too many words by laura lemay

the red bicycle

On a bicycling mailing list I’m on there was a heated discussion about why people buy expensive lightweight bicycles when ordinary bicycles will do just fine. The implication was that people who buy expensive bikes are shallow and dumb. I wrote this bit to explain why I bought my bicycle (and to defend being shallow and dumb).

But why? Lighter bikes aren’t any more fun for me. Can you explain why they are more fun for you? Is it just one of the ineffable mysteries of life?

I’d chock it up to the same consumerism that permeates our society: i.e., people buy fancy bikes for the same reason they buy fancy cars, and designer clothes, and big diamond rings, etc. That spending more just makes people feel good, because it proves they can spend more. But maybe that’s wrong, and I’m being unfair? I’d quite like to understand this.

I have a story.

A number of years ago I was shopping for a new bike. I was a beginning rider and had been riding on the street and on trails on a very cheap and heavy trek mountain bike. My husband had done a lot of research for me and we went to our local bike shop to try out a number of bikes he thought would fit my current riding style — hybrids, touring bikes, basic commuter bikes. I tried a number of them in the parking lot and all of them were fine; all of them were a significant improvement over my trek but I couldn’t pick any one over another one. All of them were fine, practical bikes.

And then the sales guy came out to the parking lot with a bike we had not chosen. It was a real road bike, a racing bike, with drop bars and clipless pedals and a much more aggressive riding position. It was much lighter than any of the other bikes I had tried, it was italian, it was red, and it was more money than I wanted to spend. I balked. “Just try it,” said the sales guy.

I got on the bike and wobbled around for a bit; the position was confusing, the shifting was odd, and I was riding on top of the clipless pedals in my sneakers. But as I rode up and down the parking lot, back and forth, over and over, a funny thing happened. The other bikes had been fine to ride, to just get on and pedal from one side of the lot to the other. They were good, plain, basic bikes. This one felt different. This one felt good. Pedalling it, steering it, shifting it — if felt like it was no work at all. I had never been a fast rider; I spent most of my riding time coasting along on trails by my house. But this bike… this bike made me want to go fast. This bike was more than just a machine. This bike was fun. I was astonished and slightly frightened, as if if I were not careful, the bike would take the bit in its teeth and race off down the road without me.

I stayed out on the red bike for a long time, and then when I brought it back I handed it to the sales guy and shook my head. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “I can’t buy this bike,” I said sadly. “It’s just too good for me.”

We went to other shops, and I tried lots of other bikes. I tried other road bikes with road positions, and more basic bikes. But the red italian bike haunted me. For days I fretted about it. And then I scraped together the money and I bought that bike.

The first time I took it out on the road I went out on a short ride around town I did a lot back then. There’s a hill right in the middle of that ride — not a huge monster of a hill, but a good-sized rise in the road. On my old trek I would have to shift into the lowest gear and it would still take me a lot of time and work to get up that hill.

My husband had told me that the red bike was lighter than my trek and that would make it easier to get up the hills. So when I hit the hill on the red bike, I just downshifted a few cogs, but I kept my hand on the lever in case I needed to bail out onto the granny ring. And then that bike just sailed right up that hill it as if someone were pushing it from behind. I actually stopped at the top of the hill and turned back to look, it was such a surprise to me how easily I had climbed that hill. Was it the same hill? Did they flatten it in the last month? No, it wasn’t the hill. It was the bike. It was the lightweight red italian racing bike that made all the difference. And I fell in love with it all over again.

I’ve had the red bike for years now and I’m used to it and I know now its not nearly as light as a lot of these high end bikes that people buy. Every once in a while I look at one of those fancier bikes and think about trading up. Given the amount of riding I do (not all that much, all recreationally), I really can’t justify the cost. Me and the red bike, we do OK.

I’m sure that people buy expensive lightweight bikes for all kinds of vague emotional impractical reasons, including rampant consumerism, fashion, because someone they admire has one, etc, and not necessarily for practical riding-from-here-to-there reasons.

For me it was all about the fun.