From the Editor: If Our Bikes Get Better, Do We?

I'm not a curmudgeon, I swear. For one, I'm much too young to qualify for official curmudgeon-hood. To be a curmudgeon, you need to be able to make sage proclamations that begin with the phrase, "Back in my day..." I can't do that with any semblance of credibility. As far as I know, my day is still happening. If I went back to reference anything, all I'd be able to refer to are a few choice episodes of TV's The A-Team or Airwolf. Back in my day, that's where I looked for wisdom.

But if I'm not a curmudgeon, why am I swearing I'm not one? Well, think of it as a disclaimer for what I'm about to write. And remember, Grant Petersen is a curmudgeon. Sheldon Brown probably wants to be a curmudgeon but is too silly to pull it off. I am not a curmudgeon, no matter what anyone else tells you.

But here's why I suspect I'm on the path toward curmudgeon-hood: I think the machines that we humans interact with should retain elements that are difficult to use. That's code for, "I like downtube friction shifters." I also enjoy riding in traffic and along mixed routes that involve potholes, railroad tracks, slippery ice, narrow shoulders, and bayside paths littered with inattentive people walking long-leashed yapping speedbumps.

Don't misunderstand. I enjoy the tranquility of a nice, wide, traffic-free bike path. I like staring at my cycle computer without care of car or pedestrian. I even enjoy the rapid-fire ability to select any gear I desire with the flick of a finger, never varying my cadence by more than 3/10 of an RPM.

But here's the thing. There's something inspiring, even sexy, about competent people. And competent people don't become competent by doing things that are easy. Because I want to be competent (read inspiring and sexy,) most of my machines are incredibly difficult to use.

My big red bike, for instance, is a 63cm Raleigh Super-Course with interesting gearing. Up front it's got a 52/39 chainring and out back it's got a 7-speed freewheel that jumps from 28 to 34 teeth in a single shift. Naturally, the bike is equipped with those downtube friction shifters that sexy people use. Librarians may be notoriously sexy but I assure you it's in spite of their indexing habits, not because of them.

When I lived in San Diego I used to commute from Hillcrest to La Jolla and back every day on that big red bike. It was a 28-mile round trip with a very steep (but short) hill somewhere in the middle. This hill began immediately after a sharp 90-degree corner at a stop sign. I'd stop at the sign, make the turn and then immediately shift down to my 34-tooth cog.

These days, of course, I can shift that bike slicker than a buttered hot dog on a water slide, but back then I wasn't as sexy as I am today. Nine times out of ten I'd round the corner, reach for my shifter, shift into the 34-tooth cog, then right past the 34-tooth cog and into the spokes. No adjustment screw, no matter how far turned, could solve the problem. If you gently nudged the shifter, the chain would cuddle up with the side of the big cog and make a racket so fierce it seemed certain that either a shift or some kind of mechanical offspring was imminent. But a shiftless racket was all a nudge would inspire.

If you jammed the shifter hard, however, the chain would jump up onto the cog like a big dog into a pickup truck. But in its exuberance, the chain would keep going, over the cog, off the backside, and into the spokes with a furious excitement. My chain and my spokes couldn't get enough of each other.

It took me almost three months of riding, 60 attempts, before I developed a technique for that one shift. The technique itself was conceptually simple but demanding in practice. I'd initiate the shift by pulling hard on the shifter. This got the chain to jump up onto the big cog. Then I'd immediately back off just a bit to keep the chain from overshooting the gear.

It was demanding to execute because there was no feedback. The two-part motion had to be done not in response to any feel or sound, but as a specific and practiced movement. There was no time for feedback. It was like a less involved version of driving a shifter kart through a chicane. You don't steer the kart through. Rather, you line yourself up and slam the steering wheel right left right as fast as you can, knowing that if you execute a properly-timed sequence without even thinking about it, it will work.

That shift was an epochal moment of the ride every day. After I'd done it once, I knew it was possible. In the beginning I usually botched it. But gradually, success became more frequent until the shift happened with the consistency and beauty of a finely made clock. Even after it had become second nature, that shift was something I owned, a little piece of competence which hadn't existed before.

The example may be dramatic, but any bike commute is a series of little challenges like this. Every route is comprised of a string of problems needing a solution. Those wet railroad tracks demand a technique. That four-lane traffic river requires some thought. And every day you ride the route, you add a solution to the score until one day you find you're riding it from start to finish as naturally and gracefully as a practiced dancer. Your commute no longer a commute, but a performance. Such competence is inspiring and sexy.

It's a cliched story but one that inspires us nonetheless. Jimmy Hendrix learned to play guitar upside down because he didn't have a left-handed model. Scores of children in Costa Rica will out-surf you on homemade boards carved from trees. From shoeless long-distance runners to that one guy on a fixed gear at a cyclocross race, there are people out there whose competence comes from a practiced humanity, not a collection of gear. We can't help but admire them. The next time you think you need a new piece of equipment, ask first whether it's new equipment you really need, or just more practice.