Monday, October 17, 2011

Techy Bits

Robert Penn's It's All About the Bike seems to be the spectre haunting our blog this October.  So far, we’ve seen it as the shadow behind the scenes of our own Penn's winter bike project and the explicit subject of Jasper's book review this week.  I have vowed not to read the book in order to avoid whatever spell it seems to cast, but I find myself about to engage it anyway, if only third-hand.

Those of you who read Jasper's in-depth review of the book last week might remember the following section:

For me, the only even kind of boring parts of this book are the technical bits, where Penn starts using words like “chamfering” and “riveting” and waxing on about 953 steel and providing formulas for seat tube angles. There may be a certain poetry in this for some more serious or more technically minded readers (I’m looking at you, Val), but I found myself glossing over these parts.

If the cavalcade of numbers presented in my post on the Alfine hub didn't secure my position as the tech guy around these parts, I'm certainly implicated here by Jasper's accusing gaze.   This being my role, I suppose it's incumbent upon me to consider the role of those "technical bits" in the realm of cycling.  More specifically, why those bits should matter to someone who doesn't consider themselves particularly techy.

For all I know, Jasper got bored because Penn kind of sucks when writing about various alloys and manufacturing processes—as I said, I haven't read the book and don't intend to.  But looking at the rest of his review suggests that Jasper's resistance to the "technical bits" arises from a larger resistance to a kind of gear fetishism.  Well before this confession of boredom, Jasper has already taken a shot at the "oglers, fondlers, and swooners" and expressed thanks that Penn isn't among them.  Jasper sets himself and Penn up as riders more invested in the "spiritual" side of cycling, and more specifically as riders who value the "experience" of the ride.   The sheer frequency with which he deploys that word, "experience," suggests its place at the center of Jasper's relationship to the ride--it shows up in four consecutive paragraphs, starting before and running through a long quote he provides from Penn's book.  Not coincidentally, that quote isn't all about the bike, but about moments of awe, singing hearts, and touching the gods.  The implication, then, is that those who turn away from the heavens to the nuts and bolts of the bike itself have found a false substitute for experience and begun to engage in a sort of empty masturbation.

And, indeed, for some riders, it functions exactly in this manner.  I've seen guys spend obscene amounts of money replacing every bolt on their bike with its titanium equivalent and then only ride it a couple days out of the month.  I've seen guys compulsively swap tires out in a search for the best, lightest, highest traction combo without ever putting enough miles on them to really matter if the bike had tires at all.  I've heard single-speed guys say with an absolutely straight face that their entire race would have been different if their rear cog had been one tooth higher or lower.  And anyone who lives in a college town or major metro area has seen the carefully coordinated colorways and stupidly cut-down bars of the hipster's fixed-gear bike that only goes a few blocks in any direction.  Sure, these people need to spend more time pedaling and less time with the peddlers, but the intoxication of the idea that you can buy speed or style with dollars instead of sweat means we'll never be without these folks.

Yet the opposite position is sort of a cheerful benightedness, so one must guard against adopting too reactionary a posture.  Imagine, for example, a person who mentions to you that they are a wine enthusiast.  Later, you find yourself at dinner with the oenophile perusing a list of bottles with the aid of the sommelier.  The sommelier asks what qualities you enjoy in a wine and your companion can do no better than "red" or "white."  When pressed for qualities he looks for in a wine, he responds that he prefers it to be made of grapes.   At this moment, it becomes difficult to distinguish this enthusiast from the common wino--on the face of it, both would seemingly be happy with a bottle of Night Train and a warm place to sit--but that's probably not what your dinner companion really wants.  He wants the decent bottle of wine he claims to enjoy, but he's choosing blindly.  Will that guy find a bottle of wine he enjoys?  Most probably.  But he will also drink many bottles he doesn't like, wasting both money and time.  The sommelier, the expert who is there to avoid precisely this, will be unable to steer him towards bottles which might heighten his experiences and deepen his relationship with wine only because the customer lacks the vocabulary to articulate both his experiences and desires.

