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Stop the Press
I have had it all wrong for years as a captive of the Latest is Greatest Marketing Putsch. I have suffered the feverish attraction to the latest is greatest in bikes while, all the time, knowing full well that old is not necessarily… well … old. Just like me! Of course, you are now saying ‘so what, everyone knows that!’ Or ‘gee… he’s slow’. Maybe so.
The seed of my personal revelation happened just six months or so ago when I decided to go for a ride on my once Number 1 cherished bike, the Pinarello Prince (from 2009). Having far too many road bikes, I can rotate around my bunch on a long cycle between visits. This was my first ride on my Prince for over a year. My immediate impression of said Pinarello was just how much I forgot how well this thing rides. My Prince has legs longer than the annual techno geek cycle bi-cycle makers seem intent to pretend for bikes these days. Actually, any bike used by the Pro-Peloton in top-end races is pretty well current for five years or more, rather than the two or three bike marketers would have us believe (by way of contribution to their nevertheless worthwhile bottom line). I am no longer on the cutting edge. Or rather, my cutting edge just extended its width out from 12 months to five years or more. It’s harder to fall off an edge as wide as that and I really do not like heights.
Why? From where did this rather obvious insight come to pay me a visit?
It all started with the opportunity to purchase my very first factory demonstrator; a Giant Propel Advanced SL 0 (top of the line) wonder bike from way back in 2014… As this bike has a cut seat mast, it’s life as a demonstrator was, let’s say, rather constrained. So much so that until I came along, just about no one was able to ride the thing without the advice of a hack saw. Uncanny miraculous coincidence or not, what’s the chances for a current model demonstrator cut to exactly (to the mm) my size? My seat height is unusually high. So off I went and so did the bike. Mine. All mine. For 50% off! When I purchased my new ofd bike, it had just been replaced by the 2015 model. So was I out of date? Not exactly. Except for the paint. Mine is nero (black) raw carbon with blue highlights on the back end. The new model is raw carbon with white highlights on the back end. And that is about it. So, here I am with a new bike for 50% off feeling terribly pleased about extricating myself from the anxieties of the new model cycle cycle. Could there be more from this rich patch of bargain revelation?
Enter my new old Trek Madone 6.9SSL. Top of the top end, hand made in the USA (f-yeah!) from 2012. This one was a new bike that was never, really, delivered to its owner who, like me, was caught up in the throes of new bike fever. It had spent a year in my Local Bike Shop’s workshop waiting final delivery decisions. Out it went for, wait for it, 70% off! $13,500 down to $4,000. For all intents and purposes, band spanking new. Dressed in HED Ardennes wheels and Dura Ace (albeit 7900 rather than 9000 and 10 cogs on the back rather than 11). Having never ridden a Trek road bike before, I don’t have a benchmark from other Treks, but against the other 8 road bikes I own, it is a serious revelation! Just about perfect at everything. Now the new Trek 7.9 Madone may be better kitted with Dura Ace 9070 Di2 et al. but from all I have read, the upgrade is rather modest. If the trip from 6.9 to 7.9 is any kind of upgrade at all. Success again.
But now comes the piece de resistance!
Could it be possible for anything to match if not better my Number One All Time Greatest Ever bike: the Wilier Zero.7? Not likely, unless possibly the Wilier Zero.7 Mark II released earlier this year. Maybe. How could anyone improve on the perfection of this Mark 1 Italian masterpiece, decked out as it is in Super Record EPS?
And so I was confident in my confidence until I picked up a sadly riderless Bianchi Oltre Nero Limited (2012 model) sitting in a Specialized retail store (traded by someone who is really, really, going to regret his choice for downgrading to a S Works Tarmac). There it was. The one and only bike I had ever and always liked to the degree of a Wilier Zero.7 (at least on paper) but had never seen let alone ridden first hand. Never liking the prospect of a celeste green Bianchi Oltre, I was rather taken by this limited edition nero (raw carbon black) option way back when it was released in 2012. Though now owned by a Swedish manufacturing concern rather than being Italian to the core like Wilier, Bianchi is the oldest bike company on earth and this Oltre was a revelation, even to Bianchi, when some genius designed it by way their big come back to the technological cutting edge. The Oltre was the most important bike in Bianchi’s recent history. It was a make or break model though which to elevate themselves back into the limelight of the pro-peloton. And so it was, via Bianchi’s sponsorship of Vacansoleil and a team issue of this very bike. I do confess to having never, ever, seeing an Oltre in the proximity of my personal touch before. Bianchi does not have any kind of presence where I ride. It might sound silly, but seeing this lonely but much loved and meticulously-to-obsessively maintained Oltre was kind of like seeing my favourite Goya’s for the first time in the Prado Museum. The real deal up close is a big deal indeed. How could anyone ever imagineer a more magnificent bicycle than this?
And then to be reminded of the appalling horrors of bicycle depreciation, I could hardly comprehend the guilty possibilities of, for once, being on the side of beneficiary rather than on the miseries of the too-cruel selling side. A genuine Bianchi masterpiece for 50% off all by virtue of being just two years old. My new Bianchi, to pervert the usual story, had only ever been raced. Never used for training rides. It is, effectively, as new. Unmarked. Mechanically perfect.
What could I lose? This Oltre is still cutting edge. The subsequent Oltre XR (2013) and XR2 (2014 to date) iterations are not exactly significant upgrades. There’s not much in these updates other than 30 grams or so of ever higher modulus carbon and updated Shimano group sets. My Oltre has Shimano Dura Ace 7900 Di2. Ten speeds and one cog shifting at a time. Oh well. Campagnolo Super Record EPS it is not. But maybe one day I will contemplate a full-on Campagnolo restoration to the all Italian perfections it so seriously deserves.
But what could I gain? It only took three rides. This bike is, quite possibly, the greatest bike I have ever ridden. And, yes, that includes my Wilier Zero.7. Like my Trek Madone 6.9SSL, the Oltre is pitched to be great at everything. But unlike the Madone, the Oltre is just a little bit more: it is perfect at everything. This thing has a miraculous ride. And if I am using the Zero.7 (and the latest Giant Propel super bike et al.) as a benchmark, the Oltre has a ride that must be ridden to be believed. This thing is just as great a climber’s bike as the Trek Madone and (my all-time favourite climbing bike) the Merida Scultura SL. But the Oltre rides like a floating carpet of pure silk. The Oltre has a liquid ride. And boy oh boy did I take it on some dodgy roads! Round and around the worst roads in the State where I live (the goat tracks around Bellingen if you know the place). Nasty flood damaged roads that even make my local New England roads look good. It’s a simply astounding climbing bike. It is as stiff as I could ever imagine a bike could be. It’s efficient to the degree that would placate an efficiency obsessed climbing specialist in any pro-tour. It’s ride is magic. It is fast! And faster still. It is light. Almost as light as my Zero.7 (but not as light as my Madone). And, importantly, it is a work of art that just happens to be legal for the road. This is the bike that should be attached to a deep space probe in order to impress our alien neighbours with the engineering genius of the human race.
Now I am a Bianchi man. Hell, I might even paint my house in celeste.
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It’s always a bit curious how cycling manages to attract so many spectators for what, really, is a pretty difficult sport to watch. Track cycling besides, the best we can expect when we go out to watch a race is a fleeting glimpse; a blur of speed, colour and noise. Then they’re gone. And we contemplate the two days it took to fight for our position beside the road, on top of the cliff, and for that motorhome parking lot that European alpine passes become whenever a Tour is on the cards.
