Driving north to my lonely vigil at the cross-country ski shop, I could still appreciate the beauty of the wraiths of fog twirling up from a lake I passed, as the ice sublimated directly into the rain-filled atmosphere.
The last time this happened this completely was in January 1995. Global warming wasn't a household topic back then, but a few of us had been aware of it for years. Looking up at the Presidential Range, drab and gray as in early November, I hoped I would not have to see it happen again, but I knew I might. Now I have.
In the 1990s, mountain biking bailed us out. But the technofascists ruined that. Or maybe just people's taste for artery spackle and an easy ride took us down. I think the bewildering array of choices and expensive, complicated machinery helped discourage people.
People want simplicity. When they could go into a bike shop and see long rows of bikes that looked essentially alike, they could buy up or down the price range, knowing what they were getting on a single continuum.
Other bike types existed for the few who looked for them. You could pick up some incredible deals on a used road bike, too. But, for the bulk of consumers, it was the Age of the Mountain Bike.
If someone wanted a comfort bike, shops could build it by converting a mountain bike. If someone wanted an urban assault bike, shops could build it by converting a mountain bike. They would only have to order numbers of bikes by price point. If all sold in original knobby form, fine. If a certain percentage sold as conversions, that was fine, too.
Pre-built niche bikes seem convenient, but the shop needs to tie up more purchasing power and winds up with smaller selections within each type. You have to guess correctly about the proportion of each type you will sell. Meanwhile, because of the confusion and market fragmentation, customers may simply turn to something else. Shops have to invest more while return on investment goes down.
Bike manufacturers might have seen an initial increase in sales as shops had to buy a little more inventory than they did when mountain bikes were simple. But sales fall off as shops get stuck with inventory they haven't unloaded.
Consumers are less intrepid than they were in the early mountain bike era. They're far more likely to get excited over electronics they can enjoy in a comfy chair or a powerful motor vehicle they can operate from a comfy chair than they are about anything requiring the faintest degree of athleticism. So maybe my theory is all wet. But what if the bewildering surge of complicated, expensive bicycle technology actually helped propel the population toward sedentariness? Bikes weren't simple, cheap and fun anymore. They were seriously engineered machines for serious people.
I'm not just sucking my gums and pining for the good old days here. If the bike industry decided to reinvent simplicity, most consumers would not notice that the other stuff had disappeared.
In order to match customers to the bike that will work for them, we have to ask qualifying questions.
"Where do you like to ride?" we ask the customer.
Many of them probably never thought about it.
"How do you like to ride?" we ask.
Many of them probably never thought about it. Forcing them to think about it automatically makes the sale process more of a bother.
"I just like to ride," many of them say. We can't assume we know what that means.
I guarantee most people were fine with thumb shifters mounted on top of the handlebars. Push it one way for easier, the other way for harder. You can tell at a glance where you are in the gear range without a complicated indicator. Most people didn't ride hard enough to want the shifter under the bar. They'll be perfectly safe sticking a thumb up there for a second to make the shift.
Saddles and suspension have been a sore point since the 19th Century. Maybe the complexity of suspension had to be addressed. But just as suspension designs came and went more than 100 years ago, eventually leaving us with bikes that had none, so might we discover that a lightweight, simple steed ends up being more comfortable and efficient in the long run than one with a lot of specialized parts that change design with annoying frequency.
While single speeds will do very well for short hops in many parts of the world, we don't need to be fixed-gear fundamentalists in the search for simplicity. But I will continue to assert that much of the complexity with which we've stuck ourselves limits rather than broadens our appeal and our overall usefulness. It even eats into the pleasure. One little maintenance problem piles on another until the whole multilink, indexed, integrated blob is a useless pile waiting to be ignited with a fistful of money.
We need to make it fun again. Do that and people will come back. Maybe we'll survive the summer after this pathetic excuse for a winter.