Friday, May 04, 2007

Bike Porn

OK, now that I have your attention...

Occasionally we see a clearly defined separation between the ends and the means. For cyclists, the end is the ride itself and the bicycle is merely the apparatus that enables us to achieve that end. The ride experience, or more precisely, its effect on the rider's inner state in terms of his perception of the world around him, his well-being, and his emotional reaction to outside events is something far removed from the usual fare offered up in the cycling press. It's easy to write about the latest high-zoot titanium gadget. It's much more difficult to describe the rider's state of mind. What's more, there's little commercial interest in something so sublime. How do you sell advertising that doesn't involve a product?

I'm not opposed to the glossy magazines and their focus on cycling hardware, but I find that approach increasingly irrelevant to my involvement in cycling. A shiny new bike is always appealing. However, last year's bike is still perfectly serviceable and for that matter, many ten-year-old bikes are equally so. If the intent is to get from A to B, any ridable bicycle can do the job. Parading an endless stream of new bikes, new clothes, and new gadgets doesn't serve the needs of cyclists as much as it serves the needs of manufacturers.

This is almost a hardware vs software discussion. Neither works without the other. I need a bicycle in order to find the pure joy that comes from riding one. My goal is to have fun, not focus all my effort and energy on the hardware. Getting back to the clear separation I mentioned above, here are some observations of the latest issue of Bicycling


Bike Porn

The latest issue of Bicycling (or Buy-cycling, if you prefer) arrived in the mail today. It has a very nice article on the Bike Town idea as applied in Africa. And there's a long article on Floyd Landis. These are clearly worth reading, but the rest of the magazine, well, not so much.

The bulk of the magazine, as always, consists of advertising. Some of it is cleverly disguised as content, the 'best of' list. Now, I know that many camera magazines follow the same format by featuring the hardware end – cameras, lenses, lighting equipment, and the like, rather than photographs. The interest revolves around the means to an end rather than the end itself. In cycling magazines, it's almost as if the act of riding a bicycle is lost in the far more lucrative focus on equipment. Yes, a high-end bike is really nice and I'm sure it's lighter than a vacuum, but how many of us are going to run out and buy one? On the other hand, how many of us will face a flat tire, a gusty headwind, or vicious dog in the next month? In my opinion, Bicycling is too heavily weighted toward the former and not much concerned with the latter.

On a lark, I added up the cost of all the wares on display not including the ads. Bicycling had a bike porn total of $166,726, assuming I added right. That's about 7 times the average income of someone living in Oklahoma. It's 833 times the annual income of an AIDS counselor in Botswana.

There are other items that caught my eye: a jersey for $230 and a pair of bib shorts for $275. Either of those amounts would feed my family for a couple of weeks, and they're more than the monthly pay of that AIDS counselor in Botswana.

Is it any wonder that the rest of the world thinks we're crazy?

Don't misunderstand me – I think their coverage of over-priced cycling gear is second to none. But it's odd seeing an article about the impact of a simple bicycle on a third world community right alongside some thinly disguised advertising for some high-end equipment. It's almost schizophrenic.


Need for the Bike

I found this English translation through the Tulsa City-County Library:

Need for the Bike, Paul Fournel, 2001

Translated by Allan Stoekl

ISBN 0-8032-6909-9

University of Nebraska Press

The appendix, “Sur le Tour de France 1996” has been omitted from this English language edition.

Unlike the overly commercialized Bicycling magazine, this book is about actually riding bicycles! Imagine that. The orientation is toward racing, but there's a wealth of material in this slim book, and it's varied enough to appeal to nearly any rider of any age or any experience level. It's easy to write about equipment. It's far more difficult to write about the inner state of a rider's mind.

I bear the marks of my biker's tan all winter. It's my second skin. I derive neither shame nor glory from it. I take it on, and , with the first rays of spring sun, I put down another layer.

One day I was at the pool and a kid yelled at me: 'Hey pops, you forgot your bike!'

It's hard to stay incognito.”

You can read a cyclist by his legs.”

When we take off, side by side, in the early morning, we have so much to say to each other. We haven't seen each other since the day before, a week before, a year before, but soon we're breathing together, talking together.....I have cycling friends I see only on the bike – I wouldn't recognize them in a suit and a tie. I have cycling friends I see all the time.“

A great concert takes place just after a rain, when the road surface is still steaming from the storm and the deep odors of the world ascend from the earth. The sun, just back, dries your jersey and draws out of tour own body the aroma of wool and salt. The smell of water gradually dissipates and for a quarter of an hour you feel as if you're riding inside a truffle.”

There's much, much more in this slim volume. It's the sort of book you could blast through in an evening, if so inclined. Many of the pieces had some particular resonance with me, evoking memories of rides long ago that had been sadly forgotten. One description of the odors encountered along the road made me think of a ride on the aptly named Fiddler's Elbow Road somewhere near Middletown, PA. It twisted and turned, never straight or flat for long. I remember smelling an apple orchard half a mile before I entered it.

I suspect that any cyclist reading this book will stumble over similar, long forgotten memories.


And finally...

There's a new magazine out devoted to urban cyclists, “Urban Cyclist: Bicycling Culture on the Skids”.

(Actually, I really like that 'on the skids' phrase. There's a new shopping center going in up the hill from my house, and it has a sign saying it's the future home of a new Southern Agriculture store. I've been very, very tempted to make the sign read “Future Home of Southern Agriculture on the Skids”! But that would be wrong. It would make a great photo, though. But it would be wrong.)

