Saturday, October 15, 2005

Working Class

Cycling is deceptively accessible.

I was lured into racing soon after I got my first road bike in 1975. That summer I hung out with a racing crowd that was also a mechanically-inclined crowd, so I linked the two things from the start. Coincidentally, it made cycling even more accessible, because I didn’t have to pay anyone to work on my bike.

At the time, you could buy the bike that won the Tour de France for about $300, and for an extra $600 they’d throw in the guy who rode it. But $300 was a lot of money for a bike.

We all heard the legends, about the European racer whose off-season job was digging graves or cleaning chimneys. We met our own working-class heroes. And our training ground began at the end of the driveway. It was right there. We could ride around the block or across the continent.

Componentry advances have upped the ante considerably. Things just didn’t wear out as fast in the – dare I say it – old days. Shifting wasn’t as slick. We had to limp along with five or six speeds in the back. We had to feel around for the right gear like a violinist finding the right note. You thought about it before you shifted gears. It might make the difference between success or failure in launching an attack. Some people clearly were better at it, just as some people have the talent to play the aforementioned violin. But the rest of us fiddling hacks could still improve our chops by practicing. And chains and clusters just seemed to go and go and go, because our standards of precision were lower. We were much more likely to blame ourselves for a missed shift.

Real advances were welcome. The slant parallelogram derailleur improved shifting even with friction shifters. Aero brake levers cleaned up the cable jungle above the bars. The difference was slight enough that everyone remained competitive, or at least as competitive as they had been already.

The rider still wins the race. But riders demand more of the bike because they can.

Bike racing needs more divisions. Perhaps price categories as well as rider categories. Perhaps material divisions. As fun as it is to stomp past the carbon fiber steeds on an old steel frame, it takes its toll as time goes by. And people of lesser means deserve the choice to buy quality with fewer doodads instead of just cheesier doodads.

I say this as a person of lesser means. When I read or hear of the exploits of people with large amounts of disposable income, I know better than to become enthralled by the gaudy trinkets and bragworthy races or tours. It’s just pushing the pedals after all, whether it’s Tuscany or Tulsa.

Maybe what evolves is what’s really for the best. The few who want to keep it simple have cultivated the skills that go with it. For us there are an appropriate few choices in new gear we have to assemble and maintain ourselves. We don’t have to keep beating a dwindling stock of vintage bikes to death on the long, hard road. The fundamentals have never really changed.

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