Confessions of a Ballerunner

Essays on Sports, Arts, Culture, and Life

Adventures in comparison bicycle-shopping in Ottawa

Last June, I sustained a running injury to my right foot. I wasn’t sure what I did, but running any amount of distance resulted in pain, swelling, and stiffness. My range of motion (including dorsiflexion) was also reduced because of the swelling, which made running up hills difficult and uncomfortable. Fearing I had torn a ligament or had incurred a stress fracture, I reluctantly decided to stop all running as a precaution until my foot was able to be assessed. To that point, I had been running three times per week, including 21-22k (or a half-marathon) every weekend. The idea of losing the considerable cardiorespiratory fitness I had built up over the years was inconceivable to me, and so overnight I had to metaphorically ‘flip the switch’ and transition to activities that would preserve (or, at the very least, mitigate any loss of) my fitness.

Bicycle along Front Street East in downtown Toronto

Since I had already been using my aging, but trusty, purple Trek mountain bike for commuting back and forth to work every day, I simply decided I would just have to up the ante and add a separate 20-k bike work-out every day. However, I wasn’t sure if daily cycling would be enough to safeguard my fitness, so I also decided to face my fear of deep water and check out the community pool nearby. [My swimming adventures/misadventures will be chronicled in a subsequent post.]

Not surprisingly after biking almost every day to/from work and then at night for exercise last summer and fall, my 17-year-old Trek took a beating. Since I still needed it as a commuter bike, I decided I would have to look into getting a hybrid bike that would withstand work-outs on both the road and trail.

The freedom and pleasure that comes from riding a bike: a Sharpie sketch colorized in Photoshop.

Shopping for a bike is no small task — especially if you live in an über-athletic city like Ottawa (or Vancouver) where there is no shortage of sports stores and the specialty, independent, neighborhood bike shops — with their exclusive, often non-overlapping  lines of bikes — can be found on just about every other street corner. As someone with little mechanical inclination or in-depth knowledge of cycling, comparison-shopping for bikes became akin to collecting, synthesizing, and analyzing data for the purpose of answering a complex (to me, anyway) research question.

I decided to do what any good researcher would do: conduct a field study or pragmatic trial (since a controlled trial would be impractical, if not next to impossible). I visited several shops (a sort of non-random sampling of the population), and conducted extensive bike-related Q & A interviews with the sales staff who approached me. (Lucky them! And no, I did not formally consent them into my research study! ;-))

Bikes in a Queue, Rideau Canal, Ottawa

One place — store # 1 — I was particularly impressed by, for both knowledge and service, advised me that most bikes within a given price bracket are comparable in quality. What becomes important to the purchaser, however, is the after-sale service and the shop’s location. All things (or bikes) being equal, it was better to pick a place close to where you live, and which provided great service. Good advice, I thought. And, very customer-focused as opposed to being solely business-centered. This salesguy scored big points with me for his honest advice.  His shop was fairly conveniently located, but unfortunately, they didn’t have the kind of hybrid bike I was looking for at the price I had in mind. I really wanted to do business with this shop, and had even test-driven a decent retro-looking da Vinci hybrid bike. In the end, the bike was not aerodynamic enough and more importantly, it exceeded my budget. I felt bad. The guy was so nice, knowledgeable, and passionate about bikes. On top of the great advice he had given, he even offered me a spare metal pant clip that they had lying around (to protect my trousers when commuting to work) so I wouldn’t have to purchase a set. (Tip: Velcro clips are not a good alternative; they just don’t stay securely fastened.) A small gesture, but again, super customer service. Other businesses could learn a lot from this place. (On a related note, I similarly had a great customer service experience at this store in the winter when I had brought my classic xc-skis in for cleaning after applying an absurd amount of Klister wax — my first time trying this highly tenacious, but effective wax — to my skis to maximize my performance in spring skiing conditions. When I returned to pick up the skis, the technician who had cleaned and re-waxed them actually ran out to my car as I was packing the skis away just to explain exactly what he had done and to reassure me that the ski wax he had applied would be perfect for the weekend’s forecasted conditions. I was impressed. This guy was clearly passionate about his job and obviously took great pride in his work and in delighting his customers. I’d definitely be back.)

My next bike store (#2) — even closer to my ‘hood — had a powerful-looking, slick Stevens hybrid on display, which wasn’t as stylish as the previous store’s candidate with its boring combination of grey, red, and black, but it still looked racy and fell within my budget. I decided to take it out for a (joy) ride.

