Über-Conformity: Death Before Individuality

While life can often seem chaotic and inscrutable, the truth is that much of it can usually be broken down into easily identifiable stages. For example, mythologist and canned soup magnate Joseph Campbell established the "Hero's Journey," which consists of "Separation, Transformation, and Return" (or something like that). This is the template followed by pretty much every narrative hero ever created, and it simplifies everyone from Jesus to Beowulf to Luke Skywalker. Similarly, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross neatly summed up the entire process of mourning with her famous "Five Stages of Grief," which are: Denial; Anger; Bargaining; Depression; and Acceptance. (These, incidentally, also happen to be the "Five Stages of Purchasing a Specialized Bicycle.") Even pop-cultural trends can be explained as a series of "stageways," and almost all of them follow the following process in their evolution: Identification; Appropriation; and Conformity.

Consider the fixed-gear trend for example. "Back in the day," all sorts of people rode fixed-gear bicycles, and they thought little of it. Some raced them on tracks, and others trained on them in winter. There were messengers who used them to deliver packages, and there were frugal commuters who simply cobbled them together from spare parts. While to some extent these people were united by their choice of drivetrain, it was mostly Just What They Rode. And as people used to say "back in the day," big freaking deal.

But then, certain people realized that they liked the way certain fixed-gear bicycles looked in conjunction with certain pants and certain bags. So, having Identified something they liked, they set about Appropriating it. The process of Appropriation involves establishing a set of rules, or what a reporter once called "weird style diktats" (frontal Aerospoke, key carabiner, knuckle tattoos, and so forth). These rules are put forth by means of internet bicycle galleries (Fixedgeargallery, Velospace), various blogs (too numerous to mention), and, most importantly, videos (MASHSF and the various facsimilies), so that people in the hinterlands with no direct exposure can see what the whole thing is supposed to look like in motion, and so the participants can establish their credentials. Finally, once the whole trend is documented, detailed, and labeled like a butcher's chart, the Conformity begins. Companies know what to sell, trend-aspirants know what to buy, and everybody's happy.

Consequently, the fixed-gear trend (like any trend) is highly ordered and regimented, and the videos that come out of it follow style guidelines as strict as those governing any sonnet or limerick or sitcom. Consider the latest "trailer" that recently "dropped" all over the non-coasting Internet:

To Live & Ride In L.A. OFFICIAL TRAILER from TRAFIK on Vimeo.

Ever since urban fixed-gear cycling entered the "Conformity" phase, every city in America and beyond has taken turns "stepping up" with a video that shows that they too know how to be like everybody else. San Francisco had "MASHSF" and "Macaframa," New York had "Empire," and now Los Angeles has "To Live & Ride In LA." And while each new video seems to outdo its predecessor, unfortunately it only does so in terms of its inanity. Consider the bold claim this trailer makes in its opening seconds:

Do they really ride the most dangerous streets in America, or do they simply make regular streets dangerous by riding like complete idiots? While I haven't actually seen the entire feature, I'm guessing the latter scenario is more accurate, since the claim is followed by people riding brakeless into busy intersections:

And riding brakeless on the freeway:

And riding down hills brakeless into busy intersections:

Any street is the most dangerous one in America if you ride it like a raging schmuck. Just wait until I "drop" my own "fixie" video, in which I ride up and down the tarmac at JFK while doing elephant trunk skids and almost get hit by a Scandinavian Airlines 747. Streets are for "woosies." 2011's going to be all about 'da "runway cred."

Anyway, just as the fixed-gear trend has followed prescribed stages, so too has my reaction to these sorts of videos and the riding they portray. First, it made me Angry; then, I found it Comical; and now I only feel Sadness. Yes, the sight of somebody riding straight into an intersection in the absence of anything real to rebel against is imbued with pathos--even a suicide bomber believes in something. (Terrorist organizations and religious cults are eventually going to figure out how desperate these "fixie" riders are, and they're going to send representatives to wait on the other side of these intersections during filming. "Just risked your life for no reason? Here, read this pamphlet!") This pathos is even more profound when you consider that he's doing it while his friend who has no actual creativity makes a video of it, presumably so they can screen it at the funeral as a final indignity to the family. But I suppose people with cameras who lack creativity and the people willing to die for them is what L.A. is all about:

Indeed it is. L.A., the land of cultural suicide bombers.

But this film presumably doesn't bother to examine the implications of this behavior, for it's all about "living fast:"

"We will be cutting lights, we will be bombing traffic," promises this rider. He won't be thirsty, though, because he's wearing a CamelBak:

"Thass how we do it," exclaims another rider, neatly summing up the sickening undercurrent of cultural appropriation and conformity that permeates this entire filmed endeavor:

So what's really so wrong with all of this? Is it the riding, which undermines the popular perception of a mode of transport against which people are already prejudiced? Is it the jeopardy in which the participants place themselves? Is it that fixed-gear freestyling and wheelies are so inherently boring that footage of it must be interwoven with near-death encounters just to make it watchable? No, I think it's something even more insidious. Sociologists have tried to scare us with the notion of the "super-predator," a generation of amoral and incorrigible juvenile delinquents. While this is debatable, I do think we're living in the age of the "super-conformist," a desperate generation of 20- and 30-somethings willing to surrender themselves to any pop-cultural phenomenon with an easy checklist, whether it's minimalism, or fixed-gears, or any "[insert commodity here] culture." And we all know what happens when conformity goes too far. Consider the disturbing overtones of this image, which was forwarded to me by a reader:
(The Aerospoke is apparently the "hipster" Swastika.)

It's only a matter of time before they discover and appropriate those old Skrewdriver logos just like they did with the Misfits.

Meanwhile, another reader has forwarded me a completely different sort of video, in which an entire family undertakes an "epic" bicycle journey from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego:

View more news videos at: http://www.nbcnewyork.com/video.

Here is the "epic" matron:

And here is the "epic" family:

It's worth noting that the mother is in New York while the rest of the family languishes in a small Peruvian village, ostensibly so that she can pick up a new wheel for her bicycle. She implies it's some sort of wheel that would be difficult to obtain in Peru, so my guess is she's flown here to pick up a used Aerospoke she found on Craigslist. In any case, it's almost certainly the most "epic" wheel pickup and/or excuse to get away from the rest of the family I've ever seen.

Speaking of "epic," yet another reader has informed me of this "epic" bike theft, in which the thief drove a truck through a bike shop window, got stuck, and made his escape on a Giant time trial bike:

According to the article, it was a Trinity Advance, which looks like this:

With any luck, the thief is a triathlete, in which case he will be easily apprehended during the running portion of his getaway.

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