On a social media comment thread, I took some serious jabs for pointing out that the carbon fiber spaceship Lethbridge rode is a far cry from Beryl's 1967 rig. Some riders got what I meant, but the modernists called me an "armchair cyclist" and a "bellend." While I do love British insults, the modernists and the worshippers of competitive achievement miss my point, as usual.
Maybe the problem is the way records themselves are recorded. We get a name, a date, and a distance or time. The format itself implies equivalence in all other factors. If that were true, then the entire aero bike segment of the industry is a giant scam. If it's not a scam, then the bike needs to be featured prominently as a huge contributing factor. Yes, it diminishes the athlete. Athletes accept diminishment all the time for the sake of technologies that will make a grueling task slightly easier. One would expect -- all athletes being equal -- that improved technology would make records fall at regular intervals. But Beryl's record stood for 50 years.
Photo credit: Road cc.
took 50 years to beat this:
There have been plenty of intermediate steps in aerodynamic evolution. No rider in all that time managed to exceed the performance of the phenomenal Beryl Burton. That leads to another point: If records are the province of phenomenal people, what do they really mean for the rest of us? They indicate a high point attainable by the right person with the right training, and they give us something to say gee whiz about. But athletes will perform on whatever is available. I bet if you compared the relative prices of Beryl's bike and Alice's, Alice's would still be more expensive, even allowing for inflation. How does that trickle down to the majority of riders?
In automobiles, evolution led to vehicles that are lighter, faster, more fuel efficient (sometimes), flimsier, harder to work on, and basically disposable. Early cars were made to stand up to the abuse of the roads they had to use. Later, the makers still stuck to the old standard under which people built things to last. Only decades of consideration led to planned obsolescence and relentless marketing. I guess it makes sense, when an industrialist has invested in a factory to produce millions of units. You want to keep that line rolling.
Automobiles are very rewarding to the average consumer. You sit in a comfy seat. You control a powerful engine. You can have climate control, an entertainment center, and arrive at your destination smelling about as good as you did when you left home. We've been trained to expend thousands of dollars on our rolling couches, and designed a whole system of plumbing through which to flush ourselves at the best speed attainable by our mechanical conveyances. That speed is influenced by the number of other conveyances in a given pipeline, not just by terrain and weather.
Bicycle designers have taken up the idea that the bodywork should obscure everything else, because air drag is the ultimate enemy. Even in bikes not designed solely to race against the clock, as much as possible gets stuffed inside. Most riders don't do their own work. I've asked before, and still not answered, whether most riders who seem hard core and fully committed only do it for the ephemeral lifetimes of one or two of these modern crustaceans.
Conspicuous consumption is one of the great shames of industrial society. There's a serious parallel to income inequality in a recreational bike that costs thousands of dollars versus a sturdy, durable ride that can still offer a bit of sporty handling, but also carry a couple of panniers full of groceries.
This summer has brought me the whole range of the modern bike experience: chasing air bubbles out of hydraulic lines, seating tubeless tires, snaking cables through the unseen labyrinth of internal routing, and performing exorcism on some electronic shifters. Meanwhile, I hear the same thing all the time about actual riding in the real world: it's scary, it's hard, and a few hundred dollars seems like a lot of money to a lot of people.
The answer is not just swan-necked, step-through cruiser bikes and crushed stone paths. And it certainly isn't "categories." I have built myself several different bikes for different applications, but they all started from basic platforms. Got a chunky one for the roughest surfaces I considerable reasonable to ride. Built a fixed gear for wet and cold weather. Got a road bike for unencumbered sporty rides. Got a go-anywhere commuter/light touring rig. All steel, all simple, all readily maintainable. That's a lot of options, and I bet that all of them together cost less than one top-end bike in road, mountain, or time trial categories.