Monday, August 1, 2011

Beating the Sense Into You: Experience is Overrated

If you've been cycling for a long time, you may have noticed that with each passing year you understand it less and less. I know this is the case for me. Just when I think I've finally learned something, I check in with the "experts" and realize that I've actually got it all wrong. This is because experience is no substitute for "facts," at least when it comes to bicycles. I was reminded of this recently when reading the following article in Bicycling, in which a novice cyclist chronicles his attempts to purchase a road bicycle and encounters some good old-fashioned bike industry "expertise" :

Unsurprisingly, as a middle-aged gentleman with negligible road bike experience, he is profoundly uncomfortable on a crabon TrekCialized S-Wanks Whatever SL:

I waited while he rolled out a speedy-looking carbon-fiber model from a major brand, left over from last year. I don't know much about bikes, but I know a few things about shopping. I test-drove the great deal around the neighborhood and felt completely miserable. This was the first time I'd ever sat on such a bike before, and I was unaccustomed to the slender seat. When I put my hands in the drops, they were so low and far away that the position threatened to put me in traction. The shifters were Martian technology. Mostly, though, I was freaked out by how fast the bike wanted to go and how vaporously light it felt. I've owned kites that weighed more.

At this point in the article, you may have been thinking exactly what I was, which is: This guy is total Grant Petersen bait. He's befuddled by STI shifters, he's profoundly uncomfortable in the drops, and his soft posterior is being savaged by that plastic "ass hatchet" of a saddle. In fact, I almost stopped reading at this point, since I couldn't imagine any way this guy wasn't going to wind up on a Rivendell with a Brooks saddle, bar end shifters, mustache bars, and roughly 19 feet of quill stem.

Amazingly, though, I was wrong, for I underestimated the seductive powers of the crabon--and, more importantly, the marketing forces behind it:

Still, carbon interested me. At Central Wheel in West Hartford, I asked Al the Shop Guy about it.

"One thing carbon does is smooth out the jolt from a bump," he said. "On an aluminum frame, the bump might feel more like the equivalent of this."

And then he punched me…in my damaged shoulder. I knew cycling can be a risky sport, but it hadn't occurred to me that I might get hurt just talking about bikes. "On the carbon frame, it would feel like this." Al whacked me more gently.

If someone not only gave me a line like that but then had the audacity to punch me after delivering it I can't imagine I wouldn't reply with a swift kick to the "pants yabbies." But then I'd be forgetting that when people repeat some marketing "wisdom" over and over again--like the one about how somehow it's better to ride into a pothole on a crabon bike than on a metal one--it eventually hardens into a little wart of "truth" that no amount of real world experience can ever dissipate. I have an aluminum bike I ride fairly often. Sometimes I even catch myself thinking it's at least as comfortable as any crabon or steel bicycle I've ever owned, but then I remind myself that it's beating the crap out of me. If only a bike shop employee would sock me every once in awhile to drive the point home then maybe I'd be cured of these lapses of sense once and for all.

Anyway, after the bike industry literally beats some "sense" into this guy, he eventually finds a crabon road bike he likes:

I tried another bike brand, just because they had one. Then I took a day to "think it over," but who was kidding whom? It turns out that Jim Felt was destined to build a bike ideally suited to a middle-aged left-handed Irish-American writer with a penicillin allergy. When I went back for a fitting, Dave's colleague Jeff put the bike on the trainer and watched me pedal for a while. "This doesn't happen very often," he said, "but I wouldn't change anything."

In other words, after test riding a bunch of bikes and not liking them because they don't fit well, he finally gets on one that does and--surprise!--he likes it. And thus another Fred is born.

