Sunday, April 29, 2018

Biking will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no biking

When mountain biking surged in popularity in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the United States was in a recession for many of those years.

Here in New England, the mid-1980s economic boom faltered by 1988 and was well on the way down by 1989. Construction projects stopped, newly constructed buildings were never fully completed, and many quickly fell into disrepair. Real estate agents who had grown sleek and fat now wore fading clothes and drove the same Mercedes for several years in a row.

I observed at the time that the economic downturn, as tough as it was for people in search of income, was the best thing that could have happened for the environment.

The search for income led me to the job that I still hold today. The shop needed someone who could figure out new equipment as it appeared, but who also understood older bikes. The fact that I thought I could get by on a meager amount of funds didn't hurt my job security, either.

A committed bike commuter since I graduated from college, I used riding to get me through times of chronic income shortage, and to increase my profit margin when money might briefly flow in a little more briskly.

Recessions tend to kill off the weak. But even among people who still seemed to be living pretty well, economic stress seemed to nudge them toward toys that did not require fuel. Around the Wolfeboro area, a lot of young families seemed to be doing well enough to outfit the whole crew with bikes and to ride them enthusiastically. Because the Lakes Region lives on tourism and seasonal residents, we could see that the economy might be in a bit of a rough patch in general, but enough people were making enough money somewhere to want to spend it on both mountain bikes and trips to our area for vacation.

Once the economy revved up again for the rest of the 1990s, mountain biking had become enough of a habit that we saw lots of business until we more or less suddenly didn't. After the downturn in 2000, for reasons both economic and technological, the bike business turned into a tough way to make a living in just a few short years.

Young adults in urban environments seem to be discovering in large numbers what I discovered with few allies way back in 1979: your money goes farther when you pedal rather than drive. The owners of the economy want people spending every dime they have, while at the same time harshly criticizing the average citizen's lack of thrift and austerity. This dishonest double talk makes snappy sound bites and promotes a hardass attitude worthy of the rise of a thousand year reich, but it does little to improve the human condition overall.

The bicycle is a tool and a symbol of self reliance. If you're really a hardass, apply that hard ass to a bicycle seat. You learn very quickly about doing a lot with a little that way.

The Age of the Guidebook

Part of mountain biking's evolution can be seen in how riding venues are found and promoted.

The 1990s was the Age of the Guidebook. Local riders with the ambition and the resources would produce a guide to the trails they knew, to help visiting riders find them. We discovered the trails and explored them the way explorers have always done, and produced various artifacts on paper to pass the information along.

Guidebook writers face numerous challenges, especially when a route sprawls across miles and spans more than one USGS map. In the forests of New England, landmarks may be scarce. Not every rider used a cycle computer, so mileage increments might not help. Access to the land wasn't always guaranteed. Some rides were open to locals and riders in the company of locals, but the landowner wouldn't appreciate seeing the trail featured in a public ride guide.

At the point in the early 21st Century when mountain biking died back considerably around here, the internet was still a limited resource. By the time we started to notice much demand -- or even just curiosity -- about mountain bikes again, paper maps had all but disappeared, and the internet was bulging with sites devoted to every aspect of cycling.

Cycling has developed a serious web dependency. More on that later.

For practical reasons, I gave up mountain biking around the turn of the century. The Surly Cross Check I built seemed like the perfect bike to explore public rights of way, whether paved or unpaved, without having to worry about landowner permission or trail conditions. I was inventing "gravel riding" without realizing it. It was just "riding" in the peculiar conditions of this area. Lines on the map might not still be maintained roads, but if they were on the map there had been a road at one time. In most cases, enough was left of it to let me get through. Only rarely would a road be so deteriorated that I would hesitate to use it again if I wanted to go that way.

With the resurgence of mountain bike interest, we've seen not only how the mechanical technology has changed, but how trail information has also changed. Because mountain biking has been domesticated fully or partly depending on your region, trail systems are largely purpose-built on preserved land. They're easy to map and easy to promote. Since mountain bikers are largely a drive-to-the-ride crowd, the only difference between them and any other bike path user is the type of terrain they want to encounter on the trails. The all-terrain bicycle is really a limited terrain bicycle, unless you want to expend a lot of personal miles per calorie to chug along on smooth roads on one of those beasts.

Applying the destination resort concept to mountain biking makes it easier to exploit as a purely consumer activity. Some people go to golf resorts. Some people go to lakes or seaside resorts. The mountain biking consumer goes to areas with a known and well documented concentration of riding.

