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The Nightmare that is Bicycle Shops in Cebu

Submitted by on January 30, 2014 – 1:05 pm 7 Comments
All the parts of my old grip shifters and brake levers, which I removed from my bicycle

Thursday January 30, 2014

7:55 a.m. Cebu City, Philippines

I’m not feeling full of zest and energy this morning. Cebu is draining me. While in Tacloban, I built up an image in my mind of Cebu as a city of ease and plenty where all my needs and wants could be satisfied with a simple stroll down the street to the next well-stocked store. Well, for a variety of reasons, it hasn’t worked out that way. The main reason is that Cebu is a much tougher and less friendly place than I imagined. The other reason is that I have a habit of needing and wanting very unusual things. If I had a Nikon camera system, for example, I could buy all the filters I wanted with ease. But my Olympus micro-four thirds lenses are small and have unusual filter thread sizes. So stores don’t have filters to fit them. I had to buy a 52mm filter and then buy a series of step-down adapters to make it fit. On top of that, my Olympus lens caps are too small for the new filters I bought. I also had to buy a 52mm lens cap to fit the filters. Of course, they don’t have an Olympus lens cap. I had to pay 350 pesos for a Nikon lens cap to go on my oversized filter. This is a pattern with everything I own.

My first shopping stop yesterday was the Gaisano Metro mall right across the street. Chris had told me that they had a good selection of sandals. It felt weird to finally go into a Gaisano store. These were the big stores that were looted in Tacloban. I passed them all the time, but I never did go into them. Now I finally go into one, and it is in Cebu.

I was surprised at how large and well-stocked the store was. My impression from the ones in Tacloban was that they were quite down market. But this was not down market at all. Still, they did not have the sandals I was looking for. I wanted simple but durable sandals like my Tevas. There was a wide selection of sandals there, but they were all very strange. The recent fashion seems to be to make sandals as complex as possible and festoon them with unnecessary straps and buckles. These sandals had straps and buckles everywhere and going in all directions. After a great deal of looking, I found a dressier type of sandal that, though not ideal, would work. After thirty minutes, I was informed, of course, that they didn’t have that sandal in size 10 or 11. In fact, the single sandal on the shelf was the only one they had of that type. I probably should have left the store and had faith I would find my Teva sandals somewhere else in Cebu. But I was tired of being frustrated, and I bought some sandals that at least were comfortable. They have bright red striping and that sort of thing and are probably meant for a young teenager and I will look foolish wearing them, but they felt good on my feet.

After lunch, the real trouble began – I returned to the nightmare that is the bicycle stores in Cebu. The problem is that the grip shift for changing my gears doesn’t work anymore. I can turn it and change the gears, but the shifter won’t lock into place. Once I let go of it, the shifter spins around and the chain goes back to the smallest sprocket. In order to ride in anything but the highest gears, I have to twist the grip shift and then physically hold it in place with my hand.

I could open up the grip shifter myself and see what is going on, but despite having owned this bicycle for 15 years, I’ve never done any maintenance on the grip shifters. I’ve never opened them or worked on them. There was never a need. I’m fairly certain there is a complex set of springs and levers inside them, and if I open it up, I will never be able to get it back together again. That tends to happen to me. I don’t have any kind of a mechanical knack. It was better, I thought, to have a qualified bicycle mechanic do the work.

Here, I ran into the usual problem. I have grip shifters on my bicycle and 99% of the bikes in Cebu have lever shifters. No one here knows anything about grip shifters, and they don’t have spare parts for them. The only grip shifters I saw were the common SRAM type. I don’t have that common and easily available type. I have SACHS Wavy grip shifters – a brand that no one here has ever heard of. For that matter, I don’t know that the company even exists anymore.

All of that is somewhat moot, however, because I could barely get anyone at the bicycle shops to talk to me let alone help me. I discovered that there were many, many more bicycle shops right in this neighborhood, and some of them carry high-end equipment. But the clerks there were extremely unhelpful. I really had to control my emotions to keep from exploding with anger at the way I was treated. The main one – YKK – was the worst of the bunch. The two clerks there were young women who knew nothing about bikes and cared even less. They certainly cared little about customer service. Getting their attention let alone their help was impossible. I hated that I ended up despising that store. It is the biggest and best in the area by far – modern and fully stocked. I wanted so desperately to like the store and feel welcome there. But it was not to be. The clerks were hopeless and the one “mechanic” was even worse. I had no choice but to leave. Wisely or not, I told the clerks how I felt before I left. I told them how poor their customer service was, that I found them unfriendly and uhelpful, and that despite their store being the best in the area, I would not ever be returning. I don’t think they shed any tears at losing me as a customer. They wanted to sit at the register and take money from people buying new bicycles, and that is all they were interested in.