So it’s no wonder that the fans try so hard to add a prologue of entertainment of their own, to string out the fun. There’s the company of fans intent on alpine peaks of inebriation; the Tour village fair, and the fun of the pre-peloton parades. Our glimpse of bikes passing by becomes just a fixed point in a much bigger day of cycling social display.
Think of the character of roadside celebrations we can watch as the season goes on. They are at least as entertaining as the bike race to which they are attached.
If we could imagine some kind of scale through which to measure the passions of spectator display, the far left would have to belong to the bemused, frigid indifference beside regimented Chinese roads. The Chinese tifosi are a bit like a plague of satiated zombies just after feeding time. Here, cyclists can almost hear the sound of one hand clapping as they jostle for points. These threadbare crowds are a bit like professional mourners at the funeral of an accomplished anti-social recluse.
Then we move on through the quiet, controlled, still bemused, but definitely curious Middle Eastern cycling crowds. Here, the officials all seem to be wearing swords! In France they just rely on Bernard Hinault’s fists for crowd control…
The Malaysian Tour of Langkawi offers more of the same but with rain forests instead of sand. It’s always fascinating to watch the roadside crowd segment itself into the order of men on one corner and women-only on the next. I always wonder how the dressed-for-modesty spectators might perceive the rather less modestly attired cyclists they have come to watch.
And of course, at the rampaging other extreme, the Italian tifosi rule supreme. How far can you get from those unimpressed Chinese cycling fans? How far is Mars? About that far. Watching those alpine Giro ascents we get another dimension added to the race. The peloton must peak the hill. And thread itself through the raucous, screaming hysteria of the tunnel of cycling fans. Thanks to the crowd, these roads become as narrow as an economist’s perspective on the social benefits of sport.
Italian cycling fans are the true pros of the spectator side of our sport. Their colleagues in France are slightly less rabid depending on how many drunken dutchmen have taken up possies beside the road. The Belgians are scary for the intensity of their dedication; The Spanish seem to confuse the peloton with a running of the bulls… The English are very polite when the yobbos are all off watching their football instead.
There are deep labyrinths of social nuance and history to inform why and how the European crowds perform. This stuff is in their DNA. Have you ever watched the miraculous parting of the wall of fans as the peloton threads its way up a mountain pass? It’s as though these crowds have a collective intelligence of their own. If you could wrap such a scene through the language of mathematical Chaos, you might win a Nobel Prize.
But there is an emerging New World of cycling fans. Most of them are in the US of A. In California, to be exact. Until recently, they simply grafted the appearance without the substance of the European cycling scene. Nutters with horns and funny sumo suits. The emphasis seemed to be on being seen on TV rather than seeing the riders at least some came to watch. These American fans were, once, a bit like one of those American remakes of already successful European movies; like the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the US rendering of The Office. All super whitened teeth with the intricacies of nuance all squashed out.
But now I am not so sure. Something is afoot. This bear is waking up. These American fans are starting to actually understand. I mean, here we are, ready for Stage 3 and we’ve not seen one single naked American ass… Those fans with wet suits and surfboards running inland up a Cat 2 hill were making some kind of statement I’m still keen to understand… But these four with their Motivational Poster sign are showing some serious class. Now that is a sign of the times and one for the book. It’s now the wallpaper on my iPad home screen. Well done. And what a stunning landscape for a ride! I am starting to really relish this race. Actually, I am enjoying it more than the Giro that’s on at the same time…
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I bet you can’t immediately figure what the picture on the left is all about. Especially if you are 30 years or newer. Even if you do know, I bet you can’t immediately figure how the mystery object relates to cycling… Read on.
A short while ago, I discovered that my local second hand book shop has a secret cache of vinyl records; all hidden away in a secret room. 30,000 LP’s all racked and ready for purposes still unknown to the brave proprietor who, hitherto, has kept his stash under lock and key. Through some intrusive persistence on my part, I discovered a treasure within a treasure. Many of those 30,000 LP’s are still factory sealed!
Just like the stash in Tutankhamun’s tomb, these treasures have been sitting undisturbed for going on 30 years, just waiting for re-discovery and finding, at last, an admiring home. Well, say no more, welcome home… I am grabbing as many as I can afford, which is far fewer than I could afford if only desire could pay my way… But even with modest means, I am now living in a regular time warp of glorious analogue sound once more. Those were the days and those days have come around all over again!
But it’s not nostalgia that’s happening here. I am not one of those who spend a lifetime living in the past and I am definitely not a technology avoiding Luddite. Indeed, I have a regular passion for the eternal upgrade path that ever newer technology brings. I suppose I am a ten second delay early adopter when it comes to technological stuff. So why the fascination with vinyl records in these days of the digital CD?
Because LP’s sound better than any CD played on any twice removed from affordable CD player could realise. (Provided your turntable and cartridge are up to the task). Truly.
Here’s an instance, then, of old technology being replaced by technology that’s worse. LP’s don’t pit with age. LP’s can play way over and under the frequency constraints of ‘Red Book’ CD’s. LP’s present a sound that’s warm and round, wide and deep. Just like its meant to be*.
If you can accept this basic premise, why, then, did we all let the LP almost disappear? Why have we almost universally adopted the lesser CD instead? There are lots of reasons, some simple (like convenience) and some un-sound (like gullibility to mass marketing spin). Read Greg Milner’s most excellent book Perfecting Sound Forever if you have a desire to explore this a bit more.
But it got me thinking. My ears do not deceive. At least one piece of ‘old technology’ is better than that with which it was replaced. And don’t even get me started on the overcompressed, lossed-out rubbish the recording industry is foisting on us via MP3 files and the like these days.
It occurs to me that most of us also know another bit of ancient technology that’s resisting the techno black-boxing of this ‘digital age’. Yes, vinyl LP’s are a standout from the ‘analogue’ days. But so too are bicycles. Let me explain.
Consider the definition of ‘analogue’:
relating to or using signals or information represented by a continuously variable physical quantity such as spatial position, voltage, etc. Often contrasted with ‘digital’ (Oxford Dictionary of English, 2nd Edition).
The concept of ‘directly relating’ is the key. With an LP, you can, if you try, directly relate with – if not replicate – the mechanics involved in making sounds for our ears to hear. Observe record grooves. That’s the picture at the top of this page. See all those bumps and troughs? A physical needle bumps its way over that rough vinyl road and vibrates sound back to our ears. The earliest ‘mechanical’ records vibrated sound back to us via a metallic horn. These days, electronics carry the vibrations via voltage fluctuations, but there’s no sending the music off into the mathematical domain as digital rendering involves. You can stay connected to the concept of sound from its making through to listening at the other end. It’s all about vibrations, from the vibrations of the original sounds through vibrations picked up by a needle, to vibrating the hairs in our inner ears. Digital is a darker, black box affair. The link from sound to hearing is broken by a black box of algebraic tricks in between. Remember, dear human, that we hear in analogue. If we were to hear in digital, we’d have to become robots first.
‘Directly relating’ is what we still get from bicycles too. Riding a bike sends us all manner of information represented by a continuously variable physical quantity such as spatial position… See a bump, feel a bump. We don’t feel bumps via their translation into a string of zero’s and one’s in between.
