A quick question: what’s the best road bike in the world?
Surely this is the ultimate question in the road cycling geek’s big list of things to argue over. There are probably 42 answers… All contestable and subject to revision daily, as more and more bikes are unleashed for our endless temptation.
As with all unanswerable questions (e.g.. is there a God, which is the best State to live in, what’s the best country in the world, who is the world’s greatest author and what’s the best music band in the world?), everyone has at least an opinion. Society is shaped by the way people answer questions such as these. Remember the Spanish Inquisition? That’s one way to answer questions pertaining to God. Or driving a few planes into the World Trade Centre. Or the Second World War, the First World War and even the Peloponnesian Wars. Clubs, tribes and friend circles are defined by localised consensus on how we might answer any of the great unanswerable questions. Football clubs anyone?
Our consideration of the ‘best (road) bike in the world’ is one of these biggies. Not something to go to war over. But a Big One nonetheless. And, as a Big One, there is no universally agreeable answer.
But there are ways of dealing with the utter unresolvability of this question. First, we might, and many do, simply partition their personal answer to country of origin. Eg. the best bike in the world MUST be Italian. Or French. Or from the USA. That’s one approach.
Some might just go by price. What’s the most expensive? Some might go by weight. What’s the lightest road bike in the world? Or exclusivity.
And there are always those extraordinarily tiresome types who use the annoyingly simple metric of simply declaring that whatever bike they might have is, by virtue of their astounding good taste, THE best bike in the world. That’s pretty much the metric many people I know use for answering questions about religion, choice of motor car, musical taste, or the best place to live. Most of us have some biases of this kind that colour, or at least taint our thinking on questions such as these.
And then there are the scientistic types. These are the lab coat set who propose to address THE big questions through the purity of science; measurements, quantification: proof! You’d be stunned to know how many seemingly intelligent people go for this line; that the bogus measurement routine is a valid response to dealing with tricky questions. Academics often suffer this appalling quantitative disease. Why a disease? Because not all the dimensions of any unanswerable question are amenable to measurement.; so insistence on quantification disfigures the rich field of choices that the more subjective realm can inform. And, really, it’s often he case that the best things about the things we are wanting to rank and rate are completely incompatible with measurement. Like the aesthetic dimension. Like all the ‘feel good’ bits that drive our choices.
Besides, who would want a bicycle that an accountant might assess to be the best? Or who would want a bike that a Human Resources bot might determine to be the most Politically Correct?
So… knowing that this is an unanswerable question, and that anything that I might suggest by way of an answer is a single sand grain in an entire beach of prospective, legitimate answers, I feel compelled to have a go because I am on the hunt for a new bike and the bike I want is one without the usual constraints that shape my choices. This is my once in a lifetime crusade to pick the Best bike I can find. Or more precisely, I want a bike chosen without all the usual constraints of money, lack of information, of what’s in stock and what’s not. I want to wallow in my own prejudices, biases and sense of the aesthetic. I am not buying this bike for anyone else! And I am NOT recommending my particular choice to anyone else. This is an entirely personal crusade. The most self indulgent thing I have ever done! (It’s a good thing I hate cars… buying the ultimate bicycle is at best 5% of the cost of searching for the ‘ultimate’ car. Besides, to my mind, the ultimate car is always parked permanently in a wrecking yard…)
I gave myself a year for this search. Research is what I do. So researching this particular question was going to be a pleasurable journey. Knowing that, at the end, there will be NO perfect choice, and that, perhaps, the final choice might actually prove to be unavailable or unaffordable, I wanted at least my search to be uncompromised. It costs no more to search without constraints than it would to search with all those usual qualifiers of economics and the practicalities of the market place to constrain my choices.
My aim was for a short list of Five. To narrow the field, I subscribed to 10 cycling journals and numerous web forums. I tracked bicycle industry news like a zealot. I harassed and harangued every person who’s opinion I imagined was worth a listen (and often some who’s opinion was not). I collected test reports with the dedication of a hypochrondriac searching the web for an imagined disease. I looked, I listened, I visited bicycle shops. Everywhere I went.
I decided from the start to avoid the custom route. I know some would say that having a bike custom made is the ultimate path. But I am not that patient and I want a bike that others might also have. I need the reinforcements of reviews along with the validation that those reviews might provide. Custom bikes are a once off and almost never reviewed by the cycling press. Custom bikes are too exclusive for someone in permanent search of others who might have made the same choice as me… It’s a tribal thing.
To reach my short list of five, I would allow only one simple rule: no bike on my list could be second to any other; just different. It should not be possible to find a better bike than one on my list; just a bike that’s different. Of course, I am not actually defining criteria like ‘best’ or ‘better’ in any measurable way, because at this level, choices are beyond the resolution of quantifiable measurement. This short list of five will be sitting above the altitude of objective measurement. At this level, we are in the realm of the spectacularly, wonderfully, embracingly subjective. I am not buying an office stapler here. I am buying a work of art. A pice of history. A statement. So, I can embrace rather than pretend to avoid my cycling biases. The search is tough. If I were to find any test report that justifiably faulted any aspect of any bike, that bike would not be on the list. But context matters. Criticisms need to make sense and they need to matter. If a bike has a design fault that is repeatable and serious, it’s off the list. If a criticism is about aesthetics, I will be my own judge.
Without even the delusions of pseudo scientific method in place, I had fun massaging my list down to five. Five universally lauded bikes. Five bikes that have never attracted any kind of serious negative comment. Five winners.
Here’s my list:
Pinarello Dogma II
BMC Teammachine SLR 01
Already, you are questioning and arguing my choice! I can hear you from here… Where is the Giant TCR Advanced Rabobank? Where are the top end offerings from Ridley, Parlee, Trek, Cervelo, Specialized, Fuji, Canyon, de Rosa, Bianchi, BH, Orbea, Time, Merida or Merckx? And did you notice my Italian bias? As I said, this is my choice and me wallowing in my own context of aesthetics and mechanical art.
And yes, A bike is a frame plus a set of parts. I can’t avoid the latter. I have to choose there too. I have to wade into the perpetual fires of equipment choice: Campagnolo, Shimano or SRAM. I already have bikes with Super Record, Record, Dura Ace, Ultegra and SRAM Red. I detest Dura Ace with a passion (shifting like a broken spoon flapping in a bowl of porridge). I kind of like Red (a proper click) and I am passionate about Super Record (20,000km without adjustment, even once. A serious. Proper. Click). And on top of that. Electronic or mechanical? Another subjective nest of snakes. With that admission, my audience here has splintered into three abuse hurling shouting camps. Such is mountain climbing into the stratosphere of the ultimate bike… I made it simple. Campagnolo Super Record. EPS (electronic), or mechanical I’ll decide in due course.
And then there’s the wheels. I want 50mm deep carbon clinchers. I don’t care for tubulars these days. I’m not going to argue with myself over that any more. I had tubulars for 10 years. I want my rims with an aluminium braking ring. I have a set of Fulcrum all carbon clinchers: never again. Sometimes, it’s nice to stop…
Here are highlights from my review notes:
Pinarello Dogma II. Innovative frame geometry, superbly stiff, but compliant. Fast, but OK for all day rides. I love curves! I love Pinarellos (I have three already). History. Aesthetics. Pedigree! Italian, yes, but Taiwanese cleverness with monocoque. Overpriced. Paying for the brand. A bike dentists tend to buy. I am not a dentist… $16,000 on the road with Super Record EPS. The obvious choice. Too obvious? Tour de France winner but under the wrong rider… Who could forgive Sky colour scheme! Have they no shame? Do I really want 4 Pinarellos?
