the obsolescence dilemma solved with philosophy

With only so many bike hooks on your living room ceiling, and only so many riding hours in a lifetime, prudence suggests that we cycling nuts  collect only classics, and not indiscriminately hoard those other kinds for whom love melts in the light of the day. How can one tell though, when considering a purchase, if one is on the brink of collecting, or hoarding?

Some clarity follows from the placement of reasonable limits on the various rates of obsolescence effecting each of a bicycle’s bits. Frames are for keeps, or should be, I think. The life of wheels varies. Group sets: 5 to 10 years. Cables and chains: 2 years on average. Tires: a month to a year, depending on use and whether they’re soft or hard, ie, for racing or training.

For the doped up A-grade club racer on a special diet and training regime, an entire 10K+ bike may be deemed obsolescent after just a few seasons. For this rider it’s full carbon frames, zipp wheels, groupsets as seen in le Tour, latex tubes, hopes dashed and good riddance.

But for newcomers willing to learn from old hands, the obsolescence dilemma can be approached in a more thoughtful manner. The astute rookie might notice in their club at least one owner of a 1980s Colnago, for instance, with the original saddle, stem and Cinelli criterion bars. Of course the bike will have seen a few sets of pedals and wheels, even more groupsets, and dozens of tires. But that is not to say it is grandfather’s axe. No, it is still someone’s Colnago, still bringing him pride, and the occasional victory in C-grade. This guy, let us remember, is now in his 50s, and each time he polishes his old bike for race day, he is connecting with his own glory days, when this bike that set him back in his quest for home ownership was part of a greater quest to be the next Indurain.

Returning to our cycling newcomer though: among the prospective role models the newcomer might look to, would any be still riding softrides, or slingshots they bought in the eighties? Come to think of it, would any softrides or slingshots even have outlasted their first set of tires? Neither of these avant-garde masterpieces would now fetch more than a few bucks on ebay. The argument I am constructing, is that the carcass (frame, fork, build kit and saddle) of a competition bike will be held onto and treasured if it is slightly rear-garde, not avant-garde, in its design, and if its branding lends it prestige. If today you bought a more conservative bike of the kind I’m describing, in ten years time you will gladly shell out for the latest new wheels, and once every 6 or 7 years you will flip on a new groupset, if you happen to see a good set selling for cheap with a last-season run-out.

I once read a fascinating book called Analytical Philosophy of History, the thesis of which casts serious doubt over this crazy notion of future-proofing. The most we can say about the future, is that fragments of stories we now tell of the past, will make their way into stories that will be told of the past, in the future. (Maybe read that last sentence twice). Otherwise, everything is up for grabs. Whole bikes might be grown from intelligent algae, for all we know. But if that were to happen, I would hazard to guess some algae bikes will be fitted with Brooks leather saddles. Future histories of cycling, will take account of Brooks saddles, along with an unknown array of such deeply ingrained traditions. Head badges: I can’t see algae bikes not having head badges.

Traditions are waves with almost guaranteed momentum, that, even if you are buying something so of-the-moment as a performance racing bike, can be trusted to carry you into the future. By contrast, novel technology has a poor reputation. We only remember those breakthroughs that stuck—STI levers, derailleurs—but even then, cyclists’ first love, essentialism, will cause anti-tech reactions such as the fixie craze we have just witnessed, or mountain bikers going back to V-brakes or mustachio handlebars. If we weren’t more in awe of elegance, than we are in awe of technology for the sake of technology, then we would add motors, now wouldn’t we! But cyclists always want less, not more, in a bike.

In conclusion, and in anticipation of an entry to come, I would like to say how much simpler bike buying becomes when pure speed isn’t the aim. Tradition becomes the central concern. Which reminds me: I must buy that Raleigh back off of Hamish! 


  1. thehonhamish says:

    I read your blog, Dr. Behooving, with great pleasure. Although my comments have been slow or non-existent recently, I continue to ensure that I am up-to-date with your comings and goings.I am always especially interested in your fine intellectual musings. The most recent entry is a splendid addition to your corpus. Reading my own name in your excellent piece made me feel truly honoured.
    Speaking of splendid additions, the Raleigh is a splendid addition to my estate. I am her jealous lover and have ensured her safety and care. I fulfil her needs like no other man. I will never sell her back to you. NEVER!

  2. Anonymous says:

    Best anti-chic use of a bike

    When I see a man in jeans riding an old lugged 10-speed with a 12-pack of pilsner balanced on his upturned drop bars on a January morning I know I’m looking at the unsuccessful defendant of a Christmas DUI and it always makes me smile as he careens past the sidewalk coffee bar oblivious to all style violations.

  3. Anonymous says:

    provides access

    Wow – this is the best article i’ve read in ages!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Re: Excited

    Why Jim, thanks for those kind words. Here is a link to a piece of writing of mine, about the erotics of architecture, framed in therms of the 1499 treatise Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, that you may know as the text they talk about in the movie/book The Rule of Four. I hope it sustains your excitement as I put a few thousand kilometers into that Scrap before I review it.

  5. Anonymous says:

    you know, I have not ridden with my feet off the pedals like that in such a long time, being technical—to a fault!—with my pedal stroke, keeping my heels low, knees together and so forth, as I learned from watching Big Mig in the 90s. But you are so right, descending Mount Sugarloaf, legs ways out wide in the manner described… my imagination runs wild!
    Oh and I could not agree more about climate change politics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *