Ruminations on sports, training, health, and wellness

In Praise of Cheap Bicycles

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Sara with her first, much-loved, really nice bike.

I went mountain biking with my boyfriend today. We deeply enjoy riding trails together — our first date was a mountain bike ride and it’s something we’ve built vacations, recreation, and exercise around throughout the time we’ve been together.

I pulled a switcheroo on him; instead of his trusty steel Tourney-equipped battle steed, I traded it out for a demo bike we had in the shop: a glossy white carbon hardtail Felt Nine 3. It’s a sweet bike, in his size, and I was thinking about getting it for him for Christmas if he liked it.

As soon as he met me at the shop to go riding, a curtain of suspicion fell across his face. “Where’s my bike?” he hazarded. “It’s here, I just thought you might like to give this one a shot. It has your pedals and I matched all the sizing to yours. You’ll like it.” He conceded and we were off to the trail.

“How does this thing shift? I don’t like it, it’s a dumb design,” he proclaimed, puzzling with the X9 thumb lever shifters in place of his familiar motorcycle throttle-style Gripshift. “I don’t feel like I can get any power.”

We hit the trail despite his grumblings, him taking the lead while I followed. His lines flowed smoothly, he was carrying more speed into turns and keeping his weight centered while digging into the berms. His technique was effortless, and better than I had ever seen him ride.

“How was it?” I asked expectantly. “It was ok. Different than my bike. I like mine better, we just have a lot of history.”

I felt an instant pang of guilt. By thinking I was doing something nice that I would appreciate if someone did it for me, I implied that my boyfriend’s bike wasn’t good enough to be enjoyable and that he should value and want the same things that I do. My nice gesture turned out to be a pretty hurtful, offensive action — and I was completely oblivious.

We bike people get really excited about nice bikes — owning them, riding them, reading about them in glossy magazines, drooling over them and coveting them. We enjoy our sport a little bit more when we have really nice stuff. It’s normal and it’s not a negative thing; we appreciate the subtle differences of a stiffer frame, supple suspension, responsive drivetrain components, and fast rolling wheels.

But when we impose these values on other people assuming they want the same things we do, we stumble into dangerous territory. It’s like a wine snob going up to another table at a restaurant to inform the couple that the wine they are deeply enjoying is a poor vintage. By criticizing something that others enjoy, we are extending our judgment of their values to a judgment of their character. It’s one of the reasons we get a bad reputation for snobbery and ultimately drive people away from a sport they otherwise enjoy.

The fact that my boyfriend gets just as much enjoyment, if not more, out of a $200 steel mountain bike with bald tires is an act of pure enthusiasm for the sport that many of us have forgotten. We spend thousands of dollars and hours of training to coax performance out of our bikes and bodies, and to what end? We ride faster with our wallets lighter, evaluating our self worth by the thickness of the stack of race numbers in our desk drawers. The simplicity of rolling through the woods with a focus on perceiving, not judging, is something many of us forget in our quest to possess the newest and finest.

There is a place for ultra-light spaceship bikes. The gossamer precision machines piloted by the pros allow engineers and manufacturers to push the boundaries of cycling technology, which will trickle down to inform bicycle construction at every level of performance for years to come. The bike my boyfriend rides is nicer than anything Gary Fisher charged down the hills of California at the birth of the mountain biking era. It’s hard to remind ourselves of that fact when $4,000 mountain bikes have become the norm, not the exception.

It’s easy to judge a cheap bike (and, by extension, its rider) as being less serious or committed to the sport. To be fair, it is true that the bike is probably not up to the same rigors as abuse as a purpose-built trail bike. But we need to remember how we got into the sport ourselves; we probably had a bike just like that, and we got a lighter, more expensive bike because we were convinced we needed it to progress and prove our commitment. Part of that is legitimate; once one reaches a high level of skill and performance, equipment holding us back does become a concern. But having the best just for its own sake doesn’t elevate us above those riders on much-loved cheap bikes; in fact, it probably indicates that we are less committed, and less willing to stick it out despite a little bit of discomfort or higher difficulty because of the bike.

I’m not in a position to tell anyone they should change their bike, with the exception of bicycles whose fit or safety presents a risk of physical harm to the rider. I am the owner of a super-bike that I will never reach a level of skill to truly earn its superiority. I am not trying to make anyone feel bad or guilty about appreciating wonderful, expensive things, just as I recognize that telling someone their bike isn’t good enough is an unwarranted personal affront. In wanting the best for others, it is vital to remember to take into account whether we are really acting in their best interest, or imposing our own values and desires.

Take time to appreciate your bike today. Whether it is a five-figure feat of aerospace engineering or a trusty rusty steed, bicycles are imbued with the experiences shared with their rider; they are a little closer to a living thing than most inanimate objects. Love your bike for what it is, not what it isn’t. Treat your bike with love, and it will love you back in the only way it knows how: with miles of happiness and smiles.

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