Sunday, July 8, 2012

cultivating the "unracer"

I took this photo last Thursday on my way to work.
This is my semi-recently acquired newest bike, a Surly Disc Trucker. Like most of my bikes, it's at least double (ok, triple) the weight of a typical road-racing-styled bike, but that's ok, because it's at least 10 times as useful in my life. I honestly don't know or care what it weighs, because I know that every ounce of it serves some purpose, and more importantly, a few pounds either way are not going to enhance or detract in a realistic way from my "performance", and even less from my enjoyment of cycling. I've never been a fast runner or a fast cyclist or a better-than-average athlete in any regard, but I do enjoy many of the aspects of cycling that have nothing to do with the competitive sport of cycling, which has little or nothing to do with my cycling lifestyle.

Five or six weeks ago, we had a really fun book-signing party for Grant Petersen's new book "Just Ride", which you can purchase here. Not surprisingly, perhaps, to Grant Petersen's long-time fans and observers, his book offers a critique of the influence of the racing mindset and racing-oriented products that seem to pervade all aspects of cycling. He describes his perspective as that of the "unracer". In my understanding, the unracer is a cyclist who rides a bike without being overly concerned with speed and performance statistics, without feeling to need to dress in a costume that indicates allegiance a favorite racing team or brand or club, and, most importantly, without sacrificing utility or fun for improved performance. Anyway, without knowing there was a term for it, I've been an unracer for years, and I'd suggest most cyclists are unracers, even if they don't realize it yet.

Recently a customer/friend of mine went to another shop to check out a particular product carried exclusively by that shop. The salesperson reportedly badgered my friend about not using cycling shoes (along with the requisite clipless pedals) or cycling shorts. According to my friend, who has a fair bit of experience to know what she likes and doesn't like, the salesperson's arguments didn't focus on performance or even comfort, oddly, but on safety, of all things. Basically, the message was that bad or dangerous things will happen to you if you don't use padded shorts (specifically, for any ride of more than 15 minutes!) or clipless pedals (you could lose a toe!). Apparently arguments about efficiency and comfort are not as effective as fear of death and dismemberment! I'm not here to argue the merits and demerits of either of these products, but I would like to point out that claiming that either is a necessity is ludicrous. Most of the bike-riding world has never heard of padded shorts or clipless pedals. I ride everyday to work, and most days for aimless recreation, and maybe a thousand or more loaded touring miles in a given year, and I don't use clipless pedals, cycling shoes, or padded shorts. I tried them and didn't derive any benefit worth changing my clothes. I'm sure the salesperson at the other shop got into cycling and followed the conventional wisdom about these products from the first day she purchased her first "road bike". I seriously doubt she's given decent platform pedals and un-padded shorts a fair shake. Why would she?

For whatever benefits people get from them, clipless pedals and padded shorts are a quick way for an inexperienced cyclist to gain credibility among his/her peers as a "serious" cyclist. After all, every pro cyclist uses these products, and if you show up on a "road bike" without them to almost any group ride, people will comment or criticize or write you off as completely eccentric. Of course, people who use the pedals and shorts believe in these products, it's no lie, but I'd point out that most people get their first clipless pedals and padded shorts the same day they get their first nice road bike and start riding more - of course performance improves! If I had to estimate from my personal experience in bike shops, 75-90% of the customers who ask about clipless pedals have never used them, and have fears about having their feet firmly attached to the pedals (and falling over), but they also have fears about looking like a novice dork in front of other cyclists (protip: all cyclists look like dorks to somebody). To whatever degree people see me as an experienced, accomplished cyclist, it seems to give them some comfort when I tell them to ignore the peer pressure and stick with platform pedals, if that's what they're comfortable using. It's all about being comfortable with yourself. If you're comfortable with whatever you're using, keep with it. If you'd like to experiment, please do. But beware of group pressures to conform in ways that don't make sense to you - they don't care about you as much as they need to reinforce their own insecurities.

I don't want people to intentionally or unintentionally miss my point. There is nothing inherently wrong with using clipless pedals, padded shorts, or other racing equipment. If these aspects of cycling improve the fun factor in your case, I'm truly happy for you. Of course, if you rebel from the dominant racing paradigm, and show up to tweed rides and pressure others who aren't as "tweedy" as you are into wearing more tweed or more period-correct tweed or whatever, you're taking part in another flavor of the same brand of weird tribalism. But there isn't a disturbing preponderance of tweedy riders on vintage 3-speeds (yet). There is, however, a preponderance of nonracers riding racing bikes. Yesterday during the shop ride I saw dozens of people (not in our group) riding race-style bikes with the typical features of low-spoke-count wheels, integrated shift/brake levers, skinny 700x23 tires, carbon forks, etc. Of these, maybe 2 or 3 looked like they might actually compete in a race once in awhile. Many were older or overweight or had equipment choices that were incongruent with their racing bikes (cobbled-on rear rack, seatpost-mount fender, steerer extenders, gel-padded too-low handlebars, etc). The people I'm describing are not racers. They're not fast or terribly concerned with speed. They're just ordinary bike riders who wanted to buy a good, efficient bike, and the obvious step up from the "entry level" hybrid was a so-called "road bike". They bought the bike, and the pressure to buy into all the other roadie accoutrements followed immediately. These are the unracers stuck between dorky "hybrids" and bikes that resemble the bikes being ridden by 130-lb twenty-something substance-enhanced super-athletes in the TdF.

