Looked at from a certain angle, one can see that brothels, casinos, and the bike companies are all in the same business. Their buisiness models depend on ruthlessly separating you from your money, but in a way that ensures you'll be back in short order, and whatever they're giving you for your money, what you're actually buying is the opportunity to participate in your own fantasy.
In cycling, at least, those fantasies usually center around the idea that with the new whatzamajig, you'll find yourself able to do something you couldn't do before. More often than not, that something is "go faster." Almost all of the industry's come-ons circle around this one potent dream. Frame-makers tout their ever-stiffer bottom bracket shells. Shimano and Campagnolo cram cog after cog into their cassettes. Spoke drillings inexplicably keep disappearing from wheels. Folks happily shell out $1200 for a crankset that weighs a few grams less than it did last year.
Riders don't generally know what any of that means, of course. Many people could not articulate why ten speeds should be any better than nine or tell you what headset standard their bike uses. All they know, generally, is the word "faster." Then, of course, they ride their new gear for a season or two, and, not having spent any additional time riding or given any of that money to a good coach, find that they're really not any faster at all. But that's ok. Continental has a new tire compound out. Wipperman is making an amazing new chain. This next hand will have the right cards, the dice will roll the right way this time.
Speed freaks aren't the only riders susceptible to the illusion that money can buy that fantastic version of the self. I'm as guilty as anyone, and probably guiltier than most. I have, for example, a frightening number of panniers in my garage. I bought each one with a specific vision of myself in mind--this one would make shopping for groceries so much easier that I would no longer drive to the Safeway; this one over here, that would be the perfect pannier for commuting to work, ensuring my clothes, food, and supplies were always well-organized and protected from the elements; that one was a gift; those over there would ensure that my gear was totally protected on a long-distance tour. In truth, they all work perfectly well for carrying things from one place to another. In truth, I am wondering if a trailer or a saddlebag might dial my next tour in another notch or two.
I have whole bins in my garage of stuff like that.
Every now and then, though, you hit upon a piece of gear that actually does change what you're capable of. I think a lot of this gear has something to do with winter, since companies design so much of cycling equipment with the sun of Southern California or the beautiful pave of Provance in mind. You look at a studded Nokian tire, and you can't help but see how different it is. You can't help but imagine how different you and your riding would be if you owned it. And--and this is the rarest thing in the cycling world--it turns that fantasy into lived reality.
That's not exactly true--tires like these don't change things just by being strapped to your bike (like deep-dish carbon rims are supposed to do); they still depend on you pulling on all your cold-weather clothes and stepping out into the frozen air. But if you do, if you take that step, then the tires deliver. Those little studs turn roads previously shut down by accumulated snow and ice back into roads. Every day I had to be at work last winter, I got there by bike. My fixed gear and I were out and about well before my friends with their usual 25c-shod carbon roadies. For $150, I turned pedals year-round, and stretched my riding season a few weeks in either direction.
The trainer is another good example. Let's you ride for hours and go absolutely nowhere--surely a different experience on the bike. DVDs to go with the trainer, hours of a skinny triathlete guy telling me how fast to pedal so that I'll be ready to roll in come Spring (a little bit of the fantasy of going faster here). A Pugsley, for when the trainer threatens to break my mind with its repetition. All of this gear designed to turn a time of the year without riding into time full of it in one form or another. So far, it all seems capable of doing so.
Sure, I've been separated from my money again . . . and yes, I'm accumulating more gear. I'd say it threatens to fill another bin, but most of this winter stuff is too big to fit in a tidy container. But so far, it's all living up to its promises and I am experiencing winter as less the realm of fantasy than a cycling space I can comfortably inhabit. I'm trying to apply this test to all the gear I look at these days. I have to ask if it will let me do something entirely new, or if it will just let me do something I'm already doing, but in a way that strikes me as seductively refined. I'm particularly vulnerable to that kind of fantasy.
No more slot machines. If I'm going to drop coin, I want it to open up a new horizon.