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Ray Keener: Shorten it!

Published August 14, 2013

Editor's note: Ray Keener is executive director of the BPSA and a former bike shop owner, as well as being an occasional contributor to BRAIN.

I take my gal pals bike shopping. They like it better than I do.

I’m a picky Expert Counselor. The worst kind, after making Selling Cycling for 15 years. So my pals get a great bike while I make a mental list of sales tips to share with the manager. Hence, they have more fun.

Boulder is a bike-shopping mecca. We have three Top 100 retailers in a span of 20 easily biked blocks. All the top brands, great accessory selections. For cyclist gal pals, we go to all three shops. Scope out everything out there, then talk it over.

For biking gals, we start at one end and I tell them, “All these shops are going to have bikes that are just right for you. When you see one you really like, buy it!” Often, we don’t make it past the first store.

I’ve seen a pattern in my last handful of shopping trips. It started with daughter Kate back in May. She’s a novice mountain biker, and the Large women’s models were perfect for a more seasoned rider, too long for her.

When I would “hint” at a 125 or 130-degree stem, the salespeople at each shop had the same response: “You don’t want to weight the bike that much to the rear,” with a litany of bad things that might happen.

Fair enough. And I know my daughter, and I know her comfort at the start is the most important thing to her riding more. And if she gets better and starts tackling tougher stuff, we can put the original stem back on.

Anyway, I helped my friend Mary (a biker) this week, she hasn’t owned a bike since her teens. She’s 50-ish, fit, tall, affluent, and ready to buy. We tried her on a lively hybrid, and she was too stretched out for comfort. “You’ll get used to it,” the salesperson told her.

When we found the right combo for her (sturdy wheels, no suspension, open frame, adjustable stem, “mom-high” bars) and I suggested we start max upright, we got the same weight-distribution speech, in even more detail.

“The mechanics have a limit for how far up and back they’ll move the bars,” our salesperson told us. C’mon. Ten miles an hour is going to feel fast to Mary at first. She needs to start off comfy and go from there.

This brings up the larger issue of how much of an Expert Counselor the salesperson should be. I get it, shops feel like they’re the defender of standards of quality, and they’re right in many cases.

The thing is, those standards are largely based on the shop peoples’ experience, and those of the customers who ride like them. It’s a whole different deal with beginners and elders. You need to make their comfort a priority over “correctness.”

Another example: Mary’s up on the hybrid, the salesperson gets to the seat to the right height, and Mary’s dangling. “Does it really need to be so high?”, she asks. And is told about her maximum pedaling efficiency.

Is there a compelling reason not to drop her seat an inch, yes, maybe TWO? And tell her to come back once she gets used to the bike for a seat raise? She may never ride it enough to get used to it if she’s, well, dangling.

Look, I know this is old hat to you old hands, it’s you youth I worry about. Younger sales folks lean toward tech and efficiency and, well, cycling. They haven’t experienced the aches and pains and loss of flexibility of middle-aged bikers. 

So my advice across the board for selling to beginners and older riders: Shorten it. Make it more upright. Lower the seat. Make them comfortable in their mind and worry about what’s best for their efficiency once they’re riding more.

Sure, you can’t stereotype older riders, many are avid cyclists. Ask more questions about their experience. “How much do you know about bike tech? How much do you want to know?” Then talk to them at their level, not yours.

And watch their body language, instead of worrying about fit perfection. Two giveaways: Reaching to the bars, they support themselves on their knuckles, even their fingertips. Shorten it. They dangle their legs in search of the ground. Lower it.

OK, I’ll stop now, I realize I’ve turned into an old windbag about stuff like this. Mary was thrilled with the bike and the whole experience, and here I am grousing about it. Oh no… I’ve become a retro-grouch! Fist-bump, Grant Petersen!

Daughter Kate, knuckles on bars, looking forward to her 125-degree stem

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