Thursday, April 19, 2007

Strong and Strange

Over on the iBOB list there was a recent resurgence of the always popular "if you could have just one bike/what is your perfect bike?" thread. This discussion has always been a particular favorite of mine because it goes to the heart of what we value as cyclists and it turns out there are as many answers as riders. (The quotes below are all reprinted with the permission of the individuals involved. If you want more context, browse through the iBOB archives.)

James Black opined:

"Would it have to be an inexpensive beater bike so you don't worry about it when you lock it up? I say yes - I think the one-bike scenario only works if that one bike is an inexpensive beater, such as an 80s Japanese sports tourer that performs very well but can be replaced easily for $100. Any bike that is too precious cannot be the perfect bike."

Philip Williamson countered:

That's just stupid*. That's like marrying the mean girl because you won't cry if she dumps you.


* I realize this is a gross violation of my own code and that of this list, and I apologize, but JEEZ! Did they change the meaning of 'perfect' while I was drinking?

JimG swung the discussion back to the ultimate subjectivity of the question by invoking one of the central metaphors of our age:

No, it's more along the lines of thinking Mary Ann was more appealing than Ginger.



I guess I've always had more fondness for the Mary Anns of the world and I'm reminded of an incident from a few years ago. At that time my main bike was an old titanium Litespeed that I called Smokey. My friend Wayne had a fire in his garage and all his bikes burnt up. Smokey had been a total write-off, the carbon fork had burnt up, the aluminum components had melted. But the blackened titanium frame was still solid and true. Wayne gave me the frame and I built it up. The bike was still scorched and I built it up with scrounged components. It looked like junk and rode great.

At this time my son Peter had a real nice, shiny, bright green Specialized Allez Pro racing bike. Full Ultegra. A sweet bike, but no Litespeed.

One morning I went down to where we used to store our bikes in the parking spot of our apartment complex (note the ominous foreshadowing inherent in the phrase "used to store our bikes") and noticed somebody had moved Smokey. "huh, I thought, that's weird. I thought I locked the bike up." And I had. Someone had sliced through the locking cable. And moved my bike. To get better access to Peter's shiny Ultegra equipped bike which they then stole.

Peter was pissed off. I don't know if he ever got over it, but we did get him a better bike as a replacement. Better as in less shiny. A nice old Bianchi with old-school Campy stuff. And we lock the bikes up in a different spot now.

In Philip's (perfectly valid) view, the beater bike is something bothersome, but I think James and JimG's (also valid) views are that the beater has it's own charms.

For myself, many of the "perfect" bikes are ruled out because I just don't like some of the things that many folks drool over. I know there are folks that love lugs and fancy paint jobs and all that stuff but those things just don't do it for me.

If you can love, really love, a beater, a bike that is valuable really only to you and if you can love the process of building it up and riding it more than the thing itself, well then, yeah you can probably live fine with one bike. Or a succession of one bikes.

I've given away Merckx's. I ultimately got rid of my burnt up Litespeed 'cause it was just too fancy for me. Every bike I get teaches me something and ultimately they'll all go away.

The Taoists tell of the useless tree. So large it could shelter an army beneath its branches. Its wood is too twisted and knotty to make into boards, its leaves to bitter to be tea, it bears no tasty fruit, it is unfit even for kindling. Because it is useless it has lived so long and grown so large.

My ideal bike is useful to me, useless to others. My friend Brad pointed out, it would also be useful to someone like me. "Not a problem," I countered, "someone like me won't steal a bike."

I posted the Taoist Useless Tree story to the iBOB list and Philip wisely noted:

"All bikes can be stolen, even the ones that are strong and strange."
He's right, of course, but the odds favor the odd. Philip pointed me to this little story, a variant of the Taoist story recounted by Tom Waits:

Introducing "A Little Rain" (Congres Centrum. The Hague/ The Netherlands: July 21, 1999): "This is a little story about the crooked tree and the straight tree. Do you know that story? [No response from the audience] Obviously you have heard that story... [laughter]. You see, once upon a time there was a forest and there were two trees in the forest, and there was a crooked tree and there was a straight tree. And the crooked tree used to look over at the straight tree and say, ‘Gee, look at you, you’re straight like that, I wish I was straight like that.’ The crooked tree would look up to the straight tree, and the straight tree would look down on the crooked tree and say, ‘Look at you, you’re crooked! You’re always gonna be crooked! You’re nothing but a crooked tree! You’re crooked and that’s all there is to it!’ So one day the lumberjacks came into the forest... [laughter] and they looked around, and they saw the trees... And one of the lumberjacks said, ‘Just cut off the straight trees!’ And the crooked tree is still there, till this day... growing strong and strange... That’s the story... [a rousing ovation]."

I don't ride my strong, strange bikes out of fear. I have realized however that I don't like the worry that comes with the fancy bikes. My favorite bike right now cost me $20 and I still lock it up.

Yesterday as I was riding into work, I was chatting at a light with my friend Ben Bigglestone (BTW, it is almost impossible for me not to see somebody I know on my commute. The bicycle is one of the most convivial machines ever made!) Ben was on his $9,000 Serotta Ottrott. I'm pretty sure Ben commutes a little quicker than I do, but I think he'd still be quicker than me even if we switched bikes. And my bike has fenders and I don't have to have special shoes to ride it.

I'm not going to switch bikes with Ben. Ben's bike is probably perfect for him. My bike is perfect for me.
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