When mountain biking first seized the public fancy in the latter half of the 1980s, it represented freedom and mobility. Rightly or wrongly, the public viewed the mountain bike as the perfect vehicle to ride anywhere, the pedaled equivalent of the SUV. This point of view survived into the 1990s, until the bike designers took it away by focusing on rough terrain capability at the expense of everything else. Given that focus, you no longer have a bike that anyone wants to spend much time pedaling around in search of their favorite terrain. You want to go straight to the good stuff. Choose your favorite search engine, find a venue, load the bikes on your car or truck, and go.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Farmers aren’t cows

The merchant-customer relationship has a lot in common with farming or hunting. Specialty retail used to be different, because so many of the workers were also users, but it was never purely thus. It has moved steadily away from the fellow enthusiast model since the 1990s. The business model moved from small specialty stores to larger, higher-volume retail outlets, through mail order to the impersonal mechanism of the internet.

The larger and more impersonal the delivery systems become, the more the relationship changes not only from an interpersonal exchange between fellow enthusiasts to a quasi-predatory one, but also from a small scale hunting or farming metaphor to a factory farming analogy. You all are being processed, like a bunch of turkeys.

Granted, the metaphor falters because animals used in various ways for food production don't have any autonomy. As a human, you have your knowledge -- such as it may be -- and your free will, to question what seems questionable, to buy from someone else, or to quit an activity entirely. That last factor guides a lot of marketing thought. Purveyors of specialty stuff understand that many people get in, but few stay. This is dramatically evident in a boom and bust cycle, but goes on all the time in lesser waves.

Your knowledge may not be as comprehensive as you think it is. I've been in the business for about 30 years, and I still forget some things from the historical record, or have to dredge my memory for diagnostic information or procedures I might not have used in awhile. And my immersion in this area has taught me about the interdependence of a civilized society. Primitive hunter-gatherers needed to cooperate, but in the earliest times there was a lot less to know. Because we have eradicated that subsistence world, we have to function in the interconnected web of overlapping technology and customs that has evolved ever more rapidly as our species has invented and interpreted lots and lots of things. Become an expert in your field and you automatically don't have the time or the brain space to master many other fields. You have to trust others to inform and guide you. But can you trust anyone who is selling something?

If you have enough coin to have internet access and a credit card, your circumstances are probably not desperate enough to make a poor buying decision a fatal error. Not when it comes to bikes and parts thereof, anyway. Then again, I have both of those things, and I definitely do not have money to waste. But say you have to live entirely in the real world, obtaining whatever you need from physical locations where money changes hands directly. You have a personal relationship with your guardian and protector, or your hunter and exploiter.

Life is one big gray area. Working in a small shop, I have to balance the needs of the business to exist and support its staff against the desire to outfit every customer with the absolute perfect stuff for each individual. Working in a large shop, I would still run up against the limitations of that business's ability or willingness to stock a lot of variety and cater to anything other than the largest common denominator in any category. "It's good enough," the saying goes. And it's true, up to a point. But if you have the misfortune to buy into technology just before a massive shift, you will be on the wrong side of obsolescence for longer than if you'd stumbled in nearer the launch of a new platform. See much 9-speed Dura Ace these days?

New platforms do not guarantee less trouble from the get-go. Early versions often hit the market with bugs that the industry counts on early adopters to disclose. The first customers for any new marvel are often test pilots, whether they know it or not. That's the predatory angle. Someone has to buy the latest crap so that its real-world failings can be discerned and refined out in later editions. So the smart money waits as much as a whole season. But if everyone held back, it would simply delay the onset of this testing period. They've got you by the components, man.

The bike industry began as a cauldron of innovation. The machines evolved steadily from something with wheels like a wagon to the sleek wonders that you see today...and fat bikes...and 75-pound smokeless mopeds. From the beginning, they were creatures of desire, not need. But luxuries become needs. Transportation on demand found a ready market when "the poor man's horse" came on the scene. That led fairly shortly to motorized vehicles that could carry a person around the countryside without the need to build a railroad. By the late 20th Century, automobiles featured in ads for employment: "must have own transportation," "Reliable transportation a must," and so on. These were not high level jobs, either. The regular grunts were expected to own a car. We went from having a workforce on foot to a workforce using mass transit to a workforce swarming around like the Dunkirk evacuation fleet, only doing it every morning and evening, five or six days a week, year after year.

The needs of mass production slow the pace of change slightly, but the pressures of marketing accelerate it. Bike manufacturers seem to be keeping production runs really low in spite of access to the lower costs in Asia. They know that the pool of people with the wherewithal to buy their trinkets is shrinking, and that within an economic sector not everyone will want to play with those toys. Sell-through is easier if you accept that some customers will miss out. It still frees up each company to pump out a newer and better model about every ten months. This is like dumping piles of old doughnuts out in the woods to attract bears, or putting out apples and a salt lick to be "nice" to the deer. Bait 'em in and pick 'em off. Regulations from state to state may require some variations on the theme to meet strict legality, but the underlying motive to create habits in the prey that make hunting them easier is always the same. Have you seen the latest issue of Bicycling!!?!?!

