Saturday, September 10, 2011
The Bike Shop in Philadelphia knew me as a regular. Not because I went and bought so many bikes, but because I often stopped by to pump up my tires to the recommended 80 lbs psi, and it was nice to ask them about stupid little clicks and squeals that my bike, bouncing over the potholes, would inevitably acquire. Plus they were always really nice and if the squeak only involved tightening a bolt or putting a smidge of grease on it, they didn't charge me for it. If it ever did need more extensive repairs, they'd always tell me how much it'd cost beforehand. I eventually ended up buying a book on how to "wrench" bikes, as bike maintenance is so presumptuously called by the author, and doing the basic maintenance myself (I don't remember the name of the book, alas, only that it was yellow and the guy on the cover was not Langley).
In the Netherlands, though, if you set foot in a bike shop, you're going to be out at least €10--that's the minimum that places charge for a repair, no matter how small. Dutch name-brand bikes (Gazelle in particular, though Batavus is also popular) are built like tanks, and in combination with the generally-well-maintained roads, they can be ridden until the paint falls off and the tread is completely worn away--and they'll still work. If for some reason you have to drop by a repair shop, it'll be the last time they'll ever see you for a few years. I've had more flats in six months in Philadelphia than I've had in my entire time in the Netherlands--and none at all with my current bike, which is now entering the second year of my ownership. I'll grant you that at first I didn't know how to change a flat properly, but even when I did, Philly streets apparently eat tires for breakfast. Flat tires are the one repair that, for my sanity, I'll always get done by a pro.
Bike shops are everywhere in the Netherlands, and most of them are reasonably priced for their repairs, although most of them also make you wait a few days or maybe a week or two to get your bike back. If it's a fast repair you need, then take it to the bike shops that are associated with major train stations--they'll get you sorted out in a jiffy. Unlike regular shops, those bike shops are required to be open as long as the trains are running, and they've never made me wait longer than the next day to pick up my bike. Of course, they also charge a premium for speedy service, but being without a bike in the Netherlands is like being without a hand, and in my mind, well worth the €20 fee.
The other major blow to my cycling self-sufficiency in the Netherlands is the fact that all of the bikes I've ever owned (I'm on my fourth, which I have yet to ride to the point of breakage--which is why you never spend less than €200 on a bike) have a gear cover. Most bikes have their gears encased in a plastic shell--a necessity to keep the chains from rotting out from under you in a rainy climate, when most people store their bikes outdoors. The shells are not one seamless lump of plastic, formed over the gears. They just look that way--and for that reason, their dissection is best left to the experts. I love being able to ride a bike without grease stains too much to randomly tinker with that.
Still, the Metro reported a while ago that the number of bike mechanics was steadily dropping, saying that the old-timers were dying or retiring and the young blood just wasn't there--not enough interest. I find that hard to believe, especially given the demand in the Netherlands. Sure, it may not be difficult to do, but there's nothing like three-day-old grease stains embedded in your skin to make you reconsider reaching for your wrench. Unless you're like me, and like that sort of stuff.