Not The Bike After All

A few months ago I dragged my other half to Bespoked, the first UK Handmade Bicycle Show in Bristol.  I’m the bike geek in the family, so it was something of a surprise that I saw nothing I liked and she decided she wanted a new bike.  A nice one.

Part of the decision may have been me introducing her to Lovely Bicycle, a blog by a woman who likes old-styled, steel framed and beautifully finished bikes.   She wanted something beautiful, but also functional.  Hub gears and brakes would be perfect, and a rack was a must – she needed to haul laptop and books to work at least once a week.   And no, a backpack wasn’t going to cut it.

And we found what should have been the perfect bike – laid back, hub gears and brakes, simply designed and functional, and above all low maintenance.

But there was one problem – no rack.  No rack was a deal-breaker.  The bike really needed a bespoke rack, because there were no traditional fixing points and the rear stays were too wide to fit one.

At this point we were told by the shop that there was a rack, although not in stock, and we were shown a couple of pictures of the rack.  Shortly thereafter, the bike was ordered with a rack.

It arrived a month later.  I remember because the phone call happened during a disastrous lunch with my visiting mum and stepdad (when something crawled out of the watercress garnish on my steak).  Over the phone T was told that the rack had not arrived, but the bike was ready and announced this to the rest of us.  We picked the bike up later.

The bike looked great, but no rack.  No problem says the salesman – he’d managed to fix a traditional rack to his wife’s bike using longer bolts at the contact points and fixing the front of the rack to the seatpost binder, by fitting a longer bolt to the binder.   I wasn’t entirely convinced but I could visualise the fixing, and we had a spare rack at home.

Before we took the bike home, I pushed the chap on the ETA of the bespoke rack.  Eventually (and reluctantly) he explained that there was no rack.  The manufacturer had run into a significant issue which I will not relate here – upshot, it didn’t give me hope of getting the rack in the next 6 months.  But we took the bike home anyway, resolving to fit our own rack.  That was a mistake.

I should point out that the bike was not a 100 quid object from Halfords.  Prices range from just under 700 pounds, to over a thousand.  The shop in question carried other fancy brands – serious cycling kit for specialised customers who know exactly what they want.  Of course their bread and butter is low end bikes, accessories and labour – more on that later.

The rack we had didn’t fit.  It was alloy and would need the stays to be spread to fit – something you can get away with nice springy steel, but alloy can fatigue and fail.  T was heartbroken – it was the first sign that this was not The Bike after all.

A phone call to the boss a couple of days later started off a bit frosty when it looked like she might need to return the bike as not fit for her purpose.  She certainly didn’t want to have to pay for an interim rack, only to pay again when the proper rack arrived – whenever that might be.  But the conversation became more amicable when the shop offered to fit a spare rack they had as an interim solution, at no cost.  The bike was duly returned and the rack fitted over the weekend.  It then laid idle while we went away over the bank holiday.

I’d not seen the modification to the bike – I assumed it was now all sorted.  I’d always had a bad feeling in my gut about the solution described, but I dismissed it – after all, what did I know?  I was just an amateur and although I knew a lot about my own bikes, this was their job.  They did this kind of thing all the time, and must have had dozens of satisfied customers.

My gut feeling turned out to be right.  The modification was made of cheese.  The first time T tried to lower the saddle, she stripped the threads in the binder.  It would turn but no longer tighten.  The shop’s modification looked cosmetically fine but was technically unsound and caused a failure.  It was trivially easy to break the fitting – and yet when she was on the phone to the shop again, the tone was such that it was obviously fragile and she had obviously caused the breakage.  On a bike that has been designed as maintenance free, and one-size fits all just by lowering and raising the saddle height.

The final trip back to the shop resulted in accusations, recriminations, and a final collapse of the already fragile customer-supplier relationship.  The salesman’s expression was incredulous – he could not believe T was being so unreasonable after the shop had obviously bent over backwards to her whims up until now.  But I can tell you here that she was concilliatory, apologetic and calm throughout.  Even when he whined that she hadn’t given him a chance to fix the problem, and he was fully aware that the temporary bodge was no good.  Even when he accused her of just changing her mind, now that “the honeymoon period is over”.  Even when he sullenly refunded her money, and told her that her future custom was not welcome.

Of course you have only my word for it, and I am hardly a neutral observer.  No doubt the owner is adamant that we knew full well the item wasn’t available to purchase – in his words “everyone else who bought that bike knew the situation about the rack” and “it’s obvious it wasn’t for sale, or we’d have had one on the demonstration model”.  But I was there when we tested the bike, when T had first said she needed a rack, and when he showed us the photos of the rack – and I am equally adamant that he said no such thing.  And I wonder, if he was so certain he’d told her up front, why did he take pains to tell her over the phone that the bike had arrived without the rack?

I only spoke up once to back her up and say yes, you definitely implied the rack would arrive with the bike and no, you never mentioned anything about a delay.  I had been expecting to have to step in and take over the conversation, invoke the sale of goods act and present him with the letter we’d typed cataloguing the shop’s failures.  But it didn’t come to that.  Suddenly the man lost his temper and refunded the money in full, and we left.

Now a part of me still feels bad for the shop.  They’ve lost a sale, and T doesn’t have a bike, and everyone’s time has been wasted.  Nobody wins.  And I really believe in supporting local businesses and in the spirit of the LBS, an independent bike shop run by people who love bikes for people who love bikes.

But a much, much bigger part of me says good riddence.  After the order was taken the shop took no responsibility for the customer relationship – T was belittled and made to feel like she was being unreasonable for asking for what she’d paid for.  She came to dread having to make the phone calls, and that caused me stress too.  And not once did they apologise.  In their view we were stupid and ignorant and did not have a realistic view of the world.  An interesting way to treat a customer spending the best part of a grand in your shop.

There’s a certain kind of retailer who behaves as if the customer should be grateful to be served.  Maybe it’s the exclusivity of the product.  Maybe it’s because the type of people who shop there are spending thousands of pounds on an item so the shop assumes a higher level of disposable income.  Maybe their clientele enjoys abuse.  Certainly the shop behaved as if our refund was small change, given the speed with which it was returned.  If that’s the case, then I won’t sleep badly because they’ve lost a sale.

And the one thing that I did not say, and perhaps I should have done, was to question the competence of their workshop.  They knew they were cutting corners on the seat-bolt – something we might not have noticed for weeks had she not needed to lower the saddle – and yet they just bodged the job.  But even worse, was something I’d let go at the time but I really should have mentioned – that when the bike came home for the first time, the front axle nuts were done up finger tight and had rattled loose.  They’d let her ride the bike home like that.  Thank goodness she hadn’t needed to apply the front brake with any force – it could have caused the wheel to pop out of the fork.  The more I think about that, the angrier I get.

The hunt for a new bike will continue – if I can find a nice mixte frame and build it up myself, so much the better.