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.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Whose freedom takes precedence?

In rural areas there are no unimportant roads. Some of them may fall into disuse and neglect, but the ones that actually connect are important arteries, regardless of their size. My commute to work uses one of these arteries, Elm Street. In Ossipee it even has a double yellow centerline. No shoulders, and narrow lanes, but a double yellow centerline. The road I live on, without painted lines or a shoulder, is a virtual expressway for the locals. Their speed and aggression often reflect this.

This morning, driving back from taking the cat to the vet, I met a logging truck with multiple wheels on my side of the double yellow line on Elm Street. It was one of a small group of vehicles using the road the way normal people do.

The logging truck driver was taking his half of the road out of the middle. Forget cyclists, a vehicle that size can take out much bigger prey. Not that a truck driver wants to waste time having an accident, but intimidation clears the way for higher speeds. Higher speed means shorter time in transit.

We had an inch of snow yesterday. It's damp and raw today, under a gray sky. At one point in my life I would have gone out to train in this. It was years ago, when the population was lower and the political climate was less harsh. I thought I had nothing better to do than keep myself in top physical condition. Meanwhile, normal people were working themselves sick, as we are told to do. Who wants to be the lone lemming on the cliff top, looking sadly down at the others? Sure, you're alive and healthy, but you're an outcast. People hate you for refusing to join their foolishness, whether it's a lifestyle or a war. And they talk about freedom.

There's strength in numbers. To get the best use out of those numbers, they have to be organized. Military forces are a good example. A thousand angry people might make a mob, but a thousand trained soldiers is a battalion. The mob engages in free expression and unrestrained action. The battalion answers to a chain of command and moves with discipline and purpose. There is no free expression and no unrestrained action. Organization of all group endeavors falls on a continuum from the amorphous mob to the highly disciplined military formation. At each higher level, the individuals in the group give up more and more pure liberty for the benefits of participation.

Traffic is not a fully organized activity. The shape of infrastructure and the laws and customs of its use make up the rules of engagement. It is both a cooperative and a competitive activity. The personalities of individual road users determine the balance.

As the truck came at me, with its unofficial escort of smaller vehicles -- all larger than a bicycle -- I imagined a cyclist in the mix. Every driver would have had to navigate around the rider. The cyclist, with every legal right to be out there, would have curtailed the freedom of the motorists to travel freely in ways that motorists can handle, for the most part. I suppose cyclists can handle them, too. Any vehicle that passes cleanly, no matter how close, was not a problem, right? That which did not kill you did not kill you. The shot of adrenaline might even improve your average speed for the day.

We complain about what might happen. I do it myself, and agree with the principle that drivers shouldn't squeeze cyclists for fear of hitting them. But from an impartial viewpoint the goal is to move users through the system at the best speed. That is often not the highest speed, but generally maintains the flow. As long as the majority is motorized, the needs of cyclists will be minimized, and we will be marginalized. But we continue to be accommodated to some degree. You take what you can get while maneuvering for more. It applies to life and to traffic.

The Onion recently posted a piece with the headline, "Study: 90% Of Bike Accidents Preventable By Buying Car Like A Normal Person." At the bottom of the page is a link to another item poking at people who bring their bikes onto public transit.

With all the reasons to dislike cyclists, I'm surprised we don't get mowed down more often. Every bit of media that reinforces the stigma against weirdos who clot up the motorized world brings us closer to another front in the conflict of various interests that has been created by the convergence of overpopulation and mechanization.

Society expects conformity. Tolerance for nonconformity varies on yet another continuum from most hung up to most anarchistic. The use of the term "normal" to describe motorists alerts us to the baseline of conformity from which pedalers depart. Drivers respond with varying degrees of anxiety or hostility based on how much they feel a cyclist has injured society by using a non-standard vehicle. The Onion sets the acceptable upper age limit for bike riding at 12 years.

Satire is not just a joke. Satire is a pointed effort to portray the ridiculousness of beliefs and behaviors. There's good-natured ribbing, and then there's propaganda. Satire is often intended to be persuasive. This takes it from the category of joshing and turns it into social leverage.

Some platforms, like South Park, collect their audience on the principle that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." They appear to hold no belief or person immune to ridicule. When it's well done, it provokes thought as well as mirth. But when it just looks like a tidal wave of acid rolling across the landscape it becomes depressing. If they're scourging someone you like to see scourged, it's all great. If they're scourging your beliefs, it's unfair and simplistic.

I like the comic strip Pearls Before Swine, but I don't like the character of Jef the Cyclist. Because the strip is read by the general public, and the general public is notoriously prone to generalization, the sole cyclist character being an arrogant snot means that all cyclists are arrogant snots. Do arrogant snots deserve to be accommodated on the public right of way? Only if they express their arrogance in suitably high-powered cars. An arrogant cyclist deserves to be doored or run off the road, because that's how we do things now. Don't suffer fools. Once fools are identified, persecute them until they smarten up.

The properly humble cyclist shuffles and mumbles and nods deferentially. Yes, we are inferior, evolutionary dead ends who will eventually be eradicated. The fact that some of us are overbearing and egotistical stems not from any actual power but from the pathetic posturing of a doomed subculture. You would be more socially acceptable if your human powered commute consisted of climbing tall buildings and then leaping off in a flying squirrel suit to glide to the next and the next, until you reach your destination. If you don't have access to suitably tall structures, too bad.

I have said more than once that bicyclists need to remember that many people will never be able to incorporate any pedaling into their daily routines. A lot of people could start bike commuting or ride bikes on short utilitarian errands, but technology has evolved to make other alternatives necessary. The amount of stuff we move, over the distances that we cross, in the time we have available, make motorized transportation a fact of modern life. Before that it was railroads and boats and big wagons drawn by burly animals. People who pedal have always been a troublesome minority. Even in the various bike booms, the minority became a larger percentage of the population, but never achieved long-lasting respect.

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Speaking of darkness...

The big storm that blew through northern New England last weekend took out my power line for five days. I just got electricity and running water back last night. The cable is still down. Where I have time, I have no internet connection. Where I have an internet connection I have no time. The cable company says they’ll see me Tuesday. I’ll relate gripping tales and profound insights after they hook me up the rest of the way to the 21st Century.