Wednesday, January 28, 2009

meant to be used

Last week I noticed that my Simplex B & B front derailleur, after ten years on my bike, had cracked at the clamp. Not sure how long it had been that way, but knowing I needed to replace it, I began scrounging around in my stash of bike parts until I found its replacement.

I'd obtained an even older Simplex Super LJ derailleur about a year and a half ago and stored it away in anticipation of this event. Last night I made the swap, and rode home with the new dearilleur secured to my bike. It worked fine and I was happy.

(Side Note One: All bike mechanics have a private stash of parts. The variety and generation depends largely on the generation of that mechanic and the beginning of his/her serious technical interest in bicycles. Most of my parts, for example, reflect a mid- to late-1970's sensibility; while a younger mechanic might have a collection of early-generation mountain bike parts. Most of us keep a small supply on hand with which to repair our own bikes, and perhaps family members' bikes as well. We also tend to hoard parts if we know it will be difficult to replace a part we particularly like. For example, I have this wacky thing for Suntour Power-Ratchet stem shifters, and I have five sets in my parts box. Since there's not much call for this component I don't feel especially guilty for hoarding five sets. If it were something rarer and more in demand -- like 1970's-era Campy Record derailleurs -- my level of guilt might increase, at least a little.)

Because Simplex is a company that no longer exists and whose components are of historical interest to bike tech freaks, I posted photos of the repair on my Flickr page.

Within hours of posting the photos, I received an email to my Flickr box from a fellow who scolded me for using such a rare and valuable component on my bike. "You should remove that part immediately and either store it, or put it on ebay. In fact, if you want I'd make you an offer for it that I suspect would be far more than you paid for it."

Well, he was right. I'd paid only ten bucks for the derailleur, because it came into the shop as part of a large lot of used parts, and I'd bought it with my worker discount. As for storing it, well, I'd already DONE that for a year and a half; now that I needed it, it was there for me. I figured my mission had been accomplished.

(Side Note Two: when I first started working in the bike shop where I remain employed today, we kept a large case of vintage bike parts on display. We mostly kept the nice stuff in there, like early Dura-Ace and Campy. A couple of times a year, a Japanese businssman would come through town, and he'd call ahead to see if our case was full. It usually was. He'd swing by an hour or so later, and proceed to virtually clean us out. We'd be several hundred dollars richer and he'd walk out with a box of fancy old bike parts. This had gone on for a few years by the time I was hired.

One day we asked him where all those bike parts were going. He replied, "I take them back to Tokyo, have my doctor friend clean them in a sonic cleaner, and then I put them on display in one of the glass showcases in my office lobby."

We were dumbfounded. The guy was buying up all these parts and then just sitting on them? "Don't you ever use any of them on a bike?" I asked politely.

The businessman shook his head emphatically. "Oh, no," he said. "These are special parts that are no longer being made. They are status symbols in Japan. To use them on a bike would be to destroy them." Seeing that we were still confused, he added, "I and my friends are great lovers of bicycles, and we collect and trade these parts with each other to complete full component sets."
I imagined twenty such offices in high-rise towers throughout Tokyo, filled with gleaming, restored Campagnolo parts that would never go outside again.

We thanked the man for his business. He loaded the box of vintage parts into his rental car and drove away. We decided then and there that we would never again allow him to clean out our case. We'd rather sell at least some of those old parts to people whose old bikes actually needed them to keep going. When he called us the following year, we lied and told him there hadn't been much to come in lately. He was surprised but accepted our story. Seven months later, he called and one of my co-workers did the same thing. He must have gotten the message because I'm told he never called or came by again. But by then, Ebay had begun to siphon off the supply of good, older bike parts from the shops.

Within a year of that man's last phone call to us, we'd noticed a real falling-off of higher-quality used parts and frames coming into the shop. The genie had been let out of the lamp and could never go back; people began to perceive that their stuff was worth far more than shops had traditionally paid out, the parts began appearing on Ebay and Craigslist more frequently. That was pretty much the end of the "innocent" age. Unfortunately, it was also the end of being able to easily find old parts that fit older bikes, and our vintage parts case has never been quite as full since then.)

I wrote back to the fellow who'd emailed about my derailleur swap. I thanked him for his advice and his interest, but explained that I bought that derailleur with the intention of using it, as I feel that bike parts were meant to be used on bikes. I planned to ride with that derailleur until it crapped out, and would not feel a shred of guilt at the idea.

I haven't heard back from him and I suspect he thinks I'm nuts. That's okay by me.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Too Many Options?

Sometimes. Maybe. There are too many options. There is, perhaps, something to be said for doing a thing well rather than adding complexity to make it easier.

On the bicycle, the simple, fixed-wheel doesn't give many options. One either develops a certain skill and rides well, or he probably doesn't ride. The rider of the simple machine learns efficient cycling experientially. He masters the preservation of momentum by doing. He works with the terrain and circumstances given. Like a craftsman, he applies practiced skills to make something of beauty of his resources.

Might this be true in living? Perhaps we reach a point at which we have too many options. We come to a place where we spend too much time evaluating choices. Or we devote too much of our resources developing, maintaining, repairing, rehabilitating, and upgrading life might be more convenient. Or faster. Or more entertaining.

Recently, I removed the complexity of coasting and the option of shifting gears from my bicycle. I returned to the simple, fixed-wheel configuration of last summer. Riding the bicycle is a little more work. It is arguably slower in some conditions. But I believe it makes me a stronger, more skillful rider.

I wonder if the same disciplined approach to remove options in other areas of life would build in me a stronger character and make me a more skillful friend.