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?