Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Bicycle Repairs: A Cautionary Tale

When I arrived in Toronto I quickly realized that the most affordable way to travel in the city was by bicycle. Public transportation is very expensive, I live too far from school to walk, and a car was out of the question. So, within a few days I bought my bicycle, a 1970s Canada Cycle & Motor Co. creation in brown, in cash, on a random streetcorner, off of the back of a van from a transgendered person named Alex. It's nearly identical to the one pictured below except that it is more funky looking, is missing the kickstand, and has a ladies' style frame. (I'm writing this post from New York, where I'm doing a performance of Anna Lindemann's Theory of Flight, so there are none of my own pictures at this time. I'll add some later, probably.)

It had some definite issues when I purchased it but I fixed a few things, added a back rack and a handy-dandy green milk crate for a basket, and was soon cycling away. It's really quite a comfortable and sturdy little bike, and fast enough to keep up with even the most hipster of Toronto bicycle enthusiasts, who always seem to carry their U-bolt locks in their belts. When the rains came I realized that the brakes didn't react well to the wet weather; they were very unpredictable and gripped poorly. I also realized that the bike didn't like freezing temperatures and the brakes sometimes had trouble releasing when it was too cold outside. Finally, the shifter didn't really work, but that wasn't much of a problem because I always kept the bike in the highest gear anyway.

I had thought that I'd have to start taking the subway when the weather got a lot worse, but this winter has been so mild that I've been biking through it. Two Thursdays ago I was riding home after finishing work, but forgot to take into account the rush hour traffic. My bike route takes me from my house, just north of Bloor Street, all the way down this busy, four-lane thoroughfare to my school. Toronto clearly has transportation issues, and in addition to the number of cars on the road (and clearly as a byproduct of this overcrowding, as well as the stress of winter weather) the roads are in poor condition. Anyway, this particular Thursday I was just past the worst congestion when some self-important driver in an SUV ran me into a giant pothole. I was fine, but my bike was not; when I dismounted I could see that the chain was off and the shifter was askew, but I couldn't fix it because the bike has an internal hub and I had no idea what to do. I did count my lucky stars, however, because I had purchased a Groupon a few weeks prior for a tuneup with Cyclepath. Though the bike store was several miles from my house, it was a great deal and I had been planning to get the brakes adjusted already--here was my chance!

The next day, I brought my bike (by subway) to the Cyclepath location near Yonge and Eglinton. When I dropped it off on January 27th, the mechanic gave it a thorough looking-over, telling me that some of the extensive issues might be more than what their usual tuneups covered and that the bike needed a new shifter, giving me a quote of an additional $40. The staff was very friendly and predicted that the bike would be ready by Monday, as they said they had the requisite internal hub shifter in stock. I left my email address and Ryan's cell phone number. Monday came and I didn't hear anything from them, so I called and was informed that the bike would be ready on Wednesday. Wednesday came and I didn't hear anything from them, so I called and was informed that the bike would be ready on Friday. Friday came and went with no word. Each time I tried to tell them that my bike was my primary mode of transportation, that I have to go to school and back at least once a day, that I use my bike for grocery shopping, but they were largely unsympathetic and said that there had been a mix-up in their parts order and there was nothing they could do but wait for a shipment from Vancouver. Finally, on Tuesday afternoon (twelve days later) they called Ryan and told him that my bike would not be ready until the end of February. I didn't have the chance to call them back until Wednesday, when I asked if it would be possible to fix my bike provided that I procured the necessary part. "Sure," they said, as long as I would take the responsibility of finding and bringing the part to the shop.

I was so busy at school that I didn't have the chance to call around until Saturday, but Comrades M-M and J told me to check with Urbane Cyclist first. One quick phone call to the friendly folks at Urbane and I was told they had something in stock that they thought would work. When I called Cyclepath on Saturday I finally spoke to someone who was helpful, an older gentleman who is a mechanic there. He offered to call Urbane to confirm that the part would fit my bike, saving me the trouble. Sure enough, it would fit, though I still needed to pick it up and bring it to the shop. However, he promised the mechanic on staff would fix it while I waited if I could bring it in on Sunday! I had rehearsal all day on Saturday, but Ryan offered to get the part for me and on Sunday I took the subway out to Cyclepath, part in hand. When I arrived around 2:30 I was informed that there wouldn't be enough time to fix the bike before closing at 5:00, but I guess I complained enough that the mechanic on duty said he would try. I sat in the shop until he finished at 4:15, though he later told me it wouldn't have taken as long if the shop hadn't been so busy (I think three or four groups of people came in; there were two other men working at the same time). As I was waiting, one of the men who works in the shop--the one who had told me that I could find the part myself if I wanted to get my bike fixed in under a month--was explaining that Cyclepath is owned by two former CEOs. I guess they're brilliant at pinching pennies because they've devised the following business plan: provided they have little in stock in the first quarter of the year, their taxes will be correspondingly low! Clearly, the problem of the elusive shifter wasn't just that I brought my bike in during the "slow" season, and not just that bike parts manufacturers are notoriously difficult to deal with (though they are), but that the owners were trying to keep as little in the store as possible. Now that may work very well for some weekend rider who keeps his $4,000 bike in a garage and pulls on spandex when the weather is nice, but for a daily commuter, keeping your bike in working order is necessary and trying to get repairs done in a timely manner is crucial. (To his credit, the guy was not happy about this state of affairs.)

They wheeled my bike from the back of the store when it was done. When I looked at the shifter it was clear that the part had been put on inexpertly at best, as there was a gap in what was supposed to be a close-fitting part, but I couldn't stand trying to deal with these people any longer, paid the remaining balance of $3.12 (much less than I had thought!), and got out the door. Only to discover that not only was the shifter funny looking, but it was also backwards. And though my bike has three gears, it will only shift into two of them. Backwards. Also, my poor green milk crate is definitely worse for wear, with extra cracks and bits broken off from rough handling while in the shop. Otherwise the bike runs just fine and the brakes work a little better than they did before; when I was riding home it was snowing but my bike handled the weather pretty well.

Now, I don't want to complain unfairly. After all, I don't know much about bikes, though I did speak to the Comrades about their experiences with other bike shops in the city and about the parts supply chain and they assured me that Cyclepath could have at least tried a little harder to help me out. For example, why didn't they do me the favor of trying to get in touch when they realized the repair would take longer than expected? Waiting twelve days is a little extreme, plus if I had known the expected repair time earlier I could have bought a February monthly pass; because of the long delay, the window for buying the pass was already over when they finally called. Also, why didn't they think to tell me to look for a part? And though it seems it would be asking far too much, why not look for the part themselves if they want to keep their customers happy? If they're billing me for the part anyway, it's little extra cost to them! M-M suggested that if Cyclepath was going the route of social media (the Groupon) to gain business, I could at least write a frank review of the shop in turn. So, in a nutshell, here it is: if you have a fancy new bike purchased from Cyclepath, I am sure that the staff will be more than happy to assist you. If you are a normal person with a normal budget riding a perfectly adequate bike, I would suggest that you stay far away. My guess is that they will assume, as they seem to have done with me, that you won't notice when they install parts poorly and will treat you with little regard to your needs as a consumer. Plus, they have a really bad parts selection!

This is how I've fared so far:
Total for parts and labor: $35.20
Approximate cost of alternate transportation: $88.40
Total approximate cost: $123.60 (more than the cost of my bike to begin with)

In the end it wasn't much of a deal! Plus, I still have to take my bike to another shop when I get back from New York to get the shifter fixed properly.

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