Indeed, I reckon that the practicalities of ‘analogue’ happens whenever we can trace cause and effect without recourse to translation into the black box of secret-handshaking, jargon encrypted science. Analogue sure is easier to fix when your caught out beside the road with nothing but a tyre lever and patch at hand. Try wrenching a string of zeroes and ones. Analogue lets us wipe the clicks and pops of dirt via a good old fashioned cleaning cloth. Analogue lets us replace a worn stylus or change a worn cog. Analogue lets us change a cartridge tracking weight or adjust the pressure in our tyres to better fit the bumps and troughs of our travels down any road.
But it’s not just a matter of easy repairability and manual control. Here’s my basic premise: keep the mechanisms of our pleasures within the possibilities and responsibilities of self-control. If you don’t fancy taking a soldering iron to the black box transmission that disconnects traction with your pleasure trail, stick to analogue connections instead.
There is a huge pleasure to be had from exercising direction, empathy and understanding over all the cogs in the box that power our lives. Simpler chain lines are easier chains to keep in gear. Why disconnect yourself from the source when the source is the source of the experiences we seek? I don’t want to rely on a ‘digital mechanic’ running behind my bike every time I want to go for a ride when I could simply reach down and re-rail a de-railed chain**. The whole point of bike riding, and listening to music, is to understand and control the chain of delivery as far as I can. There’s a total joy to be had from enjoying the mechanics involved. That’s why some of us still go into the woods with a back pack on our backs rather than play that journey on a PlayStation instead. That’s at the root of my love affair with bicycles. That’s at the root of my re-inspired love affair with vinyl LP’s. Give me the holistic experience of analogue over the disconnect of digital any time. Don’t forget, we humans can only feel in analogue, despite what the digital boffins would make us believe.
*If you are an audiophile like me, you will know that the Super Audio CD (SACD) is a parallel universe of a story to the story I am telling now. Yes, the SACD can approach the oh-so breathtakingly wonderful subjectivity of sound that vinyl LP’s provide. But that particular black box bag of super technological tricks was sidelined by the ruthless cynicism and patronising contempt of a record industry run by accountants, deeply, perversely, connected to business models as antiquated as those that prevailed in the days when they sealed Tutankhamun’s tomb. So perverse is the SACD story is that it’s easier to find LP’s than SACD’s in any half decent record shop…
**Speaking of de-railing chains, keep the black box of electronic shifting well away from any bike with which I would choose to be involved!
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We seem to be getting overheated on the subject of doping in cycling. The current debate over Mr razor-sideburn el Pistolero Contador reminds me of that poor old ant nest that the Nest Administrator insisted on locating right in the middle of my driveway. Always getting driven over, ants always swarming to repair and patch. Never ending, always furious. If only they moved the nest a bit to the right or we chose to drive a bit to the left, peace would return. BEND a bit, people!
What’s the fuss all about? Recall that the incriminating dose of Clenbuterol was just 0.000 000 000 05 grams per ml. What’s that as an enhancement for a rider who would still be the world’s best cyclist even if he rode Le Tour on a hybrid shopping bike?
To my mind, what matters when it comes to earning my wrath over illegal doping is a simple question: would he (or she) still have the capacity to win a race without doping of any kind? If the answer is no, and the person doped, that person is unequivocally a cheat. If the answer is yes, then things get a whole lot more complicated.
The first step is to enquire into reasons. Why would anyone who had a serious chance of victory without recourse to chemical enhancements choose to dope anyway? Uncovering that particular story is the real enquiry to be made. Because when we dig into that, we might learn something that could benefit our sport; and reconcile the loyalties of we, the followers of cycle sport who are all feeling somewhat shortchanged right now. Remember that if there were no passionate followers of cycle sport, there would be no cycle sport to follow. There’d still be racing going on, but only at the level of amateur club rides. Pro cycling needs audiences (for the racing and the products its promotors are keen to sell). Pro cycling needs the continued loyalty of its legions of fans.
Just how satisfying is it to the world’s cycle-nuts to be simply told that so-and-so has been caught out with 0.000 000 000 05 grams per ml of Clenbuterol in his blood? No explanation of why. No explanation of how such a miniscule trace could possibly push el Pistolero faster up a hill. No explanations, just a ruling from the top. The bureaucrats have delivered a verdict. From behind closed doors. Like the monster wheels of a mega truck riding over the international ants nest of cycling fans. This does not satisfy. This does not explain.
I don’t want my passions for cycle sport managed like the way the Tax Office manages the delivery of tax return. I don’t want a bunch of chinless bureaucrats interfering in my sport. Surely these last outpost places where passions rule can be one last place where the bureaucrats are unable to interfere. Perhaps that’s actually one of the big attractions of cycle sport in the first place: absence of bureaucrats and their odious managerialist rule. To hell with the Nanny State and with Big Brother Faceless Bureaucrats in charge.
Places where passions matter are places where more collaborative processes for addressing issues are required. By definition, places where passions matter are places where followers SHOULD be involved in the discussions that reconcile how our passions play. So, cycle sport should be one of those rare places where matters that matter should be considered from the bottom up. From the ranks of those with the passion to explore and understand.
Why did or would any rider cheat? Please explain. Tell us why. Let the doping testers do their test, for sure. But let we, the fans, be the judge and jury, and the community through which matters such as these are resolved. Nothing is ever black and white. Mistakes happen. Pressures drive us to be at least temporarily insane. Let’s hear the explanations outside of the specialised language of the law. Let the accused address accusations directly through the language they, and we, rather than the lawyers, most naturally understand. Don’t translate and loose the essence of the argument and the complexities of the situations involved through the emasculation of translation from the language of cycling into the language of law.
If, perchance, Contador (or Lance) did dope, there is much to be learnt through understanding why. In those explanations we might find some things about our sport itself that is in need of repair. Perhaps it’s these things about our sport and the way it’s run that are in greater need of repair than are the misdemeanours of any particular cyclists on trial. How are we supposed to address these more important things when we push the whole matter off to the legal courts? Do the wig wearing bureaucrats on some court bench understand the nuances and the very culture of our sport? Hardly. Not likely. And why would we ever want to consult them on matters such as these? Do I ask the Tax Office for advice on what colour to paint my house?
If Contador cheated, I want to know why. I want to really know why. Deeply, critically, understand why. Not so much IF (which can be resolved with a relatively simple test), but WHY. Because only then, when we understand, can we even begin to formulate a response. Only then can we be best placed to figure out what to do.
Contador’s case is simple relative to the fifteen story ant nest that supports Lance Armstrong. Lance’s nest is a nest nestled right in the middle of an international airport runway. Under there is an Everest of things we need to understand. The more we look, the less and less simple that story will become. As will be the search for prescriptions in relation to what we need to do by way of response.
If we left Lance to the courts, and the courts decided to put him in jail, what would that achieve? Resolving matters such as that through deferring the entire story to the courts would be like expecting us to follow a story after taking away all the pages where that story could otherwise be explained. Instead, all we get is the first page and the last. All the story between the first and the last page has been removed; seconded off into someone’s official files; for the deliberations of those who probably don’t even follow our sport.
So, my call is for a new kind of process through which to resolve issues in our sport. Stop trying to graft the structures of corporate and government onto a sport which should be a refuge from managerialism of that kind. The answer, I believe, is in collaborative deliberation via engagement with the community of cycling. Facilitating such a process should be the real job for the UCI. That’s what the UCI should really be for. The UCI’s role should be about facilitating transparency and understanding, not shifting the story to those who would not otherwise be involved; or worse, to those who would only be involved for the receipt of a fee.
