Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Evolved from its environment

As winter comes closer, bicyclists are like birds: a few still flit around, but most have vanished until spring.

The shop where I have spent the last 28 years started out as a cross-country ski shop in 1972, as that sport began a phenomenal boom across the entire country. Throughout the 1970s and much of the 1980s, skinny skis showed up anywhere a heavy frost might occur. People discovered as a result how short and warm the winters really were, in most places, so the sport receded again to what we believed were the more reliably snowy areas.

Many ski shops in snow country developed other business for the snowless seasons. Bikes were a common choice. In the 1970s, the "ten-speed boom" provided a summer counterpart to the cross-country ski boom. As the ten-speed boom mutated into the triathlon boom and the rising tide of mountain biking, some form of bicycle continued to bring in decent money in what ski shops had considered the off season.

Other economic forces in New Hampshire helped to create a year-round local economy for a while. People actually lived here and had disposable income. They raised families and bought equipment for them. It was never sustainable, based as it was on the illusion of prosperity created in the 1980s by ignoring the environmental and social consequences of overpopulation and predatory economic practices. But enough people had what appeared to be a good life that they spent freely on lighthearted recreation. On the fringes of that, a few cranks like me advocated for generally non-motorized lifestyles while deriving our sustenance from the more frivolous majority. We could keep harping on the more practical, larger applications and hope that the message got through. We were all lulled by the sense that things would somehow be okay. Improvement is only gradual at the best of times, because people have to figure things out for themselves. If our species collectively makes the worse choice, we're all goin' down, and there's really nothing you can do about it. It's exactly like being in an airliner that some crazy bastards have decided to fly into the World Trade Center. You may disagree, but the whack jobs at the controls have decided that we gonna die.

Cross-country skis have not been a gold mine for quite a while now. And fragmentation of bicycling into what are essentially warring religions has broken up that revenue stream. It has also made the service side harder. Not only are the machines more complex, the riders in their factions want to go where they hear the familiar liturgy of their respective faith. This is clearest in the road/mountain divide. Look at comment threads on the problems of road cycling and you will see mountain bikers asserting that no one should ride on the road anyway. The smart kids are all hurtling down the trail on hefty beasts, safely away from traffic. It's a strange combination of bravado and fear.

The rivalry between road and mountain bikes was largely made up during the early years of the mountain bike. But it became more real as the technology diverged more and more. Many factors can be manipulated to drive the rider groups further apart. Course design pre-selects for a riding style that will prevail. Cost of the machine makes people choose one or the other. Lack of vigorous industry support for better road conditions leaves road cyclists exposed to a hostile environment while the debate about infrastructure rages. Mountain biking, meanwhile, takes place in constructed environments rather than found environments. Off-road cyclists don't look for trails in their area that they think they can ride. They look for constructed facilities that favor the trick and gravity riding style that makes good videos.

Pure bike shops promote winter service as a way to bring in money and take the edge off of the spring avalanche of service demand. As a ski shop, we can't do that. As long as we cling to the remnants of cross-country skiing, we must convert to cold-weather activities in the hope that the weather and the economy bring us some income.

Even converting to a pure cycling focus would require a lot of advertising and promotion. In the 1990s, when cross-country skiing started to decline, mountain bikers were exploring winter trails. This happened mostly when we didn't have a lot of snow. It was the beginning of the studded tire movement, using existing trails, and frozen lakes. The return of deeper snow would shift the majority back to skiing. As shops dropped out of the cross-country ski business, our shop grew because we had established ourselves in the sport and were too dumb to quit. We drew from a wider and wider geographical area.

Now that winter is much less reliable, cross-country skiing is barely clinging to life, and shoppers can get what little gear they need from internet merchants, we can no longer afford to stock in depth and variety that serves the whole spectrum of the cross-country ski experience. As with bicycling, the different forms have diverged so widely that they are practically different sports entirely. Telemark is just another way to preen on the slopes. Touring can mean anything from a casual trudge around a local golf course to a multi-day trek across the tundra. Performance skiing requires excellent grooming on carefully constructed trails. And the whole thing depends on the arrival of natural snow. The cross-country areas that make snow can only do so on small, closed courses, so only the most dedicated addicts will accept its limitations for the sake of the workout. Racing gear may be expensive, but you don't make a lot of money off of racers.

My last experience in a year-round bike shop was my first experience working in a bike shop at all. Winters in Alexandria, Virginia, were short enough that we did not make a huge effort to solicit winter business. The gap between Christmas sales and the onset of spring was barely three months. That period was hardly dead. The DC area in 1980-'81 had a thriving commuter culture. This new thing called The Ironman brought in runners who suddenly wanted to learn about racing bikes. And new bike inventory had to be assembled well before the fair-weather riders came looking. When I left in May 1981, my job choices took me away from cycling until the spring of 1989, hundreds of miles to the north.

