Sunday, February 17, 2008

Parts Worship - an Overview

Note: I wrote this piece in 1994. Bike‑Pro is no more, but nothing else has changed.

Thanks to a friend, I have on my desk a 1994 Pedal Pusher/800‑BIKE‑PRO Buyer's Guide, an amazing mail order catalog. My friend, a rep in the bicycle business, uses it as a resource, to stay abreast of the market.

After scanning a few pages, I couldn't believe he hadn't shown me the Bike‑Pro book before. I'd heard talk and read reviews but never held a copy in my hands, never been floored by the volume of detailed, exhaustively researched bike-parts data recorded in it. I'm always the last to know.

I’d heard Bike‑Pro offered a study of all one could wish to know about bicycle parts. That's what it does, and in astonishing depth. It's so startlingly over‑the‑top you don't know how to react.

You wonder how we got along pre‑Bike‑Pro, in our 100 years of cycling ignorance. How many lives, destroyed by tragically ruinous selections of bicycle parts, could've been saved by this book?

Is this book's existence, cataloging differences between pieces of hardware, evidence that there's meaning in those differences? What has any of this to do with bike riding? Why, despite how angry this catalog makes me, can't I put the damn thing down?

For instance: The Bottle Cage Overview, prefacing six pages of listings and descriptions, runs over 400 words, nearly half the length of this column. How much do we want to know about bottle cages?

The technical description of Grove Innovations Hot Rods Cranks runs over 700 words. I'd never heard of Grove Innovations Hot Rod Cranks. Had I heard of them and wished to learn all one can know of them, I could've (1) taken Mr. or Ms. Grove to lunch and picked his‑or‑her brain or (2) read the Grove Innovations Hot Rod Cranks section in the Bike‑Pro book. I’d learn more from (2), I'll bet.

I will, trust me, do neither. Mr. or Ms. Grove: please don't take offense; I'd love to do lunch but I don't want to know that much about cranks, yours or anyone else's. I sure don't want to read about them at Russian novel length.

More: The overview called Time Family of Clipless Pedals runs about 1350 words, longer than I could reasonably expect to hold my readers' attention.

I worked for the outfit that created Time's US ads; I know the Time folks. I've used their pedals and shoes for years. Even to write their ad copy, I never needed to know anything about Time stuff I couldn't pick up easily along the way. No mysteries, if you ask me.

I didn't know nearly as much about Time products as we learn in the Time Overview in the Bike‑Pro catalog ‑ before we read about individual items. We'll certainly possess more knowledge ‑ but what difference will THAT make?

What will our encyclopedic bike-parts knowledge change? Will breezes be at our backs? Will life be sweeter, spring days fresher? Will food taste better? Will we treat friends and strangers with kindness? Will human secrets unfold for us? Will love find us?

Love may indeed find us: Someone red‑hot may turn to us, desperate, unable to select the Time product that best suits his/her needs. Love may find us ‑ if we refrain from alienating that cute unfortunate by displaying our newly accumulated erudition on the subject of Time.

There's more. The Bike‑Pro Front Derailleur Overview is longer than this column. Even the cheapest one listed ($16.99), the 114‑gram SunTour XC‑Expert, seems, according to the catalog, to have lots to offer.

I'll bet every front derailleur listed works better than any front derailleur you could buy 10 years ago. Think back 10 years. How many of your rides did you feel were compromised by a less‑than‑perfect front shifter?

Correct me if I'm damnably wrong. There are no bad front derailleurs listed in the Bike‑Pro book, not a one ‑ you see panels of carefully researched, well written copy listing the myriad meaningless detail differences among all those good ones.

For centuries in the Middle Ages, learned churchmen argued in obsessive detail about how many angels could dance on a pin‑head. Hot topic then (before front derailleurs), not so important today.

Monks arguing about imaginary angels settled as many quarrels, gained or exchanged just as much wisdom, did about just as much good as does the Bike‑Pro catalog's five pages of dense, single‑spaced text about identically competent front derailleurs.

Many of us, I believe you’ll agree, confuse knowledge with wisdom. How much do we need to know about derailleurs to make a wise purchase if all of them, cheapest to dearest, work great? How much data can we absorb?

We don't have a cycling tradition in the US; instead we have a consuming tradition. I fear we are because we buy. The ad is our prophet. Catalogs are our bibles; they instruct and direct us in our consumption/worship.

That said - you have to appreciate the dedication it took to produce the Bike‑Pro book, the Herculean task of accumulating and organizing all that data. Strangely fascinating as it is, what does it contribute to our riding lives if...

You can write a history of a glorious lifetime in cycling ‑ and never mention a brand name.


Brian said...

Thanks Maynard.

Two things jumped out at me ...

One, your statement that "Many of us confuse knowledge with wisdom" How true that is.

Second, in the US we have a consuming tradition, not a cycling tradition.

I couldnt agree more, and found your column very interesting.

Corey said...

Not only do I remember that huge catalog, I still have a copy of it! It was a mighty impressive collection of specifications. More than you ever wanted (or needed) to know. Someone must've had access to some seriously good stimulants to compile that tome. Seems like the BIKE-PRO catalog morphed into the current on-line shopping phenomenon. Again, the prospective consumer is deluged in an overwhelming collection of mind-numbing specs. There are occasional innovations, but, for the most part, they're marketing the same stuff to us over and over again. Hey, someone's gotta keep the global economy up and running...

club-velo said...

"We don't have a cycling tradition in the US.......we have a consuming tradition".


That's so damn true that it hurts!


Da' Square Wheelman, said...

Certainly there are those weekend warriors and Lycra louts who buy into the latest fads. But I would suggest that there's a strong sub-cult of bikers, à la the late, great Sheldon Brown,who pursue both the knowledge and wisdom of classic lightweights!

Of course, trawling Ebay for old Sturmey-Archer parts and Rudge rod brakes can be just as obsessive as pursuing the next big high-tech frame materials. But at least we're recycling %-{)>