Friday, February 14, 2020

Velofix in Silicon Valley: The Bike Shop That Comes to You

Vera Arais, working in a Velofix van 

Most of what I learned about bicycles is by taking apart old ones bolt by bolt - a practice I began in Stamford, Connecticut over ten years ago. I learned when I made my own mountain bike in 2011, a California Cargo Bike in 2016 and, most recently, a Back to the Future themed road bike in 2019. I've written about what I've gotten right (and wrong) here on this blog. 

But I hit a wall with my learning - and you never want to do that when you're passionate about something. I knew there was more to know but I just wasn't sure what any of it was. 

So I did something smart: I asked Velofix to come to my house and work on my Back to the Future bike.

Now you're probably thinking to yourself: "Isn't that Vera, the leader of Women's Night at Good Karma Bikes?" and I am thinking "Yes, it is Vera, and while she now works full time at Velofix she still runs Women's Night for Good Karma Bikes."

I had never heard of Velofix before she began working there - possibly because I don't watch Dragon's Tank or Shark's Den or one of those other reality-based funding shows on TV. The short story is: the Velofix people must have put on a good show, because they got some funding for their concept: a bike shop that comes to you. 

The premise does have a solid foundation. Driving - especially in the Bay Area - is annoying and outdated zoning rules put businesses far from homes. What if you don't want to lash your bike to your car, drive somewhere, park the car, wheel the bike inside, explain what's wrong, leave, and drive back again another day?

Velofix services range from about $65 to the neighborhood of a 'spa day' like treatment for your ride of about $500 - even more if you order a la mode* or your bike is laden with the latest gear and tech. Since my Back to the Future bike was cobbled together with mostly older parts I had picked up over the years, I knew I wouldn't max out my Visa card with a 'Silver' package purchase. 

The first thing, though, was I got to go inside the van that Vera parked in front of my house. It was a rare moment of pure workshop envy.

Velofix should charge money just to tour the van. Everything that should go in a shop six or seven times the size was found in this van - and it was put away in such a way that it just...worked. 

Magnets above the workbench, a Park Tool workstand mounted on one wall, led lights. And foam in the drawers so each was like a horizontal tool board made out of Nerf.

It was just an amazing place that radiated confidence and wrench skill. If Vera herself was a bike shop, this is the form she would take. 

She had read my post about building my Back to the Future bike and was familiar with a few of the, ahem, design quirks which include brake and derailleur cables that run the length of the frame so as to look more like the Delorean. She set the bike on the Park Tool workstand and went at it. 

Clients of Velofix can watch the mechanic work. Vera even offered me a cup of coffee because there is a coffee machine right there in the van. 

Yes. A coffee machine. I don't even have a coffee machine in my shop. Why had that not occurred to me? I was learning more already. 

There's also a well-curated supply of items for sale in the van - either just to buy or to add to your bike if a certain component was broken. 

I've been friends with Vera for a while and always knew she was a much better wrench than me but this was my first time being with her when she's in Work Mode - and I genuinely saw what an effective teacher she is. It made me glad she could not only allow clients to watch her while she worked - including, of course, little kids who will benefit from having bikes demystified right in front of their eyes - but also that she was still teaching Women's Night at Good Karma Bikes

It's also an important thing that separates bikes from cars - knowing the service you are getting and having it deconstructed right in front of you. After all, we have all been there with our motor vehicles: dropping it off for a service and getting the dreaded I-Have-Some-Bad-News/I-Am-Holding-Your-Car-Hostage phone calls in the middle of the day from the mechanic asking you to greenlight the installation and/or removal of a part you never heard of (I relayed a true story of trying to fix "The Noise" on my car a few years ago).

But back to the Velofix van: while Vera was finishing up tuning the rear derailleur, she asked if I had built the bike with all SRAM or all Shimano components. I admitted I was stumped, and it was then she casually imparted some wisdom that felt like a cartoon light bulb went on just over my head. 

When you build a bike, it is best to build with either all SRAM or all Shimano components. 

This was one of those it's-so-simple-it's-brilliant breakthroughs. I had been Wall-E-ing builds for years - taking anything out of metal recycling bins or other items I could scrounge and afford and it never occurred to me that there could be a difference in how everything works together. A shifter with the little clicky things** carries the derailleur cable only so far, and the gears on the cassette may be imperceptibly closer or further apart than others. 

I went into my shop and looked at my California Cargo Bike and the Bike Friday Tandem that I restored last year for a ride in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Both hadn't given me a lot of grief in terms of how well they shifted and I realized that might have something to do with the fact I just happened to cobble both together with all Shimano components. 

It's like when you make a list of all of your favorite X-files episodes and discover that they were all written by the same writer.*** I returned to the van to attempt to soak up some more wisdom.

Vera wrapped up her work and relinquished my Back to the Future bike. The next morning I rode it to Morgan Hill and back - managing just over 23 miles in an hour and a half - which is apparently pretty good for me.

Sorry: I'm still kinda new at this Strava thing. 

I've booked additional appointments with Velofix since - but the only thing I didn't like is there isn't a way to definitively ask for a Velofix mechanic by name. Right now, if you book Velofix in Silicon Valley, Vera will probably be the person who shows up even though someone from Velofix's corporate office assured me that every mechanic is equally talented.  That may be true but the thing is - and I'm relatively sure I'm not alone on this - relationships with good bike mechanics are like relationships with a good hairdresser or barber. 

Other than that, I have no quarrel. My Back to the Future themed road bike works better than ever and if you're ever stumped on a build or a fix, visit Velofix and have a bike shop come to you. If it's Vera who knocks on your door, be nice to her and listen - you'll definitely learn something. Thanks for reading and thanks for riding. 

* I meant 'a la carte' but wanted to make sure you were paying attention. 

** I still have a dreadful cycling vocabulary. 

*** yeah, it's Vince Gilligan (who went on to create 'Breaking Bad'


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