A Canticle for Commerce
The manager of this Chicago neighborhood non-profit bike shop, the only paid acolyte in the temple—a long haired, wiry man with permanent black dots all over his hands (unintentional tattoos from getting poked by the black grease on the tip of a frayed cable)—vets me. These types of shops exist for supervised learning and contemplation, but a devotee who proves their experience can use the tools unrestricted. We talk about this and that bike relic: zero-stack headsets versus traditional cups, why BB30 adaptors never seem to work, the idiosyncrasies of Campagnolo’s proprietary crank remover, etcetera and so on, ad nauseam, amen. He notes the brand of bike I brought to work on, a Foundry. He says, “They make a good bike at Foundry.” Had I been born a more proselytizing sort, I might’ve told him that it was actually some anonymous proletariat in Taiwan who made a good bike. Foundry just sold it. Instead, I agree and after a little genuflection he’s satisfied I won’t get hurt or mess up the tools, and then he leaves me on my own. I set up at a tool altar to my habitualized specifications and commence my liturgy.
At a work stand a few paces over, the manager talks with a novice, part of that shop’s "Overhaul Your Bike" class. Being practiced in my rituals, my hands guide themselves while the rest of my senses—in need of focus, lest idleness lure them to devilry—employ their talents at eavesdropping. He goes over the terminology of the techniques they’ll be doing: “righty-tighty, lefty-loosey.” He covers the names of the bike components and gives little histories for each one: The first pneumatic tires were made by a doctor who specialized in catheter tubing. Some bike frames are bonded together with melted sterling silver.In olden days people pedaled in reverse to shift gears. The manager could teach a yearlong course on back-stories alone. The awe-worthy size of this temple he helped build and the quality of its name-brand tools proves that his station was not granted by accident.
“I don’t expect you to remember everything I’m saying," he says, "but my point is that there’s a lot to learn here. It’s complicated! People like me and that guy over there have spent a fat chunk of our lives on this.”
My ear twitches at the acknowledgement of my existence. In so many words, my brother has said that we are part of a cause together, that our lives in the service of machines has not been a waste, that what we do has merit and contributes to the wealth of the world.
“What I really want you to get from this class is a good generalized skill set, sort of a holistic approach to bike mechanics,” he says.
This is my language. The cult of machine is eternal. Two people who never met before share a philosophy obtained from the art and vocation of mechanical appreciation. The gods of grease and fasteners smile upon us.
“Because, what’s really important," he says "is that after I’ve taught you all I know, you’ll be able to walk into any bike shop and say exactly what you want from them. You can be like, ‘I’m feeling play in my bottom bracket. It’s a Japanese square taper design with English threads,’ and they’ll go straight to the back room and pick out the exact thing you need. You get me? No wasting time with sales pitches, just cash in hand and you’re out of there. You’ll basically be the perfect consumer.”
Oh dear, what righteous goal is this? No, no, no.
As a youth, I spent years in a non-profit bike shop in Iowa, a place that, at the time, seemed to exist outside the capitalist structures of traditional business and economics. “Is this heaven?” asks Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams. “No, it’s Iowa,” the state responds. The work assumed the branding of altruism and utopia in that it was unpaid, but rewarding: the hubs I learned to overhaul helped unlicensed drunk driving parolees get to work and the seatposts I greased moved up and up with the growing legs of the local kids—or would have if the vile brats weren’t so keen on ghost-riding them into the river. My desire to monetize this skill cast me from Eden. Why fix bikes for free when I can do it for fee? But I thought, in my pious naïveté, that after a decade serving the Moloch of Earnings I might be let back to non-profitism to retire, and focus on the enriching experience of connecting with machines, without the corrupting influence of consumerism.
Machines—such as cameras and clocks and tugboats—hold a special place in the imaginations of humanity because they perform the functions of life—like capturing moments, acknowledging time, and tugging boats—without the emotional upkeep required by living beings. You can leave your riding lawn mower out in the yard for a few days while you go on vacation, and if you return to see that vandals have dented the hood you might be a little upset, but as long as it doesn’t impact the mowing experience you’ll get over it. Moreover, your neighbors won’t think the worse of you, and might even feel bad for you. The same cannot be said if I use this example, but replace the word “riding lawnmower” with “pony.” I think most socially adjusted citizens in our republic would agree: leaving a pony out where it can get vandalized is not OK; most pony owners won’t get over a dented pony, hobbling through the pasture.
But what of dignity for mechanical objects? Though lifeless, do they not deserve respect and care? Machines are a manifestation of labor and thought at several levels, often spanning many generations. Shouldn’t their contribution to society be measured with that of their operators?
The French philosopher Roland Barthes says of cars: “I believe that the automobile is, today, the almost exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals: I mean, a great creation of the period, passionately conceived by unknown artists, consumed in its image, if not in its use, by an entire populace which appropriates in it an entirely magical object.”
