Bike shops as lycra-laden male elitist niches

Cycling is fun and I love it. However, it has its dark sides. For instance it can be an arcane and elitist activity, impatient with people who do not live and breathe carbon, group sets and rolling resistance.

This was brought home to me when my teenage daughter, who has become interested in practical cycling because of the pandemic, set about gathering the components to change her flat handlebars to drops. Since I am not in Montreal, I prepared a list of what to buy:

  • drop handlebars (about shoulder width, check diameter at centre – must be about 32mm);
  • simple drop brake levers (e.g. Tektro RL 340);
  • matching brake cables;
  • 1.5m of cable housing;
  • 9 speed thumb derailleur shifter (Shimano compatible) + cable;
  • 3 speed front shifter (Shimano compatible) + cable;
  • bar tape;
  • …. with this we’ll see what we can do, and will return to the shop, or raid my parts box, if necessary.

The idea is to have thumb shifters (or equivalent) on top, and straightforward drops with brakes, not brifters – we’ll adapt the exact outcome to the components. At worst we’ll go out to purchase what is missing.

Gathering the components should be simple: go to a bike shop with a fairly detailed list, see what they have, and buy it. Discuss with the bike store attendant to get some help.

Well, my daughter, with my wife, visited Primeau vélo in Brossard. They left the shop feeling humilated and belittled. I wasn’t there so can’t go into details, but the impression they had (and have conveyed to me) was that unless you were a man, clad in Lycra and extremely experienced in bike hardware, then you were looked down upon by staff, who became extremely impatient as soon as a question was asked or some ignorance displayed.

Whilst this is not the case in all bike stores, I have been to enough of them to know that such attitude is quite common. It reflects the spirit of the Velominati ‘rules’ , a set of idiotic rules that ‘true’ cyclists are meant to revere. They started as a joke, and would indeed be humorous if they did not so closely reflect the actual frame of mind of many cyclists, bike shop mechanics and attendants.

An added problem is the multiplication of standards and norms – nothing is simple about bikes anymore, and shop attendants can use their knowledge of the minutiae of bike specifications to befuddle almost anyone within 5 seconds. Some of them (not all) enjoy wielding this power, especially if the client happens to be an inexperienced woman. They only show respect (and politeness) to ‘true’ cyclists – those who know so much about bikes that they don’t need the attendant anyway.

I need some brake pads for my disc brakes!

As if there were such a thing as a ‘true’ cyclist! Anyone on any bike is a cyclist for the duration of the ride, and anyone interested in purchasing components, or a bike, should be treated respectfully by knowledgeable staff – staff whose job it is to understand and guide clients, not to humiliate them.

In the meantime I am embarrassed, this morning, to have anything to do with cycling, and ashamed to have sent my daughter into the lions’ den of ‘true’ cyclists…

Addendum: my wife pointed out to me that it was the particular staff member they interacted with who made my daughter feel so uncomfortable. My remarks – whilst they do correspond to a certain stype of bike shop employee (in my own experience, let alone my daughter’s) – do not apply to all of them (also in my own experience), nor even to all staff at Primeau Velo. My apologies if my aspersions are cast too wide: but as serious Velominati followers show – at least those who do not see Velominati as a piss-take – bike elitism is alive and well and cycling somewhere near you.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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