There aren’t many things I know how to fix on my bike, but replacing worn brake pads is one of them. Mine had gone well beyond the point I should have done something about them – I wasn’t so much stopping as gliding to a gentle halt – so replacing them had become a matter of some urgency.
But before I could replace the old ones, I needed to buy new ones. Cue a visit to my friendly local bike shop.
Not so long ago, this would have filled me with terror. Even though I knew exactly what I was looking for – two sets of V-brake pads, please – the moment I walked in to a bike shop all confidence would disappear.
There would be all these blokes with expensive road bikes, and a swarm of shop staff dancing attendance upon them. There never seemed to be anyone who wasn’t busy, whom I could make my request to. I would stand there, foolishly, waiting for someone to acknowledge me. If I did ever try to get the attention of one of the staff, invariably they would tell me I should speak to someone else.
When I did finally get served, any certainty about what I had come in to buy had usually deserted me.
“Ummm…I need some brake pads, please.”
“And what sort of brake pads do you need?” This was often asked in the kind of tone usually reserved for questions such as, is mummy or daddy home?
“Err…umm…err…they’re for a hybrid. Whatever the usual brake pads are.”
And so it would go. I’d get the brake pads I needed, but at the cost of my self-confidence, which was usually in tatters by the time I left the shop.
So, on this occasion, you’d be forgiven for thinking I was looking forward to a visit to my friendly local bike shop about as much as a trip to the dentist.
Not so. I went in. I asked for my brake pads. I even managed to ask for the right ones. I handed over the cash. I went home happy.
So what changed?
Since I stopped commuting through the centre of London, I no longer have the wide choice of bike shops I used to. In fact, there’s only one bike shop that’s both on my route and open when I go past it.
This particular bike shop, despite being part of a national chain (hint: they won best retailer at the London Cycling Campaign awards earlier this year) genuinely has the feel of a local bike shop. Its small size helps, as does the location, in West Hampstead. But the biggest thing that makes a difference is the attitude of the staff.
Earlier this year, I needed to buy a new tyre. My back tyre was starting to wear thin and, with both the Nightrider and my trip to Devon coming up, it seemed a good time to replace it. I had the brilliant idea of buying one after work and then riding all the way back to Stoke Newington with it slung over my shoulder.
I got about five metres down the road before I realised this clearly wasn’t going to happen. So I headed back to the shop, and asked if I could borrow their tools and change the tyre in a corner of the shop.
I’d somewhat over-estimated my ability to do the job – I don’t get a lot of practice, given that I have puncture protect tyres – so, inevitably, I proved to be utterly incompetent. But rather than being laughed at, or ignored, or made to feel as though I should know what I was doing, I had three different members of staff helping me out.
It’s amazing what a difference a bit of good service can make. It’s because of experiences like this that, these days, I actually feel as though I belong in a bike shop. OK, I still don’t really know what I’m looking for – though at least I know what type of brake pads I need – but I no longer feel afraid to ask.
I’m the customer, after all, and I have every right to be there.
(Lest you think I’m in the pay of a certain national chain, I should add they’re far from the only bike shop where I’ve had such good service. For example, the staff at my local friendly bike shop in Stoke Newington, Two Wheels Good, are so wonderfully helpful that I would go to them for all my bike needs if they only they were open at a time when I can get to them.)