interview: fair wheel bikes

November 17, 2012 |

Memo from the guys at Fair Wheel Bikes*: your bike is not a toy. But it’s not an indestructible machine, either. “A lot of people come in here with unreasonable expectations about their bikes,” Patrick, a Fair Wheel Bikes mechanic, told me. But the bad news is that even at this world-reknowned bike shop, “we can only make your bike work up to a certain level of awesomeness.” That level of awesomeness is inherent to your bike, it turns out. If you’re starting with a one hundred dollar department-store bike, you’ll probably never make a race-worthy roadbike out of it. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be taking care of it, though. “Learn how to change a flat,” Patrick tells his theoretical customer. “It’ll come in handy.”

Or perhaps a not-so-theoretical customer: I admit to Patrick that I actually don’t know how to change a flat. Patrick assures me that’s fine, but he reiterates the importance of knowing how to take care of one’s bike. The other two guys I’m talking to agree. “People expect they’ll never have to work on their bikes,” says Ron. “That’s not true. Look at the roads here: your bike takes a beating.”

But, I protest, wasn’t Tucson rated one of the most bike-friendly cities in the country? All three mechanics scoff. Ron explains: “We don’t deserve that rating. It’s based off of statistics like, how many miles of bike lanes does the city have? It’s not based off of actual rideability.” I—and any other commuter biker in Tucson—can see what Ron’s talking about. Myriad potholes, bike lanes that end without warning, and roads wrinklier than Jan Brewer—not to mention the trolley tracks criss-crossing downtown and 4th Avenue!—don’t exactly conspire to create a cyclist’s paradise. In other words, Tucson’s not quite Amsterdam yet.

There is a great road bike and racing scene in Tucson, though. That’s where Fair Wheel gets its claim to fame: as the go-to bike shop for all of the nationally- and internationally-ranked cyclists who spend days, weeks, or months in Tucson riding and training during the temperate winter months. Fair Wheel Bikes’ walls are plastered with signed jerseys and other paraphernalia that documents the shop’s longstanding relationships with famous cyclists and teams. So when you bring your bike into Fair Wheel for a tune-up, you can rest assured that your bike is getting taken care of by top professionals—even if those professionals occasionally seem curt or disinterested. (A sidenote: my conversation with these Fair Wheel employees was pretty candid—we were sitting around drinking tallboys and throwing handmade bike-spoke ninja stars into cardboard boxes, after all. So I got some frank admissions out of these guys.)

“We work with countless customers in any given day, and when people come in with simple issues it can be a little frustrating. Not because we can’t fix their bikes—we can,” says Ron. But unfortunately, “we don’t have time to give in-depth one-on-one attention to everyone who walks through the door. If you have a flat tire, we’ll change your flat. But some people can be really needy, and we don’t have time to offer emotional support” about your bike’s flaws or give a bike repair 101 lesson.

So that explains some catty Yelp reviews. Regardless of their sometimes brusque attitudes, I can attest to the fact that these guys are nice guys, and they obviously care deeply about the bikes they spend their days working and playing with.

“My life revolves around bikes. When I’m not fixing them I’m building them, and when I’m not building them I’m riding them,” says Ron. “It’s kind of depressing,” he jokes.

Patrick’s, Ron’s, and Alex’s passion for bikes is the opposite of depressing. It’s humbling, and it’s also inspiring. After talking to these experienced cyclists and mechanics, I’ve got more reason than ever to head to BICAS and learn how to take care of my own beautiful bike, which uncomplainingly gets me all over the city. (Note: a couple weeks after I talked with the Fair Wheels guys, I actually ended up taking my bike in… To get a flat fixed. Whoops! They were super nice about it, though!)

* Built the world’s lightest bike… Nbd.



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