Thursday, December 6, 2007


I got to thinking today about tools, and how we make their quality more crucial than it is in our lives. Our bicycles are tools as are our motorcycles. Our cameras and computers. Our ratchets and sockets. Tools. An artist's oils, brushes and stretched canvas are tools.

None of them make us creators of memorable items or images or experiences. They only facilitate; the best tools only get out of the way so we can do the best we know how.

Hemingway wrote on a typewriter. Editing was laborious. No spell-checker. He wrote The Old Man and the Sea. We have Microsoft Word. We write emails and blog posts.

If we have $20,000-worth of Snap-On's finest hand tools, we are equipped to set up the suspension on a racing car so that it works on the day and on the track. Are we able to do that?

If we have a Leica (or equivalent) camera, we are equipped to shoot photos equal to the best photographers on the planet, just as sharp, just as dramatic, just as unforgettable. Lots of us have Leicas; nearly none of us shoot stunning photos.

If I buy George Hincapie's bike, not a replica, his bike, and I spend $1,000 to make sure it fits me in every dimension, will I finish next to George at Paris-Roubaix? If I have a clunky old 7-speed racing bike, and George and I swap bikes on the starting line, will I beat him?

I have a slow motorcycle that handles okay. Casey Stoner has a blindingly fast Ducati that we imagine nearly rides itself. If Casey and I switch bikes on the starting line at Laguna Seca, will I beat him around the track? Will my lap times be reported on the UPI wire?

A good tool, an adequate tool, is all the tool we need.

Beyond adequacy, it's "airs and graces," as I think the expression goes. Beyond adequacy, we're wearing cashmere at the tractor pull, shooting a Purdy shotgun for a canned ham at an autumn turkey shoot, riding Casey Stoner's Ducati while the pit guys time us with a calendar.


Anonymous said...

I see your point, however I have some different thoughts on the matter. I don;t buy the expensive tool to be fast or a miracle worker, but I do notice the difference. I'm a tool user in many ways, and from my work tools to my bicycles, the sky is the limit. I have some specific reasons and guidelines that I go by and hope make sense.

1. I buy tools that last. All of my hand tools are Proto or a similar quality because I know they will service me for decades. That's why I just bought a Moots, because I know it will last me for as long as I enjoy the frame geometry.

2. Feel. High end equipment has a much greater level of ergonomic design placed in it. If you look at a craftsman or other such shoddy tool and then compare it to a Proto, you will feel the difference. Using that tool for 8 hours a day, you will really notice the difference. With some of the work I do, this directly translates into less time with a physical therapist. A custom titanium frame designed for my exact riding style makes all the difference in the world. I ride a modest 10k a year and I notice when I am on my bianchi axis versus my lynskey era litespeed. There is a distinct difference in the level of comfort.

3. economics. I like giving money to companies that ensure quality. I do not notice a difference between a thomson stem or seatpost, however a friend who is a metalworker has commented that they are are billet machined and he called them about their fatigue testing and he really feels that Thomson cares more than the average manufacturer that they produce a quality component. That is why I buy their equipment, because I know they care. People who care tend to cost a lot more, but I would rather give those people 25% more than the company that is just in it for the profit.

4. I buy American first, Italian second, european third. I have seen asian factories from the inside and i appreciate the work ethic, however it is not a work ethic that is designed in the interest of the individual. I support a work environment that supports the individual. I buy Carhartt's because they are union made and they care for their workers. I have heard that the campagnolo factory takes ver good care of it's workers. I know Moots takes good care of their workers and is interested in them at an individual level. I work hard for my money, I want to give it to companies that respect the individual and I honestly have not been given any information at this time that asian companies have changed their ways to move their workers to a first world wage rate.

In summary... none of these reasons are delusions that my tools will make me a master craftsman or actually competitive as a cyclist... my reasons are because often the expensive component is of higher quality and more dependable, and the factories they com from are more respective of the human rights of their workers.

I'm a rich american... damn near every american is a rich american. we should be focusing our purchasing power on items that will last the longest, strengthen our domestic product and benefit the workers who make the item. Buy green, buy ethically, buy fair. You help others and you help yourself.

My choices have often been expensive choices, but aside from all of the points I have made above... what I have noticed is that none of my equimpent breaks when all of the people around me complain about how their "good deal" fell apart.

Anonymous said...

oh yeah... one last thing....

if we quit buying Leicas or other airs and graces... then those companies go out of business and we then lose the opportunity to ever have a Leica.

The human race is always in a race for the bottom, we do it on labor, nutrition, everything.

The age of excellence may be fading, but I for one in my actions... which in part include purchases... will eschew mediocrity at all costs.

A world in search of "just adequate" is a world that is monotone gray.

I do honestly hope I hav\e inspired you to think differently...

No I do not think everyone should run out and buy a Orbea Orca... but I think that no person could go wrong with Phil Wood hubs and bottom brackets. I think A chris King headset is the investment you will never regrget. I dearly hope that we do not lose one more company that makes bombproof hardware on our slide to the ever disposable existence of the aeternally growing landfill.

good day.

Maynard said...

Hi anonymous! (curious not to use your name)

Your comment did provide food for thought. I come at these things from another angle than you do, I think. First, I see that thousands of "rich" Americans buy way over their heads 'cause they can. They buy more everything than they need, more house, more car, more bike - and it's all the same impulse. They are not ensuring that Hummer stays in business, or Seven or GMC, and they are not focusing on sustainability when they buy 6,000sqft homes. They say they are. They fool us and maybe they fool themselves.

I've had King headsets since the late '70s. All my bikes are steel, all made by people I know, right here in the US. It isn't that I'm not proud of my friends or trying to help them in their businesses. I am sure that the message in this country is buy whatever you can pay for. Appropriateness is not a consideration.

I'm not promoting WalMart. I meet a few guys like your anonymous self who are aficionados, guys who caress lugs and love old German cameras. I meet six times as many guys who have Serottas and Colnago C50s who can't fix a flat or spell Coppi.

If you feel strongly that you're on the right path, I agree with you. I do think that the one slice of society that is thriving, the slice whose buying habits are not changing with our bad times, is that part of the population that agrees with you. Leica isn't going out of business. Never fear.

Thanks a ton for writing!