Look 695. Iceberg clean looks! Zen. Efficient. Brilliant. Stiff (super). Purebred to race. Fast. Too associated with Shimano. Eccentric. Understatement. French! Unmistakingly French! Lack of bling equates to more bling than bling. $11,000 on the road. Hard to convince the distributor not to taint with Shimano Dura Ace.
BMC Teammachine SLR 01. Ruthlessly efficient. Innovative rear end. Home spun carbon! Light! Stiff. Won the Tour de France. Underdog. Clean zen like aesthetics. Good climber. Good in a sprint. But climbing is great. I am a climber. I love hills. Yes. Great price too. Save $6k on a Dogma. $10,000 on the road. With SRAM Red. A Swiss made analogue of the Giant TCR Advanced Rabobank Team Issue bike with which I have been totally, and utterly enthralled for the past year.
Wilier Zero.7 Where did this one come from! I always liked the Cento 1. But this is a breathtaking statement that must have embarrassed Pinarello big time. Ultra light weight, ultra stiff, but ultra comfortable. A reconciliation of opposites! A pure, unmitigated, unapologetic statement of Italian art. Hair standing on back of neck looks. Expensive… Innovative new carbon technology you’d have expected from Pinarello – or Giant – first. One of the oldest bike makers on the planet. Hardly zen-like looks! Bling on bling. Only from Italy. Put Shimano on this and die. $15,000 before the pedals but with Super Record EPS and Fulcrum Red Wind XLR/Campagnolo Bullet wheels. Rationality takes a hike. I am in love.
Colnago C59 Especially with disc brakes! Understated, overstated, all at the same time. Lightish, but not light. Stiff, but not too much. Lugs! Made in Italy. Customisation possibilities are endless. This one is not from a distributor of boxes. Passion on wheels. I can’t find a single colour scheme I actually like… Old school. Last of its kind. A lifetime keeper. Colnago too often goes over to the dark side of Shimano. Shame! Colnago and Pinarello should shop locally when it comes to component choices. Take a look at Wilier… $12,000 if I go for mechanical Super Record. The bike to aspire to after a lifetime of bike love. Pure bicyclism!
And…the Giant TCR Advanced Team Issue Rabobank is not on my list because I already have one… As good as a Dogma at 1/3 the cost! Flawless. Magnificent. Logical.
And the winner? Or, perhaps more appropriately put, which one did I choose? Isn’t it obvious? Stay tuned for the next instalment.
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People who know me and know of the issues my family have been dealing with over the past few years keep telling me the same thing: all families have their problems. Weasel words. Platitudes. No one, I would contend, could possibly have connections to as psychotic a bunch of sociopaths as my wife’s abysmal family. All that is needed to expose their character is the catalyst of money. And money is something they always like to have around.
I have always reckoned that a family that can reconcile the invariably asymmetrical viewpoints on the distribution of ‘family wealth’ is one that is both rare and worthwhile. My own family is like that; we have a history of simply letting stuff disappear into the hands of the ruthless and greedy, rather than pursue our rights to the death. Not good for the bottom line but we are a long lived family with few scars. But my wife’s family is different (with the exception of my wife, who is as opposite from them as it could ever be possible to stretch genetic attachments without appearing to be adopted). Money is their religion, their reason for existence, their goal, their passion, and their misery. Measured by the cent. One cent at a time. Odious, obnoxious trolls. I am not being subtle here, am I…
I mean, how would you react to advice from the forthcoming brother-in-law just after the announcement of intended nuptials: ˆyou know you shouldn’t be marrying her for her money, don’t you! Because you won’t be getting any. Our business is none of yours’. Which is pretty hard to swallow when being part of their farming business is quite possibly the last thing I could ever possibly want. Having invested ten years into the getting of qualifications and experience towards an academic career, why would I want to take up farming instead?! But being a family farm their business would be a business from which it would be pretty hard to stay totally removed, especially when it is the location of our home and the focus of my wife’s life passion (a passion that makes mine for cycling seem like a momentary fad). Theirs is a farm that has always depended entirely on her intelligence and, frankly, brilliance as a manager of animals and on her extraordinary intuition in relation to the challenges of the rural market place. My intuitions are more academic, having been, for 26 years, a lecturer in farm business management (and later on more diverse, ecological-economic themes) at the local university, and thus shielded from the inner workings of The Family Business. I’ve been viewed as an exotic threat since the day we got married. Watched, feared, reviled. It has been fun…
All farming businesses pass on; but some pass with more grace than others. Some pass via an agreed plan. Some pass via the attrition of a war. Ours was more the latter than the former, given that the rules of engagement and most of the ensuing plan were dictated by The Eldest Brother upon the context entirely of what was best, exclusively, for him. The Eldest Brother had ruled the roost for over 30 years. He ran the books. He decided what could be spent and what could not. Which always pretty well meant that anything that was to his advantage was approved and anything else was beyond financial reach. But my wife ploughed on, doing her thing. Producing wool of world class renown. The only one of the three siblings with a genuine love for the place.
So we ended up at the intersection in the road; the old guy, the head of the clan, decided to give in and split the place across his offspring. The Eldest Brother was born for this day. Like a coil hard-sprung for years, he launched his greased plan. First up, he took away our house. Gifted to us via promise by my wife’s parents, we now were forced to buy it back. Full market price. The Eldest Brother managed to value our house at 10 times the price as that of his own. But then the real nightmare began: unravelling the family books. Kept like a sacred scripture by the Eldest Brother for years, no one had ever managed to see within and no one was ever going to short of a SAS-like covert audit.
So we paid our millions for our share and still The Brothers managed to keep a hold over us through refusing to let us buy our share of the livestock and plant. We had to lease our stock and pay above market rates by way of interest, for years to come. How would anyone run a livestock business when denied ownership of the animals involved? My first step was to enlist a legal-accounting team to find us an escape. It took two years! Mainly because the Eldest Brother refused to let even our accountant see the books to work out a payout price. But it got even worse. My wife’s father had extended an interest free loan to her by way of mitigation of damage caused by reneging on the handover of our house. For two years, we had taken him at his word. Until one day, hiding on his kitchen table, we found The Invoice. The Eldest Brother had, apparently, taken exception to this ‘interest free loan’ and had decided, without telling us, to charge us interest from day one. And, because we never knew, he’d been compounding those interest charges into the principal stacking up a healthy potential income stream. He’d written this loan contract with his wife on the day we all split the place. The solicitor involved had told us there was no problem, interest was optional. But not to the Eldest Brother to whom interest is the sacred sacrament of his perverted sense of self worth.
I unleashed my legal team. We shut the racket down. We escaped. We are now free. Funded entirely from my personal life savings. And we had two victories along the way. First, we won on the question of interest for my wife’s father’s loan. $9,000 saved. The second victory was to secure interest relief over the past 6 months of haggling over our non-access to the books. Access is a legal right, not a benefit to be bestowed. $6,000 saved. $9,000 plus $6,000 = $15,000. The exact price of my new bike. My new bike is a statement of rights restored. The only victory I have ever scored against the tyranny of my wife’s greed bloated family. My new bike is a symbol of our freedom, funded by the curtailment of The Brothers’ relentless greed. I love this bike for what it is and for how it came to be mine. What better statement could I ever have to mark the occasion of the dawn of a new life for my family and what will probably be the last great fling of my cycling career. This bike is a sweet reward. It almost doesn’t matter what it is but it is something extraordinary nonetheless. To celebrate our freedom, I devised a simple plan: I simply want the best bike money can buy. Period. No compromises. The best there is. Funded through righteous relief from the tyranny of greed. So what did I get? Stay tuned.
