Cruel cruel summer

It’s been a difficult few months for bike shops and workshops, and for those who rely on them. We’ve been doing our best to insulate our customers from the industry-wide problems, with a fair degree of success, but it doesn’t look like things are going to get easier any time soon, so I’ll try and explain what’s going on.

What’s the problem?

The whole bike industry has experienced a “perfect storm”, with lots of separate events combining to create a bigger problem. Obviously Covid has played a part, in shutting down factories in Taiwan, China, Japan, Malaysia, Italy, Germany and anywhere else that most bike parts are made. Many of these factories usually make the parts nine months to a year ahead of when they actually arrive in our shops, so this halt wasn’t immediately experienced over here. At the same time, every part of shipping – dock staff, customs officers, even actual ships – suffered big drops in staff numbers and everything slowed down and backed up. There was a global shortage of shipping containers because so many were stuck waiting in ports. Coincidentally, That Ship got stuck in the Suez Canal and also held up hundreds of ships in the queue behind it, and thus millions of containers, for months more.

But the “good news” has also contributed to this storm – we’ve seen unprecedented numbers of people getting on their bikes since the start of the pandemic – some to avoid public transport, some to find a new form of local exercise when gyms were closed, some to try new places to ride and types of riding… it’s been brilliant to see, and we’ve tried to keep up with this demand and keep as many people riding as possible. But that’s also meant our stock, and our distributors’ stock, has been used up more quickly.

How does it affect us?

Increased demand for bike parts, and stalled or dwindling supply, has meant a worldwide shortage of parts. Even without the confounding factor of Br*xit – which has meant some companies have decided it’s now too much hassle to sell things to our awkward little island – most bike shops have struggled to get hold of the sort of things we’d normally find in easy and plentiful stock. Things like 9-speed chains, or V-brake pads, or 26″ inner tubes. We’ve had a whiteboard at the back of the workshop with “DANGER LIST” as its title since January, and the list keeps getting longer, with very few things getting removed.

This isn’t unique to us, of course. You’ve probably spotted that most bike shops don’t have many bikes to sell. And most online shops are going down the honest route of quoting long lead times, because they can’t get hold of the groupsets to build up the frames they’ve got. It’s not unique to the UK, I’m told – countries that rely heavily on bikes for everyday transport like the Netherlands suffered big problems finding replacement parts too.

Another way it affects us is financially. According to one of our distributors, the average price for getting a shipping container to the UK from Shimano has gone up from a fairly stable $2500 to around $18,000. That’s over seven times the price, which has a really big effect on the cost of bringing in bulky items like helmets and wheels, where you’re “mostly shipping air”.

Shipping costs to the USA – from the excellent Scott Galloway’s Chart Of The Week

This, unfortunately, means a lot of things simply cost a fair bit more for us to buy in.

What are we doing about it?

As soon as supplies started looking a little unpredictable, back in May 2020, we started ordering further in advance and keeping much higher levels of stock in the shop, where possible. We’ve never normally needed to keep 50 pannier racks in stock, but if we don’t know whether we’re going to be able to get any more for three months, we’ve had to be prepared – and find space! We’re devoting time each week to keeping our ear to the ground and planning further ahead for stock we might need several months from now.

We’ve always sourced our stock from a diverse range of suppliers, it’s one of the advantage of being independent – we can choose the best quality and /or the best value and shop around. We’ve built good relationships with practically all the distributors in the industry because we’re usually pretty good at finding you that one weird bit for your non-standard bike setup. But now we’re also spending a lot more of our back-office time hunting around our less-used sources for parts that are still available, and even buying in from overseas sources where needed. We’re testing out products we don’t usually use, like SunRace cassettes, for compatibility and durability, and we’re building a blacklist of fake or poor quality parts we don’t want to curse customers with!

We’re also trying to keep customers informed. We’ve been out of stock of simple things like 8-speed 11-32t cassettes for short periods, and while we (and the rest of the country) waited for stock to arrive sometimes we advised customers that actually the best thing to do was not to replace their worn-out chain, but for us to clean their old chain and cassette and keep them meshing well. Or, if the chain was worn but not worn-out, sometimes it’s best to replace it as a pre-emptive measure so they don’t have to replace the cassette for a while. I explain this at much greater length in our blog entry “Why do I need to replace my chain and cassette?”

And as for the prices… unfortunately there’s not much we can do about those. We’ve tried to keep our prices constant and avoid unpleasant surprises to customers, but sometimes when we’ve had those unpleasant surprises ourselves (Shimano RS100 wheels almost doubled in price a couple of months ago!) we’ve had to charge customers more than we originally quoted, just to cover the cost. I don’t like putting prices up. Like most people who start their own bike shops, I did it because I love riding bikes, I love encouraging people to ride them and I love the pleasure that comes from riding a reliable machine. And I hate feeling ripped off.