At HC, we are completely uninterested in bike racing. Sure, we can fix your Madone or your Tarmac, and we have some experience with some of the gravel century races, and a few simple ideas that will make your bike marginally faster. But for the most part, we don't give a damn about that. We are about as committed to bikes and the bicycle lifestyle as people can get, but the sport aspect of cycling might as well be happening on another planet. Recently I was fixing a flat on an old Schwinn gas-pipe 10-speed when the owner, a woman my mother's age, asked, "do you race?" It was clear that she wanted to fawn over an actual bike-racer. My response was unrehearsed and sort of surprised me when it came out: "Nope, I ride bikes for transportation, recreation, and adventure." She seemed disappointed by that, but I was proud of this off-the-cuff answer. What's a more noble use of bikes than transportation, recreation, and/or adventure?


Tex69 said...

Adventure is some damn good stuff.

Shaun said...

Great post Jim! As someone who went from cleated cycling shoes with toe clips and immediately bought into clipless pedals when they were introduced, I can attest to the fact that most people who use clipless pedals have not given regular "platform" pedals a fair shake on a decent bike that fits them well.

I admit that clipless do have their benefits but they are far outweighed by their drawbacks in terms of practical/recreational/utility/transportation/adventure cycling. I've used clipless for over twenty years and after several attempts, I think have finally weaned myself off of them. And I couldn't more pleased! I can hop on any of my bikes wearing any pair of shoes and just go.

I was talking with some other riders on RAGBRAI one year, and one guy said to another guy that he was giving up 50% of his power and efficiency using regular platform pedals. I said that I know from experience that clipless pedals definitely most definitely do not make me twice as efficient or fast. People get some crazy ideas in their head!

Jay said...

...and here I was about to suggest the Team Hiawatha Cyclery skinsuit...with custom designed bacon distribution pocket. One can dream.

Anonymous said...

Well said, Jim.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for a most thoughtful post on the unracer. My own coversion began when I bolted a MTB triple crankset onto my racing bike. Initially, I figured I would put the same chainrings as before, plus having the granny. After riding it "as is" for a while, I decided "I don't need any higher gears, these work great!". That slippery slope led to rack eyelets & more, until it became clear I really needed a real touring bike. The Atlantis filled the bill, and took about 2 miles for me to "get used" to it. As far as performance, it performs perfectly for my needs.

Still holding off on the 50 mm tires, though.


Bald-n-Surly said...

You know, it's weird, because I agree with all of it. But also like to race bikes. I like tri and cross and crit. Man, it's just a blast. But I also like cruising on the Big Dummy and commuting on my Cross Check. Urban riding can be transcendent at times in ways that hammering never will be. I just like riding bikes. But I agree with the core notion, at least what I perceive it to be, that you should be who you are and not worry too much about what other folks are doing. Keep up the good work Jim.

Anonymous said...

Jim -

One thing to remember when it comes to clipless pedals and the solid connection to the bicyle that it allows: You will see increased efficiency through the ability to apply 360 degrees of power. This may not help you go faster, but you will have more fun due to the ability to go further with less overall fatigue thanks to power/efficiency payoff.

Jim Thill said...

BULLSHIT!, But, thanks.

KM said...

I'll second Jim's bullshit. Having now worked more than 25 ACA rides, many as mechanic, I can tell you that there are plenty of platform pedal riders who can out climb and outride the Lycra/ carbon crowd.

After multiple days in hot conditions, the riders complaining most about saddle issues, hot feet and other similar maladies, are all encased in Lycra and wearing cleats. I am just finishing a ride in which riders endured several days of temps over 100 degrees and the happiest riders were the few wearing loose fitting clothing and regular shoes.

Travel to any hot country and the locals are certainly not wearing a fabric designed to trap heat like Lycra.

David said...

Great blog. Found your page while looking for a new set of rims for my full carbon trek. Something deep inside tells me 20 spokes plus 200# rider is not a good plan! Might be why my rear rim is cracking?

Can I drink the cool aid and still keep a decent club ride pace (16-18mph) or do I have to get new friends?

I'm feel a pull to the dark side!


Jim Thill said...

My lightweight 32-spoke wheels are the same weight as the 20-spoke Race wheels Trek supplies on their carbon bikes. I routinely ride 16-18 mph with much heavier wheels.

Benjamin said...

Racing culture has pervaded far too much of the bicycling industry in this country. In fact, I'd argue that anything with a derailleur is an artifact of this. Any bike that is truly designed for ease of use, convenience, reliability and durability should be using internal gears. Derailleurs are finicky, difficult to use, prone to problems, and a PITA to keep clean. They are, however, lighter and possibly more efficient (barely).