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I wasn’t there when they first invented the TV. But I do recall once watching an early era black and white set before colour broadcasting began. I remember the wooden box-like set. I remember the small glass screen. I remember the single mono speaker and the big fuel tank filler cap-like channel switcher. I remember the turned cylinder legs and the flower pot permanently planted on the top. I do definitely remember that all this felt so amazingly modern. And I do not ever recall thinking that all this technology would be in for much in the way of change. Colour was not something that ever occurred to me. Yes, that little Pye set was bigger and better in every way than its predecessors that more resembled a gramophone set with a window than a Jurassic Home Theatre array. But progress felt… gradual. Not frantic. We didn’t purchase on the knife edge of fast paced imminent redundancy. We didn’t worry that what we might purchase today would become an antique the very next day.
Which is how I feel when I buy a TV these days. Which is exactly how I feel two days after installing the one I have just bought. Two days after purchase, that model has been deleted. But it was current two days before. So now, apparently, I have an antique…
But it’s not just TV’s that give me this riding-a-technology whirlwind feeling these days, And that’s not because I am some kind of grumpy technologically outpaced old man either, I might add…
This latest model Macbook Air I am using here was fresh for five days. Then Apple added USB 3. So now I am a legacy user disconnected from the world of high speed devices to which, it seems, every other Mac user now has access, except me. Now I’m stuck with USB 2.0. One day I was on the cutting edge. Now I am in the dust. Feeling like the victim of technological assault. Inadequate. Left behind. Old. Which is all very odd because before the latest Macbook update, USB 2.0 was just fine. I was happy using the equivalent of black and white TV serial bus technology. USB 3.0 was for PC users and I wasn’t one of them. And that was just fine.
Which is why, and I am sure I am not alone, so many folk are having such fun with LP records once again. Vinyl has become a concrete barricade of protection from the howling gale of technological change. We can tinker and enjoy without any fear of becoming out-of-date. Indeed, in those Jurassic vinyl grooves is a sound that even the highest end computer audio would find it hard to match. But I digress.
If you are a person subject to techno-adadequacies or insecurities of this kind, the whole world becomes a little unsettling. We seem to be tuned to the pace of being left technologically behind. Most of us know that what we have today is not going to cut it by some time mid next week. Some of us don’t care at all (to a degree that improves the closer we get to the nursing home), some are mildly unnerved. And some are in a perpetual state of panic (like those who choose to queue every time Apple releases a new iPhone).
My bandwidth of concern is pretty wide. Relishing, as I do, the technological resilience of bicycles and vinyl LP’s, I can drift off to an island of unconcern. But when it comes to computer IT, I dread every upgrade. I am, after all, that guy who bought into DCC and MD (remember those?) only to watch both music formats completely disappear within a space of two years, along with the media needed to keep that equipment in use. Go on, try to buy a Digital Compact Cassette these days. Go on. Try. I feel like I have been robbed. Dropped. Ditched. Redundant without redundancy pay. And no one cares…
All of which explains why I seem to be permanently carrying a back pack of worry around whenever I enter some kind of electronics store, or search for a new car, or search for a new ebook to download. Will I be left with unusable stuff all over again? It’s like carrying a permanent virus, or having to live with a permanent limp. All the while knowing that, really, it’s all self-inflicted and induced by the evils of modern marketing and a raging culture of consumerism. Which is why it’s so great to know that I can aways drift off to that moated barricade of bicycles and vinyl LP’s when ever I like. In that place, I can overtake anyone’s million dollar cutting-edge super car when all that oil-fuming technology trickles down to a sludge in congested city streets; and from where I can nuance away all I like to the nth degree of fidelity on my LP’s while the techno buffs are all reinventing bit rates and DAC codecs in a battlefield mess of unsettling audio attrition.
But all this presents a context through which to frame every visit I choose to make to my local bookstore, my local record shop, or even to my local newsagent. I pick up a book and find myself Amazoning the price of its ebook counterpoint for my iPad. I pick up a magazine and check out the price of subscriptions on Zinio. The latest issue of Peloton magazine is $15.99. An annual sub for my iPad is $12. Knowing these choices makes it so hard to commit. Which translates into a non- commitment to the continued existence of these stores dancing their death throes on the tipping point of relentless change. Every time I buy an ebook, my local book store is one page closer to that final closing down sale. I can’t enjoy buying the latest cycling ezine without reflecting on the abject economic disaster about to dump on my friendly local newsagent. What’s life going to be like without those local stores? Is our community to become an array of disconnected social recluses all hardwired to the internet while the village green transcends to jungle and unemployment reaches 100 per cent?
Stop the bus. It’s time to get off.
I’m done with all those awkward silences of unsaid condolence I feel whenever I visit my newsagent, bookshop or that last, assaulted record store. Is it time to become a technological recluse?
It’s hard to listen to music on my bike with a LP turntable strapped to my handlebars. I want the latest toys but want the social infrastructure of community commerce as well.
It’s hard to put my head in the sand. But I don’t want to put a knife into those gentle decent folk who run their Last Stand book/record/newsagency stores, waiting for the vultures to finally swarm the poverty of their final days.
Where do they all go in these days of 10 per cent plus unemployment and global recession? Too young to retire, too old to begin again. Do they all just go off and die? Do they all just go off to live under a bridge? What happens to the human-centred purveyors of technologies-left-behind. Who’s going to provide the spare parts for TV sets rendered obsolete when the product cycles cycle around to less than a week? Who’s going to service anything when all commerce is transacted by faceless drones in cyber space. What happens when the economic efficiency of technological improvement leaves us all unemployed? Do we only ever reflect on such things when the impacts hit us hard in the face?
Of course, the world these days is not just transmitted in black and white. Fortunately there are lots of shades of grey in between. But I do fear that it’s that grey scale that’s the real issue under assault. Are those shades reducing to a five tone scale? At one end, we have the Made-in-China globalised cess pit of the economic rationalist’s sado-massochistic perverted world view. On the other end we have us cyclists and LP lovers ignoring the assault. But in the middle are all the struggling record stores, magazine sellers and book store purveyors bleeding tears as they reconcile their tills at closing time. I can see a time when the technologies of the recent past reduce to be serviced by niche markets of residual cranks and luddites perverse in their pleasures from stuff from the past. Like readers of paper books and magazines. And cyclists eschewing the bestialities of e-motors and even stupider electronic gears. What’s the ideal market size for a niche of paper books and plastic compact discs? One store per town or one store per million of population? Who’s going to catch a plane flight to visit the nearest record store? What’s the business plan for my local newsagent these days? Or worse, for that local record store? We know that technologies get left behind (remember the Digital Compact Cassette and Mini Disc?). So stuff will fail and markets will crash. They can’t all be sustained by niche markets for the hardcore. The grey scale between no market and the global market place is going to get really thin. And we all need to consider this final point. How many local jobs will there be when the global market place has entirely diverted to an exclusive serenade between the Chinese shop floor and their faceless, country-less global corporate sponsors?
Which is why, maybe, this current post- Global Financial Crisis Crisis is a good thing after all. When the world economy slows to a crawl, the wheels of commerce slow and we get time to work out a better plan. There are some economists who have given this process a name: Creative Destruction.