The idea of spending a winter with less direct customer contact and a steady flow of unhurried mechanical work sounds pretty pleasant. But maybe a steady, unhurried flow is not enough to pay the bills. When I left the first bike shop in 1981, I went to a sail loft that made most of its money on winter service. I started in May of '81. Summer business seemed pretty steady to me. But right after the beginning of January the floodgates opened. We were on overtime, 50-60 hours a week with only one day off, until some time in March. If it hadn't been that intense, we would not have had the money to get through the rest of the year. I hadn't thought about the fact that people don't want to give up their sails until the boat's laid up. On top of that we would get orders for racing yachts going south. The first winter was insane. The second winter was not so bad...and half the production staff got laid off by July.

It all depends on your overhead. The owner of the loft had a lifestyle to maintain. It's a luxury business. There's not a lot of transportational sailing in this country. And we did not do small boat sails. The whole production line was geared to large pieces of fabric. Once in a while, as a favor, the owner would take an order for dinghy sails and they would jam things up unbelievably. Dinky sails is more like it. But then a big genoa for a 58-footer would totally blanket a loft built around dinghy sails.

As weird as bikes get, they have not approached the size range of boats and the things that you attach to boats. About the most awkward thing we get in the bike shop is the occasional tandem. Even e-bikes, despite their incredible mass, are not much larger in volume than the biggest upright cruiser.

For this winter, we are working our usual routine. That's the plan, anyway. Because prosperity has been based on flawed concepts for hundreds -- if not thousands -- of years, the cracks run deep. At some point we may have to face the truth, that a civilization in which you need to make a special effort to get healthful exercise in your leisure time is itself so unnatural that it must be dismantled before it destroys everything else. At that point, efficient human-powered transportation will be an asset, combined with public transit and vehicles that derive motive power from external renewable energy sources. But I don't think that will happen in the next few months. We'll spend the winter pretending that weekend recreation and vacation travel are still viable with a shriveling middle class stretching static incomes across widening gaps in their budget.


Unknown said...

..."the environmental and social consequences of overpopulation" sounds an awful lot like the doom & gloom predicted (mistakenly) many times in the past by population "experts". What exactly is "overpopulation"? I read that every human on earth could fit on the south island of New Zealand with enough space to lie down. They say every person in the allegedly overcrowded United Kingdom would fit similarly on the Isle of Wight. You don't have to go too far north to see underpopulation is more a problem than overpopulation (that s, if you'd like your kids to go to a proper school.) I think they call is civilization?

Anyhoo - the road/MTB split doesn't really parallel the XC vs downhill ski crowds (not that you claimed it did). "Road" cycling has some incompatible disciplines with little overlap. Triathletes don't count. Some I talk to don't even know the brand of bike they ride. But they do know they need a better one.

I've a friend who rides 6000 miles a year on the latest and greats S-Works whatever (he doesn't care, as long as it's the latest and greatest. He's memorized all the best specs to trot out at the café) and all his rides are in a circle from home on the same roads he's ridden thousands of times. H follows The Rules, so with no racks or bags and his pockets full of energy gels, he can't even bring a pint of milk home. Me, I've got my have steel frame bike with racks and a dynamo... obviously I have been reading the wrong advertisements. I often go somewhere on the bike and don't even come home until days later. Shocking.

I've met many MTBers who got a scare on the road and gave up "road biking". If you run into a tree in the forest you still think you are in control, whereas on the Road the b*stt*rds speed up and run you down. I get it. And like downhill skiing, if you e-bike up you get free thrills down. Can't fault them, but that's not cycling to me.

I don't know much about sailing, but the last time I tripped dover an America's Cup race, I looked at the boats and thought "where did it all go so wrong"?

cafiend said...

I won't debate the population issue with you because it has been a trigger of rational-sounding irrational responses for as long as I have been alive. Whether a certain biomass could be squeezed into a certain surprisingly small geographical area does nothing to address carrying capacity of the global ecosystem. I can tell you that I have seen degradation in remarkably sparsely settled areas and massive sprawl in heavily settled ones. Some cultures do a very good job of packing people into well-filled filing cabinets in densely built-up cities. And really, what does our species in general owe to any individual in terms of aesthetics or lifespan?

Comparing the dangers of MTB versus road, my closest acquaintance in the mountain bike subculture seems to have a new story every week about someone who just broke his back on a bad landing or blew his shoulder apart hitting a tree. But at least they won't get run over by a car. I backed out of road racing because I felt safer in the traffic flow of a busy street than I did in a field of jacked-up Cat 3-4 racers in a mall crit. But I acknowledge the real and perceived danger of motor vehicles. If -- or when -- the motoring public really wanted us dead, massive numbers of us would be killed easily. So, as much as the haters hate us, most of them still do not follow through. The inconvenience of even the token consequences they would face outweighs the satisfaction they would get from crushing one of us. We're not worth a bullet. There's some comfort in that.

