Functionality as inspiration :: Part III.

Continued from Part I and Part II...

As I alluded to earlier, progress follows exponential arcs, both from a macro view and, if you zoom in really close, a micro view too. The macro view might show the jump from a dandy horse to penny farthing. The micro view of the same graph might be the jump between a steel single pivot sidepull and a modern aluminum dual pivot sidepull. It's all dependent on the perception of who you ask as everything is subjective, regardless of quantitative data. You'll certainly get different answers from me versus a wealthy Masters road racer versus a recumbent enthusiast versus a migrant train hopper.

I am firmly in the "bicycles as tools" camp. I understand that might put me in the same Venn diagram with people that have text-based websites or give overly verbose explicit instructions to waitstaff and grocery baggers, but I'm OK with that. Along with thinking about aircraft or minimalist racing vehicles, I think about hand tools and machinery that were made for my grandparent's generation: functional, repairable (or replaceable at the time with good vendor support), owner serviceable, and...after all that...aesthetically pleasant without extraneous showing off. I open my tool box and see "my nice hammer". I then take it and happily, as it is so well balanced and I know it well, pound the hell out of what I need to. Then I put it away. I don't gaze at it longingly like a deity, but I know it's good.

Charlie Cunningham, as well as some constructeurs in the heyday of technical trials before him, took this tack as well with bicycles. The resulting bikes were ideal for stage races and multi-day riding away from the workshop, giving excellent performance while stepping back and taking a longer view of cycling needs beyond laying down strong and fast numbers. Entities like field serviceability, long-term serviceability, and optimization of riding experience across a multitude of situations were seen as paramount. Bikes as tools to open up realms of possibility, within ourselves and across terra firma, rather than bikes as "nice bikes!" Bikes to be kept and used. A lot. Over time.

I don't say these things in an adversarial way, I like beautiful metalwork and paint and much as the next person. There are plenty of concours quality machines that also fit and work incredibly well, a true testament of the knowledge and skill of the craftsperson. I enjoy looking at these bikes and love hearing the excitement of their new owners. Sometimes though, with the reverence being paid and the deep thought/concern regarding aesthetic details, it's hard for me to imagine some of these bikes being crashed, or dropped, or grinding for days with bikepacking bags strapped on.

The facade centrism seems coupled with unbridled striving for "better" - often shown with the turnover of said machines in order to fund new, "better" projects...either due to a shift in interests or continued scrabbling up that exponential arc. That returns us to the graph above.

So much effort (and money) is spent to nudge farther up that curve, attempting to reach perfection at the top of the graph. New standards and designs for the backbones of drivetrain and steering systems come at a rate that sounds like an animator's flip book or your kid nephew playing with the Rolodex at the office. We've been high on the arc for a while thanks to things like cartridge bearings, reliable cassettes and freehubs, great chain advances, and certain non-aggravating clipless pedals to name a few. The top of the arc is a bitch. That's what leads to clever pockets all over every damn thing at the outdoor store; PEDs coursing through speeding foot, ski, and wheel athletes; and the ever quaking trash pile of 'obsolete' cellphones, music players, and computers.

There are problems to be solved and improvements to be made, no doubt. This stuff takes time. Through anxiety or desperation or (?), time is something no one seems to have as much of nowadays. Cunningham and others made their own stuff to engender improvement but did not present it to customers until after a long vetting period on their own machines. There are functional improvements always afoot in the bike world, but with that flattening arc comes some departure from rationality. Proprietary items repeatedly billed as solutions or advancements but offering marginal, anecdotal tweaking of the short-term curve and minimal long term support beyond a possible warranty swap don't seem that great to me. The modern computer/electronics/appliance model is not the one I would choose to follow for my "tools".

My take on bicycles is maybe a bit staid. OK, it is. I think about things in the context of longer distance, lower average speed cycling and bikepacking away from larger commercial centres for multiple days first and feel that translates well to the day-to-day cycling we all try to fit into our daily lives. Multi-surface bike riding for the experience beyond training and competition. This breeds some degree of conservatism that wasn't there with the visionary that built Cunningham bicycles, but it doesn't preclude me from learning from and applying the lessons borne from such revolutionary thinking over time in an exercise of pragmatism. The same goes for advancements that have risen out of the battle ala VHS vs. Beta. You can do the same.

For all the infinitesimal striving, eventually you have to give up and ride your bike, and your health and fitness is the most important variable in the equation. Doing so on a simple bike with fit as the priority that is also reliable, maintainable, and repairable over a long period is pretty rad and a good value. Standardization shouldn't be taken lightly and late adoption is often the most prudent plan.

There's more to say specifically on that tangent, so I'll save that for my next post: The Order of Effects.

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Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
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