We recently purchased a new telephone for our kitchen. Nothing fancy mind you, just an old wall phone with push buttons, a handset and 25’ cord. There are three things I like about this phone. It’s solid, the reception doesn’t fade, and it will work even if the power goes out. Another bonus is you can actually slam the receiver if you are so inclined on pesky telemarketers. Now I’m no Luddite and certainly would find life less convenient without my iphone, but sometimes I wonder if all innovation is always good.
Between owning two bicycle stores I embarked on my second favorite career, teaching science and math to 8th graders. Never a dull moment there. The student’s homework assignment on the first day was to attach a picture or draw their favorite invention with an explanation of why they chose what they did. What do you think yours would be? Anyway, as expected there were the usual pick of computers, video games and other electronic devices. A few kids went old school for items like the pencil, trains and my personal favorite, the bicycle.
The bicycle, capable of so much. You can ride it for transportation, leisure, touring or competition. You can look at a bicycle as art, a marvel of engineering, and a tool for physical fitness. You can travel far and wide exploring new lands or just ride around the block. For some the bicycle gave their first taste of freedom. You can ride solo or with friends, meet new people and most importantly, have fun! Most would be hard pressed to find something that does so much for the mind and body with so little effort.
For some of us the bicycle has a more powerful attraction. I modified a quote from The Rules of the Velominati to sum up my experience with two wheeled vehicles. “…If I devoted a quarter of the thought I put into bicycles and motorcycles to my job or character, I’d be an unstoppable force in the world. But I can’t be bothered with that, I need to go for a ride.”
Much like modern telephones, the bicycle has changed. Something simple has become complicated, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. Carbon fiber, aero wheels, power meters, electronic shifting, road/fixed/tri/gravel/cyclocross/singlespeed/downhill/enduro/all mountain/cross country/comfort/cruiser/29er/29plus/650B/650C/ 700C/26”/27.5 plus/and of course FATBIKES. Don’t EVER ask anyone about their fatbike unless you have nothing to do for the next 30 minutes of your life. Now being a retailer/mechanic I should be happy and I am, that more people are riding bikes. More people are enjoying the world’s greatest invention. Now that makes me happy.
Just like losing a call though, spotty reception or dropping your phone in the lake, there are some inherent problems with modern bicycles I see on a weekly basis.
• Wheels with low spoke counts: Sure they look cool, are lighter and more aero, but what happens when you break a spoke 20 miles into your century. That’s all right, cue that new cellphone for a ride home. Hopefully you have 3 bars. With a standard 32 spoke wheel you should be able to continue your ride with the wheel slightly out of true. Yes, nice wheels can make a HUGE difference in the ride of your bike and are practically a necessity to compete in the arms race of competitive cycling. If you have the budget, a pair of stronger 32 spoke wheels for everyday use is not a bad idea. That way you can save the “go fast” wheels for special occasions.
• Derailleur hangers: With the advent of carbon and aluminum frames, most bikes have replaceable hanger mounts for the rear derailleur. On the surface that’s not a bad thing, but when there are over 200 different shaped hangers you better make sure you have a spare that fits your frame. Especially if you break one and the shop you passed four miles back only has 37 variations in stock. Note to product managers. Look up and explain the benefits of standardization in modern society. Everyone going on a trip should buy a spare hanger for their specific bike and put it in their pack.
• Seat masts and proprietary seat posts: Lighter! Stiffer! More Aero! the product managers proclaim. Well that’s not so great when your seatpost clamp fails and the closet shop that has one is 2 counties away. I feel you should be able to walk into any shop anywhere in the world and buy a seatpost. We brought a bicycle brand into the shop this year that I have always revered. We didn’t see the bikes in person but the reviews were stellar and they looked good in the catalog. Unfortunately I talk customers out of buying them due to their proprietary seatpost. They look good on the floor though. Anyone want a good deal?
• Internal cable routing: Sure it looks clean when cables are routed inside the frame and handlebars. Unfortunately your mechanic is going to have to charge you twice as much for a cable change because it take three times as long. (no one ever said mechanics were the sharpest tools in the box) Some brands make internal cable change a snap, others not so much. There is a special place in bicycle purgatory for these latter frame designers, peeling old tubular glue off rims with their teeth. Change your cables before you need to because it is not an easy task on the side of the road with internal routing.
• Rear brakes mounted behind the bottom bracket (bb): What’s up with that? This didn’t work twenty years ago with mountain bikes and it still doesn’t work today. Designers listen up. In the real world, water and road grime collect behind the bb. This coupled with indirect cable routing and a crankset that is often in the way, makes these brakes less effective and a PIA to service. Throw in the above bullet point for more friction and fun. Triathletes know what I mean just like those early mountain bikers did in the late 80’s. There’s even one company that puts them on their flagship road bike. If you do not know the K.I.S.S. acronym, please look it up and apply here.
Don’t get me wrong, I love most of the technology behind today’s bicycle. Every time I ride my carbon 29er, I’m loving life. I also try to hop on my updated 40 year old fixed gear weekly for an hour. I also tuck the cell phone in my pocket just in case.