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Just imagine if the bicycle had been invented by a Government Committee.
The first 20 years would have been all about the specification of an agreed working brief, wherein 19 of those 20 years would have been all about coming to an agreement on the Terms of Reference for the Brief. Then there’d be the exhaustively important process of setting up a Working Party (WP) to oversee the overseeing of the process of writing up that brief from it’s earliest forays via a due participative process of exhaustive review with a view to Green Paper (GP) documentation. With the white hot excitement of Real Progress (reportable against sixteen duly agreed Progress Milestones (PM’s) (overseen and assessed via a properly constituted External Review (ER) process populated via an appropriately credentialed Expert Panel of Industry and Community Authorities (EPICA) working through an existing system of Regional Development Authorities (RDA’s) and their own (in turn) Regional Review Panels (RRP’s)) the breezy path-breaking next step would be to write up the entire show as the Official White Paper (OWP)!
With the White Paper to hand, it would then be time to select some appropriately credentialed consultants to advise on a short list of Community Relevant Design Briefs (meeting all appropriate specifications for environmental-friendly, low carbon footprint materials and manufacture and dutiful compliance with Occupational Health and Safety Guidelines, Equal Opportunity Protocols, and Indigenous Sensitivities).
Once done, our fevered white hot innovators would field a short list of five recommendable design briefs over which we, the intended Target Audience (or Adoption Community) could indicate relevant preferences via the machinery of a cascade of State-Local instrumentality Community Consultative Committees (SLICCC) – Slick, for short, just like the process…
Onwards to the benchmark quality assured milestone-meeting Deliverables!
From the esteemed Department of Industry, Trade and Philately, we’d have a duly and exhaustively considered Benchmark Quality Assured Delivery to do us all proud. We’d have a roadside Sign depicting the ultimate prize of the Committee-Selected winning Bicycle design. A mock up illustration. Together with 4.6 million industry Best Practice full colour brochures (printed on paper with no less than 46 percent recycled consumer waste) for distribution to all interested parties. And a $6.6million advertising campaign on TV espousing the immeasurable (but OH&S measurable) benefits of using this new, wonderful machine (should it ever be built).
From the Department of Transport and Infringement Revenue Collection – Purveyors of Take-a-Ticket-and Wait-Until-You-Are-Called Traffic Collectioneering, we’d have a brand new (Best Practice) (Quality Assured) Bicycle Inspection and Registration Protocols and Administration Service (BIRPAS) (Working for the Interests of Community, Safety, and Making big piles of cash). Together with a $19 million web INTERACTIVE! (we are even on Facebook…) website for further information (toll free for your (in)convenience).
From the Department of Privatisation and Pretending We Really Do Know What Happens in the Real World, we’d have an issue of the Largest Roll Out Programme This Country Has Ever Seen: with a bicycle planned for direct delivery to each and every home (no matter where those homes are located – as long as they are not located in the country in which case you should move to the city and stop being a nuisance to Governments of all jurisdictions). All pending the appointment of a tender winning Implementation Contractor (that is, someone who can actually manufacture a bike) meeting full government specifications (notwithstanding the secret but nevertheless widely reported, if not leaked, provision for $1billion in Risk Assessed likely cost overruns).
From the Department of Roads, we’d all receive a carefully demographically tested brochure (in sixteen languages with translator services available for the illiterate and profoundly ignorant) explaining that you really do need to give way to bicycles on the left as you enter into roundabouts, or is that to bicycles already in the roundabouts, or is that to bicycles on the right that are already in a roundabout but not yet turning left. Or something. So there. Fines apply.
And then we’d be able to purchase our new bike.
And what a bike that bike would be! 65kg of first grade carbon sequestered steel (which is real) surrounded, surmounted and subsumed by 50kg of Industry Best Practice Safety Gear (for your protection). Colour choices of safety fluoro orange or yellow. Flashing yellow lights, protection bars, air bags, inertia reel retractable foot straps, and a safety hazard label panel heads-up display to display on your handlebars – designed to remind you to ride with a helmet, check your wheel nuts, check your handlebars are screwed on, check your seat bolt, check your tyres, check your brakes, avoid sitting passengers on your handlebars, else they’d cover up your hazard label warning display… Speed is limited to 28km/hour on the Standard Use Plan, extendable to 36km/hr via Special Registration Premium Plans subject to suitable special OH&S licensing, testing and payment of a usurious fee, subject to Reserve Bank indexing and current Market Conditions (assessed quarterly).
All problems, issues, complaints and solicitations for assistance will be considered via a queue based support service outsourced to Delhi. Just dial 0100 999 666 999 444 999 BIKE for help. And then enter your Tax File Number. And your Date of Birth. And your credit card number because these calls are charged; at a prevailing market rate. Of $100 per minute. Even while you are on hold. Which is all the time.
And two years on, the entire show would be sold off to the Private Sector via an appropriate Public Float. And two years after that, the Government would bail them out and take over once again. Until the next election. When everything will be reviewed and referred to a brand new Green Paper – White Paper Task Force all over again… Round and around just like our wheels.
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I had been riding my new Felt carbon 29er mountain bike for about two hours along the most wonderfully un-trafficked roads in New England (Australia, that is). Since leaving home, I’d been passed by only two cars, both farmer 4WD’s replete with dogs out back, elbows out windows and hats on heads. The way things should be, in my view. Farmers and 4WD’s are a natural fit. They give friendly waves and don’t try to run me off the road.
The great thing about this particular ride is that the further you go, the more remote and wilderness-like the road becomes. As you can see from the plot from my bike GPS, I was heading for my favourite river; the most special place I know of on this earth we all share. The mighty, small, ever furious River Styx. It’s a ride through mega tall trees, ferns and thick, thick bush. There are cliffs on each side of the road with drops so steep you’d need a parachute to pull you up if, somehow, you left the track. There are lyre birds on the road, bush turkeys in the undergrowth and tiger snakes everywhere. Not to mention leaches in the grass and that overwhelming wet wilderness mossy smell that only places like this can provide. Even the wind has a special sound tuned by tree- filtered, slightly chilled moving mountain air.
When I think of a top-shelf mountain bike ride, this is the place to be. It’s one of those so very few places where the sublime realities of mountain biking will always outpace even the best efforts of escapist marking spin. And yes, I have indeed been to Whistler BC. This place is vastly more intense. You have to be here to know what I mean.
So, you’d probably expect that riding down a remote forest road like this would be the last place you expect to see a convoy of cars.
You can hear them coming for miles. A gear changing howling, fuming rage of human contempt for the wilderness through which they tresspass. The first thing you notice is that all the birds disappear. Then the whole forest goes seriously quiet. The air goes still. Then the onslaught appears like a tsunami of rage. An invasion is probably the closest word. Here they come. A convoy of polished monster aspirational tough-man townie trucks. Metallic capsules of transplanted urban space, protecting their occupants from the wild wilderness void outside. Like a convoy of spaceships, their occupants see the world from the perspective of mobile lounge chairs, un-natural music and artificially conditioned air.
I pulled off the road, just like everything else around here with legs. Or wings. On they come. Metallic monsters, headlighted and howling down the trail. You can see the drivers. Baseball capped, middle-aged men. Staring vacantly ahead. Piloting their ships as a swimmer dives through the depths. Looking out from the goggles their windshields provide. They don’t look like they are enjoying the ride.