One sales rep we had in the 1990s listened to me griping and said, "You sound like a consumer!" That's it right there: Industry versus customers. He wasn't facing customers every day, getting chewed on for the shortcomings of the latest mechanical marvel. Indeed, from the very early 1990s to the end of the decade I saw a serious gap open up between the manufacturers and distributors, and the front line retailers. Reps who were friendly and available at the start of the decade disappeared, replaced by increasingly numbers-driven salesmen looking for as big an order as they could write, with as little feedback as possible. We weren't insiders anymore. We became the first rank of suckers. Don't talk back. No one cares. Better minds than you have already decided what will be best for several years in advance.

The vast majority of customers these days do not complain, but I don't think it's because they are satisfied. Maybe they don't know what to ask. Maybe they don't ride enough to break anything. Maybe they don't care enough about function to take issue with something that works haphazardly. Maybe all the years of dealing with tech support for just about everything have finally beaten consumers down to the point where they don't even bother to try.

As someone who has devoted a lifetime to educating people about human powered transportation and environmental issues and the connection between economy, ecology, and quality of life, I can tell you, it's hopeless. Should I have figured this out 40 years ago and gone straight for as big a pile of money as I could amass? Too late now. What I hoped would bear fruit in a couple of decades looks like it might bring about some improvement in two or three generations. Or not. C'est la vie. We still seem to be uncovering deeper and deeper layers of problems even in areas where we seemed to have made considerable progress as of the late 1970s. Are we really going backwards, or simply finding out that we hadn't come forward in the first place?

The best you can do is try to be trustworthy. Is it really all just a metaphorical food chain out there?

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Rationing gas since 1979

As the human species bumbles toward the ugly end of the petroleum era, the slower students in the class are working harder and harder to extract and transport the remaining reserves of something we should have cut back on using about 40 years ago.

I did start cutting back almost 40 years ago. It was mostly an economic move, but I considered broader benefits as well. The 1973 gas crisis hit about four months after I got my driver's license. I got to enjoy just that brief time of 28 cents a gallon regular and 70 mile per hour highway speeds, and then bam: gas prices doubling, lines around the block, rationing. It was the future we'd been told was coming when the finite oil reserves finally ran out. Sure, it was an artificial preview, but I had read enough about non-renewable resources to get the idea that a love affair with the automobile might not be a long-term relationship. By 1979, I was well prepared to go car free to maximize whatever meager income I could garner with a brand-new degree in creative writing.

The writing degree was starting to pay off by the mid 1980s. At that time, I married into a car, but it was obvious that the average wordsmith was not going to be rolling in dough, and I had yet to establish myself as above average. I still used the bike to get around as much as possible. What driving I did looked like part of recreational activity but actually supported my work as an outdoor writer.

I never cracked the middle ranks, let alone the top ranks, of outdoor writers, because I never took the kind of cool trips anyone wants to read about. I drove less and less. You need a car in rural New England, but you don't need it all the time. In driving season, I go to work, I go to music class, and I run whatever errands I need to on my days off. In bike commuting season, the car sits for days at a time. Rationing. Whenever I have considered working somewhere far from home, I calculate the cost of having the job against what I would expect it to pay. I factor in the time spent sitting in the car, not getting to ride at all, buying gas, pumping out fumes, getting weaker by the day.

I'm always considering how I can avoid driving. It's bad, in a way, because I'll find that I haven't left my house in a couple of days if I don't have a pressing reason to go out. It reinforces an unhealthy tendency to avoid people, even when I like them. That, and I continue to try to hold space open for my creative ideas, as the odds grow worse and worse that any of them will ever amount to crap. I don't know what to call most of what I do, or where to send it for consideration. There are millions of other people shopping their opinions around. Maybe I'll make some more coffee, have a snack...and will you look at the time? I have to get laundry done before my work week starts again. And the cats need to be fed.

In the old 28 cents a gallon days, my father used to like to go for a drive in the evening. He'd call me like a beloved pet, and we'd tool around for an hour or more, talking. It was like stoner chat without the weed, philosophical rambling and chance observation. When I was in my early 20s, my bike rides with a close friend were that sort of unplanned exploration. We rode around for a couple of years before we ever started mapping out routes beforehand. We'd just ride and talk and see what was down this road or that, and eventually figure out how to bend it back toward our starting point.

I find it is less fun completely alone. Some people glorify solitude and their undiluted enjoyment without the demands of a companion. It can be a good way to think, if you have something you want to think about. But it can also be rather bleak.

Commuting is okay alone. It's utilitarian. I hardly ever see other riders during that time, because most other riders drive to work around here. The few who commute by bike come in on different vectors, and at different times. If someone is out for an evening training ride, they're usually going the other way or hammering. By evening, I'm in no mood to hammer.