In RIDE #58, James Stout wrote about ‘The Third Place’ – “that space that isn’t work and isn’t home but where you go when you don’t want to be in either”. He was referring to the bike shop. Yes, you can buy things but there’s more to it than spending money alone. In the modern world the option exists to get things cheaper elsewhere but the bike shop remains a valuable space in society.
Here is a flashback from the final issue of RIDE from 2012…
Where sociability happens
Behind the counter might be a man who seems a little irritated but deep down there’s a sense of satisfaction few get to see. He’s worked here for years and is as good at complaining as listening. Linger long enough and he may just offer some of his wisdom. After all, stories do accumulate over time… just like experience. And even if you don’t care for his unique brand of wit, he’ll still build a wheel in less than the time it takes for you to share a six-pack.
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When Ray Oldenburg wrote The Great Good Place in 1989 it struck a chord with sociologists. His theory of ‘the third place’ was that space that isn’t work and isn’t home but where you go when you don’t want to be in either. It’s where sociability happens. And it suggested that such spaces are integral to building community and civil society. When anthropologists doing fieldwork attempt to integrate into a culture it’s this space that they seek out.
Clifford Geertz famously cited the Balinese cockfight as his window into Balinese society, anyone with even a tangential relationship to rural Ireland knows that the nation cannot be understood without reference to the pub and, as I write this, I feel like I’m observing something similar in the crowd of espresso-sipping hipsters on the other side of the Rancillo.
What wouldn’t seem so familiar to sociologists is the smell of aerosol lubricant, the sound of a freewheel spinning, or the sight of a Phil Wood spoke cutter occupying a revered space on a bar surrounded by men in tight clothing.
Sitting on a stool, sipping an espresso, I’m put in mind of Geertz observing the Balinese, lovingly tying fighting spurs onto his fighting bird and cooing its name.
It’s Saturday afternoon and I, and a group of young men, watch silently as a wheel spins in a truing stand, stops for a second, resonates as its spokes are plucked, and spins again.
I’m a “participant observer” in the cycling subculture – this site of sociability, the comfortable home away from home, the meeting place and storytelling site that isn’t the cafe or the bar, these are shared spaces. The social space unique to the culture of cycling is The Shop. Not every shop mind, it takes something special for a shop to become first and foremost a place to hang out, not to spend money. To transcend its economic raison d’être and become first and foremost a social space.
We’re all familiar with the commercial bike shop; you walk in, perhaps in your ‘civvies’ and are immediately greeted by a dark coloured polo shirt tucked into chinos, a firm handshake, a smile, and a name badge. The 18-year-old employee will wax lyrical for minutes about the benefits of the compact crankset, the ride quality of the Taiwanese-made frame with the Italian badge and the performance-enhancing potential of the syrupy goop in the shiny packages arrayed next to his cash register.
You’ll tell him you know this, that you’ve ridden a bit, even raced.
He’ll tell you about the race he did once – it was 100km and he did it in less than five hours; he’ll namedrop a local charity ride and you’ll catch a glimpse of the hairs on his legs as he turns away from you to find a more profitable, less knowledgeable prospect.
Then, 15 minutes later you leave with a tube, a hole in your wallet and a desire never to return.
Meanwhile our salesman bolts a new bike rack onto a Prius and thinks about his commission while a dentist holds a colour-matched comfort bike with a foot-and-a-half of head tube and a stem pointing skywards. He’s opted for the compact crank and the bundle deal with a helmet, shoes and a pump. All from a company which, despite what its name suggests, makes a killing selling bikes with a surprisingly generalised “comfort endurance” label.
Meanwhile across town there’s The Shop, the place where bike riders go.
There’s not a big car park or a window with a picture of a triathlete. The rack is full, not of bikes for sale, but of customers’ bikes resting while their riders do the same.
This is the shop where they don’t sell bikes that come in a box. It’s where people can get what they need but the staff won’t try to talk you into buying something you don’t want. It’s where the espresso machine sees more action than the cash register. It’s where a quick glance behind the workshop – and, often, at the seats in front of it – reveals the bikes and bodies which appear in the chain stores only through the magazines and posters.
It’s here that those riders, the ones from the magazines and posters, sip coffee and talk prize money. They watch as an allen key turns in hand; in these circles it carries the same reputation as the donated jerseys on the wall. Next to them sit riders who once gazed at their pictures in awe, but here the workbench is the great leveller. Once they get on the road they’d never be able to talk without being dropped but in front of the bike stand, watching a master at work, they can share their passion.
Just as Oldenburg suggests, ‘the third place’ is a necessity for the development of democracy and civil society. It’s also the hallmark of a developed cycling community.