As they pass me by, I am struck by a most curious sight. Plastered on the facing passenger windows are the pudgy faces of a hoard of children; noses squashed on the glass, hands pressed up beside. They are looking at this most curious exhibit beside the road. Me. Their expressions are as vacant as the driver in the front seat. They stare. Like people looking into a fish tank. Like people watching a show. They are observers. From outside.
I feel depressed for these people. They are experiencing this place like a video game. Watching; but not a part of. Removed. Missing out on the full agenda of sound, smell and space that constitute this unique place. There is little reward for effort so easily spent in superficially visiting a place like this. The hills of this place are abstractions to the oil-fueled mechanical grunt of their cars. The challenge of travel is simply to hold onto a wheel. There’s nothing to reap when you spend so little to harvest. You are relegated to the status of observer. The reality they see is as virtual as any video game.
They have gone. The sound of their passing is dissipating into the wind. The place is now like it was before. They left little trace because they consumed, experienced, so very little of what it has to give. Back to the walled silos of urban life they return. Little repaired through connection to the alien realities of existence outside. All the worse. They may as well have never bothered to make the trip.
Perhaps mountain biking is a key to escaping life in the concentrated human-scape of our towns. Perhaps if more people could leave their urban bubbles behind they would value these wild places as more than a distracted vision from behind a wall of air conditioned glass.
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Last time, I discussed the overflowing-teacup minds most people have these days when it comes to taking on new ideas or refreshed points of view. Now it’s time to consider a few examples to indicate how frustrating and dangerous shallow thinking can become. Naturally, most examples surround the killing fields that car drivers make of our roads.
Consider the case of the oncoming car. You are riding up a hill. A car is coming towards you. A car is behind. The result should be a momentary delay for the car driver behind. But NO! Those seconds lost are a calamity to the turkey behind. That’s five seconds lost of reality TV; or five seconds fewer for the irrigation of his system with beer. So he overtakes into the oncoming car. Either you or the victim in the other car will have to leave the road. And so he sails into total ignorance and contempt for all others who use his road. His thoughts and consideration for others extend to the depth of cling wrap film.
And don’t we all recall the joys bestowed by those drivers who pull out from a side road directly into your path? Car drivers do this to each other quite often. They do it even more frequently to motorcyclists. They do it to cyclists all the time; with a passion and a flurry of psychotic contempt. Here’s a transcript of the mental processes involved: ‘ME, in a car. Him, a cyclist. Me bigger. Him small. Bicycle slow. Me big time fast. Off I go… (me, me, me, me, me, beer, sex, me, me, sex, beeeeeer’ – and how DOES my hair look right now?).
And how about the Charlies who measure their masculinity (or feminine charm) by how close they can scrape their cars into your elbows as they overtake? If they spare any thought to such things at all.
When, exactly, did thought become such an expensive facility to exercise? Why do car drivers drive their cars so frequently in mental power saving mode? If the world’s coal-fired power users conserved their electricity as they conserve the energy of active thought, we’d reverse global warming in a day or so.
Then there’s the get-fit-quick-gymnasium crowd. Ever spotted the car parks outside of your local gym? What spectacular depths of thought does it take to recognise the possibilities for exercise on the way to the gym through ditching the car? What feats of imagination does it take to consider just how insidious the car has become to the culture of our times?
All of which pales completely with the policies our politicians make. Even magpies know that defecating too much in your nest will kill the offspring for whom those nests were constructed. Rats know it. Possums know it. So do dogs and cats. So why do politicians continue to sponsor, subsidise and otherwise actively encourage the murderous, self-destructive treatment of biodiversity through which all life on earth is sustained? Even a psychotic pigeon would pull the pin on an economy built on the toxic non-sustainability of oil, if given the keys to the kingdom for a day.
And someone pleeeeeze tell me how it can be that those who feed their faces with chip fat and lolly water can then spend all their time moaning about the injustices of being too fat?
And don’t you dare mention the abject insanity of a bureaucracy that actually believes the inane stupidities of our preoccupation with Occupational Health and Safety these days. Just watch the very notion of riding to work send our OH&S bureaucrats into a mental black hole… When did human kind suddenly decide that hefting bags of ten kilograms or more is too much for the human frame to bear? Especially when most humans are carrying at least that much in excess fat day in and day out; everywhere.
And don’t even start on the idiocies of playing to the tune of being Politically Correct. The rules of this particular game are now so complex that it’s best just to stay indoors watching the TV instead. While there are computer programmes that can master the complexities of chess, there are no analogues with the capacity to master even the most rudimentary rules towards becoming Politically Correct. Not even the best Super Computer has the power to play that game. No wonder that kids these days engage via Facebook rather than He/She/their Laterally Challenged selves having to engage through riding bikes and kicking balls in the street.
Can someone tell me by what astounding depths of thought did it take for every economic egg on this planet to be handed over to the factories of mainland China? What mountain for foresight did it take to imagine that once we have offshored absolutely everything we do and everything we need to the Chinese that we would ever have freedom again? At least we cyclists will have our transport once the Chinese pull the final plug on the troughs of dependency through which we now power, battery-like, the ascendency of the Chinese Machine. No, I am mistaken even there… How many bikes these days are now not made in the PRC?
How blinkered are the thoughts of fundamentalist thinkers of any kind? Fundamentalist economists who still funnel their vision into those very theories that landed us all in the Global Financial Crisis of recent times. Fundamentalist Planners who plan a future only for cars. Fundamentalist scientists who believe that the Science is in (when really, it’s perpetually out – why else then do they continue to seek funding if they already have all the answers they need?)
Then there’s the fundamentalist religious types who each persist in thinking that only their own particular view is the true view and all the rest are wrong. Which view will land their faithful into the eternal Promised Land? Only one can be correct if it’s believed that all others are wrong. Wouldn’t it be fun if the Scientologists or the followers of the Urantian line had the winning ticket all along! But I bet that even then, they’ll still invent religious wars in their Heavenly resting place.
But above all, how deep do we think when we imagine that the contentment of life depends only on money?
Perhaps it’s the pace of modern life. Everything is too quick, including life itself. It’s hard to think thoughts of any depth when you are continually rushing from one thought to the next. Or when thought itself is discouraged as we engage others to think for us instead. You know the solution! We need the space to think at depths greater than the two dimensionality of most people’s thoughts these days. You know where you can stretch your thinking legs. Yes, you know where deeper thinking is free to engage: on every ride; on every run; or even on every walk. No wonder there’s so little thinking done when people opt instead for the mental oppression of the motorcar.
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What character traits link interesting human phenomena like a predilection to world domination, vile arrogance, rampaging road rage, terrorism dressed up as religious fervour, and a passion for the game of golf?
What’s really bugging me about the human race right now and why should you care? Well, it’s in all our interests to understand or you too could end up as traction for the next motorist’s wheels.
I call the disease ‘intellectual bathophobia’. Bathophobia is the fear of depth. Intellectual bathphobia is the fear of thinking too deeply. And boy oh boy have I seen this baby scything it’s way through all that I hold important in recent years! This is the nuclear holocaust of human failings. This is the most pervasive and debilitating of phobias. It effects you, me and everyone else; all at the same time. Every day in every way. It explains just about everything that makes us mad. It explains just about every war and every appearance before a judge. It It explains the failure of international climate change summits and people who drive rather than ride to the local shops.