Which is why, in turn, I have that unsettled feeling of impermanence and insecurity when it comes to making technology choices these days. We are in a world just like we were when black and white TV became mature. We are sitting on the edge of a great tipping point. The grey scale is about to turn into colour. Hopefully the next spectrum of our economy will be displayed in something better than VGA. Hopefully, the middle will fill out and niche markets will return to a broader base; just like the LP industry these days where more and more and ever more people are re-introducing themselves to the latest technical iterations of the good-old turntable and the latest grades of heavy weight vinyl. And, yes, as more and more people discover the whole-of-life enhancement of cycling as a wondrously steam punk synthesis of the old and the new, cycling and re-cycling all over and over again.
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Golf. Noun: a game played on a large open-air course, in which a small hard ball is struck with a club into a series of small holes in the ground…
Cycling. Noun: the sport or activity of riding a bicycle…
…A wave of enthusiasm for cycling is sweeping through London’s financial district as people swap Porsches for Pinarellos, the Financial Times reported…
So how, exactly, is cycling supposed to be the ‘new golf‘?
And why do people keep on making this seemingly absurd claim?
Are we to believe that golfers are downing their clubs and taking to riding bicycles instead?
Or is it, possibly, because those corporate knights who once, in theory, conducted their strategic interactions on the golf course are now busy plotting takeovers and tax avoidance stratagems on bicycles instead?
Have you actually witnessed power meetings in the peloton as opposed to the more usual Board Room or Michelin-starred restaurant?
Have you actually witnessed creative corporate strategising as the echelon rotates to the cadence of monetary greed, world domination and the head wind of the market place?
Or is it that cycling is now the way to get to know a new client or the character of your employees? If so, what’s to be gained if the client can’t keep up or escapes into a breakaway? How does an executive impress if his underling drops his boss on the very first hill. What kind of management pecking order can be established on a ride rather than via the machinations of bureaucratic policy? Imagine if one’s position in the office hierarchy were to be determined through a 300m sprint? Or by arrival order over the Stelvio Pass?
But golf is not just about open-aired corporate interaction. Some people play golf because they enjoy hitting a ball with a stick. How, exactly, is cycling supposed to superscede the supposed thrills of hitting a ball with an over-priced stick? I’m struggling to find some kind of pathway here. You’d be as likely to convince a pro-footballer to shift into pro-chess as a career upgrade path. What’s the natural transition for those who would wear golfing jumpers while driving a golfing cart to take to lycra and pedals instead? Maybe the affinity is that we both wear strange shoes…
Will the St Andrews clique be transforming themselves into some kind of exclusive membership cycling club instead? What will become of their tweed suits and caddy slaves? Maybe they’ll dress in Rapha cycling tweed and re-enlist their caddies as domestiques.
Or are we talking about the transformation of pro-golf into pro-cycling? Are we to see all those pot-bellied cycling pros taking to the peloton instead? Is Tiger Woods about to challenge Andy Schleck on the Col du Galibier?
Or is it that the golf buggy is a natural progenitor to the post-bank crash era e-bicycle? Now that I could believe. If so, are we now supposed to run e-bike criteriums around the golfing greens? Or are we supposed to play e-bike polo into those now re-purposed 18 holes?
I suspect that what’s actually implied by this supposed transformation of golf into cycling is, rather, more to do with a cultural shift than with the shifting of gears. And that shift is nasty.
Let’s try a word association game. When I think of golf, here’s a few instant word associations:
- conspicuous consumption
- delusions of exercise
- green cancer
- golf carts for people incapable of walking more than 10 metres
- exclusive clubs
- servants carting clubs for big bwanas
- the world’s only obese professional sporting heroes
- an ultra expensive way to play marbles
So, when they say cycling is the new golf, do they mean that our sporting passion of hard-won physical prowess-driven achievement is to be replaced by a consumerist culture of pretentious posing and faux-everything? Is the humble post-ride latte tradition to be replaced with vintage wine sipping at some stately exclusive membership arpres cycling clubhouse? Are we now supposed to start paying membership fees to ride with a group? Will our various cycling clubs now be sorted via some kind of psychopathically imagined scale of social/material exclusivity?
Or are we talking about the transcendence of one of the world’s most pretentious twattages of a faux-sport into an activity that actually involves the application of genuine exercise and classless interaction? In other words, is the evolution under question one where the values of cycling somehow rewrite the code of the culture of golf? I suspect that that’s not what’s being implied.
There’s evidence of a hostile cultural takeover happening to our beautiful two wheel passion. The golfing hoards are indeed spewing their values into a place where these things should not fit.
I remember a time where spending up big on a bike was an expression of one’s dedication to winning more races and riding ever harder. A top end bike usually meant going without ever more by way of other stuff. Like food. Or a car. I remember when buying a bike like a top end Colnago, Vitus, Look, or some custom crafted job was a commitment to the sport rather than to some kind of image to be conveyed. Spending big meant more hurt. More pain. More sweat than ever before. And to winning races, or at least losing less.
But if we are to extrapolate the ‘golfing culture’ to such a game, spending up big is what you do when you want to consume the image of decreased age or your preferred position on the emperor-has-no-clothes sporting hero scale. Money is a tool through which to aspire to an intended image. Even if that image is an image exclusive to your own mind. To a golfer’s mind, perhaps, cycling has the appearance of a proper post-global warming warmed, post-banker-wanker image. And to a golfer, perhaps, image is something to be consumed rather than earned. And which pro-level bike maker is going to deny such people an exclusive cycling-poseur pricing scale? Is it a total coincidence that those shops that specialise in top end bicycles are almost always located in urban baby-boomer-dentist-neo-golfer locales where real estate prices barely match the pretensions of their self-image obsessed residents? Swimming pools, Ferrari’s, exclusive gym membership, golfing … PInarello Dogma owners…
I definitely do not deny that there are many golfers who simply play golf because they love that game. To these happy humble types, the Pinarello Dogma golfers are as much an affront as they are to us.
So, I am wondering if the source of this new social meme of cycling as the new golf are those humble golfers hoping – seeking – to rid themselves of that pretentious faux-golfing clique through cunningly convincing them to take up cycling instead…
To which I have a cunning counter plan. Let’s set up some exclusive membership cycling clubs for the well-heeled latte Dogma owners recently dispossessed from their Ferrari powered golfing carts. Then we need to convince those elites to concentrate only on the clear social superiority of single speeds and the like. Custom bikes for the custom elites. Bike makers can apply those profits to subsidise the grubby pro-biking tools that only those in the trade would ride… We cyclists could then afford to buy top-end bikes once again. Like Pinarello Dogmas.
But, having run through my argument, I still think this social meme is entirely wrong. Cycling is NOT the new golf. Gymnasium memberships are the new golf. Let’s try and keep it that way!
A Cycling is the New Golf Reading List
Sydney Morning Herald
Bloomberg Business Week
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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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My one surviving association with the university to which I have devoted 25 years too many of my strictly rationed non-cycling time, is to ride straight through to better places with peaceful lakes and the like. Blissfully knowing that the time of my ride is my own time, and my direction is one dictated by tail winds rather than via the wind of some managerial academic dressed for death in a black polyester suit. But there’s a bit of a buzz going on around the leafy tracks, roads and ruts of that academic mini-town. Just like a bunch of flies, or a trail of ants, the highways, bi-ways and one-time walking tracks are now perpetually plastered with twenty-somethings riding e-bikes.