It’s a place to be when cycling comes to be part of who you are even when you’re not on a bike. Oldenburg’s criteria are all met: entrance is free, drinks are served, it’s accessible, it involves regulars, it’s welcoming and comfortable and one can meet old friends and make new ones.
The thing about The Shop is that first and foremost it isn’t a retail outlet, it’s an identity. It’s where you go and thus who you are. It’s where the ride starts and ends. Not because they hand out miniature energy bars but because it’s where people want to be.
When the legs won’t cooperate and your 160km day turns into a 16km/h cruise, it’s the place you can stop, drink a brew and watch as wheels which cost more than your whole bike get a new coat of glue. You can solicit opinions on the next big-ticket buy, secure that you’re not going to be oversold on the merits of the brand which owns the lease to the store or made to feel bad if the cost is one-tenth of that of the bike in front of the mechanic.
The Shop is about community, it’s about having a place to spend time with like-minded people and not feel like you’re hanging out in a supermarket.
It’s about knowing that everyone there shares that same love for the sport that you do. They’ve found this place after trying the others, they didn’t wander in off the street and they didn’t see an advert on the internet. It doesn’t advertise, it doesn’t need to because if you know you’ll find out.
The Shop is an extension of the community, and to be part of the former you have to be part of the latter.
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You can buy a riding kit from The Shop; it’s simple, classy and unique. Customers take pride in wearing it, and it serves as an unspoken introduction. Like a Masonic handshake or a gang tattoo it says ‘You’re one of us’. It’ll help give you a wheel to follow for the ‘Wednesday morning worlds’. More subtle are the stickers and socks; for those of us who are obliged to dress up like a two-wheeled billboard these are markers of identity. Riding full-gas in the pouring rain a hundred kilometres from home, sometimes the presence of that shop logo is enough to get you that push, which makes a race survivable.
Anthropologists have studied lip plates in Ethiopia, foot binding in China and neck stretching in Burma but, to my knowledge, there is not a definitive work on marking one’s identity with hosiery or lycra.
Underneath The Shop in the hierarchy of ‘the third place’ desirability lies the neighbourhood bike shop. They don’t serve coffee; and if they did, it would be instant. People don’t go there unless they need something. Employees don’t shake your hand and nobody wears a polo shirt.
This is a workplace, and an industrial one. But they work well, they’ve been doing it for generations.
They sold your grandfather his five-speed racing bike and if you brought it back, they’d likely as not still have the parts to fix it. They’ll lend you a pump and they’ll charge you nothing more than a gruff look for tightening your loose crank bolt. The floor has more character than the whole of the big brand store and the mallet occupies a worryingly prominent space on the tool board. What’s more, the tool board is painted, so the shape of any missing tools is painfully obvious. They sell more handlebar baskets than aerobars and you’ll have to look pretty hard to find anything made of carbon. At least one mechanic is cultivating a beard that looks like it might weigh more than your race wheels.
This is the shop that keeps the bikes running, be that to the finish line or just to the market on a Sunday. They don’t go out of their way to make you feel welcome, but go back five years later and they’ll remember exactly the bike they sold you and ask how it’s performing. They already know you’ll say flawlessly.
Whichever shop you stop by, you’re best advised not to raise the subject of the elephant in the corner of the room: internet retailers. These are the exact opposite of ‘the third place’ shop. They allow you to buy stuff without leaving the first or second place. You can order the latest 11-speed groupset and not even get off the sofa. It’s possible to agonise over whether 200g is really worth $100 whilst pretending you’re really absorbed in an Excel spreadsheet in your office cubicle.
What you can’t do is ask the mechanic if he’s seen the lighter frame break. Nor can you feel the 11-speed shifter in your hand.
When your 22 gears turn into two after you try to perfect your shifting, you can’t stop into the dot-com you bought it from to have them laugh at you, chide you and then serve you coffee while they invest an hour of their time in rectifying your error for free.
Nobody grants you a wheel when you wear online retailers’ name brand block colour jersey. It says, “I don’t belong” and nobody cares about me enough to help me find my feet.
Oldenburg and Geertz may not ever find themselves looking across a workbench at an expertly wielded headset press whilst mulling over the huge pothole on the bunch ride route. They might never pass up an invitation to go out to lunch in order to sip espresso in sports kit and talk about threads per inch and tubular tape but they would recognise the role this third place plays in a developed and coherent sub-culture.
Just like a town cannot exist without social spaces, a cycling community needs a shop. So, next time you are about to break out the credit card and make a purchase, take a second to think about the man who sold you your first bike, who taught you to use a barrel adjuster and a tyre lever. Think about the mechanic who works for free on the bikes of the kids who are living in the back of cars to see if they can “make it”. If ‘the third place’ didn’t exist, neither would this community. Then ask yourself if the 20 per cent off supersale is really good value.
– James Stout