(Oscar Wilde said that the best way to rid oneself of temptation was to yield to it. Dubious advice, that. I'll post a photo.)

I downloaded a copy but haven't finished reading all of it yet. Now, remember, this is the inaugural issue, so I expect it will change over time. And of course it relies on advertising to pay the bills, just like any other publication. I'm not thrilled with the idea of a long pub crawl relying on bicycles as transport, but then again, I wouldn't have thought twice about it 30 years ago. Been there, done that. They have some stunning photography, and it's well worth a look. There's one photo I really love. It's a woman (gasp!) smoking a cigarette! Now, there's something you won't see in Bicycling, Wilbur!


Much of Urban Cyclist pertains to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and I assume the e-zine is produced there. I grew up just outside Pittsburgh, and lived in the city for many years, so it has a special place in my heart. Despite living here in Oklahoma for 20 years, I still think of Pennsylvania as home.


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10 Comments:

Blogger Mark said...

It drives me nuts. A value for a bike is $2,000? What world do they live in?
No way I can justify that,

10:07 PM  
Blogger Coelecanth said...

I agree with all your criticisms of Bicycling. I've had a subscription for years and often wonder just who is buying this stuff? Mind you I very much enjoy looking at high end bikes in the same way I enjoy looking at movie starlets: they're beautiful but not real.

Over the years Bicycling has waxed and waned as to how many pages it devotes to experiential articles and lately it's been pretty thin. Mind you, I think its current editors are aware of the line they walk between revenue producing bling spreads and real content. The AIDs article and the Landis one take up a fair bit of the total page count of this latest issue after all.

Despite the faults I still like it over many of its competitors because it covers a broader range of cycling. Mountain bikes, road bikes, commuter bikes and even recumbents show up there where most other magazines are much more narrowly focused.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Apertome said...

I haven't read many cycling magazines, but you get the same kind of attitude, with the focus on equipment rather than how you use it, in a lot of other things. I know I see it all the time, photographers buying expensive stuff thinking it'll make them a better photographer, musicians buying 10 guitars instead of getting better at playing the one they have, etc. Better gear is helpful, but it's no substitute for skill, talent, knowledge, or practice.

"Need for the Bike" looks fantastic.

11:10 AM  
Blogger Fritz said...

The whole "Spin" section of Bicycling is about people making a difference and doing unique things. The magazine tries to cover items that will appeal the wide spectrum of cyclists, from beginner roadies, fitness enthusiasts, commuters, to casual cyclists and advocates.

And how can you not love Style Man? From the May issue (that's sitting on my desk):

I often see a student on campus commuting on a litespeed. The bike has time pedals, yet the guy rides in dirty running shoes.... How can I make him aware of the grave injustice he is committing?

You are an imbecile. Throw yourself at the man's feet [and] devote yourself entirely to gaining even a fraction of the style this rider embodies. The ability to use technology from the pinnacle of cycling in a utilitarian purpose, with a complete lack of guilt, is a rare and holy gift.

As you noted, Urban Cyclist is also supported with advertising dollars. If they stick around it won't be long before the magazine is filled with product reviews.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Ed W said...

My friend Greg and I walked through an exhibition of photographs from the f64 group many years ago. There was work from Ansel Adams, Imogene Cunningham, and both Westons, if I recall right. Afterward, Greg said, "You know, we have no business standing behind a camera ever again!" He was right. It would be difficult to improve on any of their ideas, and far too often, many of my own 'original' ones turn out to be pale imitations.

But I have no illusions that a newer camera will make me a better photographer. I have no illusion that a new, high-zoot bike will make me a faster cyclist. Eddie B said once that Americans rely on gadgets rather than hard training. In my case, the budget won't cover the gadgets, and as for hard training, well, let's just say I enjoy my creature comforts too much.

5:58 PM  
Blogger Fritz said...

Speaking of highzoot bikes, the trend of the trendy kids is thousand-dollar fixed gear bikes. Lots of bling bling and pretty parts, not to mention "NJS" envy.

6:26 PM  
Blogger kenaroni said...

Amen brother. I quit reading all of the mainstream bike mags years ago. It's all product driven. I'll keep riding my "obsolete" Schwinn Super Sport (1983) and my "obsolete" Mongoose Alta (1989)
BTW, I also grew up outside of Pittsburgh (Moon Twp.), and now live in the south (Tenn.)

4:02 AM  
Blogger Apertome said...

I didn't know you're a photographer too. Do you have any photos online somewhere?

8:49 AM  
Blogger Ed W said...

Actually, there was a great deal of irony in Greg saying, "You know, we have no business standing behind a camera ever again!" He makes his living in media. And, no, I won't mention where he works.

Most of my best photographs are on Kodachrome, and I don't know of any easy way to transfer them to electronic media. I hadn't given it any thought. But I'm considering setting up a photo account on one of the services. If anyone has recommendations, feel free to tell me. Remember, I'm a technological Luddite.

I went through tech school while working as a wedding photographer, an experience I hope never to repeat. Some of the stories are worthy of Wally Crankset.

3:44 PM  
Blogger Apertome said...

Personally, I like Flickr. I have messed around with PhotoBucket a little bit recently, but I don't like it as much. Flickr has a real community feel with photo/discussion groups and stuff like that, if you're into that kind of thing.

Let me know if you do put some photos online. It's always cool to see what kind of shots others are taking.

3:51 PM  

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