There was a less philosophical outcome from my unexpected test ride of my sister's bike over the weekend: I learned just how far run-of-the-mill brakes have advanced in the last 18 years.
To whit: My sister's bike is a mid-90s MTB with midrange low-profile cantilevers (if you really want to nerd out on what that means, the obvious source is the late, great Sheldon Brown). It's still equipped with the stock mid-90s Shimano brake pads on basic, non-machined rims. Some may argue that 18-year-old pads don't make for a fair comparison, but Shimano's pad compounds of that era were so awful, they work just about the same two decades later as they did when fresh. The brake adjustment is exquisite, if I do say so myself, obviously done by a skilled, attractive young mechanic with a bright future ahead of him in corporate selling-out and side-blogging.
In short, there's nothing really special about this bike's setup for its original time and place. It's the same basic collection of parts we all rode back in the day, through slop, slime, sand, often aggressively, sometimes stupidly. It worked fine then, and I never gave it much thought at the time (hard to believe from someone who over-thinks minutiae as much as I do). During my impromptu test ride last weekend, I didn't have much time to think about the brake feel or performance -- I was chasing nephews, so I wasn't too focused on reviewing the bike.
Then, I came home and rode my bike: machined rims, dual-pivot calipers, and Kool Stop pads. Still nothing fancy -- and this is a road bike, not a mountain bike -- but the difference was a revelation. My average road brakes of 2013 are hands-down, no-foolin' better than the average brakes we used in the dirt back in the halcyon 90s. Better feel, better modulation, shorter stopping distances, you name it.
Nothing scientific about this at all, mind you -- I'd get laughed out of Bicycle Quarterly if I pitched it as research. But for a self-proclaimed Luddite who'd like you to think that the Great Decline of the Bicycle began with the V-brake and the suspension fork, it was humbling to admit that yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as technological advancement.
Of course, this means I'm about ten years away from accepting (shudder) disc brakes...