I am one of those who once declared that these things would never, ever, take off. An obesity of sub-contemptable chain store e-motorised two-wheeled bloatware with all the aesthetics and performance of a trolly-wheeled farm gate. Who would ever want to insult cycling with one of those! But taking off they are; just like a fly-by-wire Airbus full of people sipping gin rather than contributing to the dynamics of their ride. Cycling without aesthetics. Cycling with the chain broken between physical prowess and performance. Cycling without cycling. eCycling is cycling for those who don’t understand cycling. eCycling is a foot propelled toy car to daddy’s Ferrari parked alongside.
There’s a deep perversion at work here.
I am reminded of scientists dissecting brains in search of the mechanics and chemistry of pleasure. If we extract this bit of the brain, and short circuit that bit over there, we might isolate out the bits that make us appreciate art and the irrationalities of sport. If we unhitch a few neurones and kill a few synapses here and there, perhaps we can construct a kind of cycling that a zombie, or an economic rationalist, might appreciate! Let’s take the utilitarian essence of cycling and remove it from all the I-Love-Campagnolo, I-Love-Shinano Tour de France hysteria bits. Let’s reduce cycling to the level of what the Tax Office might appreciate!
There they go. Every e-cyclist seems to wear exactly the same benign, disassociated frown. I know that look. I have seen it plenty of times before. It’s the look car drivers have.
e-bikes are the bikes a car driver might ride! When they loose their licence after being caught with drink on their breath.
Which is not to deny that there is a kind of a pleasure to be derived here. If only the pleasure an economic rationalist might derive through knowing how many cents are saved from not having to drive their car. But how much insight could an e-bike rider get into the pleasures of riding a real bike? As much as you could get from only ever watching cycling on TV? Which is not to deny that there are pleasures to cyclists watching e-bikers riding the hills. Have you seen the way they always parody pedal while their motors work hard against gravity? It’s a kind of faux pedalling; pretend pedalling just like the grown ups do when they ride a real bike up a hill… You have to do something with your legs when the gradient heads north. Else you’ll get deep vein thrombosis from lack of use. But it’s the look on their faces that gets me every time. Determined detachment; austere un-pleasure. Robot faces. Faces of people neither here nor there; unknowing the pleasures of muscle powered pedalling or the thrill of riding a real motorbike.
And how must they feel when real cyclists dump them on hills? Or away from the lights, or on a flat in-the-drops stretch. How must they feel? Why, with no feelings at all. Someone who would ride an e-bike would not feel any of these important cycle-snob, psycho-social compulsions at all. They’d not even understand the critical nuances of mountain bike-road bike competitive mutual disdain, let alone the intricacies of masterful race facing et al. Hell, e-bikers probably don’t even know about fixed gear/hipsters let alone the perversions of Shimano on an Italian master-built bike!. They are the kind of riders who, if they were ever to ride in such a thing, would think nothing of wearing their cycling nicks with the chamois on the outside…
OK, so e-bikes are not for me; and probably not for you. But should I be so smugly dismissive of a device that takes patronage away from cars? Isn’t it better that we have e-bikes on the road when otherwise these folk would be driving cars? Could e-biking be some kind of front door into the world of cycling? Possibly, but there is a big problem here. And it’s all to do with the disconnected dementias of the car driver’s brain. Can the simian sensibilities that combine to condemn an individual to a car possibly be sufficient to distinguish an e-biker from a muscle-powered cyclist? Probably not. In the two-way switch of the car driver’s brain the world reduces to the simple polarity of bikes bad: cars good. Anything more complex than that and their brains would fuse…
So with all these e-bikes wobble riding the roads just like motorcyclists who aren’t and cyclists they perhaps might vaguely resemble, the poor old car driver is getting seriously confused. This is worse than the hybrid/chain store no-mountain bike commuter plague. Motorists are used to hybrid commuters treacle pacing up hills. They are tuned to overtaking when ever and where ever they encounter a bike on the road; no matter what. But these e-bikers, while riding with even less than the prowess of their hybrid rider kin, are riding the hills with speeds approaching that of the lycra-carbon clique that at least some car drivers had hitherto come to realise were cyclists otherwise to avoid. Perhaps. At the advanced level of the car driver brain domain.
What will be the consequences of e-bikes should they really take off? While a real cyclist learns handling and road skills through the progress of hard won muscle-tuning time, an e-biker flicks a switch and joins straight in. An e-bike, remember, is still a bike. It was not conceived or designed as some kind of de-powered motorbike. It’s a bicycle with electric motor assist. To ride a bicycle, you need to develop a certain set of physical skills. A cyclist wears into the riding game. Our bodies adapt to the design realities of the bike. Bikes are designed to be pedalled. pedalling requires muscles and muscles provide the balance. Bicycle dynamics are a synergy of mechanics and biology. That’s why a first-time rider usually pains-out after a few miles or so. We need to break our selves into the cycling game. If we were born to ride we would have been born with wheels attached. e-biking takes all this evolutionary adaptation away. It’s like throwing a non-swimmer into the deep end of a pool. e-bikers are now mixing it with car drivers without the armour of physical-skill adaptation. How can you direct a pedal power dynamic-derived machine out of the danger zone when you have yet to master the dynamics of simple control?
We are all going to wear the consequences of heightened car driver rage. We are all going to be relegated to the cycle paths. Get ready for the re-regulation of cycling on our roads. It’s not going to be nice.
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Riding up to a roundabout with the due caution of potential death, disfigurement and, worse, damage to one’s bike, I noticed the peculiar sound of a screeching yobbo projectile vomiting every four letter word that his 24kb brain could muster. I don’t know what, exactly, he was saying despite his efforts to elevate his thoughts via sticking his ugly foam drooling face out the window of his penis-statement-making SUV, because I was listening to a vastly more entertaining podcast instead. But, I got the gist as he started to honk his horn while wildly conducting a flabby arm and one finger routine through which to choreograph his vocal wit. I was, you see, in his way. For once, I simply ignored the tirade, but I do confess I did slow down even more so that others could more completely savour this scene. Particularly the policeman standing beside his car just over the road. Outside his police station.Watching and shaking his head. Oh well, I guess that kind of behaviour is no longer a crime. I rode on, the troll drove off – seething and fuming over the 0.000006 second delay.
It’s irrelevant that my speed is usually at least matching the pace of the traffic in this car bloated town. Or that, indeed, we cyclists usually negotiate roundabouts with greater precision than the crash derby set ever achieve with their 2 tonne SUV’s. It’s irrelevant (if not horrendously disconcerting to) these NeanderCarls that we actually have the legal right to be on the road, or that we are saving fuel for them to use, and gassing them less, and taking up less space. No matter. To their 24kb minds the complexities of the world reduce to: bike bad, truck good. Big important, small not.
I’ve been reading Tom Vanderbilt’s interesting book ‘Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What it Says About Us). While not exactly a revelation of extraordinary insight, the book is a handy synthesis of notions scanned via what must have been years of library trawling (or, more likely, a few intense Google sessions). There’s an anecdote for all occasions. And I was in search of insight to explain my recent roundabout incident, not to mention my other pet cyclist-car driver peeves:
- why do car drivers always try to overtake serious cyclists when riding downhill; especially when we are at least keeping up with the cars in front
- why do car drivers always try to overtake cyclists (of any kind) when a car is coming from the opposite direction
- why do car drivers hate coming up behind cyclists at traffic lights, roundabouts and every other place where we are more than matching everyone else’s speed
- why the seething hatred some drivers are so keen to display
- why do car drivers never, ever, give way to cyclists with the right of way
- how is it possible for drivers to be blind to a cyclist wearing, say, a full fluoro-green Green Edge cycling kit while being completely tuned to cars colour-matched to the road, or to a grey rain challenged sky.