Outside YKK, I chatted with another cyclist, and he recommended a store called Welson right around the corner. This was a new place to me, and I was quite pleased by it at first. It was old and worn looking, but it was large and carried a lot of high-end equipment. There even seemed to be a fair amount of repair work going on at the back. Unfortunately, I ran into the other big problem with bike stores in Cebu – the disappearing mechanics. A woman at this store listened to my story and then said they didn’t do repairs. I pressed her on this, and it turned out that they DID do repairs, but their mechanics were not in. They didn’t seem to know where they were. They might be down at the pier, she said. I let that slide, and then I tried to find out WHEN these mechanics might actually be there. I was a customer and I wanted to know when I could bring my bike in for servicing. It’s a simple matter, right? Apparently not. This woman and another older woman seemed extremely reluctant to talk to me, and when they did, they could say nothing definite about when a mechanic might put in an appearance. I got a little passive aggressive with them, and I asked them if these mechanics were their employees. Did they work at this store? They said yes, they did. And, I said, they are your employees, but you have no idea when they might show up for work? It seemed an interesting work arrangement – one many employees would like – but it didn’t help much with a customer like me. I had no choice but to leave that shop as well. The main problem in these stores was keeping the attention of the store clerk. They would simply walk away mid-conversation and not come back. If another customer came in, that customer would simply push past me and start talking to the clerk, and then the clerk would help them and abandon me – again in mid-conversation. One has to be tough to get customer service in Cebu, I guess. And I’m not a tough guy.

The other bicycle stores were a mixed bag. Strange places, actually. I’m guessing they were family operations, because there were an unusually high number of middle-aged ladies (all wearing old-lady glasses) sitting at desks and wandering around. They were the people you had to deal with, and they were completely uninterested in bicycles or helping customers. My only bit of success came at a tiny shop that mainly sold junk bicycles for children. But here, I was passed on to a mechanic who made eye contact and talked with me long enough to hear my story. I brought in my bicycle, and he gave the grip shifter a spin and saw that it wasn’t working properly. He turned to me, and said it was broken and would have to be replaced. I heaved a big internal sigh. I already knew it was broken. Duh. I was wondering if it could be repaired. How about opening the thing up and checking out the inside? Maybe a lever just slipped or a bolt came loose. He was not interested in doing that, and he said that it would have to be replaced, and he didn’t have any parts like that. An interesting side note is that none of these stores or clerks in these stores ever brought up the novel idea of actually ordering parts. At YKK, before I gave my petty little speech and walked out, I had returned one last time to ask about the cost of replacing my grip shifters with lever shifters. It was looking like I might have to do that in the end anyway. After a lot of hassle, I got one of the clerks to talk to me, and I asked her about replacing the grip shifters with lever shifters – Shimano Rapid-Fire or something like that. I was abandoned at this point, but after a few minutes this clerk returned with a box and handed it to me. She said that was all they had. Inside the box were two foam grips that you put on handlebars for cushioning! I told her that that was not what I meant. I was asking about a full set of shifters for changing the gears. She said that they had nothing like that. Sorry. I nearly blew up at that point because we happened to be leaning on a glass case that was filled with sets of Shimano gear shifters. I told her that she did indeed have some gear shifters, and I pointed them out to her. She disappeared again to do who knew what, and she helped a few more customers. I think she just hoped I would go away. But I stood there patiently, and another clerk – a slightly more knowledgable one – asked me what I wanted. I explained again, and miracle of miracles, she asked me a relevant question. She asked me how many speeds my bike had. I told her that it had an 8-speed assembly on the back for a total of 24 speeds. She said that they didn’t have any 8-speed sets and she walked away and left me. Not even a conversation. Not even a question of ordering an 8-speed. THAT’s when I finally had had enough and told them that this was the worst bicycle shop I had ever been in. That statement seemed to hurt her feelings. She gave a little moan and said “Noooo.” But I continued and told her why I thought their bike shop was so bad, and I finished with my pathetic and dramatic claim that I would never return. That’s a bit funny, now that I think about it. I had purchased a pair of high-tech cycling socks at this store the previous day. And in filling out the receipt, they asked me for my name. When I said “Douglas” they came back with the usual joke about MacArthur and “I shall return.” But I’m the opposite. In the Philippines, I keep announcing in store after store “I shall definitely NOT return” and then storming out. The longer I stay in any one town, the less and less places I can return to. Entire streets get closed off to me as I lose my temper at the treatment I receive. Before the typhoon, I was running out of places in Tacloban that I could go to.

