Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bikes Are Not Art



Most bicycle frames have no soul.  They are mass produced by automatons or human automatons in gigantic factory complexes in Asia.  All lugged steel bicycles have similar dimensions, use the same tubes and are bound together using the same methods.  Aluminum frames are produced the same way, mostly by robots from identical tubes.  Carbon bicycles take the similarities a step further, most are produced in a small region of Taiwan, many brands produced in the very same factory and branded only on the way out the door. 


Those of us who want bicycles with soul usually order custom frames from boutique manufacturers or accept the weight penalty and ride a vintage frame.


Recently I was discussing this topic with Mark McCormack in regards to my cycling team's decision to have two simultaneous bicycle/frame sponsors, Fuji (soulless, yet highly functional factory bikes) and Igleheart (individual framemaker who has more soul than anyone).  MM's point was that a bike is merely a tool and that if two bikes have the same dimensions and are made from the same materials, then they are the same bike.  The only direct quote that I can remember from MM: "Bikes are not art."


I suppose that this is the attitude that we should expect from a seasoned pro whose racing moniker has long been “The Business Man.”  McCormack has been riding bikes for money for many years.  He races on what his sponsors provide for him, whether he likes it or not.  Under these conditions, it would not be beneficial to become attached to a specific framemaker’s bikes, as it is unlikely that they will be sponsoring your team next year.  

But the rest of us pay for our bikes.  We buy the most bike that we can justify given our financial circumstances.  While most of us are looking for performance, many of us would reject a bicycle that performed well, but looked horrible.  Aesthetics are important to us.  In my case, I have chosen to have most of my race bikes custom made so that I can dictate how they ride and their dimensions. 

In addition to my custom “race bikes” I have a growing stable of vintage bicycles and frames.  Many of these were mass produced in a factory, but somehow the years have bestowed character on them even though they were also likely produced in a huge factory.   Some of these bicycles offer a better ride quality than my custom bikes.

A great example is my Team Fuji.  To the untrained eye, this is an ugly brown bike, which explains why it has never been stolen or had parts stolen despite my flagrant carelessness.  Those with discerning taste will notice the lugwork and the chromed out crown fork (I crashed mine and had to replace it).  The frame absorbs shock and transfers power better than today’s top of the line carbon steeds.   In fact, I found that most modern frames failed to even approach the “Team Fuji Benchmark” that I set when I was test riding fancy bikes on my last round of bike purchasing. 


I have seen two other Team Fuji’s on the road in the 10 years that I have been enjoying this bike.  One of them is under a gentleman who I know.  I have put in a standing offer in to buy his frame, since it is the same size as mine. 


After the IF Party this weekend a woman named Johna  rolled up to the Independent in Union Square on her Team Fuji as I was locking mine up.

  Johna had a similarly convoluted story about how she came to her TF and how many versions of the bike she had had.  Johna expressed the same kind of love and attachment to her TF as I have.   We are now BFF’s, as we share a weird bond that only another Team Fuji owner can understand.  Incidentally, Mark McCormack told me that his brother Frank’s first race bicycle was the Team Fuji.  I plan on asking Frank about it next time I see him.

Another example is my Basso Loto.  This bicycle was never in mass production, but Basso was a larger bike builder back in the day.  My friend Gustavo (who you may have noticed as one of the important people behind the scenes at Embrocation Cycling Journal), lusted after this frame when he first began competitive cycling in the mid-1990’s.  He has wanted one ever since.  Gustavo  has not even seen my bicycle in person, but he has put in a standing offer to buy the frame, since we are essentially the same size.  Gus does not need the frame in a functional sense, but a yearning for things lost compels him toward this frame. 

My purpose in writing this whole post is to ask a series of questions:  Is there a connection between people who are riding the same bicycle?   Do bicycles have soul?  What is the essence of this soul? Does a handmade bicycle perform better than a mass produced bicycle?



Colin R said...

You can love a bike, but it will never love you back.

Verdict: No soul.

Yash Katsumi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Yash Katsumi said...

As much as I love custom frames, when it comes to a pure race bike, a stock frame from a major manufacturor is most likely better(lighter, cheaper, no 5 year wait) than any custom hand made frame.

The dream is to have a sick custom training bike and a no compromise off the shelf bike for racing.

Ian Sutton said...

I have never felt a connection between any other person I've seen out on a Ridley, perhaps because it is a mass produced bike, or perhaps simply because of my personality. I don't feel a connection to it on a personal level, though I do feel a little more attached to my Helyett track bike, I have never been able to find another one in existence and information on the brand is scarce at best.

zack said...

Bikes don't have soul, but what about designer jeans and carbon framed eyeglasses?

Oh, and my bike has soul, since it is a Soul.

RMM said...

It depends on which designer made the frames and denim. Are you referring to Ball's Rock and Republic Gibroni-wear atrocities?

explodedhub said...

hey dood, not related to this post in particular but i like your blog a lot and i thank you for the helpful local shop reviews.

kevin said...

"The frame absorbs shock and transfers power better than today’s top of the line carbon steeds. In fact, I found that most modern frames failed to even approach the “Team Fuji Benchmark” that I set when I was test riding fancy bikes on my last round of bike purchasing."

Along the lines of what Yash said, I don't think you can compare a vintage steel frame with a modern, high-end race frame of any material. To declare vintage frames superior after a simple test ride is ignoring all degrees, pounds, centimeters, and any other quantitative measure involved. I think you have just found a frame that fits your riding style perfectly, and that shouldn't be used as a reason to dismiss all other frames.

My stable has vintage and modern frames; steel, aluminum and carbon frames. All I can say is that they each have their strengths and weaknesses. Which one is "best" is up to your individual preferences.

dig the blog.

RMM said...

I would argue that steel is the perfect frame material and its only downsides are the weight penalty and corrosion.
Modern steel frames are coming in at lower and lower weights, but with corresponding price increases. You can even get corrosion resistant stainless frames.
Plastic frames never feel right, Al is too harsh and Ti is mushy in all the wrong places (had two Ti frames).
I agree with Yash that we should be racing stock frames and enjoying our custom frames in non race settings.

Yash Katsumi said...

Sooo many nice custom hand made bikes out there. This weekend's handbuilt bike show should be pretty interesting.

This may seem shallow, but one of the things that I love about a custom frame is choosing your own paint job.

Does your bike have a soul? I hope not because I have owned like 40.

RMM said...

Exploded Hub:

I started and maintain this blog to provide local cyclists with a service that had some value.

I am glad that you are getting some use out of it. As long as people read it, I will continue to write it.

Thanks for the compliment.

Yash Katsumi said...

Colin, apparently there is one company that claims that their bikes will love you back...

special j said...

yeah RMM! really enjoyed the article. Was great to meet you and to serendipitously have my fuji included in your post.

As for the question of bikes having soul... well, you are asking the wrong girl. The truth is that all my life I have suffered from the belief that everything has a soul. This has led to me to feeling bad for all sorts of normally considered "inanimate objects". If I see a bike that has been knocked over at it's locked up location I just feel terrible for it and have to stand it back up. So long answer-short: Yes. I believe bikes have souls... and surfboards, too. Lotsa soul there.

I like your blog very much. Keep up the great work!

~ johna