None of this is to say there's anything wrong with crabon, or that he doesn't love his Felt. I just find it frightening that cycling is now so invested in crabon that salespeople will actually beat you if you question its superiority. But I suppose they have to, because when it comes to cycling experience is often the worst teacher, and fortunately the author of the above article was spared before he might actually have any that led him astray from the Crabon Mistress. So, lest we all fall victim to the delusion that comes with experience, let us all repeat the Frame Material Mantra:

Crabon is Comfy
Steel is Real (But Only If It's Handmade)
Titanium is Forever
Aluminum Will Beat You Up On Long Rides

That should keep us all on track.

By the way, in case you don't believe me about the danger of experience, consider this video which was forwarded to me by a reader:

Basically, it's about a guy who rides obsessively, and when I saw the following warning I just assumed it was more mainstream media anti-bike propaganda:

The bike industry wants us to believe that crabon is a miracle material that will turn the pain of cycling into the handjob that never ends, and the mainstream media wants us to believe that riding bicycles of any material is something dangerous and risky in nature that viewers should not attempt. However, in this case, it turns out the warning is totally accurate, because the guy they feature does in fact have a serious problem:

No, the problem isn't that he wears a tank top tucked into half-shorts, or that his stem angle is identical to his seat post angle, or that he uses aerobars to replicate the upright fit of a Rivendell. The problem is that he's so compulsive he even rides a stationary bike while he's working:

As cyclists, we're all compulsive. We also tend to argue about who among us is too compulsive, or not compulsive enough, or what constitutes someone who doesn't ride enough, or what constitutes someone who rides too much. We will probably never reach a consensus as far as these eternal debates are concerned, but I do think most of us would agree that you're riding way too much when you're going pee-pee in a tennis ball can instead of using the bathroom:

By the way, this image raises two questions for me, and those are:

1) The presence of a wedding ring on his left hand indicates that he has a spouse. How is this possible?


2) How many times has he accidentally drunk the contents of that tennis ball can?

This second question in turn reminds me of the time when I was shopping for a new road bicycle. I was checking out a jaunty crabon number, but suddenly a more modestly price aluminum bike caught my eye. I'd never really owned or ridden a road bike before, so I didn't understand the reason for the price difference. So I asked the salesperson about it, and he produced an empty tennis ball can.

"Urinate in this," he said.

"Wait...what?," I replied.

He then punched me in my bad shoulder, grabbed me by my polo shirt collar, pushed me up against the pegboard where they hang the gel gloves, and growled, "Piss in the fucking can."

So I did, and handed it back to him.

"Now drink it," he commanded, holding the warm can of urine just beneath my nose as I cowered next to the Oakley display. "Because that's what riding aluminum is like."

I could smell last night's asparagus, and it began to rise up my throat. I was going to vomit.

"No, no, I get it now. I'll take the crabon," I sobbed.

"That's right, you will take the crabon. You will," snarled the salesman. Then he pulled off a latex mask, revealing himself to be Specialized chairman Mike Sinyard, and he licked his own eyeball with his reptilian forked tongue.

The bike, I'm too afraid for my own safety not to report, is fantastic, and my only regret is that I didn't fork over $15,000 for one of these.

Speaking of lavish purchases, I received an email from a reader with the following subject line:

I would like your views on this

As well as a link to this limited edition €1700 (or roughly US$126,000) Rapha espresso machine:

Well, it should go without saying that I would totally buy this if it was made out of crabon. In the meantime, though, I'll stick with my Nashbar version:

Not only can the Nashbar Microshift Hot Brown Beverage Maker make up to four (4) cups of hot brown beverage, but it also features a timer that's accurate to within six hours, as well as an integrated shift lever with Shimano-esque ergonomics that serves no purpose whatsoever. For best results, visit sister company Performance and buy their new Scattante beans, as well as that Spin Doctor Clean Machine combination chain cleaner/coffee grinder that looks exactly like a penis:

It takes the mystery out of drivetrain maintenance, thanks to the handy indicator that lets you know when you're doing it right:

So how long does it take to clean a chain with the Spin Doctor Clean Machine? Well, it varies, but trust me--when it's finished you'll know.