I decided to give up on the bike shops for a bit and despite it being late in the afternoon, I set off for the camera store to see about buying a lens cap to fit the filters I had bought. My trip there was much easier, since this was my second time and I knew the route and didn’t need the non-existent street signs to guide me. It was such a relief to get to the camera store. The clerks there were extremely friendly and helpful and knew a lot about cameras and camera equipment. I bought my lens cap as well as a bag of silica desiccant to try to fend off fungus growth in my lenses. Then, since I was out there in the city anyway, I rode down and then over to Park Mall to check out Cycle Logic. And there, at long last, I received the welcome I was looking for. A clerk approached me almost immediately upon my entering the store, and she listened to my story. Then she went to speak to the bike mechanic and she came back with the store’s manager. The manager got all the details from me and in consultation with the mechanic, we went over my options. Option one was to try to fix the gear shifter. Option two was to replace it. I far preferred the cheaper option one. I preferred it even more when I learned that as with many modern devices, you can’t just replace one thing. I can’t just replace the grip shifter with a simple lever. (Or maybe I can. They can’t.) I would have to replace the entire drive train – both gear shifters, cables, freewheel, front derailleur, rear derailleur, and the chain. All that just because a tiny part inside the plastic rotating shifter is broken. Worse, the gear shifters and the brake levers are an integrated unit, so I would have to replace the brakes, too. That would be bad enough if I was replacing a 15-year old drive train, but I had the entire drive train replaced while I was in Canada. True, that was 4 years ago, but I had barely used the bike since then, so everything was largely brand new.

I couldn’t leave my bike there at night, so I rode back downtown and dropped off my bike at he hotel and had dinner and then settled in for the night. The plan was to return to Cycle Logic at ten the next morning when they opened.

11:00 a.m.

I’m now at a Bo’s Coffee at Park Mall. I was at Cycle Logic right when they opened, and the nice and helpful store clerk came outside and brought me in. I was very pleased with that. Things got a bit less satisfactory when it came to dealing with the bike mechanic. At first, the clerk didn’t really remember what the problem was. She started telling the mechanic about replacing the whole drive train with a Shimano Deore 9-speed system. I reminded her about the less expensive option one: repairing what I had. The mechanic did not inspire confidence. He was a young guy, and I got the impression his knowledge of bikes extended to assembling them when they come in boxes from the factory and disassembling them and boxing them up to ship them to customers. I demonstrated the problem with my gear shifters, and I kept hoping for a spark of interest or glimmer of understanding from the mechanic. I got neither. I didn’t even get eye contact. He kind of poked a finger at the rubber seal around the gear shifter and that was it. Once the clerk left, the mechanic started futzing around wrapping cardboard and foam around a bike that he was boxing up. He was moving at a speed that would shame a tortoise, and though I hung out in the bike shop for quite a while, he never looked even close to taking an interest in me or my bike. I spoke with the clerk and tried to get her to understand that I really would like to see inside the grip shifter myself after the mechanic opens it up and before he closes it again. I’d just like to learn something about the grip shifter myself. Besides, I have a feeling that the mechanic won’t be showing a great deal of interest in a repair. At the smallest setback, he will just announce it can’t be fixed and that I have to replace everything. The more I think about it, the less I like that idea. All the bike really needs is a simple lever that pulls on a cable. Surely, that can’t be too hard to rig up. Even if I can’t fix the grip shifter itself, perhaps I could just find an old lever and attach it to the handlebars or the downtube. It wouldn’t be ideal, but it would work.

It’s hard to believe that after all this time, I’m still working on the bike and my gear. It’s as if I’m still preparing for a bike trip rather than being on one. The worst-planned and executed bike trip in history. It’s astonishing how many unanticipated problems I’ve encountered. The latest is the fungus on my lenses. Now that I’ve been in the Philippines for a while and occasionally riding my bike, I understand much more clearly how rough a trip like this can be on equipment. Had I had a better understanding of this while in Taiwan, I probably would not have bought such a large camera system. It’s one thing to buy your ideal camera and all the lenses you want. But that doesn’t make sense when you consider how likely it is that that camera gear will be damaged. Better, therefore, to buy cheaper equipment and less equipment. Then when it breaks down (or is stolen), it is not such a big deal. I keep thinking that I would have been better off keeping my Nikon D40X. I would not have gotten the pictures I’ve gotten with my Olympus, but who really cares? Anyway, that is all water under the bridge. I’m here now with the gear that I have. Nothing I can do to change that. The point is what to do next. It feels a bit weird to be sitting here at the Park Mall. I’m in the window of Bo’s Coffee and looking out over a luxurious mall just like any mall in any country. The people at the tables are all well-dressed and typing away on nice laptops or swiping away at tablets, drinking expensive coffee and smoking. There are nothing but expensive cars and SUVs. There’s certainly nothing exotic here to justify a bike trip. I might as well have ridden my bike out to Lambton Mall in Sarnia. Exact same scene.



