Thursday, January 29, 2009

Bike Thoughts From The Car Lot

As I hinted a couple posts ago, Carla and I have been in the market for a four-wheeled vehicle lately -- because when the economy's in the can and your job could disappear at any moment, it's the perfect time to take on some debt!

Car shopping has given me some unexpected insight into the current state of the bicycle business, however. When it comes to cars, I am an absolute disgrace to my gender. I can stand over an open hood, make vaguely appropriate grunts about cams and plugs and turn signal fluid (all while scratching in appropriately manly ways), but it's an act. Since outgrowing my car freak phase (circa 1986-1992), I've found the minutiae of internal combustion excruciatingly boring. I'm no shrill "two wheels good, four wheels bad" super-activist. I just don't care. The car's a tool. I don't get emotionally attached to my hammer, either -- unless rage counts as emotional attachment when the stupid thing can't tell nail from thumbnail.

The bike is another story. Man, do I like the guts of bicycles. Some days, I like taking them apart and putting them back together more than I like riding them. When I get a hub bearing adjusted with just the right amount of play so that the quick-release lever draws it up perfectly -- no lateral clunk, and a seemingly infinite spin -- I swear I can hear angels sing.

I also have more than a hint of Luddite/retro leanings when it comes to bikes. I don't wear the Grant Petersen hairshirt (knitted from the handspun wool of only the most rugged Scottish sheep, of course), but I like parts that I can understand. Shifters that visibly yank on cables rather than hiding them under cams and springs and ratcheting things. Brakes that pull cables (again with the cables!) to squash pads against rims instead of forcing hydraulic fluid to pinch rotors. Chains that a reasonably coordinated monkey can assemble with just a chain tool. Wheels that can be drawn back into rideable roundness if one spoke cuts loose. And suspension that comes from squishy tires rather than coil springs and linkages and damping valves. On my bike, I want to know how it all works, and I want to be able to field-strip it blindfolded like a Marine with his rifle.

As a car shopper, however, I'm the exact opposite of my biker self. I can (and do) nod along when the salesperson tells me about how the engine design lowers the center of gravity for improved handling, but in my head, I'm thinking, "Wow, the blue one looks really cool." I don't care how it works. I have no chance of fixing it if it breaks. I have no delusions that I know more about it than the people who designed and built it. Hell, after being away from a manual transmission for ten years, I'm pretty sure the computer chip buried in the dashboard knows when to shift better than I do. When I get into my car, I just want to turn a key, hear a vroom, and have the whole thing move when I push the long, rectangular pedal on the right. In short, I'm a lot like the average bike shopper.

My time in the car lot makes me wonder if bikers like me aren't doing a disservice to that average bike shopper when we try to give advice. The average bike shopper probably doesn't care whether the shifter has a friction option. He's probably glazing over when I tell him that replacing the 52-tooth big chainring with a 48 will eliminate duplicates on the gear chart. And when I start railing against that suspension seatpost with the cushy sprung saddle on top, I've lost him completely.

He probably thinks the blue one is cool, and he just wants to have the thing move when he pushes down on the pedals. Who am I to say that's wrong?

1 comment:

Steve Fuller said...

The right bike is the one you ride.