Intellectual bathophobia is all about surface thinking. it’s the fear of finding out new stuff; the fear of listening to something genuinely new. The inclination to cling to what we know rather than shift our brain into a higher gear. It’s deeply perverse, this intellectual self mutilation, because while most people shift continuously from one fad or fashion to another, so very few of us ever shift our minds. Virtually no one digs into the old mental engine room to seriously question and analyse what it is that we do and why.
And virtually no one will ever, ever, admit that they are afflicted by intellectual bathophobia themselves. Everyone else, for sure. But never, ever, me.
If we spend our whole lives surface skipping across our own private intellectual seas, our minds end up, eventually, stretched out like too little butter spread across way, way, too much bread. We invest whole lives in keeping that overstretched mental veneer intact. It’s a doomed project, of course. Over time, everything shifts. Eventually, our surface skimming minds will stretch too far. It’s like attempting to stretch out the one tube of tyre glue to repair a lifetime stream of punctures. With an ever more stretched supply of glue, each new hole in the harmony of our lives is less and less effectively repaired; until we sink into a permanently deflated state and sit our the rest of our lives in front of the TV. Our responses to everything and anything that happens are voiced with an ever fading sentient hiss.
Consider those who continue to do to themselves what we would never have them do to us. Consider those who continue to shovel food into an ever expanding carcass of fat. Eventually, the dirigible they become will burst or implode. Consider those who believe in the mantra of continual economic growth. Eventually, infinite greed will meet the realities of resources that can’t keep pace. Consider those who continue to believe in theories of life that life itself so readily disproves. Examples are economists who believe in the perfection of the market place and politicians who believe in the righteousness of the polls they pay marketers to shape. Consider those who deny human impact on climate. Consider those who believe that their own view is the only view for everyone else. Consider those who think their religion should be our religion; enforceable by death. Consider those who think that their choices should be our choices, that their politics should be ours.
There is a simple cure. It involves emptying your cup.
Years and many happy years ago, I once wrote a handbook for a PhD programme fortune found me within. Right across the front page was a cartoon of a monk serving tea to a disciple in search of inspiration. The monk filled the cup. And kept on filling the cup until tea started overflowing the table. ‘Master! the cup is full!’ ‘Exactly so’, the sage replies. ‘This cup is as with your thoughts. If you want to take on new thoughts, you have to empty your cup first. Or there will be no room for the new ideas to take hold’. That’s a classic koan from the tradition of Zen. It’s as right for now as it was right for then. The mental blockage from carrying a full mental cup has the same effect as a mind closed to new and different thoughts. You have to puncture that overstretched intellectual skin or unplug our mental drain. But so very few of us ever bother to drill the necessary holes or open our mental taps. We seem to spend our lives perpetually scared by the depths to which our minds have the capacity to dive. So we seek out stuff with which we agree and keep on patching with all the self-referentialised validation we can find. We seek that validation like a thirsty man looking for water in a desert. Every drop of validation is captured and nurtured; every message to the contrary is dismissed. We club our selves to tribes with similar points of view. We avoid those with views outside the borders our tribes protect. We build cathedrals to the ideas we cherish and condemn to hell those we don’t. We put ourselves on pilgrimages of evangelical self-referentialism through which to interpret the messages from the rest of the world. We even appoint priests to help us in that task (figureheads and heroes of our own points of view).
I am just as guilty with all this as you. I believe it’s possible for anyone and everyone to lance the boils of a closed mind – eventually – with the right kind of help. The toolbox to redress the mess can be a pretty subtle box of tricks. Like that butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil connecting to that hurricane in Japan, there are some incredibly powerful, subtle things we can do to inspire self-introspection and the blowing open of minds that were hitherto locked at fortress strength. Simple little stuff can flap towards hurricanes of meaningful change. There are simple little pricks to drag that mental skin away – to open the depths and really let us swim.
Yes, you guessed it. Cycling is a trick of that particular trade. Cycling’s just one little insidious thing to unleash our intellectual springs. Why is cycling a clever tool through which to unleash change? Because it is not a belief system (at first); it’s not a cultural construction we need to explain. It’s not a big investment to make and it does not necessarily require you to quit your job and head off on a sea change. It’s a simple sounding thing with which to become involved. Innocent. Innocuous, it would seem. Almost utilitarian. Easy to start. But it’s a spring, nonetheless. A catalyst to which passions can become attached. It’s a life changing investment via a small allocation of time. Cycling’s a classic catalyst. It’s easy to enter, but has the potential to unleash furies of change when it takes hold. But above all, cycling’s a place. It’s a place off to the side of everyone else’s routine; from where you can observe those you have left behind and contemplate the philosophical journey you have begun. Contemplation is the key. That’s the stuff you need to journey down deeper into your own intellectual depths. Cycling gives us thinking time. It pumps more blood into the brain. Your body will change; fitness will reshape your appearance and your mind. Cycling inspires the opening up of a lateral, deeper swimming mind.
When we first take up cycling, we’re like a puppy out for its first exploration of the world. Everything’s new from our unaccustomed new vantage point. Cycling shakes us into a different space of mind. We come to experience the experience of doing something outside the box within which we might otherwise have become permanently enclosed. Cycling, or other experiences of that kind shake perceptions that otherwise might cement our world views into the singular perspective of the couch. But cycling is such a seemingly innocuous choice. It’s seemingly more benign than taking on an Everest climb, or joining the Foreign Legion for a five year spell. It’s the catalyst we are looking for here. It’s a catalyst to shake things up – easy to take up, but with the potential to unleash a chain reaction or two.
We all need is to be catalysed into the chaotic potential of deeper, more reflective thought. Once that takes hold, life and living is renewed from the inspiration of a wakened mind. Cycling is, to me, the act of emptying a teacup that’s become too full. If I were to lead the world for a day, I’d be giving out bicycles to everyone who could join the queue – before the economists, accountants and bankers could start to object. Bicycle butterfly wings flapping their way to a hurricane of individual -then social renewal.
Next time, I will wade through the perils of shallow thinking via some examples with which I am sure most of us can relate. Yes, it’s time for another Bicyclism list! Stay tuned.
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It might sound a little hysterical at first, but Alberto Contador’s now disputed 2010 Le Tour victory really does portend the end of civilisation as we know it.
Given my inclination to see the world through my Rudi Project lenses, I can’t help but interpret things via the chain rings of my cycling mind. I also can’t completely lose the perspectives gained and sanity lost from spending 25 too many years as an academic supervising way too many PhD research projects in the area of sustainable futures for the human race and the ecologies upon which we depend. It’s amazing how the mish mash of ideas and insights pertaining to life, the universe and everything else blend together into fascinatingly disturbing patterns via the slow grind tumble of way too much cycling time.
Here’s what I have come up with by way of a conclusion: as one Tour de France victory after another descends into the hands of the legal profession for resolution, there’s precious little potential for our civilisation to inspire (at least me) any more.
Let me explain this seemingly weird thesis (that Contador’s current issues spell the final kicks of a civilisation in speedy decline) in a manner more akin to Twitter-concise than deep compost academic diatribe. Relatively speaking, of course (I promise not to exceed 200,000 words).
Consider the bicycle.
