I have a friend from my more torn-clothes punk-rock past; I fear her reproach. She lives half in my head and half in the real world – which to say it’s entirely possible that I’m imagining the things that she would say, engaging in too much speculation. That I’m using her as a way to externalize my conscience.
We discovered bikes together at the university bike coop, taught each other the hammer-and-duct-tape method of bike mechanics, rode mountain bike beaters around and locked up to street signs and dumpstered miscellaneous parts and frames and pieced together our first fixed gears and, above all, reveled in our bike culture of putting to use the cast-offs from a recklessly wasteful society and building a means of affordable, egalitarian, and secretly subversive transportation. Yes, what I’m trying to say was that those first bikes were indeed pipe bombs.
What would she say now? What would she say to my pretty-but-beat-up classic Italian track bike (with Campy 151 cranks and vintage Zeus hubs)? And what would she say about my aluminum-and-carbon frame that I use exclusively for racing at the track?
There is an inherent strain of consumerism underlying much of cycling culture. This came as a surprise to me, as my main exposure to bike culture was noting that every poor kid in that faded industrial city in New England where I lived after college had a beat-up BMX bike that they’d ride around town, popping and holding huge wheelies. But in New York City, I had easy access to just-out-of-college kids spending whatever didn’t go to their student loans on a new frame here, a new wheelset there. NJS this, Italian that. And meanwhile we’ve got the cyclists who live proximal to Central Park and trot out their Colnagos, Cervelos, and Litespeeds (oh my!) on the weekends, meandering the loop at 18 mph only semi-aerodynamically tucked onto their HED aerobars, looking for all the world like that kid you knew in high school who decided he wanted to learn guitar so went out and got a way-sweet Les Paul and a 50-watt tube amp and struggled to contort his fingers into a bar chord. Or the middle-aged, masters-level racers who show up to Kissena for the first time – “I’m just trying out track racing since I’ve been having a hard time not getting dropped at Floyd Bennet Field” – with their bikes wearing a new set of Zipp 808s.
Why, my friend would be asking me, would you even step close to that? Why do you have three fixed-gear bikes? (But I don’t! One fixed, one track bike, and one extra track frameset…) You can really stick to your ideals and pare down your stable to one or two bikes, can’t you?
Oh, right. This isn’t her telling me this, it’s me telling me this.
I have answers, and they’re answers about how to resist consumerism while still being a bike geek. In these uncertain times, in this uncertain country, everybody spends money and everyone has their priorities. While everything is relative, having a hobby isn’t indicative of conspicuous consumption (having several hobbies on the purchase scale of bikes might be, however). You work for your money and you spend it on things you like. Some people buy nicer food and some people rely on six meals a week of rice and beans. Some pay rent, some squat. Some pay off their student loans faster. Some people drink a lot. Some people give everything they don’t need to people who need it a lot more.
Some people buy right to the top, buy the fanciest wheels for their new toy, go through framesets like they’re trying on clothes for the high school dance. Some amateurs buy professional-level gear. I think that’s ridiculous but can’t say I wouldn’t mind owning some of that gear.
Of the six frames I’ve owned in the past three years, one was bought new – my first, a tough steel all-around commuter fixed gear which I still own and ride. The others have all been used – very well used, in fact, without exception. I think hard about what bike bits I want and need, I consider alternatives, I make plans and I drop them. I buy used; I patiently wait for good deals, and sometimes I impulsively buy things I don’t really need. I sell stuff from my parts bin – usually to friends, with prices falling between “good” and “I’m doing you a favor.”
So I’m not part of it all – not entirely. Or I’m as much not a part of it as I am a part of it. Or, there’s no such thing as being part of it or not being part of it.
Look: don’t buy the best thing you can get. You might not need it. Don’t buy everything you want – you might have some redundant bike issues. Buy smart and buy restrained and make good financial decisions. Buy used, for goodness sake – I’m not too confident in the environmental effects of all that carbon production, that aluminum production, the chroming and painting processes. Buy things that will last you. I think the measure of unhealthy consumption might not be what you have, but what you go through.
If I were living somewhere else, with different habits, I might have one bike – some steel cyclocross bike with a carbon fork (and a steel one in the closet), that I could put some slick tires on and use in the occasional road race, or throw a rack on and go for a light tour.
No doubt that day will come eventually, but it’s not here right now.
Until then, I’m going to enjoy my hobby, and spend less on my bikes than so many people do on electronics, clothes, rent in ugly gentrified neighborhoods, drugs and alcohol, cars and other shitty forms of transportation, and so forth.