So we’ll continue to spend extra time hunting around for the best – and sometimes only – deals on parts; we’ll continue making space for more stock than we used to. We’ll continue putting more money into holding stock for longer. And we’ll continue doing our best to keep your bikes running smoothly and reliably even if nobody will be able to supply a new part for a few months!

And I’ll try and blog more with updates, and to answer any questions you may have. Please use the contact form on our Find Us page if you want to ask anything.

Stocktaking

We’re going to be closed on Thursday 11th June, for a much-needed (and slightly overdue) stock take. This means we won’t be able to answer any enquiries at the door or on the phone, though you can still email us with enquiries or to book bikes in.

Sorry for any inconvenience this causes! Business will continue as normal from 8am on Friday 12th.

Consolidating

Our opening hours on weekdays for the last couple of years have been 7 til 7. 7am, bright and early so people can drop off bikes on their way to work and catch trains or buses; 7pm, late enough that people can finish work and pick up their bike on the way home. We had a flurry of visitors at the start and end of the day and we spent most of the middle of the day servicing those bikes.

At the moment, we’re experiencing very different traffic to the shop. Probably because so many people are staying at home and staying local, we’ve been busy with shop visitors throughout the middle of the day, but quiet at the start and end of the day.

So, for now, we’re reducing our hours to 8am to 6pm on weekdays. It means that there’ll be more of us in the shop during those times, so some of us can be working on bikes and someone else booking them in and out at the same time – basically so we can get more done!

To keep as many people as possible riding their bikes we’ll still be working on small jobs as walk-ins between 8 and 10am, and prioritising booked-in bikes after 10. As with all of our recent announcements, please watch this space for any further changes we’ll need to make!

Time out

What a weekend for a bank holiday. Especially one on lockdown. On any normal May Day bank holiday weekend with weather like this, we’d be planning rides, adventures, social events or visits to family. There’d be group rides, races, audaxes and sportives to join, and parks and pubs would be full of families and friends meeting up.

But not this year. We’re still in lockdown, still required to keep our distance from each other and still being asked to do whatever we can to minimise transmission of the coronavirus.

So many of us have been finding these last few weeks tough. And we’re no exception.

It’s been unbelievably busy at the shop. It’s a lovely problem to have – we’re proud of keeping so many returning, new and regular cyclists rolling – and first and foremost we want to thank you all for your continued support and understanding as we try to make things as safe as we can for ourselves and for you all. But, if we’re honest, it has been pretty full-on juggling the increased demand with the new ways of working.

So, this weekend, we’re closing the shop. The team have also been incredibly supportive of Rat Race these last few weeks, working hard and long hours, (and we’ve all managed most of it in brilliant good humour, amazingly!) and frankly we all need some time out.

So, we’ll be closed on Friday 08, and Saturday 09 May.

Thanks again to all of you. We’ll see you bright and early on Monday. With our brand new opening hours… (watch this space for details of those coming right up!)

And remember – even if you haven’t got a turbo, you are still allowed to ride. We’re going to be trying to get out into the real world, for sure – just look at this weather! Please remember, though, if you do decide to head out, make sure you go solo and follow British Cycling’s guidance for riding during lockdown: https://www.britishcycling.org.uk/about/article/20200319-about-bc-news-Coronavirus-Covid-19-FAQs-0

Stay safe.

Changing how we do things, again!

Hello from the workstand once again! I feel like I’ve written more blog posts in the last few weeks than I have in all the years of the shop being open.

We’re still here, still open, working as hard as we can to keep everyone riding. I have to be candid though, it hasn’t been easy; there are two big challenges and we’ve had to change the way we work to adapt to them. If you’re short on time, please scroll to the break for what it means for you. If not, here’s a longer explanation:

The first problem is, of course, COVID-19. We’re keeping the door locked most of the time so that we and you can keep our distance, and when dropping a bike off or picking it up we’ll be setting it in the stand outside the front door and disinfecting contact points like the saddle, grips and levers. We’re wearing gloves practically all the time and disinfecting those gloves, our tools, work surfaces, the phone, the card machine, the iPad… that’s all to protect both you and ourselves and minimise transmission as much as we can.

The second struggle, however, has been coping with how busy we’ve become! Obviously, it’s a great problem to have; we’re very glad to see so many people getting on their bikes (and we’re especially grateful for all the messages of support and encouragement we’ve been getting, thank you!). But this busy-ness, combined with the new ways of working we’ve had to adopt for COVID-19, means that at times we’ve been so busy answering enquiries at the door, answering the phone and trying to reply to emails and messages in a timely manner that we’ve had very little time to actually work on people’s bikes! It’s a perfect storm.