It seems that eye-to-eye communication is a key. Apparently, humans have evolved to resolve the complexities of communication through the proxy of a good old eye-to-eye stare. Think of The Look made famous by Lance Armstrong: a momentary eye-to-eye contact through which to establish who is predator and who is prey. Smash the enemy with a piercing glance. Prick their confidence with a single Look. Better than words, or a neon sign. A simple connection from eye to eye can make your message incredibly clear. Yes, connections from eye-to eye will certify all kinds of messages when you are out on the road. And that is one big problem when it comes to cars, or more precisely, for their drivers shrouded by a wall of sun-tinted glass and opaque tin. Cars filter our capacity for eye contact like a desert sand storm or a veil of hail. How do you make your connection when you can’t see to person to whom your thoughts are aimed? It’s like trying to make eye contact with Darth Vader. Under that disguise, who knew the man within is a feeble damaged mess propped up by an electronic array? Who new that the horn blasting troll giving you a hard time is really a flab-bellied, retirement-aged history teacher letting loose the frustrations of a lifetime of being beaten up by his wife…
With the disconnect of being unable to see eye-to-eye, motorists tend to behave differently than they would when their gaze is more exposed. Humans deprived of eye-to-eye contact tend to interact with less restraint than they would when standing face to face. How many people do you know who would scream abuse over such minor matters as a contested right of way when standing face to face as they might when under the shroud of anonymity afforded by their cars? Eye-to-eye contact tends to keep us civilised. We are adapted to transmit petabytes of evolutionarily accumulated social nuance and context via the electric shock of eye-to-eye contact. Take that away and we revert to social-context disarmed anarchy. Just as can be observed in internet chat rooms and the like. Or anonymous hate messages graffitied on public walls. It’s all to do with firing off our base primitive dysfunctional urges via the safety of being out of range. Of retaliation. Or recognition.
This all goes some way to explaining the behaviour we see on the roads. And bad behaviour is certainly not just targeted at cyclists. It’s all about the otherwise meek and mild awakening their beasts within once inside their cars. Everyone becomes a target of a road-raged tin-shielded troll.
So what happens when a car-shielded road troll encounters the blazingly lighthouse-like beacon of a cyclist’s unshrouded eyes? It’s at this point that Tim Vanderbilt’s book runs out of steam.
Car drivers can be breathtakingly anonymous. Cyclists (and middle-aged open topped sports car drivers) are at the opposite extreme. Not withstanding deep-tinted cycling glasses, helmets or tweed driving caps. It’s as though we cyclists are making an extreme statement of un-anonyminity. Perhaps we are like peacocks with tails to display. When we ride a bike, we are as stripped of a place to hide as a swimmer clad in nothing but speedos on the beach. We become a magnet in search of eye-to-eye communication. The anthesis of hiding under a shield of tin. Provocatively exposed to the communicative possibilities of face directed at face. Could this be construed by the 24kb NeanderCarl brain as something of a threat? Could be we construed as a confrontation; a I-dare-you-to-say-that-to-my-face assault to those who prefer to fire their tirades from the safety of a two tonne automotive shield?
When you think about it, most car driver road rage is executed much more by way of a drive-by assault than as a man-to-man* engagement on the front line. Yes, sometimes road rage unravels to the physicality of fisticuffs, and only then when a cyclist is silly enough to take the extraordinarily unexpected turn to fight back. But that’s much rarer than abuse delivered via a car horn along with a finger out the window. Road ragers would rather hit you with their car than they would with their fists. They are cowards by definition. But irrespectively, if you de-shrouded these people from their cars and put them eye to eye with those to whom their abuse is aimed, I’d bet their behaviour would be cooled quicker than the engines they’d be forced to leave aside.
If you doubt the power of eye-to-eye contact to defuse a road raged scene, try this experiment. I have tried it many times. It has worked every time. If you can, pull up beside the troll giving you a hard time (maybe when you are both stopped at a set of lights). Turn you head and give him* the eye. Don’t say a word. Just give him* The Look. Think of Lance Armstrong. Watch the abuse fizzle out. Watch the turkey embarrass himself* out of rage as quick as a punctured tyre. Watch him* flounder in defeat and plant his* foot to escape. This works particularly well if you are commandingly fit and lean; a menace of cycle fitness is ever more intimidating the more you can establish The Look.
Naturally, there will be exceptions to my theory. Perhaps giving The Look will ignite explosive decompression when the road rager’s brain power runs out. It’s probably best to simply ride away from any beer branded red neck ute with penis extension antenna masts whipping fifty feet up into the wind. Let Darwin do his work instead.
*Road rage is definitely not constrained to men! Some of the worst offenders are women. Cars do something to over-liberate the conventions of femininity as much as they do to emasculate the conventions of masculinity; road ragers become sexless beasts one and all.
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It is unwise to pay too much. But it’s worse to pay too little. When you pay too much, you lose a little money, that is all. When you pay too little, you sometimes lose everything, because the thing you bought was incapable of doing the thing you bought it to do. The common law of business balance prohibits paying a little and getting a lot. It can’t be done. If you deal with the lowest bidder, it is well to add something for the risk you run. And if you do that, you will have enough to pay for something better. John Ruskin, 1819-1900
That’s a funny quote to stick on the price tag of a tent (in this case, a Mont Moondance 1). But that pretty well sums up the ethos in which I’d prefer to invest when the choices I make are really put to the test. Not too heavy (or I’d just leave it behind), not too light (and flimsy when the wind picks up); water proof within the limits of reasonable rain without having to pack a submarine instead… Our choices always involve a tipping point over some razor edge of pros and cons. Finding that seat on the edge is the hardest part. Marketing and merchandising muddies the stream. I have 6 tents; but only one that sits right on John Ruskin’s pin-point, tipping-pointy edge. I also have around ten bikes in my shed (well, shed, living room, dining room, office … the bedroom is still out-of-bounds). Finding the micron spot that can hold Ruskin’s value-perfornance balance in place is a bit like a Trek to Shangri-La: hard to find and probably shrouded in (marketing) myth.
There’s a few routines you can run to guide making a good choice. In the case of buying a new road bike, you could simply buy the most expensive bike in the shop and hope the margin you paid will insulate you from all the unforeseens that might otherwise convince you to take up golf instead. Buying a new Pinarello Dogma2 is a bit like that. You KNOW that the price for that thing is padded with the mystique of the brand. You KNOW that this mystique is pretty much as much a myth as the cycling skills to which we might secretly aspire. You KNOW that people who pay that price are pretty much all middle-aged dentists with too much money rather than an excess of talent. We all know about ‘pride of ownership’ (unless you are into Zen). We all know that the premium for this pride also explains the perversities of Ferrari’s and the Rolls Royce. And frankly, spending too much on mystique is, really, all just a bit naff.
I’ve been saving for a BMC SLR01. That’s the bike that Cadel used to win the Tour de France. Priced at around $8,000, it’s at least $6,000 cheaper than the new Dogma2. Yes, I know Cadel could have won on a lesser bike. And no, I am not a Cadel Evans fan. And yes, I DO love the new Dogma2. But not in the colours of Teams Movie Star or Sky. But, if it’s good enough to win Le Tour… it must surely be good enough for me without having to spend $6,000 more for the Pinarello. Isn’t that what this search for John Ruskin’s value-performance balance is all about?