Occasionally I hit upon some witticism that I just can’t let go of. Two or three years ago, in conversations about my bike habits, it was correcting somebody: “Oh, I’m not a cyclist. I’m a biker.” “What’s the difference?” they’d ask, leading me perfectly. I’d pause. “I think it’s spandex.”
I was an avowed utilitarianist – my one bicycle was meant for all-purpose use, for getting me around, for going fast and being comfortable and wearing sneakers and not looking like a cyclist. Never mind that that one all-purpose bicycle was a fixed gear, frequently without a handbrake, with no accommodations for racks or fenders. And never mind that with rolled-up pants, a messenger-style shoulderbag, and lock wrapped around my waist, I did look like a cyclist. Just a certain sort of cyclist, and that was fine by me.
But, as I’ve found in a wide variety of ways, orthodoxy fades in favor of embracing complexity. I realized that clipless shoes are excellent innovations. I realized that I loved going fast, and that I could get even better at alleycat races – those messenger-inspired city races that take place between red lights and midtown taxicabs – if I embraced some more regular long rides. Which required a more suitable handlebar setup, and, eventually, gears. A regular browsing of craigslist and a trip to Westchester County with cash in hand brought home a used road bike. So much for the “if it ain’t fixed it’s broken” phase. And eyerolling about lycra-clad roadies struggling up the Central Park “hill” turned into, well, being one of them – sort of – on my way to work.
There are ways to stick to pride – riding a recreational-level steel racing bike with traditionally spoked wheels (but no downtube shifters – it came with Campy Veloce) and a midrange transmission. I was still wearing a mess bag, and, at first, riding mountain pedals (Time ATACS) on the road bike, on that lovely scrappy little Bianchi. I wasn’t one of those ostentatious spenders in the park loop riding their Latest Bike Fad (how quickly Ti has dropped from favor, replaced by carbon fiber!). I was still a rough-and-tumble bike kid.
Thank goodness for – and be careful of – the changing of original intentions. I love my road bike and I am starting to love road racing. But I have to smack myself when I start wondering how I can cheaply acquire some deep-dish carbon aero wheels.
Hello and welcome to No One Line. This weekend, I raced a hybrid road-race-meets-alleycat, going up 9W, the iconic proximal-to-New-York-City straight-shot roadie training ride, finishing in 9 miles of mad traffic navigations in Manhattan. I had a teammate, a plan for the race, and an eagerness rooted in my desire to get some more experience comparable to road racing under my belt. I didn’t plan on the weather being wretched, on being soaked and shivering at the starting line, on having to wear Diva Glasses to keep grit out of my eyes. I didn’t plan on descending that fast in the rain, didn’t expect to drop one or two people who did get dropped; I didn’t expect to stick with my teammate, a stronger climber, up some of the steep sections or expect my final place to rely on the resultsof a sprint between my teammate and I.
There is no one line that separates plan and accident (thanks, Cat and Girl, for providing the quip that inspired this blog’s title); I planned to race and see how my new bike performs, to have fun and test the waters, suck wheel, go fast. I didn’t plan to finish highly, and one of the biggest lessons in amateur bike racing is that victory and failure can both be very much accidental. You make your plans – you pick your line and you hold it until you have to correct it. I don’t think I’ve ever made plans without including “Reassess your plans” in the plan. I upgraded to Cat 4 on the track, expecting to continue my improvement, and somehow turned myself into pack fodder, struggling to hold wheels, unable to hold a lead in a final sprint. I went to a fancier velodrome for a race day, expecting to just ride fast, be a bit of fodder in a big pack, and have fun on some steeper banking. I found myself placing in the omnium and taking 3rd place in the feature race thanks to a 3-lap flier during an snowball.
When he muses about handlebar positioning and the differences between pro and amateur racers, Aki of Sprinter Della Casa points out that pros just put their heads down and hammer at the 12 tooth cog for long periods of time, whereas amateurs launch wayward attacks, get stymied, and try something new. My life on a bicycle has taught me two united and contradictory things – the surprising ability of my body to ride fast and far, for me to use my bike for transportation to friends, family, and other loved ones; and on the flip side, despite increases in speed and fitness, the enormous gap between an amateur who rides every day and keeps getting fitter, and the ridiculous levels of fitness of world class riders. My limitlessness; my limits. Those pros can pick a line and stick with it, but we down here at the enthusiast level are still going to be changing course with wanton disregard for original intentions.
After all, life is what happens when you’re making other plans – the race happens when you alter your line. Hold your line. Never plan without anticipating changing your plans.
Welcome to No One Line.