Sunday, December 9, 2007

A Curious Phenomenon

Over the years, more than 20 at this point, I have written hundreds of columns. Most have focused on the cultures of cycling and motorcycling, but many have been about stuff - clothing and parts and equipment. Stuff.

I have written heartfelt, strongly-worded, even angry pieces about how we live as devotees of our sports or hobbies. I thought those pieces would provoke storms of letters to editors or requests for cancelled subscriptions, but those responses have seldom materialized.

I suspect that people don't care so much about behavior. It's a "whatever" kinda thing. Is that amazing, or what?

But if I write about stuff, particularly if the stuff is old and charming or new, expensive and exclusive, I get mail. Stuff is what the world cares about, evidently. Not all stuff; some stuff.

If I write about Japanese or Taiwanese stuff, stuff that keeps this two-wheel world rolling, I get no mail.

No one writes me defending his preference for cheap-but-cheerful items, as they say in England. For things that don't draw oohs and aahs from passersby, but do simply work. I'm sure that folks who own unpretentious stuff are proud of it and its utility. They just don't write letters.

They use that stuff, but they don't identify with it. It doesn't define them.

Ah, but if I write about the one percent of stuff made in Europe or the USA, especially if that stuff is 20 years old, I'm called names for anything critical I may've implied, no matter how obliquely. Cursed for anything but gushing praise - of the stuff or its owners.

Under most of our personal radars, there's a sizable subculture that is obsessed with stuff, with mechanical toys. Obsessed with the places the toys come from, the immortals who made them, the dates of manufacture, the history - the iconic aspects of those toys.

Like stamp collectors who'd never write a letter, many of the obsessives claim to love the sport or activity, but they are in my experience far more engaged when they talk about the gear, the tools, the hardware. The stuff. Their stuff. Maybe they use the stuff; maybe not.

Maybe they ride; maybe not. They are discriminating consumers for sure, riders or not. They're connoisseurs.

Sadly for them there's an even larger subculture of dilettantes, almost all guys, who sense the iconic aspects of certain items somehow, perhaps by scent or the tones of voice of salespeople or the clubby approach of the web presence. Who knows how they do it?

These lucky fellows can easily afford to acquire and display the same image-y, "exclusive" items without having invested the years of diligent study, without earning their credentials.

Imagine how hateful it would for a connoisseur to be mistaken for a dilettante.

Thus there's a race among the true believers for the perfect period detail, for the very saddle that Gimondi rode to win the Tour or the very frame Calvin Rayborn rode at Daytona - to prove one's connoisseurship to the few arbiters of the authenticity of whatever the toy may be.

Whatever this obsession or fixation may be, it isn't about riding. It's about acquiring. The impulse is the same whether it's trophy homes or one-up cars or bikes or you name it.

You can tease a guy about the possibility that his wife is unfaithful and he may laugh along with you. Harmless banter.

But suggest that he never rides his $10,000 bicycle and never rode the six he owned before that one, or that he didn't buy a $75,000 Jesse James custom because it was the handcrafted, flag-flying American option...and you've stepped painfully on his toes.

You can kid around about most things. But criticize a man's toys or his motives for buying them? Fightin' words, dude...

Have you read poems or essays that avoided the use of the letter "e?" Did you notice that in the entire post you've just read that I never used the word "snob?" Not easy, either task...

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