The Soul of a Bicycle
Triathlete Magazine, February 2000
by Rick Denney
The August '99 issue included two articles from professional triathletes that revealed their spiritual outlook. The remarkable aspect, at least to me, was how different they were—from opposite poles of world-view. It brought to my mind the philosophy of engineering, which is something I think about a lot. Most folks think that engineering is a dry science consumed by analytical number crunching. While the analytical skills are the entry fee, the real job of engineers is something more creative, at least when they are doing their job really well.
Last year I had recommended to me a classic of the hippie generation, Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’d always avoided this book because I thought it was the sort of pop philosophy that I detest, and I didn’t identify with the religious heritage. My mistake. I discovered instead a comprehensive theory, explained in the form of an autobiographical novel, of quality. The book defined and defended the role of quality in technology. Indeed, it built an entire philosophy around the concept of quality, considering it to be in many ways a religious expression.
What, you ask, does any of this have to do with bicycles? The person who turned me on to Zen… did so because of my description of how I related to bicycles. The trained eye gleans much from a close inspection of a bicycle, and much of what is gleaned bears on the philosophy of the designer. Given my desire for everyone to be a trained observer, I thought I’d devote this article to a few of my own bicycles and why I was drawn to them.
The conventional wisdom says that bike fit is first and foremost. It is. But most people select a frame because of intangible issues: it’s the right color and has the right look—and it’s the same bike that someone else (someone we want to be identified with) rides. We try to ignore intangibles, but even the most committed analyst feels the pull of attractions that defy analysis. For example, Italian bikes are no better than any other mass-produced fine bicycle, but they have an aura that appeals to many folks who are routinely skeptical about other things.
In my own case, I want a bicycle that was designed by someone who seems to like bicycles. My favorite road bike is an Eddy Merckx MX-Leader. Merckx builds these bikes in limited quantities, and when bought new they are not cheap. In looking at the bike, though, it has a purity of design concept that clicks with me. The tubes are massively (for steel) oversized, and shaped to maximize vertical strength at the head tube and lateral stiffness at the bottom bracket. The chain stays are fully 1.5 inches tall at the bottom-bracket shell—twice as big as most bikes—which is one of the real secrets of stiffness against a swaying bottom bracket. The steel fork is almost aero-bladed, with a beautiful externally lugged crown. The relatively slack geometry turns all this stiffness into a smooth ride. Despite being one of the most expensive production frames on the market, it is also one of the heaviest.
Why would a company, knowing the market attractiveness of building lighter frames, offer as their top-of-the-line their heaviest bike? It is because the designer had a philosophy that weight was less important than other things, and the courage to defy market trends to carry out that philosophy.
Here’s the sad news: The MX-Leader disappears off the U.S. market this year. This commitment is not always commercially rewarded. But I appreciate it.
Last year, I decided that I no longer wanted to ride a converted road bike in triathlons. It was time for a real tri-bike. I wanted a forward-position bike to add to my fleet that would use large wheels and provide a comfortable geometry without giving up stiffness. And I wanted titanium. Why titanium? That’s one of the intangible lusts I mention at the outset. I wanted a titanium bike for no other reason than I didn’t have one.
Often the mind of the designer and the hand of the artisan belong to the same person. But it need not be so. My respect for the Merckx has little to do with the competent construction. Many bikes are more beautifully crafted, and I admire that, but it’s not a driving force with me. Likewise, the craftsmanship of a Merlin or a Seven always impresses me each time I see one, but I don’t long for one because of that.
The Habanero that attracted my attention, though, was at the other end of the scale, at least in terms of cost. Instead of exploring every aspect of titanium’s properties, with cost as no object, Habanero used titanium’s properties to make an affordable bike (at least affordable by race-bike standards). They used oversized tubes to improve stiffness. Instead of trying to make it also ultra-light, they controlled cost and used straight tubes. The stays are a constant (large) diameter, which reduces cost and also gives me the stiffness I like. The brushed finish is the most beautiful among unfinished titanium offerings, at least to my eye. There are no curved tubes in sight, and certainly no aero tubes. The bike is built in an aircraft plant in Asia by competent artisans who approach their work with high standards but not with the kind of mystical commitment to detailing that shrouds many high-end bikes. Even so, any normal person can talk to Mark Hickey, Habanero’s owner and designer, and get a custom offering, too. You can tell that he likes bikes, and wants people to have good ones. As a design feature, reasonable cost ranks highly with me.
So, here are two examples from nearly opposite ends of the cost spectrum that epitomize my own design sensibilities. Other examples abound, whether it’s a Quintana Roo that reflects the vision of Dan Empfield to bring real tri-bikes to the masses, or a Cervélo that tells us about the way Gerard Vroomen worships (and understands) aerodynamic efficiency. The designers have a sense of quality, and it shows in their product.
Think about what’s important to you. The bicycle is the most expensive apparatus a triathlete will buy. If you are an experienced rider, and understand the riding characteristics you want, seek out designers who address those characteristics. Such advice is easy.
What if you know nothing about bikes (or about engineering)? In addition to researching as much as you can, open your eyes. Pirsig tells a story about stopping at a motel for the night on his cross-country motorcycle trip. He notices the simple woodwork around the doors and windows. He is not a carpenter. Even so, he clearly sees that the hand of the carpenter belongs to someone who likes wood and cares about how well it’s worked.
But we should look past the artisanship, too. Pirsig tells another story about a mechanic who worked on his motorcycle. He was listening to music on the radio, used the wrong wrench on a bolt, ruined it, replaced it with the wrong bolt, and delivered the motorcycle not working properly. This escalating lack of quality started with the attitude of the mechanic. This example works for designers, too—you can see their attitude in the product. You can feel it. But it’s deeper than the paint.
Bikes have a soul, after all. It is the soul of the designer. Objective fact reinforces an understanding of it, but even the least technical among us can feel it. As technically analytical as I am, nearly every bike I’ve owned spoke to my soul. I like to think it’s my pipeline to the designer.