The Bloom Is Off the Rose
Nearly Defeated by One Rusty Bolt

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  • mike says:

    It’s funny you have experienced what everyone has experienced. Its not only you even a local like me. They, shops like these, usually are run by chinese businessmen who care less about their customers other than money. The clerks, their not really that attentive nor love their work, who would when they are paid so dirt less. You really hit the button on that. Whatever you wrote above, it’s like i feel every bit of it. Lol. Please put up bike shop heren and let them feel they are damn wrong about not being good to customers.

    • Doug Nienhuis says:

      Hi, Mike.

      Thanks for the comment. I hope I wasn’t too harsh in my blog posts about my experiences with bike shops in Cebu. However, these blog posts are really just my diary, and I wrote down exactly what happened. I continued to experience the same rather poor customer service even after weeks of returning to these same shops and being a regular customer. Even being a regular customer didn’t help much. I still had so much trouble every time. I should say that I have no idea if the business owners were ethnically Chinese or of any other group or if that would make any difference. I CAN say that the clerks I had the most trouble with tended to be either middle-aged women or quite young girls, and they clearly had no interest in bicycles at all. Of course, they were even less interested in good customer service.

      To balance the picture a little bit, I could say that I generally have very positive experiences in the smaller towns around the Philippines. I was recently cycling along the southern coast of Cebu, and, to my horror, I had three spokes snap all at once on my rear wheel. I was pretty much stuck. However, a very friendly and helpful tricycle driver stopped and offered to drive me and my bike and all of my gear to a nearby town. He brought me to a tiny roadside shop that serviced both bicycles and motorcycles. It was the kind of place where all the repairs were done while sitting on the dirt patch outside the shop. They wouldn’t have the parts to fix my bicycle, but I had spare spokes with me, and the guys there were extremely friendly and helpful and they got to work on my bike right away. There were some hiccups along the way, but with some effort, they managed to remove the rear chain ring so that they could access the broken spokes. Then they replaced all three spokes and trued the wheel three times to get it just right. The whole process took over an hour – perhaps an hour and a half – and the bill was only 25 pesos. I honestly thought I misunderstood them. Twenty-five pesos was far too little for all that work. I supplied the spokes myself, but there was an hour and a half of skilled labor and friendly service. Surely, that was worth more than 25 pesos. But that was the actual bill, and I paid it happily along with a generous tip. To be honest, I was embarrassed to pay so little. This took place in a little shop in the town of Argao, by the way, so a big shout-out to that town. A beautiful town with great bike mechanics and friendly people.



      • Robert Jarrett says:

        Hi Doug,

        So happy to hear of the friendly little shop in Argao, it brought a tear to my eye how gracious and unselfish some people can be and you just have to love them. Maybe for a motto of instead of “I shall return,” you could use, “I will never return.” hahaha, hope things went better for the rest of your travel.

        Best regards,

        Robert Jarrett

  • Anonymous says:

    Even if the shop staff are passionate about cycling, what knowledge of a rare, 15-year old, production-ceased drivetrain did you expect them to have? There is a reason why drivetrains are generally sold as a set but it sounds like you went in there wanting them to mix-and-match components–an endeavour that the shop manager/owner probably does not condone nor the product supplier will even support.

    They probably should have told you politely upfront that the only way they could help you in a way they know would probably work is to change your entire drivetrain but the reality is that you’re in a sweat-shop in Chinatown talking to staff who aren’t even passionate about cycling.

    But I think you already know those two points, I’m curious why you continued to pursue Apple Store-like service in a third-world country sweat-shop (for lack of a better term) that you’re not willing to spend money on, attempting to suggest to the staff to put a lot of time and effort in for the least amount of sale they can get? I know my reply sounds like I’m defending those shops but I’m not. I admire your passion for cycling and more so the audacity to do it while traveling but your little trips to those expectedly unfriendly bike shops was just a waste of time and unnecessary stress. There’s a lot of roadside “vulcanizing” shops within the city that are willing to work with just what you have exactly like the experience you had in Argao

    • Niels says:

      @Anonymous: You apparently do not recognize the human powers of looking at something and understanding on the spot how it works and how to fix it in the simplest way possible without anything from the original manufacturer.

