Friday, 22 March 2013

AN APPROPRIATE BICYCLE - Pt.16: CYCLING AS A METAPHOR FOR CAPITALISM


The 2013 London to Brighton bike ride is what I intended An Appropriate Bicycle to be all about – the opportunity to savour mass riding on clean roads and how I might approach that – and I’d always envisaged a more pronounced focus toward the actual act of cycling. Instead this project has almost developed into some sort of ‘budget cycling advice bureau’. Not only do the accoutrements of this topical sphere interest me as much as the physical endeavour, but I've come to conclude that this attitude is not actually out of keeping with the… scene.
It’s not unreasonable to suggest that I have acquired something of a feel for what motivates the cycling enthusiast, and I have concluded that consumerism appears to play its part. I'm not the sort to normally embrace or approve of such material machinations, but – if it’s to be entered into whole-heartedly – it is obvious that the pursuit of cycling requires a certain level of investment. More to the point, the tools of cycling appear to take on a significance of their own.
Check this out from the Condor Cycles blog:
‘The thing that most amateur cyclists, aspiring youths – and anyone else who has to buy their own cycling kit – think about when they think about pro bike riders is often, in all honesty, not how great would it be to do that race, or how cool would it be to fly around the world doing what you love: the first thing people think is, “how cool would it be to get all that kit?”'
These are the words of Tom Southam, former professional cyclist with Rapha Condor Sharp (among other teams), and I assume that they’re representative of the trade.
Yet, the accumulation of cycling related paraphernalia does not appear to be motivated by the desire to display status or engage in any sort of power play. Instead, the cycling enthusiast exhibits a geek-like fondness for memorabilia and of accruing accessories, which points to an almost pathologically obsessive dedication toward their chosen past-time. It is for this reason that I think the descriptions of my dealings with mail-order companies and web-based market places are compulsively relevant.
Is it altogether healthy? Does it reduce what might ostensibly be a means of getting about, of keeping fit or earning a living, into something of a capitalist endeavour? My financial predicament has determined how I approach this, but it’s interesting to see how unnecessary a lot of this outlay might actually be: that you don’t have to part with over £100 for a “technical jacket” or 70-odd quid for a jersey. Would not doing so point to a surfeit of vanity?
But there are those who do, and therein lies the point of Carlos-Weltschmerz, of An Appropriate Bicycle, and of me. Even if I wanted to – even if I had the money – I couldn't join in the way that could be expected of me. I don’t buy the up-market cycling magazines (I've allowed myself a couple of editions of Cycle Sport, for research purposes only) and I don’t feel very comfortable in places like Sigma Sport. I don’t think I could ever bring myself to join a club, and I only intend to wear proper cycling shorts on the longer and harder rides. Yet I've enjoyed mixing with the guys at the lower end of the industry – the adventure capitalists and D’Vlo, the cottage industry that is Vintage Bike Cave, or those old-school stalwarts at Prendas selling retro jerseys. I've willingly embraced the heritage of “The Tour” and bought into its myths. I have been actively seeking to look the part.
As a corollary to all of this, I seem to have developed an obsession with my new-found hobby that is muddying the waters. EBay has a lot to answer for here: it’s too easy, and there’s so much gear out there that one’s aesthetic sensibilities become overawed and confused, so much so that I've been thinking of selling my Solo jersey – a garment of consummate fit – just to allow myself the opportunity to stalk the marketplace for the perfectly authentic vesture in which to ride from London to Brighton. This is the pernicious effect of a capitalist sensibility given a free rein (under the guise of self-improvement). A laissez faire state of mind is scarcely satisfied because it is geared towards an inexorable façade of moving forward (they call it progress).
The Carlos-Galli jersey arrived, right? But in the meantime I’d sold my Jamis after a month of commuting back to work on the thing (a temporary arrangement) and quite struggled to get to grips with the Carlos once we’d become re-acquainted. I sold the Jamis with the D-lock and the front light included (to an agreeable Australian who didn't cavil at the terms and conditions, which were not unreasonable) and treated myself to a Lezyne Femto LED front light to combat the crepuscular conditions I now faced on my ride home from my job (a new lock was to follow).
I had a day off and rode the Chiswick Circuit in the hope that Carlos and I could get back to how things were, but three weeks spent riding the Jamis now confirmed my latent fear that the Carlos had too long a reach for me. It was no longer the spectre or an errant Pinarello that was troubling me, but the real possibility that I might completely break down on the 54 mile ride from London to Brighton. And so I decided, quite ruthlessly, that the Carlos would have to go.
            In fact, I’d already been on the lookout for a predominantly white bicycle – replete with 1980s era livery, preferably – but instead came across an attractive cerulean blue Pinarello Asolo and a very minimal Vicini Cesena selling a week apart on eBay. I placed speculative bids on both but won on neither. That I’d even bothered was a reflection on the internal dialogue playing out within me, my romantic attachment for the Carlos on the one side up against a need for something nippier and more functional on the other (although I was still thinking very resolutely along the lines of steel). Maybe I distracted myself with the pursuit of jerseys to avoid this uncomfortable truth, for I'm not sure I had the stomach for indulging in yet more bicycle based trade.
The Vicini Cesena is the key here, for I took the loss of the Pinarello Asolo on the chin, despite its obvious beauty and apparently appropriate dimensions. My research led me to believe that the seller did not fully appreciate the rarity of the Vicini. I had no definitive idea either, but estimated it to be worth at least £450. I could only afford to offer £350.
I set my maximum bid for the Vicini accordingly, but was outbid to the tune of 30 pounds. I may have bid higher had my attempts to contact the seller for detailed measurements not been rebuffed by some paranoid application on eBay (either erroneously or because the seller so decreed). I’d momentarily considered doing so regardless, entitled as I was to retract my offer on the day of exchange on the grounds that the provided measurements were insufficient and vague – horribly so: blurred pictures of a tape-measure being held out in front of the top and seat tubes – but I couldn't bear to suffer the hassle, nor the conceivable disappointment.
            On investigating the activity of the winning bidder it was discovered that they sold as much as they bought, which led me to believe that the bike had not necessarily been secured with the intent of riding it. This supposition proved to be true, for not three weeks later the bike re-appeared on Gumtree – exhibiting minor, but mostly unnecessary, alterations – with an asking price of £599. I liked that the black seat-post had been replaced with a chrome variation, but was very sad that the new seller had stripped the frame of its decals. It was a silvery-grey bike that suited being pared down, but the blue text on the down-tube had not been out of keeping with this. I was also puzzled as to why one set of deep-rimmed wheels had been replaced with another of an almost exact monstrosity.




