Bicycles, evolution, and design

By Peter Moore

“We’ve got seven kinds of Coke; five hundred kinds of cigarette. This freedom of choice in the USA drives everybody crazy.” –John Doe and Exene Cervenka, “See How we Are,” X

Bicycles are wonderful tools. They magnify the limited physical abilities of the human body in a manner that is not completely at odds with the long term health of either humans or our ecosystems. They allow our mechanical ingenuity to flower, leaving us with various forms of bicycle: the road with all of its specialized subdivisions, the fixed gear freestyler, the mountain (divided into cross country, all mountain, downhill, and so on), and all the rest.

All this specialization reflects a kind of planned evolution of the basic safety bicycle from a little over a century ago. As roads got smoother, tires got skinnier on road bikes; and frame geometries and clearances adapted to fit these smoother roads. A counter-evolution started more recently, some forty years ago more or less (we think) with various California tinkerers adapting the frames of Schwinn Excelsior cruisers to the dusty, rutted fire roads, adding on gears, cantilever brakes, three-piece cranks in the process.

Like bicycles, we humans also change over time. Over the past century or so, average heights have shot up globally as nutrition has improved. Likewise, in the first world (and especially in the USA) over the past thirty to forty years, we’ve become fatter as we’ve grown taller: as our socially constructed surroundings require less and less physical work, we do less and less, and as we consume more manufactured “food,” we gain weight.

As this manufactured food indicates, the society in which we find ourselves is one shaped by the profligate, perhaps even cancerous creativity of capitalism: any need that can be imagined must be filled, preferably with a multitude of bright-label consumer choices billboarded with shrieking claims. This part of our social ecosystem asks us to develop into that strangest of beings, the consumer; yet this development is not conducive long term human wellbeing.

The consumer is someone defined not by what he or she does but by what he or she purchases. In a most basic way, consumers are asked to do as little as possible: to simply reach for a credit card, swipe it, and thereby purchase identity as defined by those purveyors of fantasy in the advertising and publishing worlds. If the evolutionary goals of capitalist marketing ever reach their telos, we will all become wallet-reaching, card-swiping oddities, where our minds are simply instruments of weighing brand names, our eyes focused only on cleverly designed logos, our ears tuned only to the jingles that tout the new, the improved, the so very, very necessary. How easy this life is! How very expensive! And how very bad for the underlying human being! This hyperspecialization exerts immense costs, something I hope to show in the following paragraphs.

As the development of bicycles indicate, becoming hyperspecialized is a liability. To exist means to embody possibilities; but existence equally means to live with concrete limitations. The form these limitations take is important. While a first world human existence at least temporarily seems to mean a world of unfettered identity seeking through consumption, I would argue that this involves so many ancillary limitations that reveal “choice” in its consumer form is instead a costly embrace of a strait-jacket. Similarly, while a carbon aero road bike with carbon aero wheels and the latest 11 speed Campy component group represents an evolutionary peak of sorts, from another (more thoughtful) perspective it represents an evolutionary dead end. It is of limited use, delicate, and has a profoundly limited life span; all because of a simple rule: that designing something to perform one task amazingly well inevitably distorts–limits–its overall flexibility.

Similarly a Formula One racing car represents an evolutionary peak of sorts, but equally a complete dead end, for it is useless outside the hyperspecialized surroundings constituted by a governing body’s rules; and if hybridized turkeys bred for immense amounts of white breast meat were ever to escape the confines of their controlled environments they would die in the flexibility-requiring world outside a modern commercial turkey farm. To return to bicycles: compared to the carbon wonderbike that race nerds drool over, the older model–a mere twenty years old now– of a tougher, heavier bicycle (think a lugged steel road bicycle that won races up until the 1990s) allows for a much greater range of uses: fatter tires for commuting and riding on mixed surfaces; greater durability and tolerance for eclectic parts mixes; and a much greater simplicity overall. Likewise, the admirable practical bicycles that are now on the market that combine in equal measure balanced frame geometry, clearance for urban-adequate tires and fenders, and a durable but reasonably light frame show an evolution–or is it a devolution– towards goals that do not involve a developmental cul de sac.

