Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Bicycle Consumption

I have a friend from my more torn-clothes punk-rock past; I fear her reproach. She lives half in my head and half in the real world - which to say it's entirely possible that I'm imagining the things that she would say, engaging in too much speculation. That I'm using her as a way to externalize my conscience.

We discovered bikes together at the university bike coop, taught each other the hammer-and-duct-tape method of bike mechanics, rode mountain bike beaters around and locked up to street signs and dumpstered miscellaneous parts and frames and pieced together our first fixed gears and, above all, reveled in our bike culture of putting to use the cast-offs from a recklessly wasteful society and building a means of affordable, egalitarian, and secretly subversive transportation. Yes, what I'm trying to say was that those first bikes were indeed pipe bombs.

What would she say now? What would she say to my pretty-but-beat-up classic Italian track bike (with Campy 151 cranks and vintage Zeus hubs)? And what would she say about my aluminum-and-carbon frame that I use exclusively for racing at the track?

There is an inherent strain of consumerism underlying much of cycling culture. This came as a surprise to me, as my main exposure to bike culture was noting that every poor kid in that faded industrial city in New England where I lived after college had a beat-up BMX bike that they'd ride around town, popping and holding huge wheelies. But in New York City, I had easy access to just-out-of-college kids spending whatever didn't go to their student loans on a new frame here, a new wheelset there. NJS this, Italian that. And meanwhile we've got the cyclists who live proximal to Central Park and trot out their Colnagos, Cervelos, and Litespeeds (oh my!) on the weekends, meandering the loop at 18 mph only semi-aerodynamically tucked onto their HED aerobars, looking for all the world like that kid you knew in high school who decided he wanted to learn guitar so went out and got a way-sweet Les Paul and a 50-watt tube amp and struggled to contort his fingers into a bar chord. Or the middle-aged, masters-level racers who show up to Kissena for the first time - "I'm just trying out track racing since I've been having a hard time not getting dropped at Floyd Bennet Field" - with their bikes wearing a new set of Zipp 808s.

Why, my friend would be asking me, would you even step close to that? Why do you have three fixed-gear bikes? (But I don't! One fixed, one track bike, and one extra track frameset...) You can really stick to your ideals and pare down your stable to one or two bikes, can't you?

Oh, right. This isn't her telling me this, it's me telling me this.

I have answers, and they're answers about how to resist consumerism while still being a bike geek. In these uncertain times, in this uncertain country, everybody spends money and everyone has their priorities. While everything is relative, having a hobby isn't indicative of conspicuous consumption (having several hobbies on the purchase scale of bikes might be, however). You work for your money and you spend it on things you like. Some people buy nicer food and some people rely on six meals a week of rice and beans. Some pay rent, some squat. Some pay off their student loans faster. Some people drink a lot. Some people give everything they don't need to people who need it a lot more.

Some people buy right to the top, buy the fanciest wheels for their new toy, go through framesets like they're trying on clothes for the high school dance. Some amateurs buy professional-level gear. I think that's ridiculous but can't say I wouldn't mind owning some of that gear.

Of the six frames I've owned in the past three years, one was bought new - my first, a tough steel all-around commuter fixed gear which I still own and ride. The others have all been used - very well used, in fact, without exception. I think hard about what bike bits I want and need, I consider alternatives, I make plans and I drop them. I buy used; I patiently wait for good deals, and sometimes I impulsively buy things I don't really need. I sell stuff from my parts bin - usually to friends, with prices falling between "good" and "I'm doing you a favor."

So I'm not part of it all - not entirely. Or I'm as much not a part of it as I am a part of it. Or, there's no such thing as being part of it or not being part of it.

Look: don't buy the best thing you can get. You might not need it. Don't buy everything you want - you might have some redundant bike issues. Buy smart and buy restrained and make good financial decisions. Buy used, for goodness sake - I'm not too confident in the environmental effects of all that carbon production, that aluminum production, the chroming and painting processes. Buy things that will last you. I think the measure of unhealthy consumption might not be what you have, but what you go through.

If I were living somewhere else, with different habits, I might have one bike - some steel cyclocross bike with a carbon fork (and a steel one in the closet), that I could put some slick tires on and use in the occasional road race, or throw a rack on and go for a light tour.

No doubt that day will come eventually, but it's not here right now.

Until then, I'm going to enjoy my hobby, and spend less on my bikes than so many people do on electronics, clothes, rent in ugly gentrified neighborhoods, drugs and alcohol, cars and other shitty forms of transportation, and so forth.

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