Although we’re all experienced and methodical mechanics, there’s a certain lag that comes from breaking off in the middle of a service to answer the door or the phone, and then coming back to the bike and getting back to whatever you were working on before. It’s not a lot, but it starts adding up when it happens many times over and a 20-minute job stays in the workstand for two hours because there have been so many interruptions. It also means the bikes that customers have booked in aren’t getting our undivided attention, which doesn’t seem very fair.

We’ve always had a policy of trying to fix people’s bikes on the spot if it’s a minor task – you’d usually only have to wait a few minutes if you have a puncture, for example, and we try and do most small jobs as quickly as possible to avoid booking bikes in and filling up the shop. But unfortunately, we have to change that, at least for now.


From Monday 20th April we’ll only work on walk-in jobs before 10am. If you’ve got a puncture, if your wheel needs truing, if your brake pads need replacing, that sort of thing, please get down to us as early as possible and we’ll try and fit you in that morning.

Otherwise, our workshop will be appointment only. From 10am onwards, to make sure we can give booked-in bikes our full attention, we won’t be taking in any un-booked jobs. Not even punctures – sorry! To minimise interruptions, we’ll also be letting the phone go to voicemail, and calling people back regularly throughout the day.

We’re very sorry for any hassle this might cause you, but we hope you understand that we’re trying to be fair to as many people as possible, and making sure we can focus on getting as many bikes properly serviced as we can.

A very Good Friday

In the past, we’ve always closed over bank holidays. Partly because Nunhead is often quiet on a bank holiday weekend, but mainly because everyone deserves a break, including our awesome staff.

This time, however, we want to give something back to our wonderful community, and in particular the people putting their lives at risk every day to protect ours.*

So, if you’re an NHS or emergency worker who relies on your bike, on Good Friday (10 April) we’ll service it free of charge. We’ll need to charge for any parts fitted, but we’ll discount these as much as we can. We won’t charge for labour.

We’ll be accepting walk-ups (although we’ll still have the door shut and be practicing safe social distancing) but if you want to book in, call us on 020 7732 1933.

And if you’re not a key worker but want to help, we’ll be taking donations to put towards parts for key workers’ services between now and then. Just call by the shop or give us a call to work out how to get money to us. Anything not used on Friday will be put towards key workers’ services in the coming weeks.

*I want to emphasise that this is a joint decision; my staff suggested working on Good Friday; we collectively came up with this idea, everyone volunteered and we’ve worked out the details together. I’m utterly proud of them all.

A change of opening times, for a time

It’s been amazing seeing how many people rely on us to keep their bikes rolling, and the messages of support have been truly heartening – thank you.

We’re trying to keep up with demand as best we can, and we’ve made some changes to the way we work to keep everyone safe.

We’re doing lots inside the shop to disinfect bikes, our gloves and our tools and work surfaces, and you may have noticed the shop door is staying locked so that we can help everyone keep distanced. Sorry if it’s meant waiting outside the shop for a while.

The main difference from today – and we’re sorry for the inconvenience this will cause – is that on Tuesdays and Thursdays we’ll be in the workshop from only 9am to 6pm and we’ll just be servicing booked-in bikes. So we won’t be open for walk-ins and we won’t be answering the phone on those days, but we will check our answerphone messages and get back to you, so please do leave a message!

This is to make sure we have enough mechanics in the shop at busier times during the day, and to deal with the extra time needed to serve one customer at a time at the door. Basically, to make sure there are enough of us to go round! Thanks for your patience.

Why do I need to replace my chain and cassette?

(Originally published 16th October 2011)

When we service your bike, things like oils, grease and hydraulic fluid are included in the price. However, some things aren’t included and the most common extra charges are for brake pads, chains and cassettes.

The brake pads are fairly self-explanatory, and you’ll certainly notice if they’re not replaced in time. But it’s not always clear why the bike’s chain, and sometimes the cassette, needs replacing.

newchain bw

As a bike chain is used, something called “chain stretch” occurs. This isn’t a great term for it, because the chain parts don’t actually stretch. At each point where the chain pivots, the constant rub of metal on metal starts to wear the parts away. Although this happens very gradually, this wear means that that pivot point starts to become a little looser. As it wears down, the distance between two consecutive chain rivets becomes very slightly further apart.

wornunwornlinks

The image above shows a very worn chain link and a brand new link. You can see the wear on the rivet, the inside of the roller and the inner edges of the inner plates.

