It was ridiculous. Almost laughable. “If you can ride 50 miles,” the sales guy said earnestly, “you can ride 50 miles on anything.” I was standing in front of a Specialized Venge, aggressively racy, cast-off by a pro half my age and weight, and now displayed for sale. OK, it was my size, and it definitely had the wow factor, but I knew it was wrong for me. Like an unsuitable boyfriend, this bike would hurt me if I let it into my life. But I get where the guy was coming from – to think more ambitiously about my capabilities. To ‘dress for the job you want, not the job you have’. But you won’t get far wearing stilettos to work in stables. Buying a ‘main’ bike is about what’s realistic and appropriate for the majority of your riding. But are we really getting what meets our needs, or rather what the shops want to sell us?
It’s a genuine skill to listen to customer needs and then apply product knowledge to match the goods to the person. When it works, it’s beautiful; everyone wins. When it doesn’t, it’s frustrating. With the vast proliferation of information available online, you can do a lot of product knowledge homework yourself. Where the bike shop adds real value is in contextualising that product information for you as an individual, showing how the facts add up to a ‘feel’. I once asked to test ride a BMC Roadmachine – £3500 of serious equipment and surely a nice sale for any shop. “What for?”, the guy says! “It’s got everything you need – hydraulic discs, Ultegra groupset, 28mm tyres, and it’s your size”. Great – you know your product – clever you! I can actually read all of that on the card hanging off the bars. But what does it feel like to ride?
I wondered if the amount of ‘telling’ in relation to ‘listening’ was a problem particular to women shoppers in a male-dominated industry. In the past I’ve had my work cut out just getting any eye contact with staff, never mind an in-depth conversation on which I’m going to base decisions about spending a large sum of money. I’ve been steered straight to the pink, low-spec women’s bikes before any discussion about my riding or – god forbid – any measuring of body parts! It’s not just annoying – this kind of experience can lead to expensive mistakes and can discourage customer loyalty. It’s unhelpful that the messages about female-specific bikes have been mixed over the last few years. Not so long ago, they were dismissed as unnecessary; what was offered in that corner of the shop sold women short with smaller, pinked-up and dumbed-down versions of the men’s bikes. Women were encouraged to seek the right size and fit from the ‘unisex’ offering. But this left women cyclists feeling even less well-catered for, so – recognising the growing market – brands stepped up by investing heavily in the development and marketing of serious products to better suit the different proportions of women’s bodies, including frames in 3XS size with 650b wheels, right up to the top spec in line with the men’s ranges.
The effect of this massive growth in product range is that women are now more spoilt for choice in the bike shop than ever before. Only if you’re like me, it’s very easy to become overwhelmed, so we need the help of the sales staff to filter and sort what’s best for us. A conversation that gently challenges our modesty when we’re talking about our capability, and encourages a bit of ambitious thinking about riding at the next level. So if I have a message for bike shops about the buying experience, it would be this: ignore my gender, height and leg length; it’s all about your ears!