February 5, 2017

The Cost of Admission

Cycling is a terrific pastime.  The spirit of adventure and freedom which surround the bicycle have inspired generations of innovation and advancement for the bicycle itself and for items surrounding it.  The impact the bicycle has inspired is practically immeasurable and has created jobs, driven industry, and created a myriad of products.  While at its core the bicycle remains a simple thing, as things go, the immediate complexities created by modern cycling landscape can be intimidating and - for some - a source of frustration and even exclusion for those who choose, or don't have the means to afford, some of the technological advancements which have come to signify a perceived cost of admission for cycling, certainly racing, and sometimes randonneuring.

Now, this won't become an exhaustive dissertation on the why and how of the state of the bicycle market these days, but instead only a cautionary reminder that our pastime shouldn't become yet-another marketing sink-hole.  

Over the years I have had the privilege of being shamed by many a strong rider riding equipment "far less appropriate for the day" compared to whatever I'd been riding that day.  I remember being perched atop my Ultegra-equipped Bianchi race machine and desperately sucking the wheel of a guy who had ridden the Longview Lake weekend hammerfest on what appeared to be an early mountain bike with knobby tires and a giant grocery store milk crate zip-tied to his rear rack - and, ultimately, I was dropped.  

I remember a terrific 217km brevet with Ax0n, who'd ridden the entire distance on a mountain bike with slick tires, a rear rack and full panniers loaded with PB'n'J sandwiches and extraneous techy gear ... just 'cause, well why not? - and despite my additional time riding longer distances and my purposeful randonneuring steed, he and I finished at the same time - both with big smiles.  

I've caught myself suffering on long days while riding my "perfect" and well-maintained road bike and later finding out that one of my riding partners had ridden the entire distance on a partially-seized and horribly loose bottom bracket...finishing an hour ahead of me.  

I've relished the cozy cocoon of a new wool jersey alongside folks riding the same 200k wearing a basic button-up short-sleeved work shirt and camping pants, astride a 40-year-old road bike obtained at a garage sale for $25.00.  

I've ridden with guys who'd become horribly lost despite having cue sheets right under their noses, and with people who never seem to miss a turn while having "never gotten around to" installing even the most-basic of cyclometers.  

Even today, some of the best riders I have the joy of sharing time and pavement (or gravel) with are riding a wide myriad of bikes, bags, clothing, and gear.  No matter what, no matter what I've chosen to buy, sell, borrow, or modify over the years - I tend to experience cycling the same way:  I finish when I finish, I'm as comfortable as my mind allows me to be, and the bicycle is always, somehow, the right bicycle.  Sure, that story may vary depending on when you ask me, but overall - from 100,000 ft. above myself - these are true statements.  Only in retrospect, perhaps.  

In this moreso-than-perhaps-ever "first world" in which we American randonneurs live and ride, I feel it's important to remember these simple truths.  There are so many gadgets and innovations and specialty items available it often becomes easy to fall into a trap (of which I, too, am often ensnared as well) that the reason the last ride ended so poorly is because you chose saddle A instead of saddle D, or that your tires aren't hand-glued by Italian artisans, or that you had no earthly idea what your wattage-to-body weight ratio was when you rode your last training loop.  While I begrudge no-one for their choices, nor their reasoning, nor their gear, I must say that when working to grow our pastime we must each take pause when advising those new to the scene.  I have seen too many shy away from taking part because of a misguided notion that "they don't have the right wheels", and I have equally seen folks never return to riding because they don't have the "right bag"...despite their particular bag having been perfect for the day and conditions.  We have to caution ourselves from saying too quickly a phrase containing some version of "if you don't get one of X, then you're going to Z," or "you NEED this."  While most will agree, consider, and possibly also buy - we NEED to be cognizant of that rider on the $25 garage sale road bike from the 80's that "can", and indeed "will" wipe the road with all of us.  If she doesn't feel like she can't join us because her handlebars aren't adorned with the latest tech triumph, or her tires aren't mounted on carbon rims, that she somehow isn't worthy of the group ... then we all lose.

Certainly in these pages I have had no good part in this: I've touted this or that, or expounding the virtues of a tire I like, or a frame material, or a particular fabric - so, no, I'm not infallible here --- only now when I read of decline in RUSA's numbers to I reflect on the many, many mistakes I've let slip past my lips to eager riders over the years.  
While this guise of cycling exclusivity (either real or imagined) may never go away, I certainly need to stop perpetuating it.

It would be foolish of me to try and posit why each of us ride what we ride, use what we use, go where we go and for as long or as short as we choose to; I only know these answers for myself - and even then, those answers change with the season and sometimes my mood.

But, where we can help swing the membership pendulum back in the correct direction, I know I will be tendering my opinions a bit more carefully, and stick to the important stuff:

Does your bike work?  
Is it safe and sound, structurally and mechanically?
Do you like it? 
Does it fit you well and not hurt you after X miles?
Can you carry what you'd like to? 
Will you be able to navigate to the turns with some accuracy and confidence?

That's all you need.  
Let's go ride!