Was there ever a mechanical contraption that is as pure and total a convergence of function and form? Every part has a visible purpose and every purpose is obviously connected to the purpose of every other part to describe a totality of function evident with breathtaking clarity from every conceivable angle. The bicycle is a masterpiece of comprehensible complexity. We can understand the bicycle as a system through simply observing it in action. Few people would require an instruction manual to enjoy the ride. A bicycle is a stunningly resolvable engineering fractal. Focus in on some part or another, and you can continue to understand and interpret the purpose and operation of each bit as we continue to delve deeper into the internals of each bit we can see. Look at the rear cogs. We can figure out what they do without much in the way of explanation. Now deconstruct the cluster and inspect each bit within. The deeper we go, the more we see, but the patterns of logical connectivity are sustained – even down to the springs that keep the freewheel pawls engaged. Even there, form and function are clear, connected and concise. There are no black boxes within. Parts mesh with parts and all the parts are as self-evidently purposeful at any level of resolution we might seek to apply.
I like to imagine the bicycle as the most complex device we can conceive while still avoiding the mental dislocations of complexity. Anything more complex than a bike begins to require partial views and increasingly specialised knowledge for interpretation. When we try to interpret systems more complex than a bike, we start to loose our view of the forest as its trees come into ever closer view. Like, say, would be the case for a car. Or even a motor bike. As complexity rises, our dissections review ever more confounding details; the fractal transforms into perspectives drawn from different places and spaces. Just try to interpret the machinations of a CDI unit from the perspective we might use to understand the workings of a motorbike chain. As we dig into engines, the colours of our understandings shift from engineering to chemistry; from solids to liquids and the behaviours of gas.
We don’t have these problems when we seek understandings of a bicycle. That’s why, for me, the bicycle represents the upper limit of ‘comprehensible complexity’. At this level, complexity is interpretable via logical intuition alone. There are no surprises or chaotic behaviours likely at less than or equal to the complexity rating of a bicycle. Chaos soon kicks in when we escalate further up the scale. No one person can see and understand all as complexity goes deeper than the level of a bike.
As so it is with the workings of society as well. Consider a business, or other organisation with which you might be involved. Managing a small independent bookshop (with a good cycling section, please), is complex enough (just try balancing the fickle nature of fad following customers and the never ending desperation of wholesalers seeking your wholesale devotions; without even considering the dimension of demented Greed Is Good bankers breathing down your neck). But add a few floors and another fifty staff or so and the can of worms becomes an ocean of maggots. Layers upon layers, and then even more. The complexity builds to preclude even the vaguest possibility that any one person can ever know all that’s going on, let alone to remain sensibly ‘in charge’.
But managing complexity is definitely not a lost cause; or even a cause without merit! No, managing machinery with greater complexity than your average bike is a challenge with huge rewards. Really, just about everything we might ever seek to manage is more complex than we might ever think.
And there’s the problem. You’d be stunned and surprised to know how huge is the gap between knowing that a system is complex and really knowing the realities of complexity as a living, dynamic thing. The almost invariable response of ‘management’, everywhere, is to suggest: ‘yeah, it’s complex and I am so unutterably talented at managing complexity that the issues therein won’t affect me!’ No worries. You see, the problem is, most managers and politicians and policy makers and academics, car mechanics and wholesalers of fruit that I have ever met or known always insist on managing the systems with which they are entrusted in the same way and with the same depth of perception as a mechanic working on a bike. As I said above, the bicycle is, in my view, the limit of comprehensible complexity. Which means that for most people, systems as complex as a bike are as complex as any person can imagine, working alone or while seeking to ‘stay in control’. So… most managers mouth a few platitudes about ‘recognising the realities of complexity’ and then proceeding as though they are tuning a derailleur rather than managing the fermenting ego turmoils of those 500 people under their command.
You might think that only ‘dumb’ managers would manage complex systems in the manner with which they’d play with Logo blocks. But no, that’s definitely not the case. If there is one generic, overwhelming, mass embedded talent in short supply, it’s talent with perceiving, interpreting and responding appropriately to complexity. Which, dear and patient reader, is why the world is in such an almighty mess.
An anecdote from my recent past might illustrate the point. Now you’d reckon that the most likely place where the theory and practice of clever management in relation to complex organisational challenges might take place in a university. Take an academic who’s familiar with the theories, who might have even written a paper or two dissecting the failures of other managers in this regard, and put them in charge. That’s what happened at my local university where my own group of ‘complexity evangelists’ had taken a firm and passionate hold. Then along came the thing we had always feared the most: a reforming professor with an intent to reshape at least this bit of the world into his own image. The image of unrelenting ego backed up by a total absence of talent. Yes, the agenda was as you might guess. ‘This place is way too complex. Why, I think I will clean it all up and put everything into a box of best fit; all pegs to go into one of two shaped holes’. ‘That’ll make the place easier to manage!’. So groups like mine, hexagonal to the round or square shaped holes on offer, were thrown out the door. Into the street. Literally. Five PhD students suddenly had no place to study! And my 25 year career was over; ‘leave your keys on the desk, return your library books and thanks for your time… Turn the light off when you leave’. So long and thanks for all the fish… Naturally, that venture of squaring the edges off an organisation naturally inclined to curves was doomed to fail. The turkey in charge was shown the door, as was his second in command, but too late for us. And for the thousands of students who are now forced to select from individually wrapped, partitioned educational offerings along the lines of a breakfast menu restricted to a Kellogg’s Variety Pack.
No, the capacity of managers to really, truly, intuitively understand complexity is as rare an attribute as the ability to win the Tour de France. But no where else are the delusions of capability in that regard so fundamentally endemic. It’s as though every person who commutes on a hybrid to work genuinely believes that a Paris podium finish is theirs for want of only buying an air ticket to France.
So what are the signs of such misplaced management expertise? How can you tell when delusion rather than talent is really in charge? Easy. For starters, beware the reformist administrator who seeks to ‘simplify and put everything into its more orderly place’. That’s what killed my own group’s passionate crusades. Next, beware the bandaid. Beware that one above all.
Imagine a complex organisation along the lines of a water filled inner tube. If a leak takes hold, you put a patch in place. When the next leak appears, another patch is applied. Then another, and another, and another again. Until the tube is more patch than tube. Then the whole mess starts leaking between the patches that start to fail with time. So you start applying patches between patches and maybe even some latex paint as well. The whole mess starts to balloon like a a dirigible on heat. When the whole show ultimately starts to fail, enter the reforming manager and the inevitable ‘restructure’ or two. So now, the game is to experiment with liquid sealants, say. So the tube that was once filled by air is now a concentrated mess of chemistry writhing under patches that are increasingly loosing their grip. Time to take early retirement, I think!
And that is precisely how policies are increasingly made. Policies, like laws, are all like bandaids in search of a hole. Rarely, if ever, do we see policy that takes the big picture into view. That would take much too much in the way of perception for most managers to comprehend. That would require taking a few steps back to see the forest again. That would require teamwork to realise. And teamwork requires the setting of our usual manager’s egotistical control freak tendencies to one side. How often do we see leadership that genuinely embraces collective vision making and taking rather than just lip service and platitudes instead? Why, that would involve a totally different culture of control than most control freaks would be comfortable with. Sharing your power is a hard thing for most ego’s to really enact. Good management under real world complex settings becomes much more a task of facilitating communication amongst all the stakeholders who might be involved than pretending omniscience and control where control is a delusion in the first place.
