo money and then come back once the shop had set it up for you.
By being present in person, at the outset, the LBS owner (or shop assistant) could size you up with a mixture of measuring devices and intuition, and specify the right size of frame.
I guess my relatively recent (certainly post-internet-age) purchase of my Trek Domane ‘went down’ in a similar fashion.
I went to a bike fitter first (Bespoke Cycles in Derby*), who sized me up on a rig, in order to get my required ‘stack’ and ‘reach’ dimensions.
(* Who I’ve just discovered closed down YESTERDAY!!)
He then used those numbers to compare against a little database he maintained of bike brands/models/sizes, in order to recommend a small number of models (and their sizes) that I could choose from (not all of which they were a dealer for).
I went home and did a bit of internet research (I created a wunderspreadsheet) and, as is (c’est) normal, wrote a blog post.
I decided on the Trek Domane. This had a slight complication in that there were two sizes (54 and 56 I think) that, with a bit of fittery-jiggery-pokery, would work for me.
I then called (the now sadly demised) Samways. It turned out that as a main Trek dealer (with a large showroom), they had both sizes, so I could try them in person.
This is where the process fell down slightly.
I sat on both frames in the showroom whilst the Samways shop assistant looked on. I had no frame of reference to decide between the two – I’d been told by the qualified fitter (who worked in a different shop) that both could be adapted to work (i.e. by changing the stem, handlebars etc). The young shop assistant wasn’t able to offer much more help. I think I went for the bigger one*.
(* The bigger bike frame – not a bigger shop assistant…)
Anyway, all’s well that ends well. Having bought the Domane from Samways, I returned to Bespoke in order to get it properly fitted (which, incidentally, did involve a new stem and new handlebars…).
Whilst convoluted, involving two different shops, the point is that this was largely an offline process (in meatspace rather than cyberspace) and had a lot of face-to-face interaction with cycling experts.
How Do (Should?) We Buy Bikes Now?
The model of bike buying is clearly changing. I think the internet might be the future…
“Garlic bread – it’s the future, I’ve tasted it” – Brian Potter
What I did when I bought my bike just three years ago I couldn’t do now. Both Samways and, I now discover, Bespoke have shut down.
The ease and confidence delivered by going into a large, well-stocked bike showroom, staffed by knowledgeable sales assistants, is reducing, not least by the fact that the number of large, well-stocked local bike shops is reducing.
At the same time, the cost benefit of buying a bike online is substantial. As noted above, the prices you can pay online for a bike are not much more (any more?) than your local bike shop will pay its own supplier.
Online bike brands like Canyon, through pro team sponsorship, innovative design and promotion showing quite how hi tech their factory is (like the GCN video below this paragraph) have raised the perception of buying a premium bike online.
With its ‘Advanced Bike Builder’ on its website, Ribble Cycles allows you to pick a frame and then specify virtually every component that goes onto it, from the wheels, chainset and saddle, right down to the headset spacers and the colour of the bar tape.
Perfect for those that like their cycle-tech-geekery to be combined with a little OCD and the low prices of OE (components that come as part of a new bike – OE stands for ‘Original Equipment’ – will generally be cheaper than if you buy them retail to fit later on).
(Ribble also does a simpler bike builder if you don’t quite want to get into that level of detail…).
Knowledge Is Power (Put That In Your Garmin And Smoke It…)
The knowledgeable sales assistant bit is possibly changing as well. Certainly there are fewer LBS owner-experts (mainly because there are fewer LBSs…)
Of course there will be bike-savvy guys and gals working at all levels in a branch of Evans or a Cycle Republic (and whatever bike chains exist in the US).
It is certainly the case that when I was after a new front mech, the chap in Evans Birmingham was more than clued up on the difference between Ultegra and 105, 10-speed versus 11-speed. The super-experienced LBS owner still exists (despite being an endangered species).
But so much information is now available on the internet, both in written and video form, that consumers can do an awful lot of research at home, without setting foot in a bike shop.
Questions can be asked in forums (phora?) or in Facebook groups. Hell, people can even read I’ll-informed clap trap written by weak-legged velobloggers like meself.
How Will I Buy My N+1?
I like to think these things through…
I reckon the model now is to find a bike mechanic and fitter to develop a (professional…) relationship with and then buy a bike online.
If and when I get sign off from the Investment Committee to buy my n(+1)ext bike, my first step will be to pootle over to the aforementioned Mark the Mechanic (remember him? – he featured a lot of words ago…) for a chat and a cup of tea. I’ll ask for his advice, mainly on sizing.
Then I’ll order said vehicle online. If my eye remains upon this very reasonable steel-tubed beauty, then I will be taking full advantage of the Ribble bikebuilder ‘app’ (probably starting with the very attractive steel frame that this link takes you to…).
Once I get the bike, I’ll go back to Mark to get it set up and fitted for me.
See, I’ve got it all planned out. There’s lovely…
Where Did You Buy Your Last Bike?
Did you buy your last bike from a local bike shop (or a chain)? Where will you buy from in the future? Do you have any advice for fellow readers looking to buy their next (or perhaps first) road bike?
Let us know in the comments below this post.