Also, fenders should be standard.

PS. David, maintaining speed on a bike depends on one thing: the engine. Wind is your biggest source of resistance, so if you want to go fast, get a recumbent (or get used to lower back pain).

Barton said...

I ride a dorky hybrid - mainly b/c it is what I could afford and it felt practicle for long distance trips as well as for my daily commute to work (2500 miles on it this year). My carbon-bike loving aunt (63, 10k miles/year) keeps telling me to go light! Get a racer! Why? I don't want a stable of specialized bikes.

Now, I ride my dorky hybrid with SPD-combo pedals, and love it. Having spent a week riding in the Ozarks with the previously mentioned aunt, riding up and down and up and down steep STEEP inclines, the clipless pedals really did improve my ability to climb, but mostly, I noticed that I wasn't as fatigued as fast (50% improvement like the dude Shaun mentioned? no way, but noticeable). They are combo b/c as I only have the one dorky hybrid, I am not always wearing my spd shoes - sometimes I wear heels even - so I like the broad base at times.

I also admit to wearing bike shorts on my bike. When your thighs rub together, these shorts make a hella lot of difference in your comfort (also, biking in dreses and suits to work is more than I can afford in dry cleaning bills!).

And, I must say, I get a HUGE amount of pleasure as I, fat chick on the dorky hybrid, breeze past the adults in matching kit on expensive racing bikes.

My next bike? Chromly steel drop handle bar.

Jim Thill said...

IGHs have plenty of disadvantages for the average rider. I don't believe that they're the answer for everybody who isn't interested in buying into racing fantasies. Derailleurs are fine and highly developed. They're mostly a PITA to people who've never used a decent one. Modern derailleurs, even the cheap ones, properly set up and occasionally adjusted are pretty trouble-free.

Benjamin said...

Jim, what are these disadvantages? (Horizontal drops?)

Having worked as a mechanic professionally, myself, I have plenty of experience that tells me derailleur are tons more fragile than any IGH, require more maintenance, and have a far shorter lifespan.

Jim Thill said...

I have a Rohloff on my current favorite bike, and I have a soft spot for English 3-speeds, so I'm not opposed to IGHs. BUT, where I have the problem is with strict dogma, such as:

In fact, I'd argue that anything with a derailleur is an artifact of this. Any bike that is truly designed for ease of use, convenience, reliability and durability should be using internal gears. Derailleurs are finicky, difficult to use, prone to problems, and a PITA to keep clean. They are, however, lighter and possibly more efficient (barely).

Also, fenders should be standard.

Nothing should be considered "standard", IMO. Lots of different people doing lots of different things with bikes should not all have the same bike. Romantic notions of Amsterdam and Copenhagen aside, the bikes commonly associated with those places have limited applicability here (in North America), with its spread-out cities and diverse terrain. And if you're a halfway vigorous cyclist, perhaps a 50-lb bolt-upright bike will not be terribly thrilling to ride on a daily basis. Being an "unracer" doesn't mean we can't have some fun or go fast when we feel like it.

As for dérailleurs, I'll say that a bike with modern but run-of-the-mill, say, Deore derailleurs will survive all but the most careless mistreatment and neglect. If and when something bad happens, ANY bike shop can likely fix it in a short period of time. That's not, by and large, the case with IGHs. In fact, with most IGHs, even repairing a flat tire can become an ordeal even for a seasoned mechanic, especially if there is a drum brake and a chainguard in place.

Miriam said...

What timing! I was just sifting through Meetup trying to find a bicycling group that just involved, well...bicycling? Unfortunately, all the photo albums display beaming, lycra-clad roadcyclists in clipless shoes all geared-up for another 50 miles sweat up a mountain.

Given that all my bikes either a) weigh in excess of three carbon fiber Felts, b)have rod brakes or c) 16" wheels and fold, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't quite fit in.

We could sure use a nice bicycle group for the rest of us. If I want to work out, I go to the gym, but if I want to have fun and enjoy my surroundings, I hop on my bike.

KM said...

While on the road here in Washington, I met a German gentlemen who was nearing the end of a 3 year round the world trip. His bike was equipped with a Rohloff Hub and Schwalbe tires and heavily loaded.

In those 3 years, he has had no issues with the hub and not one flat tire. He did replace the tires twice but never had a flat.

On the ride I just supported, several riders had in excess of 5 flats, riding lightweight carbon bikes with thinner tires.

Matthew Stonich said...

I call it Carbon (fiber) Pollution. Back in 2007 I did the Jesse James 100in Northfield on a (now) 19 year old steel mtn bike, converted to road. All ,except my bike, were carbon fiber, no light weight steel or even TI, just (Bleeping)CF and the prerequisite 20 extra lbs stuffed into Lycra. It was obvious, I was on ride, and everyone else was in a race.
Anyways, I do like my SPD's and a little extra cusion on the backside now. And as a Racer from the 80's I do prefer being an UNRacer of 10's.