Flights of Fancy: The Art of Unsimplification

One of the best parts of doing a BRA tour is having the opportunity to ride a bicycle in various cities, and one of the worst parts is flying with your bicycle in order to do so. Traveling with a bike is especially vexing when your relatively shallow "stable" does not contain a bicycle that is specially designed to be broken down so that it can fit into a "standard"-sized suitcase, and mine is such a stable. Here's an example of the sort of bicycle I do not currently own, as well as the fun you can have with it in the hotel room after the flight:

Even the most mundane task seems filthy and salacious with a Barry White accompaniment.

In the best circumstances, flying with a full-sized non-folding bicycle is inconvenient, but when you fly on the airline Bicycling magazine ranked second-worst for bicycle-schlepping ("schlepping" is Yiddish for "portaging") it becomes nightmarish:

By the way, Bicycling is the same magazine that ranked Portland the second-best cycling city in America, so in their universe you can be sure that, whether best or worst, second place is First Place 2.0.

I'm sure people will chide me for not employing a ruse in which I claimed that my bike bag contained a non-bicycular item such as a massage table or a large placard bearing the visage of Larry King, but such subterfuge would only serve to avoid a truth we all need to confront eventually, which is that traveling with a bicycle flags you immediately for airline mistreatment. In fact, in future I may simply claim that the bicycle is a gun, as I'm sure I would be far better accommodated.

Of course, as is the case with all prejudices, the reason airlines hate bicycles is that they don't understand them. This became clear to me at check-in after I made a benign comment to a United ticketing agent about their high bicycle fee, to which she responded by administering an angry and venomous lecture about how my bicycle required the aircraft to burn more costly fuel. I might have explained to her that my full bicycle bag was well under United's 50lb weight allowance for checked luggage, and the only way it would cause the airplane to burn more fuel than a regular suitcase would be if they transported it on the roof like the plane was a Subaru headed to a cyclocross race, but I did not have an opportunity to do so, for immediately after finishing she stormed off in a huff, never to be seen again.

Naturally, I understand weight is not the airline's only concern--there's also bulk, and the handling of this bulk. Certainly United is unable to correctly answer the riddle, "Which weighs more, 20lbs of bicycle or 50lbs of underpants?," but if the bag requires special handling regardless of weight it's reasonable to expect to have to pay for that handling. However, judging from the number of times my bicycle bag tumbled onto the carousel along with the rest of the luggage I'm not sure exactly how and where this handling is taking place. (Though I admit literally hurling the bicycle shotput-style like I saw a handler in Seattle do qualifies as a sort of "special handling.")

Also, when I arrived home in New York City, I asked a United representative where my oversized bag would emerge. "What's your idea of an oversized bag?," she replied. Until then I had no idea that it was up to me to determine whether my bag was oversized, nor did I have the wherewithal after a long flight to enter into a philosophical discussion about relativity. I explained that, according to United, my bag was oversized, but she still didn't believe me. Finally, I said, "It's a bicycle," and she finally said, "Ohhh," like I had just told her I was traveling with the corpse of a deceased relative, and she basically explained that it could emerge from pretty much anywhere.

Ultimately though the bag didn't emerge from anywhere since it never made it onto the plane in the first place--because, as another United employee explained to me, smaller planes have weight restrictions. In other words, my non-overweight bag was withheld from the plane for being too heavy. "They don't tell the passenger when they do that?," I asked, to which she replied, "They're supposed to, but they never do." The bicycle eventually arrived at my home the following morning.

Then again, this may be about more than a failure to understand simple concepts such as the weight of objects. More than this, it seems as though humans as a whole are genetically predisposed to complicate simple things--and since few machines are simpler than bicycles, the temptation to complicate them and everything associated with them is irresistible. Consider the "Union Foundry T-0001-0A Rotofixer:"

A reader alerted me to this new product, and you may also have noticed it on blogs such as that of fixed-gear freestyle impresario and streetwear enthusiast Prolly. While the tool itself is simple (basically, it's a cog that acts as a lockring remover) the degree of embellishment surrounding it is extraordinary. Here is the story behind it:

Designers/Inventors: Joshua Kampa (OPEN Bicycle) & Aaron Panone (aarn)
Packaging Design: Mike Dacey (Repeat Press)

After a year of development, incubation, and manufacturing research, Union Foundry is proud to present our first official product. The inaugural, limited first run of T0001 was designed on kitchen checks and cocktail napkins at our local. Days later, with the initial design still just a sketch, prototypes were milled and sent downtown to be tested by Boston bike couriers and other local riders.

