Thursday, March 07, 2013

Exotic cross-breeds and lovable mutts

When I started paying closer attention to bicycles in 1975 a bicycle was a means of personal expression. At least it seemed that way to me, because of the people around me when I got into it.

My older brother built his touring bike from a frame with the help of Diane, who lived in the neighborhood and went to the same high school I did. She had grown up in the family machine shop, so no piece of machinery was untouchable. In high school she could build a bike from all its separate components. In less than ten years after that she could build a bike starting with unconnected tubes and lugs.

Componentry came from an international buffet of enticing offerings, limited only by your budget and whatever nationalistic threading on your frame could not be changed. In the hands of Diane, even the paint job could acquire many custom details. She specialized for a while in painting frames to match the rider's favorite beer cans. When a proud mechanic at Dade Cycle got a Strawberry she dug out an old junker and painted it up as a Blueberry.

The notion of a bicycle as a collection of parts has stuck with me forever. Ideally the total will be greater than the sum of the parts, but everything was open to tweaking, regardless of your budget. A complete-gruppo bike looked boring. Okay, all Campy Record was nice, but we're talking the old days of Record, Nuovo Record and Super Record. Their stuff is nice now, but the exotic shifting systems and carbon fiber have added extra technological headaches to what used to be a simple process of buying something beautiful for the one you love.

It's hard to find that kind of individualistic quirkiness in a lot of commercial bike shops. The industry has invested a lot in making the machinery mysterious and astounding. Thirty speeds! Frame made out of resin-impregnated hummingbird eyelashes!

With boring regularity someone will look at a price tag and say, "for that kind of money, I want a MOTOR! Haw haw haw!"

Sadly, the product that intrigues consumers the most HAS a motor, as electric bicycles are hailed as the next big thing. That's right: the smokeless moped is luring some customers back to cycling after they'd given it up, or convincing them to try it for the first time because now you don't have to face the world alone. Your helpful electron friends are waiting to lend their power so you can zip along the bike path or lane without panting, sweating or a license.

Batteries weigh the same amount charged or flat. How about rocket-assist bikes? Oh wait, it's been done. But we haven't seen a production version yet. That will keep the drivers off your ass.

I've really digressed here. I started thinking about what I value about bikes and bicycling because I think a lot about what I would have in a shop of my own. Into this mix went the newest Surly offering, the 29-er Krampus. I thought about all the bikes I own and all the bikes I could own if I had the funds. And then with a sound like a needle being snatched off a record, which to my generation signifies the abrupt end of a thought or action, my minimalist side kicks in. Skrrrrrit! Hold it!

I know what bike I would have if I had one bike. I'd keep the Traveler's Check, built up with my commuting/light touring parts. But the human engine can be fitted to many vehicles. Each one of my bikes fills a niche. Each can be modified easily to conform to changing needs within that niche.  I have given up ultra-light weight and exotic materials with no regrets at all for the sake of appropriate weight and versatility. That's what I would sell. Rather than chase the fashions and ride the breaking wave of changing technology, I offer lasting value.

Hardly a recipe for riches. Perhaps not even a recipe for much business at all. We'll see if it ever gets tested. But the other day someone drove from Albany, NY, to buy a Surly Long Haul Trucker from me. No one has ever driven a distance like that to buy any other brand of bike. Maybe we just don't carry trendy enough shit. But I'll put my money on reliable bikes for practical riders. And I'll put practical riders on reliable bikes as long as I can get them to come here. Or to wherever I happen to be operating.


Steve A said...

"resin-impregnated hummingbird eyelashes?" Do tell! As for the Surly, there wasn't anything wrong with my Tricross that $1000 wouldn't fix!

Anonymous said...

Maybe the guy drove from Albany for a LHT because Surly no longer allows complete builds to be sold mail order. You're probably the closest "LBS" the customer had who stocked the bike.

Anonymous said...

I live it when some dinkrod says I should get get a motor or that thiers has a motor, or asks where the motor is. They don't mean an electric assist, they mean infernal combustion. I always look at them like they are an idiot and ask what good a motor would be on my bike without an engine to start with it.

Anonymous said...

I love it, rather.

cafiend said...

I hate it when I hit the o for the i or voce versa.

Anonymous said...

I bought my two main rides in '99 and '01 respectively. My LBS' owner would be very surprised if I'd show any interest in buying another since those two fit my needs perfectly. I give them plenty of business on the bikes' maintenance, though.

cafiend said...

I started biking back when the people in the bike shops would tell you a bike was a long-term purchase. You'd buy in at the best level you could afford and upgrade things as you could. The retailers seemed to understand and support that idea. At the shops I patronized, sales and service personnel really rode. The latest greatest didn't change every six months, so you could buy a bike you admired a year after you first saw it and it would be current.

As I'm fond of saying, the motor hasn't been redesigned in millions of years. Or thousands, if you prefer, but a damn long time, anyway.