And you're right: high-performance sailboats have gotten completely crazy. That's a topic that would fill many paragraphs to provide even a cursory overview.

Coline said...

World population has increased five fold since my grandfather was born and the rate of increase is exponential. You would have to be orange not to realise that is unsustainable.

Even the quiet places some of us chose to ride out this madness are filling up with unthinking people who just drive here, on roads unchanged for decades, to sleep before rejoining the mad long commute to the traffic jambs where they work. Increase in local population has seen a decline in all local shops and services since the commuters rarely spend in any of the local shops. Since I came to this peninsula thirty five years ago we have lost all but one local factory, three banks and recently the post office closed, small department store gone, florist, pet shop, fishmonger, two butchers, three newsagent / general stores, the yacht chandler and the woodyard closed but we do now have two tattoo parlours!

I cannot remember how long since I could reliably count the chimes of the local town clock...

Not looking good.

Peggy Gannon said...

I was prepared to speak to overpopulation, and to Coline, but I see she and Caffiend have already said it. All that's left to say is, crikey, let's have a larger font for the Medicare crowd!

Unknown said...

Concerns regarding "overpopulation" echo other quasi-racists and exclusionary concerns. Similar to "we need more housing but nowhere near my house, thanks". Or "All the cute furry animals living on the planet right now are Perfection and any change is a tragedy" (ignoring that 99% of all species who ever lived on this planet are currently extinct).

Predictions of catastrophic "overpopulation" have been made repeatedly over the past centuries and have always been shown to be incorrect. Yes, some cities are stinking cesspools.Yes, provision of services (especially clean water)are challenging. But technology has always provided solutions, and will continue to do so. Of course, some people also don't like "technology" and preferred simpler times when women died in childbirth and a simple infection was a death sentence. (the US is going backwards on infant mortality rates, though).

I'm not sure if it is racism, fear (often hand-in-hand) or just a lack of understanding of simple science, but this planet is not by any definition overpopulated. Yes, populations *can* grow exponentially. Two house flies could, in theory, cover the entire earth with flies in one year. But they don't.

I suppose worrying about "overpopulation" saves worrying about feeding the poor and allows us to blame the victims?


cafiend said...

Unknown -- Making the racist accusation to claim some kind of moral high ground is popular these days, but unhelpful. Likewise, insinuating that I might be a doe-eyed nature worshipper who thinks that nature exists in a state of static perfection is not only unsubstantiated, it is also an emotional flash grenade. Overpopulation is relative to carrying capacity. The fact that earlier indications of population pressure proved to be premature -- or appeared that way because we accrued environmental debt by using technology to forestall the immediate crisis -- does not mean that we can't reach a catastrophic point. Indeed, a sanguine reliance on unspecified technology makes such a collapse more likely, not less. Think of the modern driver in a car full of idiot-proofing devices, who still manages to exceed their capacity and has a crash.

Suggesting that I might yearn for an idyllic past is also an emotional flash grenade. I accept and laud genuine advances in technology, and I love modern creature comforts and hygiene. Realistically, however, as we add more people of any color, anywhere, into the mix, the slices of finite Earth pie that each one gets must get smaller. My contention in the 1970s was that the grid was a good thing, but it needed to be reformed, and that all people would do well to appreciate the luxuries of simple things like clean water on demand, climate controlled living spaces, and a variety of nutritious foods in any season. The Great Gluttony of the 1980s was hard to watch. I liked living in a medium-sized town, but the upward spiral of housing prices drove me out. I ended up in a rural area because I could afford to live there on a pretty meager income. In the years that I've lived here, I've learned a lot about things like aquifer recharge, that do require large, unbuilt areas. And I see no reason to sacrifice whole species willy nilly, metaphorical road kill, as we plow ahead, bent only on our own pleasure.

Species do not breed exponentially and cover the Earth because something kills them. There is no other reason. Humans are opportunistic scavengers. Clever rats we may be, but limits are limits. When we reach ours, it won't be pretty. In fact, well before we reach the limit, it will have stopped being pretty. I no longer care much. The planet belongs to the young. They -- perhaps you are among them -- will fix it or foul it as they see fit. I did not have any offspring, because I had no confidence that the species would fix rather than foul. Events seem to be supporting the wisdom of my course. I will continue to suggest that the gorging guzzlers should slack off and that we should try to improve living conditions everywhere, and that part of the bargain includes planning parenthood. Raise few kids, well, rather than the rodent-like model our species was born to follow, breeding copiously and losing many. But it really doesn't matter. Events will unfold in their usual chaotic way, and evolution will log the result.