My Bicycle is a Thing. A Cripplingly Expensive Thing.

"The geometry felt well balanced, which, along with its relative lightness, gave the bike a snappy, playful character that compelled me to charge technical climbs and descents with equal alacrity."

This is my favorite sentence of 2014.

Good writing should make you think, and this passage from a recent magazine's collection of bike tests, is right up there with "Finnegans Wake" for being both thought provoking and making me wonder what the Hell the reviewer was talking about.

To begin with, it was written by a beer chugging, pizza eating, hairy legged mountain biker after doing a couple of laps on some crazy rocky technical trails in the southwest as opposed to, oh I don't know, William F. Buckley. I'm trying to imagine him pulling up after his test laps and saying "My word! That bicycle's playful character let me charge technical climbs and descents with alacrity!" The image just slides off my brain and makes the back of my eyes hurt. With apologies to Slim Pickens, I've been to eight web conferences, six winemaker dinners and two rodeos and in the 53 years I've been capable of forming words on this planet, I have never found cause to use the word "alacrity".  I'm sure the reviewer followed that by crushing a beer can on his forehead and saying "Home Jeeves" to his driver.

noun: alacrity
brisk and cheerful readiness.
"she accepted the invitation with alacrity"
synonyms:eagerness, willingness, readiness;

My bicycle doesn't climb with alacrity. My bicycle doesn't climb at all. I'm doing the climbing. My bicycle just gives me the mechanical advantage to do it at a pace slightly faster than walking. If I stop pedaling, my eager, willing, and ready bicycle (and I) will tip over and lay in the trail until someone helps us up.

I know bike geometry matters. The position of the wheels and handlebars relative to the rider has a huge effect on how difficult it is to get a bike up a steep trail. But that doesn't translate into eagerness. If the bike said to me "I'm ready to hit that hill! Let's do this!" then we can talk about eagerness.

We can also talk about how much it would terrify me to live in a world where that could happen.

And "playful"? Playful implies conscious engagement with an activity, not just reaction to physical input. Puppies and kittens are playful. To the best of my memory, the paddle in the ancient video game Pong, was not. It was absolutely flawless at getting that little white dot to the other side of the screen, provided the human controlling it didn't screw up. It certainly had no initiative of its own. Like that paddle, my bike has no initiative. It just sits there underneath me as I pedal along.

Maybe I'm doing it wrong. I try to get it to play. I attempt to bunny hop it over puddles. It sticks itself back to the ground like a Dodge Caravan that hit a speed bump too fast. I lean it in to corners and the tires immediately wash out because it's a bicycle and it only has two and what did I think was going to happen anyway? My bike doesn't seem to have a thought in the world. If it did, it would probably be something like: "Why isn't he a better rider?".

It's just as well. I don't want a playful bike. I don't want to be riding along and have my bike yell "SQUIRREL!" and suddenly do a hard left into a thicket filled with poison oak and blackberries. That's what a dog is for. I don't have one of those either.

It's not really the reviewers fault.  He's using this language as a sort of shorthand for explaining complicated physical interactions and ride qualities that would otherwise come off pretty dull. Better riders than I experience bikes this way. But I have to wonder how do you explain why one bicycle is better than another bicycle? And how do you do it year after year? I have five years of bike magazines piled up in the barn. They're full of bike reviews and they all say the same thing every year. You could create a drinking game out of them. Have a drink every time a reviewer says "Nimble".  Have a shot if they say "Game Changer".  Have two shots if they use the term "Make you a better rider" or "loads up under hard braking".  Finish the bottle if they say "Quiver Killer". You might make it through two magazines before all the players passed out.

The reviewer is also using this kind of language because the bicycle being reviewed cost $7600 which, by the way, is considered upper mid price range for new mountain bikes these days. At that price I would almost expect it to be playful. At least I'd expect it to make me feel a little better about myself. My smart phone does and it costs a fraction of what that bike does, even with a 2 year contract.

That playful bike actually costs a few hundred dollars more than the new furnace we just installed. That furnace consisted of a compressor outside of the house the size of a dishwasher, an air handler in the attic the size of a refrigerator, two wireless thermostats, an internet gateway(!)  and a wireless interface. It took four days to install and the wireless controller was so complex, it nearly made a veteran HVAC contractor burst into tears.
Evil. But oh, so comfortable...

Our furnace isn't playful either. It doesn't heat or cool with alacrity although judging from the condition of our contractor by day 4, it does have a quality shared by other complex systems that might best be described as "fiendish".

It does, however, heat and cool the house, and it's large enough and complex enough and required enough labor to install that I can understand why it would cost $7000. I get economies of scale. Those bikes aren't cheap to make and they don't sell a lot of them relative to say, Lennox heat pumps. I understand that the pursuit of excellence is priceless. Just a couple years ago I wouldn't have blinked at the idea of spending that much money on a bicycle. But now? I don't know.

The idea of being a penniless dirtbag with a beater car and a fleabag apartment and the latest and greatest $7000 bike is at the heart of how mountain biking identifies itself. It's a great gimmick, but that's what it is.

The truth is, at least in the case of bicycles, the skill set and fitness of the rider is what matters. It's not that the bike isn't important. But human beings, especially young ones, are incredibly adaptable, and can compensate for challenging terrain much faster than the industry can engineer a way to get you out of having to make that compensation. Don't believe me? Watch Martyn Ashton doing urban trials on a Colnago road bike.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that Martyn finished this video after he was paralyzed from the waist down in an accident doing a trials demonstration. This, perhaps more than anything else, informs my opinion of how much better human beings are than machines at just getting on in the face of adversity.

So, as much as I admire the engineering and artistry of bicycles that cost more than a heat pump, I'm afraid I'm not the kind of person who could ever own one. It would be an insult to its playful character and, since I've never found a reason to use the word alacrity, I don't imagine I'll be climbing or descending with it any time soon.


Popular Posts