The chain and the cassette (the set of sprockets on the rear wheel) are designed to align perfectly with each other. When both are new, this is what happens; the teeth on the sprockets all mesh equally with the links on the chain, and the force you put in when pedalling gets spread evenly to each tooth in contact with the chain.

But as the chain wears, the length of each link gets very slightly longer. Only by a tiny amount, but this can mean that the pedalling force gets transferred unequally to the sprocket on the back wheel. Because of the way the chain transfers force to the sprocket’s teeth, the teeth at the “bottom” of the sprocket will have more force on them than those at the “top” at any time in the sprocket’s rotation. In turn, this wears down those teeth very slightly. As the teeth wear down, they match the wear of the chain, the chain’s load is spread more evenly across the teeth and the wear lessens.

This isn’t a huge dramatic process (unless your components are made of very cheap metal, or you run your chain dry), but it is a gradual process that occurs steadily all the time you use the bike. In time the chain, and also the cassette, become slightly worn.

parkcc3

I use a very handy tool to measure this “chain stretch”. When new, all bicycle chains will measure exactly 1″, 25.4mm, across one link. (“one link” is the repeating unit – one inner pair of links, one roller, one outer pair of links, another roller). As the chain wears, the very slight lengthening of each link is hard to measure but, because it usually happens evenly over the whole chain, one can measure the lengthening over several links. The tool actually measures from roller to roller, so gives a better measure of the effective elongation of the chain.

The chain tool pictured above is inexpensive and fairly foolproof and I’ll often refer to it as the tool that determines whether the service is going to be a little more costly or not! One end hooks into the chain and the other end will fit into the chain further along if the chain has “stretched”. It has two carefully measured sides, one that will drop into the chain if it’s 0.75% longer than when new and one that drops in at 1% total elongation. Those are important measurements.

Most chain manufacturers recommend that their chains are replaced when they have elongated by 0.75%. Because the chain wears slightly faster than the cassette, this is the point where you can usually just replace the chain (and not the cassette) if both were new to start with. As an aside, if you’re fairly meticulous about swapping chains regularly, you can usually get through two or three chains for every cassette.

Once the chain wear is approaching 1% “stretch”, it’s usually time to replace the cassette as well. Because the teeth on the cassette will have worn down to more or less match the chain wear, if a new chain is fitted to a worn cassette, it won’t mesh properly and may jump or skip, especially when changing gear. Conversely, if a new cassette is used with a worn chain it will also mesh and change gear badly and the cassette will wear much faster than usual. As chains are less expensive than cassettes of equal quality, it’s much more economical to replace them before you need to replace both.

veryworncassette

The next logical question, of course, is “if my chain and cassette are worn but working well together, why do I need to replace them at all?”

There are two answers to this. One is, in turn, to reduce wear on your chainrings, the big cogs that the pedals directly drive. The teeth on these won’t usually wear as fast as the teeth on the cassette, because the pedalling forces are spread over more teeth on the chainring. A worn chain will still lead to unequal distribution of force on the teeth on the chainring and will wear the teeth down in the same way the cassette wears. But usually if the chain is kept well below 1% “stretch,” most chainrings will outlast several chains and cassettes.

Back Camera

The second answer is simply that eventually the teeth on the cogs will wear out. I was asked to “have a look at” the bicycle pictured above because “the gears are slipping”. When people tell me this, it’s usually because the gears aren’t properly indexed and the chain is jumping between sprockets, but this chap’s chain had actually begun to slip straight over the cogs whenever he put any pressure on the pedals! There simply wasn’t enough material left on the cogs for the chain to grip on to, so it was jumping over the teeth. Unfortunately for this bike it needed a new chain, new cassette and a new set of chainrings, which worked out more expensive than the bike itself and he chose to scrap it.

The moral of his story? Replace your chain regularly, keep your bike running for longer…

The beauty of hand built

One important thing we do at Rat Race Cycles is hand-build wheels. In fact, we’re about to launch a specialised wheel building service – Owen Wheels – at this year’s BESPOKED – The UK Handmade Bicycle Show.

There’s no dark art to wheel building, but to consistently build strong, durable wheels requires knowledge, skill and practice. There are many reasons to choose hand-built wheels over branded wheels like Mavic, Shimano or Fulcrum. I’ll try and outline the key ones:

Changing gear at Rat Race Cycles

If you’ve been in the Nunhead area over the Christmas break, you’ll have noticed that we’ve been making a few changes to the shop. Sure, we’ve reorganised things a bit, added in some more lights and had a tidy up and given the walls a lick of paint, but none of those is the big change. The major change is that we have stopped selling bikes.

That’s right – we are now a bike shop that doesn’t sell bikes.

Sounds crazy, right? Well, yes and no.