Once the final design was locked, the tools were machined less than a mile from the place of their inception, then delivered, by bicycle, to be hand-polished by the same finishing shop that worked with Somerville bicycle legends Merlin and Fat Chance. The military-grade stainless steel parts were polished to a jewelry-grade finish then shipped off to our laser shop to be etched by the same machinists that cut titanium parts for Independent Fabrication and Seven Cycles. Upon their return to Union Foundry headquarters, the same building that housed Merlin Bicycles until the late 90s, packaging materials were hand cut and printed by local letter-press outfit Repeat Press, and then assembled and packaged for sale.

When purchasing a portable multi-tool (or in this case, portable non-multi tool) it is essential to me that the tool have a suitably engrossing "backstory," and the Union Foundry T-0001-0A Rotofixer does not disappoint in this regard (clearly, "designer/inventors" Joshua Kampa and Aaron Panone are a couple of "hipster" Ron Popeils)--nor does it disappoint with regard to its name, for asking a fellow rider, "Dude, do you have a Union Foundry T-0001-0A Rotofixer on you? I left mine on my other carabiner," is just the sort of thing that allows you to prove to the "fixerati" that you're "in the know." Best of all, in addition to a solid backstory and an unwieldy name, there's also a credit for "Packaging Design." In these strange times, it is considered wasteful and gauche to ask for a bag at the supermarket, yet it's perfectly reasonable to not only package a small piece of metal but also to use the package (and the designer of that package) as an actual selling point.

Sure, I know what you're thinking. "I'm interested in the Union Foundry T-0001-0A Rotofixer, but I'm not convinced. Is there an artfully conceived promotional 'edit' that accompanies it and shows me how to integrate this product neatly into my lifestyle?" The answer, of course, is "Yes:"

Union Foundry T-0001 Roto-Fix Tool from Paper Fortress on Vimeo.

The video opens with a "fixter" of the helmet-and-no-brakes variety riding on a grittily gentrified urban street. "Hmmm," he thinks to himself, "this is pretty Zen, but if I had different gearing it would be even Zenner:"

Fortunately, he's got a Union Foundry T-0001-0A Rotofixer dangling from his carabiner:

Next, he finds a suitably picturesque spot (in the "hipster" community it is essential to perform all roadside repairs in front of a visually pleasing backdrop), and like all brakeless riders uses almost the entire width of the road to bring his bicycle to a stop:

The background he has chosen, by the way, is edgy yet retro, and features both a razor wire fence and a VW Microbus:

Next, he removes his rear wheel:

Then, he returns his peanut butter wrench to his back pocket and grabs the Union Foundry T-0001-0A Rotofixer, presumably more comfortable carrying his tools in his tight pants than in his giant backpack:

Next, he applies the Union Foundry T-0001-0A Rotofixer:

And easy as you please (almost but not quite as easy as using a regular lockring tool), the lockring is removed, allowing him to fish around in his pants for a different cog:

You may be wondering at this point why, if urban fixed-gear cycling is about simplicity, one would feel the need to change cogs on the fly. You may also be wondering if the rider is aware that a simple flip-flop hub would involve considerably less work. Finally, you may be wondering how much the Union Foundry T-0001-0A Rotofixer costs, and the answer to that is $85:

It's surprising to me, especially given the undeniable appeal of being able to change gear ratios quickly, that before the Union Foundry T-0001-0A Rotofixer came along nobody had thought to invent something that would allow you to change gear ratios quickly and that costs under $100:

Sure, I realize that it takes more than just a rear derailleur to change gear ratios, but when you factor in additional cogs, capacious messenger bags, carabiners, jeans, and "boutique" tools, you're probably well on your way to a Red group.

Of course, now that the fixed-gear freestylers are adopting 26" wheels they continue to be well on their way to reinventing the BMX bike, so it is only natural that "hipsters" are slowly reinventing the derailleur drivetrain as well. Presumably we'll see a "boutique" rod shifter for the fixed-gear set by the time even Sora is fully electronic and everyone else is shifting with their minds. And in the meantime, there's always Velosynth, which was forwarded to me by another reader:

The video is particularly entertaining:

velosynth release#001 from velosynth on Vimeo.

Judging from the pronunciation, they've even reinvented the word "velo."

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