Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Carbon Versus the Mart, with a Side of Lawn Furniture

Yesterday, I decided to visit a local manifestation of a major national retailer, one whose name includes the word -Mart and does not begin with a K, in search of tires for my aluminum road bike. The ones it has are getting pretty worn, but my major motivation was to put some larger tires on to try to soften the ride, which is not unlike straddling a picket fence being kicked by a wild horse. I do not decide lightly to visit the Mart, because I figure its existence is one reason there is no decent bike shop within fifty miles of my house (or indeed, any bike shop at all). However, I did not fancy a hundred mile round trip at the moment, nor did I want to wait a week or more for possibly the wrong tires to arrive by mail. So off I went. The Mart does not count as a good substitute for a bike shop, since, first, it carries no high-quality bikes, except perhaps, by occasional accident, and it is certainly not staffed by knowledgeable bike people. For example, as I was checking out the selection of tires--and, remarkably, I did find something close to what I wanted--a clerk happened by and inquired if I was finding what I wanted. I replied that I was just comparing the sizes of new tires to the sizes that would fit my bike. "Oh, that's no problem," she proclaimed, "they're universal." And indeed, many of the nearby boxes containing tubes were in fact emblazoned with a label proclaiming them to be "universal." I took a deep breath and said, "Well, no, they're not really universal." I was prepared to explain that the word “universal” had more to do with marketing than diameter and millimeters, even for tubes, not to mention tires, but the clerk suddenly remembered something she had to check on and scurried away.
So be it. Home again, I unrolled my new tires to let them regain some approximation of
circularity after being crammed pretzel-like for weeks, perhaps months, in a box, and
turned on the Tour de France. Yesterday’s crashes featured cobbles, of course, but before
that, a crash was caused by a piece of lawn furniture in the road. The previous day, it was
a dog. The Tour is starting to make contending with SUVs look like a day in the park. After
watching the riders struggle with the cobbles, I tend to agree that the Tour should stick to
smoother roads. Or else why not just have a completely off-road stage, and let all the riders
take a shot a mountain biking for a day? I think some of them might have fared better with
29ers on the cobbles than with road bikes.
During commercials, however, I dipped into the latest copy of Bicycling magazine and saw
that the editor of that publication, Loren Mooney, was bemoaning her fate as one of Floyd
Landis’s victims; she helped him write the book proclaiming his innocence of doping, which
he has since famously renounced. This is not to be held against her, of course, as many people
believed in and defended Landis. But in looking over the magazine, I noticed it is, as usual,
stuffed to the gills with ads for carbon bikes costing multiple thousands of dollars, not to
mention ads for accessories appropriate to these bikes and costing as much as some entire
bikes. Then there are the “reviews” that sometimes seem like thinly-disguised
advertisements for this equipment. Not that I have anything against expensive carbon bikes,
but it would be nice to see more emphasis on bikes for regular people who are too forty-
something-ish to dream of being Lance (or even Floyd) and who will never be tripped up by rogue lawn chairs while riding in Le Tour. Can’t somebody make a good butted steel ten-
speed with shifters on the downtube anymore? I mean, we still have people bidding on Ebay
for fat tire single-speed cruisers such as the Beaver might have ridden.
All of which brings me back in a roundabout way to the subject of “universal” tires and the
Mart. We need a happy medium, somewhere between junk bikes sold to the masses, leaving
them convinced that bikes are nothing more than toys for kids, and the elitist if-you-don’t-ride-
carbon-why-ride-at-all attitude that is too often implied, if not clearly stated. Marie Antoinette
said the masses should eat cake. Today’s bike elite says let ‘em ride carbon. Well, so it goes:
plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose (


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  2. There are very few choices in cycling magazines out there, but I find Bicycle Times Magazine, Bicycle Quarterly and Riv Reader, usually a much better choice for my tastes than Bicycling. I dropped my subscription to them years ago. There are a few others out there, then there is the World Wide Web.