      I suppose this has to do with government schools asking you to simply memorize what they tell you, rather than developing skills of observation and improvisation…

      At any rate, I don’t think he was wrong in trying to get a fix. You’re acting like 15 year old things can’t be fixed… throw-away-mindset at its worst. Older things are usually easier to fix, if just because companies hadn’t gone down that deadly growth curve with the resulting planned obsolescence as far as now.

  • Niels says:

    Interesting story 🙂 I have far more mixed experiences in stores in the Philippines.
    Sometimes, they are pretty much the way you described about Cebu.
    Other times, they produce a minor miracle with what they have.

    Personally, I believe you could have found a mechanic confident and interested enough, to actually open up your ring shifter and check it out. Chances would be, that a blacksmith could fabricate any little item that might have broken inside.

    Philippinos can be very bright about fixing things with very little. Maybe only the Russians are better, cause things get desperate in the cold much quicker than when its warm outside 😉

    If the SM department stores were selling / repairing bikes, you would have fared much better! Employees there are trained as if an American phone company had brainwashed them into submission. Like a Verizon call: “Good afternoon, sir, how can I provide you with excellent service today?” Of course the person who wrote those lines should be shot along with the one who is making it part of their job to speak only in pre-determined lines like a god damned robot…

    But the department store is not Verizon and the employees genuinely do go out of their way to make sure you’re happy, regardless if its going to get a sale right now or not. They’d help you with finding a lost cat, if you asked, I swear 😉

    Anyway, YOU should open that shifter. On a big white sheet on the bathroom floor to avoid loosing any parts. See what you find and if its easy to just put a loose part back into its place. If something is broken or some corner of a lever is worn, take that to a general mechanic, that doesn’t need to specialize in bicycles, he just has to be apt.

    With all of your time they wasted in bicycle stores, you would have properly done better hanging out at the counter of a shop that sells screws and springs to people who repair or build things and have a shop clerk make a recommendation which of their employees or customers is great at fixing small stuff 🙂

    Given how long ago your post was written, you probably have a new drive train or even a new bike.

    • Doug Nienhuis says:

      Hi, Niels.

      Looking back, I definitely should have taken apart the shifter myself and checked it out. As you said, it might have been an easy fix. However, considering I knew nothing about grip shifters, I thought it was best to leave it to the experts, or at least start with them. I had this vision of opening up the grip shifters and having springs and levers and bits and pieces flying across the room and never getting them back together.

      It turned out that even the most knowledgeable mechanics I found in Cebu knew even less about grip shifters than I did. None of them had ever seen them before. But the story does have a relatively happy ending. All the gory details are in the next blog post titled “Nearly Defeated by One Rusty Bolt.”

      The short version of the story is that I found a much better bike shop called Cycle Logic. It was located in an upscale mall complex far away from the the rather dismal downtown area where the first bike shops were located. The clerks at Cycle Logic were friendly and actually made eye-contact and talked to me about my problems. It was far from smooth-sailing (as my blog post points out), but I ended up replacing my malfunctioning grip shifters with Shimano Acera lever shifters.

      The whole encounter was pretty amusing and I was told a half dozen different things by the shop clerks and mechanics (none of which turned out to be true). But when the dust settled, we found out that the problem was a missing spring. The shifters had been given an overhaul by a bike mechanic earlier in Tacloban City (another very long story), and apparently when he reassembled the right gear shifter, he had left out the main spring that locked the shifter into place. The left shifter still had this spring (as we found out when we dismantled both of them at Cycle Logic), and it worked fine. There was no such spring in the right shifter, so it just spun around and never locked into place properly.

      No one in this shop had ever seen grip shifters before, and they had no access to spare parts. Originally, they said that in order to change the grip shifters to lever shifters, they would have to replace the entire drive train – both derailleurs, the chain, the freewheel, and the crankset. And since the grip shifters and the brake levers were a combined unit, they would have to replace the front and rear brake assemblies as well. Apparently this was because I had an 8-speed system and they only had 9-speed components.

      But then the mechanic on shift that day (they kept changing) said that wasn’t true. He said that the 9-speed shifters would work just fine on an 8-speed system like mine and they could just put on new lever shifters no problem. The final bill was an astonishingly low 1,000 pesos (or about $22 US). There was no guarantee that this would work, but it seemed worth trying. They made the change, and everything worked just fine. I’m still using those new shifters and brake levers today, and they’re still working great.

Talk to me. I'd love to hear what you think.