Minding the Gap: Performance Equipment

Cycling, in its "recreational pastime" incarnation, is an activity of which griping (or, if you prefer, grousing) is an integral part. Roadies gripe about hairy legs; urban fixed-gear riders gripe about brakes; and freeriders gripe about how they need even more travel as they loiter at the trailhead not riding their bikes. And, of course, all of these people gripe about each other. However, there is one thing that riders of all types gripe about with near-universality, and that is other riders whose equipment is "too expensive."

Of course, what actually constitutes "too expensive" is entirely relative, which is what makes this form of griping so accessible. Just like a "hipster" is generally anybody who's more trendy than you, "too expensive" is simply any price you either can't afford or would never consider paying. We have all, at one point or another, seen another rider and felt indignant at the expense of his or her equipment, just as assuredly as we have all, at one point or another, been the source of this indignity for somebody else. The fact is, "too expensive" is simply impossible to quantify, and the upshot is, to paraphrase Potter Stewart's comment about pornography, we simply know it when we see it.

The reason we all do this is because resenting other people you've never met is simply a part of human nature, and right or wrong it can be irritating to see people who seem to lack sufficient appreciation for their possessions. I have found myself falling prey to this impulse on a couple of occasions recently. In one case, I stopped to assist a gentleman who was clad head-to-toe in Rapha and attempting to repair a flat tire on his crabon-and-titanium Serotta. Proffering my pump (in the literal sense, not the "Bust Magazine" sense), it was clear that he had no idea of how to use it. Moreover, he also attempted to fix the flat by first placing the inner tube on the bare rim of his exotic wheelset and then trying to somehow install the tire over it with the tube in situ. This was both sad and frustrating to watch--his approach was about as effective as trying to feed a cat by rubbing tuna fish all over it--and so in the interest of time I simply performed the operation myself, thus inadvertently becoming yet another in an endless series of people who perform menial tasks for this person.

On another occasion, I was leaving George Washington Bridge bike path and descending the access ramp, which features a 180-degree turn that can be daunting to the inexperienced cyclist or clipless pedal novice but that is othewise relatively easily to negotiate successfully:

In front of me was a woman riding a bicycle sold by a Canadian company famous for their pretentious videos and sporting an electronic Dura Ace drivetrain. Clearly panicked, she approached the turn at walking speed. First she unclipped one foot, and then unclipped the other for good measure. This, however, caused her to forfeit what little control over the bicycle she had left and turned her into a wobbly, overpriced tripod. Finally, she dismounted and simply ended up walking the bike through the turn.

In both cases, I caught myself feeling extremely indignant, as though these riders were committing an affront to me, to cycledom, and to humanity. But why should this be? Taken individually, I have no problem with inability to mount tires, or difficulty executing sharp turns, or expensive bicycles, or foppish cycling attire, or even electronic shifting systems--I mean yes, they bother me, but I'm not morally opposed to any of them. However, when considered together, they are maddening. This, I had supposed, was because the equipment serves only to emphasize the gap between the rider's actual ability and the equipment's potential. In short, a person on a city bike who can't fix a flat is at worst merely a hapless commuter, whereas a person on a professional-quality race bike who can't fix a flat comes off as a preening idiot. The difference between them is simply the size of the gap.

But the gap between ability and equipment doesn't fully explain what's so infuriating about dolts who use expensive equipment, precisely because expensive equipment doesn't really do anything better than "reasonably"-priced equipment, and even the most dedicated equipment fetishist would probably stop short of arguing that a crabon-and-titanium Serotta or an electronic shifting system would make an appreciable difference in a cyclist's performance. Consequently, it's not as though these people are attempting to buy performance or somehow use their money to cheat their way to the top when they buy all this stuff. No, what's most infuriating is that they realize the stuff won't help but they buy it anyway. If what they were doing was as simple as buying performance they'd be putting motors on their bikes and rocketing past you, which would be far more comical than offensive. But instead, they're hanging thousand dollar rear derailleurs from their bikes in order to block the bike lane more expensively, and that's when it starts to feel like an insult.

Of course, none of this takes into account the fact that, for some people, the monetary difference between a $100 derailleur and a $1,000 derailleur is simply not that significant, and is the kind of "might-as-well" purchase for them that amounts to opting for the large order of fries. So does that make it wrong? Not at all, though I'd argue that it does make it tasteless, and in terms of recreational cycling there are many riders who would probably benefit more from improving their taste than from improving their performance.

Still, there are many people who feel it is wrong to criticize riders like these, and who argue that it is indeed these riders who support the builders and bike shops and mechanics and various other enterprises, thereby underwriting cycling for the rest of us through their foolhardy purchases. This may or may not be true. Either way, I certainly do realize that it's not always the largest expenditures that are the most offensive. Consider the "MASH Waterproof Jersey Wallet," which I saw on fixed-gear freestyle impresario and streetwear enthusiast Prolly's blog:

To me, selling a single Ziploc bag for $7.50 is a thousand times more offensive than being unable to replace the inner tube on your $1,000 racing wheel or being unable to navigate your $12,000 bicycle through a turn. Then again, you can operate an iPhone through it:

Which almost sounds impressive until you realize that you can also operate an iPhone through a regular Ziploc bag. Sure, it's made of "durable 8 gauge vinyl" and may or may not outlast a freezer or sandwich bag, but you can also buy 25 sandwich bags for half of what one of these costs. In fact, I'd bet that even the most well-heeled yet clueless exotic road bicycle owner would see this and ask, "Wait, you want $7.50 for a baggie?" Granted, a baggie won't come with pictures, but you could always go the "collabo" route and spring for a Disney pencil case.

But some cycling products aren't tasteless because of their price--they're just tasteless because they're tasteless. Consider the De March Contour Short, which was forwarded to me by a reader:

(I'd click to zoom but I'm afraid)

They're the perfect garment for proffering your pump to fellow riders.
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