Friday, January 06, 2012

Why I Don't Buy Expensive Bicycles

Over on his blog, my friend Jan Heine has a post where he asks and answers the question: Why Ride an Expensive Bicycle? Jan effectively presents several factors that make a higher end bike well worth their higher price tags and the fact that top builders have long wait lists of folks happy to buy such lovely machines attest to the validity of Jan's assertions. And I have ridden many, many miles with friends who are thrilled with their well-crafted machines or who are saving their pennies for their next dream machine and while that's all well and good, I have to confess that I don't foresee myself riding a custom Boxer any time soon or having Ira Ryan build the perfect bike for me. This has nothing to do with the skills of the builders (which are excellent) or the size of my bank account (which is less than excellent) but rather it has something to do with the way my brain works.

Folks who really know me will not be surprised by this. Years ago Jan and I were riding together and he said to me "I'm writing an article on the what makes an optimal randonneuring bicycle and I'm wondering if you'd like to write a contrasting side-bar?" Some might take umbrage at such a question, but I knew instantly what Jan was getting at and I wound up writing a short piece called "More Enemies Than Time" in which I noted that someone like Drew Buck might choose to ride PBP on a vintage Dursley Pedersen not because it is optimal, but because it is interesting. By the way, Jan has a way of speaking that rubs some people the wrong way but that I find delightful since retelling the conversations makes for great anecdotes. For example, once on a brevet Jan and I are riding up Snoqualmie Pass. He looks over at my bike and says, "Oh, I see you are riding those tires," (I was riding Specialized Armadillos at the time), "I rode those once," Jan continues, "and found them unacceptably slow. I'm sure they're fine for you, however." I'm pretty sure that could be taken as an insult, but my hide is about as tough as the tread of a Specialized Armadillo.

Years ago my dad had a great old truck, a 60s era Chevy that he'd use to go on hunting & fishing trips and to haul loads of logs from the back woods. It was beat-up and quirky & most of the time it got us where we needed to go and back again. But when the electrical system finally succumbed to something fatal, he got a replacement truck that to my mind was a little too new and a bit too nice and we stayed away from the really narrow roads where the branches would scrape along the doors and I guess things like that make an impression on a kid.

And so when Jan talks about the aesthetics of a bike and how a lovely bicycle is a joy to behold and will make me want to ride more, I know he's wrong for me. My first thought is about locking the bike up at a rack at the university and how my locking strategy of "lock next to a nicer looking bike" (aka "I'm not out-running the bear, I'm out-running you!") won't work any more. And when Grant Petersen waxes poetic about lugs and how they are so much prettier than a welded joint, I realize that I care about fine lug work just about as much as Stevie Wonder cares about high-definition television.

Jan's performance and durability arguments certainly have validity but like the aesthetic argument, they fall on a spectrum and I stop caring once I pass the point my brain identifies as "good enough." I'm sure that Jan and others have more refined sensibilities but my bike doesn't need a steel frame to be "real." I don't need a carbon fork or a 14-speed hub. I just need a bike I enjoy riding and it turns out I'm not a very fussy guy.

This is not sour grapes on my part, over the years I've given away many "good" bikes and turned down several custom "I'll build you what you want" offers. I like bicycles. I like building them up and I learn something from every bike I ride. I'll change stuff around because I like changing stuff around.

Of course "expensive" is a relative term. To my non-biking friends the idea of spending $500 on a Trek or a $400 on a Dahon is excessive while other friends "get by" with Ultegra components on their titanium "rain-bikes." For me, every bike I've had has been a bargain in terms of the time I've spent in the acquisition and enjoyment of the machine. And if a custom bike by a skilled builder will give you more pleasure than what you're riding, then that sure seems like something worth pursuing. And if that bike you picked up at the Trek shop down the street or the used bike you got at a flea market gets you down the street with a smile on your face, that's good too.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA

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