The problem with this second shop is the history that I have had with its hit-or-miss customer service. It’s weird, because there always seems to be plenty of staff around — young 20-somethings buzzing about the showroom — but every time I visit this place, I almost always have to seek out the staff instead of vice versa. Not cool, especially since I purchased my road bike from this store. I have also found that their mechanical servicing has been a bit hit-or-miss, too, when I’ve had to bring in my decidedly unflashy, cheap commuter bike for some tweaking. We’re not talking catastrophic oversights here, but I have had to come back on several occasions to deal with unresolved little mechanical problems that nonetheless impacted my bike’s performance. It made me wonder if my old Trek bike suffers from a sort of ageism at this store as there seems to be a particular focus on supporting competitive or elite cycling and related bling despite a mixed clientele. There are definitely some pretty flash, upper-end skus in that store. In any event, I liked the way this Stevens hybrid bike rode; it was fast, powerful, and I noticed it seemed to fit me better than my commuter bike, which is a bit small for my long limbs. However, never the one to rush a major decision — especially when a not-so-insignificant amount of cash is involved — I decided to check out one more reputable shop before I made my purchase decision.

Cyclist out enjoying an afternoon ride in the Arboretum, Ottawa

This third and final store has a great vibe to it, much like the first store. As with the first store, I had also previously done business with store #3 when I had purchased a great set of skate skis for xc-skiing. (Subsequently, my sister had also purchased a set of classic skis from this store, on my recommendation, which she continues to be very happy with.) In addition to store # 3’s great ski products and advice, I was given the name of a wonderful xc-ski instructor when I wanted some help improving my classic technique. Given my past success at this place, I was therefore optimistic I would find an appropriate comparator bike here to complete my field study.

Bikes are a popular mode of transportation for completing errands in Ottawa’s trendy Glebe neighborhood.

While this third store caters well to both the hard-core cyclist and the rec rider, the first store is probably more focused on the rec (or intermediate-level) cyclist. Store # 3 is also a well-known shop with a great reputation among the athletic community — both for cycling and cross-country skiing — with knowledgeable, friendly staff, but unfortunately for me on this occasion, a limited selection of hybrid bikes owing to an apparent, recent run on their bike inventory.

As I studied store #3’s  leftovers, an astonishingly handsome young teenage salesguy, who looked like he’d just stepped out of a preppy Tommy Hilfiger magazine shoot approached me. (My reaction immediately made me think of the recent, provocative essays by Globe & Mail writers, Ian Brown and Margaret Wente on the topic of the propriety of admiring and being admired by those much younger than oneself.) Since I could — biologically speaking — have been this boy’s mother, I forced myself to return my focus to quizzing him with my mental set of prepared bike Qs. It was clear he not only knew his stuff, but was charmingly and refreshingly a bit shy. Curious to know where this knowledge came from, I learned he was a competitive xc-skier on the junior international circuit and cross-trained by cycling in the off-season; he similarly loved skiing in Gatineau Park. After asking me about my intended use for the hybrid (e.g., errands vs exercise) and the budget I had in mind, he recommended a white Giant bike. This hybrid bike was the most aggressively styled of the three with its road bike-like aerodynamic design, bullhorn handlebars, and thin tires. I could tell it would be fast, and was assured it would keep pace with the road bikes along the canal paths and parkways. I decided to take it out for a spin. It WAS fast! And, lighter-weight compared with the other two I had tried. However, I was unsure whether it possessed enough stability for me; making turns could be a bit dicey (especially if there was any amount of rain on the road), I noticed, depending on my speed. I returned to the store, still unsure about the ultimate suitability of this bike. Mr. young, chiseled good looks salesguy, although interested in making the sale, wisely did not attempt to pressure me when I indicated I needed to try out the Stevens bike one more time at the other store.

That weekend, I took the Stevens bike out again from store # 2 (with the spotty customer service), racing it all along the canal paths, seeing how fast it would go, how my legs felt on it, and how well it kept up with the sample of road bikes out there. It passed with flying colors. (Pun intended.) Although not quite as fast as the Giant bike from store # 3, it had that little extra bit of stability I wanted. So, I took it back to the store and proceeded with the purchase and selection of accessories (i.e., requisite bell, front and back lights, and fenders to guard against big puddles). The order for the installation work was placed and I left, confident I had made the right choice, though knowing I had made a potential trade-off for a lower-level of customer service.

Bikes parked for the Sunday morning Famers Market, Ottawa

A couple of days later, I returned to store # 2 to collect my new bike and bring it back to its new home. I am now the proud owner of a nuclear family of three bikes: my matriarch Trek commuter mountain bike, my teenage Opus road bike, and now the new baby — the unassuming yet racy, Stevens hybrid bike. Needless to say, I will not be having any more bikes; my two-wheeled family is now complete! 🙂


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2 thoughts on “Adventures in comparison bicycle-shopping in Ottawa

  1. Hi. I’m trying to get a blog started and came across your photo,
    I’m wondering if I can use a cropped version of this on my blog temporarily until I can shoot something myself?

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