Monday, November 26, 2007

Bikes for Sport and Transportation Continued . . .

. . . Or, a Convoluted Pseudo-Philosophical Argument in Which I Wander Far From the Subject and Attempt to Convince Myself That it is Acceptable to Spring for TA Pro Cyclotouriste Cranks Rather Than the Perfectly Servicable Sugino XD2's (the tread difference, the weight savings, the humanity!)

As I've mentioned before, I'm interested in bikes because they're a good mode of transport. Not that they'd be a bad thing if they were exclusively sporting equipment, but they'd be less valuable to us if they were as useful as say . . . water skis. But looking at them from a too-utilitarian perspective also misses the point for two reasons, I'd argue.

Riding bikes that are well-made makes getting to and from your destination more pleasurable. Well-made bikes are, as most of us know, completely different machines than poorly made, cheap bikes. If people ride well made bikes well designed for their intended use, then they're more likely to continue riding bicycles. Even if they at first only ride for sport, which I'd argue is a lower good (but still a good) than riding for transportation, riding for sport may lead them to one day ride bicycles for their original intended use.

The second more general argument that all human made objects are the result of human labor, and it is barbaric to expect people to labor (which is the greatest part of our waking life) in the service of making something cheap that merely works (for awhile at least). And it is barbaric to surround ourselves with such objects. It is an affront to human dignity to require people to do work that they can't be proud of, and so it goes that it is an affront to support the production of such junk.

But I'm employing a straw-man rhetorical trick there, because the decision which occasioned all this hand-wringing wasn't, "Do I buy from Wal-Mart or from a local artisan," the question is "Do I make a really nice three thousand-ish dollar bike, or do I try to see what I can put together if I'm willing to spend more?"

Because extra performance, once you get to a certain level, costs a lot. And I guess what I'm asking is how valuable--in a very broad sense--that extra last bit of performance is. Excellence is undoubtedly a good thing, and very well made human objects are beautiful and inspiring both because of the finished object and the pursuit and determination of those involved in the making. But it isn't an unconditionally good thing. The excellence of an object can be divorced from its ultimate ends (because there can be things which are excellently made but are made for evil uses), and costs can goes through the realm of luxury into that of obscenity. So I think it is lazy to end our consideration with "I'm just trying to make the best possible _____." and assume that must drive must be a good thing, or with "What's a lot of money to some isn't to others."

One nice thing about bicycles is that even the very finest bicycles aren't out of the reach of average people in countries with developed economies. If someone in the US who made an even below average wage wanted something like a custom J. P. Weigle, which I think runs about $6K complete, it would be possible to save and buy one. The same can't be said for a Bentley.

Sorry this was a little unfocused. I guess blog entries aren't held to the standard of cohesion that more formal writing is. Or at least I hope that excuses me a little.

2 comments:

Justin Miller said...

Anthony, this is an interesting line of thought. As I followed your ideas I found myself asking myself how your Longleaf bicycle will be distinguishable from a Surly, a Kogswell, a Weigle, or a Bilenky? The "Randonneur" category has several examples of fine bicycles at various price points, all of which are very pleasant to ride (the reviews in VBQ/BQ confirm this). How do you intend to improve on the examples already in the marketplace? Further, any of the builders just mentioned, and others, also furnish excellent "transportation" bicycles. So is Longleaf aiming for price? Value? Aesthetics? Unique design advances? Adaptability to a specific task, such as child transport? It strikes me that, once you settle on the answers to these questions, and survey the examples, if any, already in the marketplcce, the specification of components becomes more clear. Justin

Longleaf Bicycles said...

Justin,

As you mention, there are other nicely made bicycles out there, but in general there is a shortage of nicely made, well-designed bicycles. Bikes like the complete Crosscheck, Long Haul Trucker and Kogswell, which all inhabit the same price range, are difficult to keep in stock. Custom frame makers who build well designed bikes have long waits. Even relatively new companies such as Velo-Orange who make a good product have long waits for their frames.

Many of these bikes may be similar, but they are, of course, very different from the usual fare of the bicycle industry. And if the randonneur category is populated with well designed, high performing bicycles, then I don't want to sway too far from the model.

We who have bee introduced to such bikes tend to forget what an improvement they are over the bikes most people ride--they're bikes that are fast, comfortable for long distances, suitable for transportation and off road use. Over 99% percent of most bikes are either good for one of those things, or none.

"How do you intend to improve on the examples already in the marketplace?"
One thing I'd like to see on more bikes is integrated lighting, because if we treat bicycles as serious vehicles then lighting will be an essential part of the package. My framebuilder and I decided to include internal wiring for dynamo lighting as a standard option. Presently this is only found at the very high end of the custom market. The Cheakas-made Longleafs won't be inexpensive bikes, but in terms of a completely integrated bike I hope to make them the best value out there.

"Unique design advances?"
I don't think it necessary (and I'm not saying you definitely are) have a goal of innovating or distinguishing the bikes from others. One of the nice things about the loose movement centered and BQ and the classic randonneuring bikes is that we're operating within a tradition. That's a bad word to some people, but it really just means (in the case of bicycle design) building on the hard-won knowledge of those who came before us, to understand their solutions and make improvements when possible but to always be keen to separate the true advances from mere novelty.

"Aesthetics?"
Well, I'll think they look good. I hope others do.

"Adaptability to a specific task, such as child transport?"
This is something I'll address with other models and/or with other products. I have high hopes for the Xtracycle/Bobike combination, and I'll have all the parts in Monday to build it up. If this works well, then the Surly Big Dummy dedicated longtail frame (mid-January ETA) will be the logical choice to fill this need, although the Xtracycle conversions will work well for more economical longtails.