Well, I was saving for a BMC SLR01 until I visited my local bike store two weeks ago. I think I was just after some chain lube and a new inner tube. I got my tube and my lube, but I also left with a brand new Giant TCR SL Rabobank 2012 team issue under my arm. That’s the first time I have ever purchased a new bike without a deeply researched technical plan. If there ever was a bike to which I had never, ever, aspired before it would have to be a Giant. I mean, you can’t get further away from the mystique of the Italian thoroughbred bike maker – while still be standing on Planet Earth – than buying a Giant. Isn’t that the brand with all the mystique of a generic supermarket no-frills bottle of milk? All through this year’s Le Tour I was feeling sorry for poor old Luis Leon Sanchez (my favourite pro-cyclist) having to ride the new Giant TCR when, last year, he got to ride Dogma’s for Caisse d’Epargne. No wonder, I thought, he wasn’t doing too well… Giant? Not for me. That’s the choice an economist would make. But wait a minute… I am an economist (or was). I have the PhD in a cupboard somewhere. But even then… Giant? Nah!
But when Mark Bullen, owner of the Armidale Bicycle Centre (who by now can read me like a book, being my bike fix dealer for going on 20 years…) pulled out his brand new 2012 Giant TCR Rabobank team issue bike. ‘Whatdoyoureckon about this?’ Errrr… First thought that comes to mind: wow. Stunning. Step 1. My interest is pricked. Prejudice is put on hold enough to get to Step 2. Lift it up. This thing is light. Step 3: it’s ALL Dura ACE (right down to the chain and every single cluster cog). If you can’t have Campagnolo, Dura Ace will satisfy. Even the wheels. But Step 4. That’s the killer. $6,500. As is, out the door. Now my thinking was, well, if it rides like a gate, I can always stick all the good gear it comes with on a new Dogma frame. Because at this price, the Giant frame is pretty well thrown in for free.
And then on to Step 5. The ride. After 500km (in a day over a week), I had to return to the shop and have a great big moan. Looking Mr Bullen in the eye with more than a hint of displeasure to impart, I presented him with the issue I now had. ‘What, exactly, am I supposed to do with all my other road bikes now?’ This new Giant is better in every way (except, perhaps, in valueless prestige) than all my Pinarello’s and my S Works Roubaix. Actually, I have never ridden a bike that performs like this. I never imagined that one could. Not at this price. Or any other price for that matter. This is what I was anticipating the new Dogma2 would be like. Which no doubt it is. But remember, this Giant is one third the price!
Let me unpack this startling claim. What does ‘better in every way’ actually mean?
My daily ride starts off with a hill. It’s a nice short, steep, out-of-the-saddle sharp attack kind of hill. The new Giant felt like it might have one of those micro engines Fabian Cancellara was supposed to have hidden away to (ludicrously) explain his speed. I have never, ever, ridden a bike as stiff as this. Every possible micro watt of power is transmitted to the road. Every single bit. This thing has what I’ve always imagined ‘direct-drive’ might imply. OK, but that’s just the first five minutes of my first ride. Cynicism is setting in. I am betting that once the ride takes hold this thing is still going to ride like a farm gate on wheels of steel over the rough roads we have around here. It has, after all, got a dirty great integrated seat post connecting the frame to my seat. Those things transmit every bump straight through to your bones; or so I thought.
No. This new Giant is, somehow, vastly more compliant than that. Actually, it’s marginally less harsh than my Pinarello Prince and slightly more so than my Pinarello Paris (my all-time most sacred bike). It’s about 20 per cent harsher than my Specialized S Works Roubaix, but never to the point that I would wish to be on that particular bike instead. And our roads resemble the crater-scape of the Moon. There’s none of that urban city-slicker smooth tar around here. Indeed, our roads don’t seem to have any tar at all, being largely aggregate rocks held in place more by the persistence of double trailered cattle trucks than via the bonding of our city cousins’ lovely hot mix boulevards. For years I have been thinking that integrated seat posts were for city roads in Europe or the US of A. Never, ever, for around here. Myth busted. Now I never need to worry about carbon assembly compounding my seat posts again.
Next up is a good 20 km of undulating flat. Flat out. I cannot believe how fast this bike is. But perhaps that is just a symptom of first-ride enthusiasm. I’ll reserve my judgement until I have more miles on the clock. And then onto the endless hills. My rides all involve hills. Either that or drive someplace else by car to start off a ride. My daily ride involves 20km of min. 8 per cent hills. Time to test out myth number two. Big deep dish wheels. Now I know 50mm wheels are not particularly deep but the wheels I always otherwise ride are the skinny little things that climbers usually ride. These C50 Dura Ace rims are like time trial wheels to me. Surely they won’t be too great when I get to the hills. I bet I’ll be dreaming of my Fulcrum Racing Lights before this ride is done! Nope. These wheels cut a power trench up every hill on my ride. Far from being a handicap on the hills, these Dura Ace C50’s are at least as good as my climbing rims. What, exactly, is going on around here?!
Next is the long wind blown bit in the valley below. Now that’s where I bet these ‘deep’ dish wheels are going to put me into a tree. I am thinking of wheels like sails; to be caught by every side-wind gust. And side-wind gusts were on tap on this and my next ten rides in this wind blown valley of mine. The actual effect is like a gentle but slight pressure to the side; not at all like being blown off the road as I’d imagined. Indeed, the aero effect of the deeper rims at least counter balances any tendency to catch a side wind when the gusts pick up. I am thinking that these rims are so well-behaved because they have such thin bladed spokes. I bet if they had the big flat paddle-spokes of something like a Ksyrium SL I’d be having different thoughts. These wheels are a perfect choice for this new Giant TCR.
Now I have been keeping records of all my rides for well over 20 years. I have been riding this particular morning ride now almost daily for all that time (the rest of the time I am off on my mountain bikes). On my first test ride, I posted the fastest time for this regular ride for any year in the records I have. But any good scientist will know that experiments need to be repeated. So I kept repeating this experiment of time for the next two weeks. Every ride is always faster on the new Giant TCR than any other ride in my record books. Under any conditions. And that includes the rides on my Pinarello Price. And the rides I used to have when I was 20 years younger and racing at A Grade (Cat 1) at my supposed peak. After over 500 km on the clock, this bike continues to amaze. It’s fast. It’s comfortable, even on extended rides. It’s smooth. And it corners like it’s on rails. Especially flat out down hill.
Indeed, it’s the downhill part I have come to appreciate best. The combination of superb frame stiffness, light weight and the airstream rail effect of my new deep dish rims all combine to open an entirely new dimension to going down hills. I am reminded of down hill skiing at the level of my most fervent skiing dreams. Astonishing.
But that’s not all. There is one other part to this bike’s allure. Something I would never have previously associated with the Giant brand. This bike is quite probably the best looking bike I have ever seen. It’s a total stunner in it’s 2012 Rabobank team issue white, blue and orange. But looks are only as deep as the paint. A top-end bike needs to evidence a flawless finish right through to the inside of its carbon tubes. I have been trying ever so hard to find a flaw of any kind in this bike’s build. There isn’t one. It’s finish and construction are robotically flawless. I am looking hard; I am inspired to look hard to justify the $18,200 I spent on my Pinarello Prince. I am as flawed in this endeavour as the finish and build of this Giant is, almost spitefully, flawless.
