Friday, October 3, 2008

The Finest Gear That Money Can Buy

It's been interesting reading reportbacks from Interbike, the cycling industry's annual convention. I wasn't there, as I'm just a lowly enthusiast - in the world, not of it, as the saying goes. But the messageboards and blogs get all fired up with reactions to the new lines of gear, the new aerodynamic improvements of this and that, everybody gushes about the photos of the new technological bit or piece... and then some people buy some stuff, some people forget about stuff, everybody goes about their business. I go back to searching eBay for "Campagnolo 9 speed;" occasionally I might see somebody out in the park, or up on 9W, with a fancy bit of new gear. I saw Campagnolo's 2009 brake/shifter lever bodies a few weeks ago, and they do look and feel lovely. Of course, for a while I've been seeing SRAM Red make the rounds (there's a big display in the window of the bike shop across the street from the building I work in). I wonder how long until I see a Campy-rigged bike with those new shifters and realize that that rear end goes to eleven; or until I see the SRAM-esque hoods of Shimano's electric group, Di-2.

It's an interesting time for the cutting edge. Though the importance of aerodynamics in cycling has been acknowledged by manufacturers since the 80s, aerodynamics seem to be on the rise again - I'm seeing more and more deep-dish carbon fiber rims , even underneath people who seem to be somewhat casual riders. SRAM's entry into the transmission market a few years ago has obviously prompted Shimano and Campagnolo to change the direction of their improvements. Shimano went toward electronics, and Campagnolo, seeking ways to make shifting even faster, wound up with eleven cogs on the rear.

And so, as others have noted, bicycles are getting more expensive. "Cycling is the new golf," say some, noting a rise in boutique, custom bicycles for wealthy amateurs. Meanwhile, bike shops this summer had a hard time keeping anything on their shelves as everyday citizens bought bikes, possibly in response to rising fuel prices.

The surge in the popularity of bicycles, be they for racing or for transportation, is not surprising. It coincides with rising cost of automobile use and a revitalization of American cities, factors which contribute to an argument that bicycles can be used as reliable transportation in many of the country's densest areas. Many of the major companies are making more and more commuter-oriented models, all-purpose bikes, or simple and affordable single-speed/fixed gear bikes. Worldwide, bicycle sales are through the roof, far outpacing the declining automobile sales. Locally and even nationally, cities are in a position to encourage, incentivize, and plan and prepare for transportation choices of the upcoming generations that could dramatically address issues of public health, air pollution, and city traffic congestion. By making dedicated bike facilities - racks, bike lanes, greenways, and traffic enforcement that doesn't just try to keep cars moving as fast as possible - cities can ensure that with increasing the safety of city cycling, they'll increase the number of citizens traveling by bike, therefor decreasing reliance on automobiles.

I can't help but wonder if all the glitz and glamor of the high-end racing market helps or hurts this need for policymakers, urban planners, and the population at large to consider the bicycle as an important part of the transportation network. Is it a sign of misplaced priorities, focusing so much glamor on the wealthiest elements of a sport that so few people understand, anyway? To so many, bikes are just flimsy-looking things ridden by pale, skinny guys on the side of the road wearing tight and ridiculous clothing. On the other hand, generating an economy of wealthy amateurs buying high-priced goods enables these corporations to engage in philanthropic efforts that can indeed support the cause - Trek has supported some significant innovations here in New York City that help raise the visibility and priority of bicycles in the transportation network. Furthermore, these huge companies probably need the credibility that comes with being competitive at the top of the market in order to be able to produce reliable midrange gear, especially considering the technological developments that, in the course of a couple of years, trickle down from the high-end lines to the mid-range equipment.

There are pressing needs around the world that are being addressed by some significant players in the cycling industry. Craig Calfee has done interesting work developing bamboo bicycles that can be used in rural African areas; Kona's BikeTown project has designed and built bikes that can be used by African health care workers to visit more patients - a unique intersection of transportation and public health, which has been addressed by smaller organizations in the past.

The bicycle is as inherently political as anything else in this world and I urge riders to make the leap from love of the bicycle to an evangelism of sorts. Use what you love to change the world for the better. Support efforts to provide bicycles - a reliable, sustainable, transportation method - to areas and societies that most desperately need them. Support companies engaged in philanthropic work. Support local nonprofit organizations that seek to improve the quality of life in our cities in this area where transportation, public health, and public space policy intersect.

We know how much bikes can change us. Let's find out how much bikes can change the world.


  1. A problem with Kona's AfricaBike... Shouldn't a bike designed to increase the range of a healthcare worker be an interesting (and badass) mix between a 'cross bike and a touring bike? i.e. knobby tires and cantilevers, flatbars, and relaxed touring geometry in order to facilitate racks and lots of hauling?

    Instead of a beach cruiser with a basket?

  2. that beach cruiser with a basket looks like it's based off of old porteur bikes, with some design elements aimed at people who've never ridden bikes before (step-through frame). that's a bike made to last for fifty years. and that basket and rack are all utility. not the most stylish, but a solid intersection between utility and affordability. remember, we're talking about transportation options in developing countries.