Money Well Spent
By Maynard Hershon
When I visit our good local bicycle shop, I see amazing sights. I see bikes that cost thousands and thousands of dollars, making me wonder just what it is that, one, makes them cost so much; and two, who the hey-ull can afford them.
Those bicycles are never going to be used for transport or commuting. Many or most will never be raced. They’re extravagant toys, by and large. Not, as someone said, that there’s anything wrong with that. This is the Land of the Free, as we all know.
Having read those two paragraphs, do you suspect, dear reader, that I’m jealous of the lucky folks who can buy 15,000-dollar bicycles? I don’t think I am.
I’m delighted with my two old steel bikes, my aluminum-rimmed handbuilt wheels and my old Ultegra and Dura-Ace parts. And I love my recently acquired Long-Haul Trucker, which cost not much over one thousand dollars. It’s great! I saved 14 grand!
If our local shop is representative of high-end road stores nationally, hundreds or thousands of such thin-air bikes are finding welcoming homes. Because I am a lifetime booster of the Good Local Bike Shop, I’m pleased for those stores. I hope they get to make some money on those labor-intensive (and hand-holding intensive) sub-15-pound machines.
That’s the aspect of those bikes that I most appreciate. They help light the lights and pay the salaries at shops we love. That’s a mission from God.
When I see those bikes, I think of the late-’70s, when my buddy Jim and I would drive down from our homes in Marin County, Calif., to Santa Cruz, to train with the guys. We’d go down Thursday evening and come home Sunday afternoon so we could get in a few rides with the club there — a more focused, hard-riding bunch than we were used to at home.
At that time, I owned a red, black and yellow Team Raleigh, made of Reynolds 753 tubing, the legendary superbike of the era. It was just like the bikes the TI-Raleigh Team riders rode, made in a small workshop separate from the Raleigh factory.
It was a genuinely nice bike and I wish I had it back, almost 40 years later. Imagine riding a 40-year-old bike on one of today’s training rides. Why, it’d be almost the only steel bike on the ride, let alone a near-antique!
When Jim and I appeared for those Santa Cruz rides, many of which ran at near race-pace, I had the sweetest bike on the rides. Head and shoulders. Did I reach the tops of those Santa Cruz County hills first? Never, and I’d remember. Did I win city-limit-sign sprints? I did not.
Was I a star in any sense in that club or on those rides? I was not. I was Joe Dude, but I had a really nice bike.
In Marin County, where Jim and I lived, if you had some money and you were racing or even riding with a fast bunch, you bought as much bike as you could afford. That was the way of it.
Santa Cruz was different.
I’d see a guy on an old Italian frame, chipped paint, flaking decals, dirty from rain rides. The front and rear wheels were not a set: different hubs, different rims. The front brake caliper did not match the rear. The brake levers did not match either one.
The derailleurs, front and rear, came from different countries. The handlebar tape was frayed above the brake levers. The bikes were absolutely unglamorous, simple workhorses.
The guy on the bike might wear an old woolen club jersey, shrunk far too small. He might wear thrift-store trousers liberated from an old suit, the cuffs stuffed in his mid-calf cotton socks. He was probably, in those days, not wearing a helmet. You saw holes in his tights.
He was on the National Team, an ace cyclist who had raced all over the States and probably in Mexico and in Europe. He was a genuine, no-flash, hard-as-nails bike racer.
There was no money in racing then, so you could be successful and still survive on Ramen and pancakes. You may have been able to find a sponsor who’d give you a frame or a set or two of wheels or a parts group, but the search would have been frustrating and probably distasteful.
And for what? Would you go faster on new wheels? Would you lap faster at a criterium on that new frame? Would the parts group (for which you’d owe favors and good PR for the supplier) work any better than the mismatched, worn parts already on your bike? No, no, and no.
I watched those guys, and there were several in Santa Cruz in those days, and I realized that it really isn’t about the bike. Very few people in the bicycle industry, very few bicycle journalists, have the freedom to write such a statement. Bike and equipment sales are what it’s all about.
Check out the folks on your own training rides. Does the most expensive bike, or the most coveted hand-built, crest the hill in front? Does it negotiate a technical, twisting descent most safely and quickly? Does it attract admiration for its owner’s riding ... or his discretionary income?
If you have a good bike that is not a monument to bicycle preciousness, ride your good bike. Get it dirty. Avoid the purchase of an icon you’d be reluctant to take to an event atop your car. If you want something to worship, a focus for devotion, take a Sunday morning off your bike and go to church. Ride your bike; the one you already own.
If you feel you must spend the fifteen grand, buy a good travel case and ride your bike in Italy or France. Go twice. Oh, and the most important advice in this article and maybe in this issue: Fly business class. Now that’s money well spent.