Unless your task really is nothing more than the management of a bicycle, the management game is a game in need of a global overhaul. Unless we want to continue to witnessing the wholesale failure of initiatives like that dismal, recent Climate Change Summit (more like a policy patch trade fair than the genuine summit it should have been) and the so-called war on terror (the recent psychotic policies to strip search all air travellers via new radiation machines is one particularly lousy glueless patch), it’s time to recast the real terror of these times as the terrorism of misguided management to conceive of every policy issue and every management plan as simplistically as the organisation of a bicycle or two.
Yes, this malady of misguided management is hitting cyclesport too. Once we accept the transfer of the organisation of our sport from our cyclist hands to the greased hands of lawyers and their warty sort, the sport is doomed and done. Admitting the lawyers into our domain is just like the terminal stages of managing that overpatched bicycle tube. Shifting authority to lawyers is the paradigm shift of playing with sealants after the patches all have started to leak. The whole show is doomed to sink; and stink. Time to buy a new tube instead! Share the leadership on an issue such as this more completely with the riders and their supporters, in turn, and the opportunities for opening up some lateral thinking and enhanced perspective will soon reveal improved opportunities for action and reaction than the psychoses of failed conventional leadership that are now blighting our sport. It’s time to dethrone the current management regime! The UCI are trying to manage our sport with nothing more than a tin of perished patches. Time to reinvent the glue we choose and the very nature of the tyres that drive at least this small part of a world more widely going mad.
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It’s probably just me, but the whole world seems intent on squashing us into smaller and smaller places and the furnishings with which we pad our lives seem to be following suit. Remember the days when big was better? Big cars with fins. Big mega houses were a symbol of status. Big fat people were healthy people (or so my mother always maintained: we pudgy kids just had big bones, you see…). Big surfboards, big hair; big expeditions into the wilderness, big spending.
Big equalled grand. Big was achievement. Big talent. Big success. Being a big sponge for resources was appropriate; all backed up by economic theory and the machinations of marketing wisdom.
It might be easy to blame the Japanese for the shift. Remember the Sony Walkman? It’s appropriate to reflect on that momentous technological achievement on this, the occasion of Sony’s official proclamation of the Walkman’s demise (just last week). The Walkman was what the boffins call a paradigm shift. With the Walkman, the world shifted a bit to one side of where it was before. The Walkman was a catalyst to miniaturisation and the henceforth inevitable pairing of the concepts of ‘small’, ‘convenient’, ‘desirable’ and ‘high tech’.
Look how small our convenience toys have become these days. Check out the latest iPod nano. Nano indeed. Check out the computer on which I am writing this post: the new Apple Macbook Air! It would take around ten of these dinky little things to fill up the space of the very first Macintosh portable computer, (6,000, 1989 dollars’ worth of what seemed like 20kg of wishful thinking portability). There’s more power squashed into our modern miniaturised devices than the design briefs for their predecessors could have ever dreamed.
What’s at the top of the pecking order these days? Look how small Ferrari’s have become (lifeboat size to the ships most of us still drive). The further up just about any product range you go these days, the smaller the top-end stuff becomes (except farm tractors and television sets, it seems). Smaller and lighter is the mark of technological progress these days.
But you have to have a laugh. Because while our toys are shrinking, most of us who use them are not. Bigger fatter, larger, taller. We humans are gaining the heft we eschew for what have now become the devices of our delusions. There’s something vaguely tragic about the way our fingers and thumbs struggle to fit the devices the boffins are designing for us these days. It’s almost as though there is some kind of universal plot to inflate our sense of insecurity through deflating the things to which we aspire. I wonder if our self-image somehow becomes more … concise … as we seek to join in this modern miniaturisation crusade. After all, the marketing guru’s can hardly be wanting us to self-imagine ourselves as King Kong struggling with toys too small by half – if they want us to buy their goods. Maybe the ever increasing density and compactness of technology is cunningly conceived to drag our personal identity of space down to a more amenable size. If small is good, and smaller toys make us feel smaller too, then what we have is a cunning marketing plan.
If our self-perceived sense of personal space becomes small enough, then we will all start feeling better about what the airlines offer us these days by way of seating space! Maybe we might feel better about living in ever the more compressed living spaces to which most of us are compelled by finances and urban planning design. Our aspiration is to reduce the size of our environmental footprint; despite the fact that every new generation seems to exhibit larger and larger feet. I wonder if the act of buying a small compact car makes their big flabby drivers feel, somehow, more petite?
All of which contexts my recent foray into the world of 29 inch wheels. Roadies might wonder at all the fuss wheels this size are making in the world of mountain bikes. After all, 29 inches is (roughly) what we have on our road bikes and have done for years. But for mountain bikes, 26 inches was the traditional call. Largely via the inspiration of mountain bike visionaries like Gary Fisher, the 29er mountain bike has been simmering away for a few years now. Only very recently has the simmer started to boil. Nowadays, we see bike retailers specialising in these things. They are making a claim to around 60 per cent of sales in some places (mainly in the USA and now, here in Australia).
29er mountain bikes are big. They look big. Counter-culturally big (in these times when every thing else is getting smaller). Intimidatingly big, perhaps. Even to a roadie like me, these things look big. The forks are longer to take up the extra inches of wheel. Chainstays are longer, and sometimes bottom brackets are further up from the ground. The wheels are definitely big. With those big fat mountain bike tyres, the actual outer wheel circumference dwarfs any road bike hoop.
So, consider the challenge to your average smaller-is-good indoctrinated punter these days. 29er’s break the mould of just about every social meme out there these days. Going bigger is entirely a journey away from the promised land of contemporary marketing spiel. That’s even more the case when you consider that one of the biggest advantages of 29er’s is their relatively more compliant ride; they particularly suit the hardtail form. With our almost pathological fixation on suspension these days, moving upwards and outwards back to a hardtail bike seems like an odd step to take.
But, based on my experience with the just released 2011 Felt Carbon Nine Team hardtail 29er, the journey is the best one I have ever taken away from sealed roads. It only took one ride to convince. That extra 2 inches is 2 miles of difference to the way these bikes perform. The hardtail packs the punch of power to the ground and the extra wheel size gloves that punch with the feel of a couch. The ride is a revelation. Fast, secure, precise, comfortable, dynamic. Everything my exotic 26 inch, fully (cross country racing) suspended Fisher Procaliber is not. If you, like me, are used to riding your mountain bike with the suspension dialled out when the going becomes faster and smoother, you will love what a hardtail 29er can do. But you might also love what happens when the trails turn rough.
I never did get used to riding tight, rough tracks sitting down. That’s from my road bike heritage, I guess. I like to stand and power over bumps and sharp short hills. A 29er rewards preferences like that. Or at least, this one does.
Let me summarise it this way. The 29er mountain bike is the hybrid vigour you’d get from crossing a cyclocross bike with a cross country racing mountain bike. All good, nothing bad. A winning genetic improvement all around. This mutant is acceptable all around.
My task here is not to review the Felt Carbon Nine. Rather, it’s to contemplate the breathtaking adventure that the 29er mountain bike represents in terms of today’s cultural and technological norms. It’s a trip sideways and outwards from the usual path (which, by the way, is called ‘lateral arabesque’ in marketing speak). I love stuff that pushes the groove of life into a space two steps removed. Those two inches of extra wheel represent a mighty leap into a place from which we can refresh and reinvent all those things that attracted us to mountain biking in the first place. I recommend the trip.
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