Friday, September 25, 2009

Bike People

I’ve long regarded retail shops as autonomous little worlds, each with its own tiny population, vocabulary, and priorities. The man who sells you a rug says “plush,” “pile,” “knots,” and “looped.” The hairdresser who sells you a better you says “henna,” “bob,” and “crimp.” I walk into their shops, adopt their words for while, and then shed them like an extra layer of clothing as I leave. I never give these encounters much thought. There’s no symbolism in Berbers or highlights. Pleasant though they are, these are places to be polite and do business. Retail experiences don’t stick with me in a serious way. At least that was true until I met the bike people.

The bike people are purists - like tough guys who take their coffee black or baseball fans who believe deep in their core (as I do) that the American League should let their pitchers bat. At Bikes@Vienna, the guys don’t say much. They wear matching bright green t-shirts decorated with the store logo and coordinated bandanas pulled down low on their foreheads. They listen to NPR and they work on bikes. Someone periodically arms himself with a plastic bag and takes Java, the silver lab, for a walk. And I suppose they eat lunch. They don’t try to sell you anything, but will patiently answer questions and to my surprise, while not exactly posing, they allow themselves to be photographed. All in all, it seems like a good life to me.

Bikes@Vienna is not on a street; it’s located in a wide alley that connects Church Street and Maple Avenue in Vienna, Virginia (because everything in Vienna is either on or connected to Maple Avenue). And it’s a bike shop only in the most technical sense. Yes, it sells bikes and parts. But really, it’s a bike garage. Cycling hardware and bike parts coat the place like splattered paint. On the walls, piled on the floor, on work benches and in back rooms, there are cranksets, rims, pedals, and saddles. Bikes hang on the walls.

There is no showroom - that would almost seem pretentious. Against the back wall, the inventory of recumbents leans four-bikes-deep with chains and handlebars intertwined. The more compact foldable bikes are lined up so tightly that pulling out one bike would tug at all of them.
Some online research yielded this description of a bike: “everything is completely exposed. There are no covers or sheet metal hiding ¬any of the working parts that propel you down the road -- on a bicycle, it is all out in the open” ( Bikes@Vienna pays homage to the bike by being the bike.

Nothing in this shop separates the bikes from the bike people. No rows of Lycra® pants, or colorful parades of Nalgene® water bottles, or that bike shop staple – PowerBars®. All of the excess has been stripped away. Even the pressure to sell bikes seems to be missing. If these guys swam, they’d probably skinny dip. If you’re thirsty or hungry during your visit, don’t count on the vending machine for relief. Somebody replaced the soda, chips, and mints with cycling supplies.

The bike people, John (the owner), Tim, and Al spend hours each day in this messy mechanical world of derailleurs, cranks, and front forks. They lube and rotate and tinker and tighten. If they are like my brother-in-law or my husband – both cyclists – they probably dote on each gear, on every inch of cable, perfecting the function of one tiny mechanism, removing the last bit of mud from a dirty chain, or ensuring the smooth shifting from gear to gear. Bike people find joy in getting the small things right.

I am a generalist, and satisfied as long as the big things are almost right. That there is milk in my refrigerator and gas in my tank doesn’t mean I have any idea of how much I paid for a gallon of either one. Cogs and pulleys don’t interest me. I appreciate my computer and cell phone when they function properly, but I have no interest in how or why they work, and I certainly don’t want to be forced to fix them. I’ll spend all day tinkering with 7 words for a paper and lay awake all night reordering them in my head, but other than that, I take a bird’s-eye view. But now I feel like by ignoring something small, I’m missing something big.

The bike guys turn my head. I like the sound of their words: ‘bents (short for recumbent bike) and trikes, which are three-wheeled ‘bents and the rhythmic click-click-clicking of turning pedals as counterpoint to the gurgling voice of Diane Rehm. I like the honest atmosphere of the shop and I find in it a philosophy of openness and joy in small perfections.

Maybe I am imbuing Bikes@Vienna with a spirit that I’ve created for my own purposes. Have I elevated greasy rags and wrenches to undeserved heights? I don’t think so, and the shop’s website backs me up.
The mission statement lists all of the specialty bikes that are for sale, and the last line says, “Our bike shop offers high-quality cycling products and service, but what we really promote are values.” It continues by disclosing that what the shop lacks is “Bad attitude, long service waits, junk, idiocy (or should that be idiotitude?)” ( To me, a bike shop whose website questions its own diction is worth a visit.

The website links to the shop's blog, which dabbles in subjects beyond the scope of bike riding. September entries include a brief snapshot of David Byrne’s new book, “Bicycle Diaries,” including its publisher and price, a fond musing about John’s 82-year old father friending him on Facebook, and an affectionate paragraph about the wedding of friend who worked in the shop as a bike mechanic. I had read the website and blog before my visit and now couldn’t resist asking John who is responsible for writing them (knowing that the nerdy question would expose my false athleticism as the sham that it is). He is the author. “The writing has a nice tone, a warm feel,” I say. “It's part of the reason that I decided to come here.” John sort-of smiles.

John knew that I was on a fact-finding mission, and not in the market for a new bike. “We can probably help you, plus it’s raining anyway,” he said during my introductory phone call. “It’ll be a slow day. What time will you get here?” To thank John for his hospitality, I offer to take Java for a walk. When I met her, she took her leash in her mouth and handed it to me, and I swear she whispered “please” between her clenched teeth. John hands me a poop bag and points me towards some grass. He says that she takes her cues from her walker. I tell him that I’m the alpha, and with that, Java, the bandana-clad dog, and I are off for a mid-day romp. I am careful to stay on the grass and close to the shop. I return her sooner than I’d like, but I don’t want John to worry. “No poop,” I say and hand him the empty bag.

Now that I’ve walked the dog, am I closer to being one of the guys? Can I appreciate the beauty of simple machines working in concert? Will I be able to find large meanings in small things? True, I don’t wear the shop’s official t-shirt or bandana. My fingernails are grease-free. I don’t know a front fork from a freewheel. But the dog and I formed an affectionate bond. I know I felt it, and I’m pretty sure that she did too.

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