It's 3:30pm we’re standing in the utility room and I’m frantically trying to remove pedals from one bike and apply them to another. The sun is scorching through the crappy plastic roof and sweat is pouring down my brow. My Okleys are sliding further and further down my nose and all is not well. As this ridiculously simple task beets me and my frustration grows my ten year old son gently enquires; “Dad why can’t we just have one bike which does everything?”, “Good flippin question!!!” I reply, and then my mind jumps back nine hours.
It’s 8:30am and the sun is rising over the university campus, person “A” walks gently towards the pod with the strange combination of both a mildly glazed expression and a faintly curious look in his/her eye. I politiely enquire, “Good morning can I help you?” Said person invariably replies, “Yes I’m looking for a new bike”. And then in our next question lies a tiny, microscopic stroke of genius, “Great stuff, tell me about your riding”.
Over the next few minutes the aforementioned individual shares a whole stack of information about their cycling journeys past, present and future, we laugh at their apparent failures marvel at their their ambitions, hear their fears, understand their constraints (remember those, we all have them) and stand boggle eyed at their articulation of aesthetic preferences. These snippets of real information are hugely important in enabling our team to help our friends make good choices about their investment, choices which are good because they attend to reality and reality is all there is.
Maybe none of this sounds remotely interesting so lets pause and recall for a moment the alternative and largely normative question asked by most bike shops:
“Great; what kind of bike would you like?”
What, you might ask, is the problem with such a question. Surely knowing the desired object is progress? Well. . . not really.
The traditional approach has two epic problems.
Firstly it assumes any of us have the foggiest clue what we really want and need and thus immediately limits the scope of any potential purchase to the confines of both our pre existing imagination and our ability to articulate this in an intelligible fashion. Worse still there will always be those whose object based desires remain locked firmly in utopia, a land which bears little resemblance to the fixed realities of their behavior, their bank account their family, their time, their geography etc. Trusting that others are able to see in us what we are not always able to see in ourselves is the path of progress. Every time I taste scallops cooked with spring onions and honey, ride fixed or play with my kids I am deeply grateful that there are people in my life who know that my preferences for beans, gears and work are in fact very limiting choices.
Secondly, an object focused question like, “what kind of bike would you like?” invariably leads to a flood of fairly meaningless answers, “I’d like something lighter than a bag of crisps, a bit like Chris Froome’s bike and I need to be able to tow the kids through forests, it needs to look cool and be really simple, be a bit vintage and have that suspension stuff, oh and it needs to be less than £60”. Such an articulation not only offers us a good dose of humor but further reminds us of the fundamental problem. While our instinct is to tick as many boxes as possible the truth of our diverse and interesting lives is that there simply is no such thing as the perfect bike for every occasion. The description ‘A good all rounder’ is just another means of describing ‘huge compromise across multiple areas’. That’s why we try our best not to focus on the product but to listen to the story of the user.
The perfect bike is elusive because the life it requires is one too mundane to entertain.
The common objection to this line of thinking is that our customer centric focus is too historically focused. What about all of that incredible riding you would love to do if only you had. . . . This argument has enabled thousands of irresponsible retailers to sell millions of dust gathering bikes to tens of thousands of persons more in need of therapy than a good bike. Ambition is surely good but in reality progress is nearly always incremental.
There is another fly in the ointment of bike purchasing. We westerners have developed fairly unhelpful understandings of both compromise and focus. We think of compromise as a weakness and of focus as sacrificing all else for ever, and so we continue to pursue an impossible and crippling breadth of utopian ideals, ‘the bike that does everything, for everyone, all of the time’. In truth we are simply unwilling to engage in the hard work of focus. What is required to make a good choice is not a watering down of everything but a focus on what matters most, listening to our own stories, hopes, dreams and patterns of daily life is a good start in the right direction. The compromise we need is a compromise of expectations one bike will not do everything, at least not well. Knowing that some things matter more than others doesn’t make us week, unimaginative or stubborn it makes us mature and well balanced, it is why my ten year old is not responsible for the weekly shop.
If decision making is tough try not to keep looking over your shoulder focusing on what your particular decision does not allow but rather look forward and ask yourself 'how can I maximise the opportunities this decision enables'. Going for a hybrid bike might well mean you'd be ill advised to take it down Snowden so let's focus on the huge benefits which derive from having a bike which enables you to commute in real comfort. If your budget is the limiting factor then focus on seeing this bike as a stepping stone, saving you money while building your fitness.
Ultimately our bikes are tools which help us to build and live a wonderful life; thus being honest and accurate about the reality of that life really mattes. Get it wrong and we get locked in a verydestructive place. Often times we meet people who (for all kinds of good reasons) get this badly wrong; the tragic sight of a £3k full carbon bike doing nothing more than the school run, the dedicated urbanite with full dual suspension and tyres wide enough for the average combine harvester, the £60 supermarket bike shaped object enlisted for the 100k sportive. All of these tragedies resemble an unwillingness to focus hard on what matters not to everyone else but to our individual circumstances.
With this in mind I increasingly suspect that for most of us what really matters is not the technical functionality or specification of a particular bike but the very simple question, ‘does it bring us joy?‘ Not pretend joy (‘it makes Wiggins happy so it must make me happy’) but real, sincere joy. There are few feelings better than finding the bike that really works for your specific need.
So next time you’re buying a new bike begin by accepting that what matters is you, not the sales person, not the multi million dollar advertising campaign, not the apparent bargain, not what the geek in the office thinks you should ride, but you, your use, your pattern of actual life, your needs, your story, your aspirations, your next steps through the adventure we call life, YOU!
Breathe deep, be bold, accept where you are and focus on the small step to the place you'd like to be.
If you travel on the train and need a folding bike then don’t get frustrated at the lack of race wheels. If your looking to commute across the city at speed dual suspension shouldn’t be high on your list. If you need something to match your increased fitness and reduce your sportive time then you’ll need to sacrifice the comfort of an urban cruiser, if you just want to look cool at the pub forget those 27 speed carbon fiber beauties, if you’re looking for a bike to build on your current achievements you may need to slow down and save a little more. In all of these circumstances what matters is you and your reality, wonderful person that you are.
And hey, if the bike you buy doesn’t fulfill all your needs that just means you need another bike :-) Just try to make sure they all have pedals!