Friday, September 27, 2013

No Such Thing as Junk Miles

This isn't necessarily a Retrogrouch issue, but something tells me that a self-avowed Retrogrouch would be more likely to take notice of it. By adhering to a "code" of simplicity and embracing bicycles, componentry, and technology that those on the "cutting edge" of the sport would find outmoded, we tend to be drawn to bicycles that are, by their very nature, more practical and versatile -- useful for more than just racing or "training." For example, even the lightest, most advanced, "professional" racing bikes of the '70s and early '80s were probably more versatile in many ways than a lot of fast road bikes today -- capable of fitting larger tires and maybe even fenders; with pedals that didn't require dedicated shoes, and geometry that didn't force the rider into a neck-straining deep crouch.

I mentioned in my post about traditional pedals that once I got past the need to "suit up" any time I even thought about riding my bike, I started riding my bike a lot more. I started riding to the store, running errands, riding with the kids, or even just zipping around the neighborhood -- without feeling like the ride needed to be anything more than a chance to get out on my bike. I've heard people dismissively refer to rides like that as "junk miles." Think about what that term implies: only one kind of ride is of value -- only a ride that is part of a training regimen; everything else is "junk." The whole notion is kind of insulting, really.

The term "junk miles" I think is really significant, as it represents an attitude about bikes that actually goes against the very things that make bicycles great. In some ironic way, it's almost an "anti-bicycle" point of view, and it's elitist. Those who are racing, or training, riding on the most expensive and exclusive bikes, looking down on the rest. And these attitudes go hand-in-hand with the trends that keep making bicycles more complex, more expensive, and more narrowly-focused -- all of which I believe take bicycles and bicycling farther and farther away from the real virtues that they should embody.

Racing, and training for races, is only a small segment of the bicycling universe, especially when one sees how bikes are used worldwide. Most people who ride bikes don't race and have no intention of doing so. For a long time, bicycles for touring were considered the pinnacle of road-bike desirability. Now, many road bikes, even those that claim to be designed for soaking up long miles in comfort, are overly influenced by the racing and training mindset. Low bars. Skinny tires with no room for wider. No room for fenders, either. And the bikes become so narrowly focused, that they lack any versatility whatsoever.

 I believe there are a lot of people who might like riding -- like they enjoyed as a kid -- but they're afraid they have to become some kind of Lance Armstrong wannabe to do it. (Sorry if the Lance Armstrong reference seems dated, but he's still the only bike racer most Americans can name). While a good, comfortable, simple and versatile road bike should really be all the bike most people need, such a bike is hard to find. Instead, if someone doesn't want to go the racy road bike route, often their alternative is a mountain bike which is heavy and poorly suited for the road, some kind of so-called "hybrid" or "comfort bike," probably sporting heavy and unnecessary suspension, or a tank-like cruiser that isn't useful for much more than a couple of short (and hopefully flat) miles.

When it comes to road bikes, the needs of a glamorous (and perhaps elitist) few end up driving the design of a whole segment of the bicycle market. And I don't believe those values draw more people to cycling. We just keep selling more and more expensive, more technical and more specialized gear to the same people who already have expensive, technical, and specialized gear. It's basically pretty insular, and makes bicycling and bicyclists seem more "other" -- separated not only from those who refuse to go even a mile without their cars, but even from those who might otherwise want to ride. The more we, as riders, view the bicycle as just a training tool, and our rides as a means to prepare for this race, or that century, or the big gran fondo, the more "alien" we become to those who might otherwise consider riding for practicality, for commuting, and simply for enjoyment.

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