What's worse, this attitude in cycling breeds and disseminates a lot of ignorance. When Penn mentions Reynolds' 953 steel, the number signifies a fair amount of information to someone conversant in frame construction.  Frame materials are a particularly pernicious area of misinformation in the world of cycling.  Peoples' understanding of them often extends no further than regurgitating platitudes like "steel is real" or "aluminum rides so harshly that your teeth will rattle."  That 953 is helpful precisely because it reminds us that there is no such thing as a "steel bike."  953 is a brand of steel produced by Reynolds.  It's a stainless steel alloy.  It's light and resistant to corrosion, two things which differentiate it tremendously from the high-tensile steel that a made up a department-store bike from 1983.  But it's also very difficult to work with, which differentiates it from, say, 853, and which means you're going to pay titanium-like prices for it. If light isn't important to you, if you want steel and you want it cheap, then you can stop the salesman who mentions 953 and move him towards talking 4130.  This is an alloy used a lot in the airline industry, which means it's not that specialized and so not that expensive.  It's also kind of heavy, but it's plenty strong. And there are dozens of others.  Platinum OX, Thron, Life, Foco, and on and on and on.   Eyes glazed over yet?  Ok, perhaps.  But if your preference for buying a frame is "steel," then you've just ordered "any red wine" and refused to acknowledge the difference between a Shiraz and Cab.  It would be terrible to spend $800 on a bottle of Cabernet and find out it's not at all what you were after.  It's worse to spend it on a frame you don't like, because at least the wine bottle will be empty in a few hours.

And yet you cannot revert to simple fetishism here--"Reynolds 853" in itself means nothing for the bike built from it other than that, in general, it will be lighter than 4130 bike.  It's merely one tile in an incredibly complex mosaic.  An 853 bike welded up by Kirk will probably ride differently than a Jamis frame welded by the score in Taiwan.    It will certainly ride differently if you put 36-spoke Open Pro wheels with 32c tires on it than if you put a set of Zipp 404s and rock-hard 23s on there.  And it will ride VERY differently if you put a 69 degree headtube angle on it instead of a 73.  And so numbers matter to the experience, but not so much as knowing how those numbers fit together.  Anything with two wheels is a good thing in my book, and I'm a huge proponent of "run what you brung" if that's what lets you participate.  But if you think you'll have the same joyful time racing a triathlon on a mountain bike as you will on a TT bike, you've either already achieved a level of cycling transcendence most mortals can't approach or you're in for a sad awakening.  Neither fetishism nor ignorance provides guidance; knowledge and consideration well applied are the path to the best ride.

For the average cyclist, technical illiteracy often finds its expression in pain, both to the wallet and to the body.  Someone who understands the numbers, who spends their time getting their frame dialed in with the right angles, the right rise and reach to the stem, and the right spread to the handlebars approaches the home of the gods without the mechanics of the bike/body interface distracting them.  Someone who doesn't spends a lot of time rubbing their neck and stretching their shoulders because they think pain is part of the deal.  Perhaps this keeps them from knowing the ecstasy of a 12 hour, 200 mile ride because their spine makes that  much time in the saddle seem inconceivable.  For years, weekend warriors ground along with a mashing cadence and sore knees because a 53x39 crank was what the bike came with, what the pros rode, and what else are you going to do?  The guys who paid attention to the numbers put on bigger cassettes, rode triples, or adopted the 50x34 compact early--and rode faster, more useful machines with less knee pain because of it.  In many ways, the benefit of focusing on the details is that it allows you to get the bike out of the way of the experience.

In the end, Jasper's dismissal of Penn's consideration of rivets and chambers seems a touch perverse when thinking about a book titled It's All About the Bike. The very obsession with details and mechanics that Jasper suspects of separating the rider from the ride is in fact the foundation for the thoughtful, spiritual journey Penn describes.  Penn and Jasper are absolutely correct in asserting that cycling's value largely comes from connecting with that "exhilarating joy in the world that spreads out 'beyond the handlebars,'" but you encounter that joy by clutching those handlebars for countless hours, in persistent and intimate contact with everything connected to them.  You get beyond them so much more quickly if they're the right handlebars both for you and the job at hand.


  1. I prefer my bikes to be made of grapes.

  2. I apologize. On re-reading, this sounds kind of aggressive. It's not meant to be a polemic, but a justification. An appreciation need not be the domain of the obsessive and the weight-weenie--an understanding of the fine points benefits every rider.

    But it shouldn't be taken too far. I once read a bit of style advice that suggested real style lay in dressing with great care and attention, and then not thinking about your appearance again for the rest of the day. I think the same is true of the bicycle. You should know why everything on your bike is the way it is, and then you shouldn't worry about it again until it's time for your next bike.

  3. Grapes taste good


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