The Vicini before


 The Vicini after



Anyway, the new seller was receptive to my questions, and although the measurements provided did appear to confirm my suspicion that this bike was a little too big, they were close enough to convince that it was worth making the trip to Highgate to be sure. It occurred to me that it would do no harm, whilst up that way, to drop in at the Vintage Bike Cave and look at another bike that had struck a chord somewhere along the line. (I can’t recall when but it was probably about a month after I bought the Carlos, and I had judged it then to be too small and prohibitively expensive. To have seen it still for sale some months later obliged me to consider the subject of fate once more, now that the Carlos had established itself as being larger than I at one time thought – this lack of spatial perspective on my part still baffles me.)
The journey to Highgate took approximately one hour. On my arrival I was required to turn a right up Archway Road in the direction of East Finchley, as opposed to left towards Archway and the Vintage Bike Cave. Highgate had appeared to be an agreeable area when walking in a south-easterly direction, but this reverse north-west uphill swing presented a different perspective. When I reached the area the seller’s postcode encompassed I gave him a call and was furnished with the number of the house in which he resided.
The seller was a pleasant gentleman of central European origin, and it materialised that he had actually thought about using the bike for himself, but quite enjoyed buying bikes, mutilating them, and selling them on again if they didn't quite measure up. At six feet in height, I speculated that the Vicini Cesena was a little too small for him and that this was why he was selling it, although the 60 cm seat-tube implied otherwise.
The bike, when he revealed it to me, did not look as large as I had anticipated. Further – and this was the reason for me being tempted into seeing it in the first instance – the Pleasant Gentleman of Central European Origin had fitted a relatively short quill stem to the bike, compensating for the fact that it had roughly the same top-tube length as the Carlos, which might mean that the reach issues I’d been having would not resurface here. That was not all, for the Vicini Cesena was equipped with integrated brake and gear shifters – “brifters” as they’re otherwise known.
I took the bike for a spin across the road in the Plumb Centre’s car park – a bleak stretch of concrete that offered small room for manoeuvre. The bike rode well, and I felt very comfortable on it. However, the reduction in stem length meant that the front wheel felt too far in front of me, and the front hub – which they say should almost be in line with the handlebars when the rider looks down towards them – was clearly visible a few inches beyond. This might not make any perceivable difference to the ride, but the Vicini had a wheelbase of 1 metre (the same as Carlos), a top-tube length of 57.5 cm (also the same as Carlos) and a seat-tube measurement of 60 cm (2 cm longer than Carlos). What’s more, the Pleasant Gentleman of Central European Origin had shifted the seat forward  in an attempt to reduce the reach still further, so what felt nice to ride now might induce consequences later. And there was a little more corrosion than had been apparent from the photographs on Gumtree, and, despite some quality looking Campagnolo componentry, those horrific Athena 96 deep-rimmed wheels. I knew it wasn't worth the £599 he was asking for, but I expect so did he. I supposed he would have accepted anything over £500 for it. I’d made it clear I wasn't there to make a purchase right now but parted company offering the hint that I might in the future.
Bikes never seem to look quite as good “in the metal” as they do on one’s 14ʺ laptop screen, and the Romani Prestige Special Competition was no exception. Darker in hue, and needing some attention, the £475 asking price was perhaps a mite ambitious. It was explained to me, by The Man Who Worked On Lathes, that restoration had not yet begun – it wasn't even fit for a test-ride (their phones and internet connection had been down all week, so I had no way to forewarn them of my intended visit). But simply sitting astride the Romani gave me a good feeling for it, and it was a very good-looking bike, despite its present shabbiness.
I exited the Vintage Bike Cave with something of a dilemma on my hands, both bikes having felt immediately more comfortable to ride than the Carlos. By the time I’d reached the platform at Highgate tube station it was pretty much resolved.

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