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Economists have this cult of bigness; it’s called globalisation. Another name for it is ‘letting the market work’. What this usually means is that we all need to sit back, cargo cult like, and just let money talk and walk us to a better place.

Now quite a few years ago, an enlightened chap called E F Schumacher wrote this really great book: Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. The rough idea is that while its really cool to let resources do their thing in the most efficient ways, we need to be a bit creative in how far we let the market place dominate. Basically, there’s a lot to be said for promoting local production, building local community identity rather than just all merging into a mind blowingly cosmopolitan single global community. Where the mega global corporations rule and each community, region and nation just moves into that single thing or two that it or they do best and cheapest. No, Schumacher suggests that what matters most is the sustainability of the communities. If that means that some things cost a little more; so be it. A community-supporting, community embedded local business or industry has more to offer than its replacement by just another node of a mega corporation.

What’s this got to do with cycling?

Well, lots as it happens.

I can see two lines of connection between cycling and Schumacher.

The first is to do with philosophy and the second is to do with cycling businesses.

Let’s look at trends in the cycling business area first. While it is not happening to cycling as fast as it is happening to most other things (like consumer electronics and cars, say), the bike business is trending slowly towards the domination of the mega corporation. Not mentioning any names, like the appropriately named Giant Bicycle Corporation…I reckon we are in the last era of the small, craft-orientated bicycle builder. Not too long ago, there were bicycle makers in every serious bike shop. I still recall the era when we all got so excited about the latest bits of cycle building artistry; remember lug designs?, the latest paint jobs, creative logos on head tubes etc etc. Then there was the total mystique of the Italian bicycle craftsmen. Remember all those great Italian builders from the past? How many remain? And of those, how many still actually handbuild in Italy? (Pinarello does, may it prosper forever…)

I don’t have the statistics as they are commercial hot property, but it seems that the vast majority of serious bikes these days are now made in Taiwan. Mostly by a handful of makers. One is Giant (of course). The others make bikes for just about everyone else under contract. Specialized are built in Taiwan, for example, as are Ridley and, I believe, some Colnagos! The one factory makes bikes for lots of different brands.

So what?

The problem is that we are on the fast track to centralisation. I do not doubt the quality of some of the higher end Taiwanese offerings (I do own a Specialized Roubaix and it is certainly a brilliant bike). The problem is that, like a giant magnet, the craft skills that once defined the cycling industry are being all dragged into the one place, where they are reinvented by that one profession that should never be given total control over any artistic endeavour: the warrior accountants. You see, my contention is that the industry is slowly being taken over by this dismal profession. The bike business is now one where choices relating to things like this derailleur over that derailleur are almost entirely resolved by accountants and marketers; not by cyclists. Committee meetings happen over whether to splurge over this valve cap or the other one that is 0.0005 cents cheaper per unit. Where bike aesthetics are decided by those who see beauty only in money and shareholder dividends.

Getting back to Schumacher again, what’s so great about the old model of local community-based bicycle makers? A lot as it happens; and mostly for things that no warrior accountant would recognise as being important. You see, a local bike maker is a hub for keeping a local cycling community energised. Look what Pinarello does in its home community of Treviso. Every year, Pinarello holds what can only be described as an annual pilgramage for Pinarello-enthused bike nuts (like me). Once a year, people from around the world go on pilgramage to Treviso to be part of the Grandfondo Pinarello – a massive bike race/tour/social gathering. Thousands of cyclists get together to reconnect and inspire the perpetuation of this most wonderful of cycling cultures. While this is certainly great for the local community, the main value of this kind of thing is its perpetuation of cycling culture itself. An asset outside the ledgers of the warrior accountants who are seeking world domination from Taiwan.

So, while makers like Pinarello persist, probably against the odds, their wonderful community-building contributions will also persist. These community-embedded makers are THE engine room of our cycling culture, of our cycling community. The warrior accountants in their mega corporations seek only our cash.

On the more philosophical front, the other interesting link from Schumacher’s thinking into the cycling world is to do with the very settings of thinking locally. I reckon that cyclists are more in tune with a local thinking world view than those whose personal sense of space has been expanded by the big distance-reach of the car driving brigade. We cyclists explore the minutiae of our local places. We spend more time getting to know the domain we can travel by pedal alone. We get a connection with these more compact domains. Even if we were to take our bikes on an overseas trip, once we get there we are off again, exploring places in a detail that the engine brigade only sees peripherally as they speed by and past. We connect into our local places; whereas car drivers tend to just fly by.

Here’s my theory. I reckon that this cycling world view of connecting locally transfers to every other aspect of our lives. This could be controversial. But here it is. Cyclists become tuned to seeing detail; car drivers are observers of wider domains. We observe and are perpetually contented by observing the shifting details and subtle patterns of a regional place than a car driver could ever be. This world view is the central catalyst of the small is beautiful culture that Schumacher advises is so important to realising a more sustainable world. Small and beautiful is more sustainable than big is better. The resilience of our local places is enhanced the more we ride bikes and support local bike makers. There you have it. Don’t be modest. We cyclists really are the front line to a sustainable future.

One Response to “Small is Beautiful”
  1. wow, very nice and incredible post .

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