And there are some lovely little bits to confirm Giant’s attention to detail. Like the included cadence/speed sensor implanted in the rear chain stay. This little beauty is ANT+ compliant which means that it connects automatically to my Garmin Edge 800 GPS computer. A very nice touch. The integrated seat post is also very well considered. Via two choices of metal mast ends, you can have over 45mm of adjustment if, by some chance, you suddenly discover one day that your traditional post extension has always been way, way, too short (as I did about five years ago). The supplied all carbon PRO handlebars are also a nice choice, and not some token cost saving effort to keep Giant’s accountants happy. While being relatively shallow, if your hands are not too huge, they provide a wonderful ergonomic grip in all positions. The Fizi:k Arione seat is one that most of us would likely choose as first option rather than as a standard offering for future upgrade. And, again, to repeat myself, those Dura Ace wheels are an inspired choice in perfect keeping with the ruthless efficiency of the rest of the bike.
Now I know what it’s like to ‘live’ the concept of John Ruskin’s advice. I have found the perfect balance between paying too much and too little.
But, after all, I do have ONE complaint. Not cynical or snide. I do have a complaint. Presumably Giant are building millions of these things and they can pitch them onto the market on a margin that would send anyone else broke. I am deeply concerned that by pitching their new pro-level bike at AUD$6,500, Giant are going to be sounding an assault on the likes of Pinarello, Colnago, Trek and even Specialized that those makers might not survive. I am wondering if, by buying this bike, I am now complicit in the final decline of the family bicycle artisan traditions so glorified by the Italians, the French and the Belgians since the beginning of bicycle racing times. I deeply care about the continuation of those traditions and the passions for bike building that define them. Is the vastly more clinical, robotic, economic-rationalist Giant empire going to kill off the culture and traditions that so define our sport? I promise to make my next bike purchase one more supportive of those all-important traditions. Maybe I will wait for the Pinarello Dogma3.
2012 Giant TCR SL ISP (Integrated Seat Post) Rabobank team issue (size M/L tested)
||XS, S, M, M/L, L, XL
||Advanced SL-Grade Composite, Integrated Seatpost
||Advanced SL-Grade Composite, Full-Composite OverDrive 2 Steerer
||N / A
||Pro Vibe Anatomic Composite, 31.8
||Giant Contact SLR, Composite, OverDrive 2
||Advanced SL-Grade Composite, Integrated Design
||Fi’zi:k Arione CX w/K:ium rail
||Shimano Dura Ace STI 20 sp
||Shimano Dura Ace 10 sp
||Shimano Dura Ace 10 sp
||Shimano Dura Ace dual pivot
||Shimano Dura Ace
||Shimano Dura Ace 10 sp. 11-25T
||Shimano Dura Ace 10 sp.
||Shimano Dura Ace 39x53T
||Shimano Dura Ace press fit
||Shimano Dura Ace 7850-C50-CL Carbon/Alloy clincher
||Vittoria Open Corsa Evo Slick, 700 x 23c
||RideSense, 2 ISP Clamps Provided: Regular 20mm and XL 45mm
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Are there any truly wild places left on earth? Are there any places where the local ecology is completely unspoiled? Well, that depends on your definitions of ‘wild’ and ‘unspoiled’ and on your appreciation of Chaos Theory. If a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can chaotically unleash a hurricane in Japan, then no place is safe from at least the most subtle influences of mankind. Perhaps a wild, ecologically coherent place is simply defined as one where the disturbances of adjoining ecologies are somehow contained to the level of ‘hard to observe’. Present, but you need to really look to notice. If that’s our working definition, then I am wondering how to classify the pure, un-taintedness of the place where I have just walked for the past three days.
You see, I’ve just been walking in my favourite wilderness church; a remote wild river gorge. I’m not going to say where because the ‘disturbances’ I noticed enroute might encourage our park management bureaucrats to take to their helicopter gunships again. Last time the wild horses flashed too much hoof, our Park managers unleashed a holocaust on this seedstock of the Australian Lighthorse.
I can understand the thinking to a degree. But the basic premise is as ignorant as their militant response. Wild places are rare these days. And this place is one of the rarest, most magnificent and most human-unaccommodating of all. If any place was worthy of ecological lock-down, this would have to be it. Wilderness end on end from one seemingly infinitely remote distance into another. There are no accommodations here to man. No paths. No huts, no mobile phone connections! The only way to navigate is via a good set of maps, and a GPS if you really want to come back. Too steep even for mountain bikes (unless you want to carry a bike on your back for the 3 hour 50% gradient hill you need to climb to enter or leave this wild spectacular place).
Horses don’t naturally belong, in an ecological sense. But then again, they belong there more than us. Horses don’t unleash toxic spills; they don’t level forests; they don’t build dams across wild streams. And they certainly don’t sit around campfires chucking beer cans after a wild afternoon of bush-taming conquest via the wheels of their oversized phallically suggestive 4WD’s.
So it’s more than understandable why there’s a will to lock such places away. Especially places where the depradations of humans are contained via inhospitality rather than locked gates. There are so few people willing to take up genuine wilderness walking these days. Thank the gods of this unimaginably gorgeous place.
The path down the river was made by horses’ hooves. You know this every time you step over a stallion’s personal patch. Walk quietly and you will find a family of mares, foals and their vigilant stallion grazing the lush riparian grass. Walk on and they follow via the compulsion of equine curiosity moderated by rightful suspicious fear. I can’t imagine any domesticated horse not wanting to immediately escape to a place such as this. This must be a horses’ vision of heaven. If ever there was a sight to signal harmony of place, this would have to be it. You just know in a deeply intuitive way that it’s you, not the horses who really do not belong. You with your heavy backpack of life-sustaining connection to the alien place from whence you came. Could you survive like they can as permanent residents of this place?
These are the smart, human-shy residues of a population culled by zealous park managers overburdened with good, but ill-conceived intent. These days, the best survivors are those horses who have learned to hide at the merest scent of man and, in particular, at the faintest sound of their noisy flying machines. Over my walk, I observed their hiding places under deeply thatched casaurina stands.
As my bearings re-aligned with the solitude and pristine purity of this place, I too began to reel at even the vaguest hint of man. On the second day, I found some historical catching yards; a bit of wire strung to a tree; a few stakes in the ground; a fire place long long gone cold. Those are the remnants of men who ran cattle through here. Inconceivably tough men who’s heroic pathways could only be described on an Everest climbing scale. All gone now. Locked out by World Heritage dedication and intent. Which only makes me feel even more out of place. A privileged observer who has earn’t this prize to observe and admire via legs cramped via unaccustomed strain (I’ve discovered that cycling fitness does not translate to fitness on the level of a bushwalking boot!). On my third day I came upon a tyre washed up against a river standing tree. What a flood that must have been! But other than that, the world outside has disappeared.
What a lonely, slightly more barren place this would be if the horses were gone. I am sure this place would retain its status as a sacred awe-inspiring wilderness with all the horses gone, but it would be a different place. It would be a more flora-balanced kind of place; a bit like those lichen-moss drenched rain forests found in shaded ridge hollows and straddling river banks in more tropical climates. It would be a quieter, stiller kind of place. It would become (or revert to) a place where you need you to look deeper and with even greater dedication to find and observe wildlife than it takes to notice the in-your-face presence of trees. All this means that my culture of aesthetics is probably skewed towards places with the noisier, busier dynamic of horses and other mega fauna than being a true fit to Australia’s more secretive wildlife ecologies. And I am sure I would still visit this place with the horses gone; and adapt back to the place it would become. But I like what it is now with a passion I am sure others find in church. So I’ll keep hoping that our park managers can manage to maintain a more pragmatic stance in relation to the rather pointless and unreachable goal of ecological purity to which they seem to be rather over-esoterically attached.
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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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