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.


Jim G said...

Great post, as always, and I'm honored to have been quoted in it! Smokey was a great bike with an awesome, fitting story...I was sad to see it go, but hopefully it's at another good home now. Did your son's stolen bike earn a nickname?

Kent Peterson said...

Peter's stolen bike never got a name. Smokey wound up back with Wayne. Wayne's shiny replacement Lightspeed was just slightly different in geometry from Smokey and I could tell the bike really belonged back with Wayne. He's riding it as a fixie these days.

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Great post. My 'saved from salvage' commuter gets locked up and I take a train 1 hour away from there. I could not stand to leave an expensive (or nice and shiny) bike there while I was so far away.

Anonymous said...

Right on!

I have been riding sub-$30 bikes since my C'dale was stolen four years ago. The peace of mind is priceless.

An odd side-effect: I started maintaining my own bikes around the same time. As a result, my technical skills are stuck in the '80's.

Splined bottom bracket? Free-hub? Threadless stem? I have no idea.

Anonymous said...

My custom road bike is 8 years old, has badly mismatched touch-up paint all over it, and a loose headbacge which will be allowed to fall off in its own sweet time. It also had a bent fork for the longest time but I finally had to deal with that this spring.

When I first ordered it, I wanted it all the same color, no window infill or whatever, no decals; I was afraid of having too pretty a bike. The seller/designed insisted that I get it with the infill paint and decals and that if I was that nervous I could cover up the logos with duct tape when I got the frame.

In retrospect, if I had known more about the custom frame world eight years ago, I might have taken my money elsewhere to get what I wanted. Having such a pretty bike has forced me to carry a much heavier lock than I like, and I haven't enjoyed that vibe at all.

On the bright side, I do not plan to ever have the frame repainted, even when it looks like crap. Especially when it looks like crap. It's beginning to head in that direction.

I finally resorted to a silly step last year when, after locking my bike in a bad neighborhood several weeks in a row (for reasons I can't remember now) and having strangers eye it suspiciously, I took a ball-peen hammer and carefully placed a small but obvious dent in the top tube, at a place where I knew the bike's strength wouldn't be compromised. Doing that has, oddly enough, reduced the number of curious folks coming over to smell my bike...

Anonymous said...

My bikes usually look like crap, but are actually carefully engineered and assembled for specific functions. None of them are cheap, but none of them are "desireable" to most riders or (I hope) to most thieves. I did lose one such to a theif, though, so I tend to lock the ones that are small enough to be carried. The Dreadnought (current favorite) cargo machine weighs 100 lbs before payload, and anyone who looks at is usually too bewildered to think of stealing it. Val

Tai-po said...

Owning just one bike???!!! Who are you people???

I wish I had the restraint to have just one bike. In the last two years, my wife and I have acquired five bikes for ourselves (well...four for me). I now have a bike to go with any outfit.

We always talk about getting rid of a few, but as we go through the list, each bike's value becomes clear. I have a folding bike that doesn't do much except look funny under me, but the value of that humor is worth keeping it. Or the bike I run the dog with? Well...the dog needs his exercise (or we come home to a torn up yard).

I could probably dig up some discipline to live with one bike...many people live with less. But I figure I'm somewhat ahead of the game. My wife and I are down to one car, which I use maybe once a week. Collectively, my bikes probably don't cost more than a compact car. I get an immense joy out of tinkering with them.

To those of you with the monk-like ability to be satisfied by one bike, I admire and salute you. I'm now at the point where I *think* I don't need anymore bikes. That's the first step right?

My name is Tai...and I'm a bike-aholic

Sam J said...

One bike? I had a 4-speed Peugeot in college that would have been pretty sweet with alloy rims. Would have stopped in the rain, too.