We humans are equally part of this world that requires specialization, but that equally paradoxically punishes its excesses. Think of the NFL football players who die young due to the demands put on their bodies while, dressed in pads and helmets, they pummeled other young giants on astroturf: they were impressive, scary even when in their prime; but tragic when, knees damaged, brains addled from continued hits, some die young from having provided us with an entertaining media circus for fall weekends and Monday nights. Or more mildly think about bodybuilders strutting along the beach, whose overdeveloped thighs require an odd, leg-swinging gait: having successfully built up bodies that on the stage look a certain way, they have lost the ability to walk with the simple grace that marks a healthy animal. These examples could be repeated endlessly, but I trust the point is clear. Specialization is inevitable; but perhaps we should be wary of the forms it takes and the extent to which we indulge it.

Hence my choice to devolve, both in cycling, and in my own activities. I cannot help but consume, but my identity is not that of a consumer. I prefer older bicycles for the reasons I mention above. Likewise, I try to define myself in terms of what I do and believe, not by what I buy. I want to have tangible, multipurpose abilities that allow for independence, personal satisfaction, and a sense of purposeful agency in the world we live in rather than its glossy consumer substitute that I’m always told I should want to inhabit, but frankly cannot afford in either the financial or in personal sense.

Given that I live in Los Angeles, in the USA, and in 2011, these are difficult choices to live up to. But when I consider the options, really, what else can I do?

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3 Responses to “Bicycles, evolution, and design”

  1. Who doesn’t appreciate a nice bit of roughage with his bike news diet? Thanks for a challenging and provocative piece, sans polemics, and puts me in mind of the bigger picture.
    I’m with you: steel all the way.

    My main ride is a Scapin (circa 1988) with chrome forks and stays, campy dropouts, wonderful lugs, Nuovo Record group, and an anodized frame. Hard to find the workmanship today. My commuter is a repurposed Trek. Steel is where it’s at.

    As a semi-vintage steel rider, I eschew the newest, high-tech stuff; it seems to miss the point for me. But I do value the trickle-down fruit from specialist, narrow-niche production. When I focus on the rides and not the ride, I think I’m getting the point.

    As to your argument, it’s complicated by the nature of innovation beyond bikes. On one side, you have high-barrier production (chips, phones); on the other, low-barrier production like software. Both proceed in lockstep like an intricate dance. But both are possible only if supported by a market driven mostly by consumers.

    Software is particularly interesting because it’s on the whole more consumer-focused and fast-evolving. What if the flip phone were phone enough for most people? What would we do without a robust consumer market to drive innovation and reward imagination & utility in the most specialist niches?

  2. Mark,
    Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

    The problem I have with most electronic innovation is that the “needs” the products fulfill are at very least partially generated by marketing. That this is true does not change the fact that they can in turn be used in counterintuitive ways; witness my blog posts.

    Consumer capitalism produces its own markets and its own logic in virtue of its extreme adaptability. There are real strengths to this adaptability, but the weaknesses are much more often ignored in the (to me) thoughtless cheerleading of all innovation, which ignores the increasing dependence we have entities that do not have our independence, health, and overall wellbeing at heart.

    I hope this is not too general a reply to your comments to be helpful and thought-provoking.

  3. >increasing dependence we have entities that do not have our independence, health, and overall wellbeing at heart.

    Well nowhere more so that with technology. We never knew that we needed this stuff, and being adaptable creatures we organize our lives around it. But of course we’re out on a limb: ever more distant from the fundamentals, with a simple power outtage or dead battery we’re rudely reminded of how precarious we truly are.

    Not so with a bike! I agree with you that often marketing drives the demand for innovation, and here’s where I see it’s different from technology. I’m not sure that the innovations since my late 1980s quality steel frame bike are all that significant. Carbon fiber is very light. Indexed shifting is pretty cool. These bikes are responsive. But in 30 years, I don’t see any great innovations. (Maybe non-traditional bikes or the adaptation of bikes to new tasks?)

    When I went to add a bike to my stable, I thought I’d update my main road ride. But I liked very little of what I saw (in the $2000 range) and viewed the progress in those 30 years as somewhat illusory – at least at that price point. I saw it as purely marketing-driven. I see these bikes pull up to the coffee shop every weekend. I covet none of them.

    I took my frame in, pointed out what I liked about the detailing, etc., and asked my bike shop what I’d have to spend to get that quality in today’s equipment. $4000-5000 I was told.

    Contrast that with technology, where the pace of change is truly transformative and the price gets chopped in half eery 5-10 years.

    Well, maybe I’m off topic. But when I muse about bikes and marketing, I can’t help but believe that the emperor often has no clothes. Or actually wears spandex!

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