Barthes is comparing the concept of the automobile as a thought-induced construct manifested through mass production to the actual, physical Gothic cathedrals. The difference being that in the temporal world, part of the appeal of mechanical objects when weighed against their biological counterparts or architectural/intellectual simulacrums is that once they’ve served their purpose (i.e., once all the boats have been tugged, the times have been kept, the memories printed and hidden in a shoebox under a bed, the lawns de-grassed, and the people driven to their final destination), the mechanical thing can be pushed off a pier or in some other way discarded, never to bother its former owner again. Should an individual want to fill the void left by their jettisoned machine, they need only stroll down to the store and pick up a new one. The idea a machine represents is eternal; its earthly representatives are disposable. That’s the stance of the marketing department, anyway.
I don’t agree with that kind of thinking. I'm a priest of the mechanical cult, a professional entrusted by society to perform the rituals of construction, repair, and upkeep in a responsible manner. My vows state that if something is truly worth making, it’s also worth maintaining, and a looked-after bicycle can travel many miles for many years with little effort lost to inefficiency. For inefficiency is waste, and waste is evil. This is not opinion, but religion.
Like many priests, I am also a sinner. Oh, if every plastic spoon in the trash and every rental car whose tires I needlessly smoked in Wal-Mart parking lots came with a sentence in Hell, I would indeed be wary of the afterlife. I confess, I’m a party to waste. Though through the wisdom of my prelates, woven into the fabric of my life as counsel, I found that my wickedness has a source, a devil, a malignant intelligence outside my own, bless my levers and gears. This beast goes by many names: Apollyon, Beezlebub, Satan—ugh!—debt, envy, greed—ah!—consumption, marketing, commoditization—oh, Lord! The forge does burn brighter at the sound of those names. Low, have I been brought by these insidious fiends. Far, is my path to salvation.
That was the promise they gave me. To reach, to push, to grow so that I might consume more, that was their true goal.
Here I shall divulge the secrets of my past life, the schemes I performed not so long ago that made me the wretched brute you see on this page. Bear forth and witness, all ye who have the grit, for I am not the only one so afflicted.
Son of Man once came to me at my altar in one of the many bike shops where I plied my Sabbath. He had a fine bicycle, an American-made racing machine. I cross-referenced the paint scheme with the catalogs I have memorized to deduce someone built it in the same year of my birth.
“You know,” I said, “that’s a nice antique you got there, but technology has come a long way since whatever century you got that thing in.”
“Don’t get me wrong, I like pretending I live in the past too, but if you like riding—I mean really riding, not just putting around the driveway, but testing your strength of character against all the unflinching forces of nature on the gauntlet we call Bike Path—you need to rest your wheels on the cutting edge, friend.”
“That’s right, get you an electronic-shifting, wind-tunnel-tested, carbon-fiber-framed, computer-designed, superbike and I’ll be dog-goned if you aren’t deafened by the sound of car horns praising your glory while you cruise down the center of the highway. A parade of YOU, buddy, that’s what we got here.”
“Good God! How have I lived such a deprived life! Sir, you have sated me on your tree of knowledge! Take all my money! Wife, come to me, this man has things to tell you!”
This conversation represents a weekly, if not daily occurrence in my profit-driven bike shop life. But what of the truth in my sales pitch? Is there any? I dare say, as a sinner and a scholar, no.
I won’t deny the data-driven prophecies that show the nicest bike of yesteryear is quantifiably slower than its present day equivalent. The wind tunnels and computer drafters used by modern oracles do something, no doubt, but a quick lesson in racing history will show the fallacy in thinking the gap is considerable. In the Tour de France of 1995, a thoroughly doped-up Marco Pantani climbed the Alpe d’Huez while spitting pure adrenaline out the side of his mouth in under thirty-seven minutes on a perfectly nice but technically unimpressive bicycle. Nineteen years later, the Tour de France champion, a sober and saddle-weary Bradley Wiggins, riding a wind-tunnel-tested, electric-shifting, multi-thousand-dollar superbike, took so much longer to climb the same distance that he isn’t even mentioned in the record books, despite having won the day against a peloton of competitors forced into equal measures of Puritanism by the anti-doping agencies. Hark, for a lesson doth reside at the peak of that mountain: if you want to win, forget the new bike and spend your money on a good old fashioned cocktail of testosterone, amphetamines, and bribed officials.
But let me return to the Son of Man; his old bike was mighty fine: made by an expert, and trashed in every conceivable way. The high priestesses and warlocks of my order—engineers, chemists, and physicists—tell us that metal ages, but unlike flesh, it grows stronger. Heavy use causes the atomic bonds in metal to break apart then re-fuse in more complicated and more durable patterns. Mine is a religion of empirical knowledge, and I’ve been fortunate to find mentors in the back pages of academic technical blogs who’ve taught me this and other clandestine truths not found in brand-sponsored marketing literature. With my aficionado’s eye, it would be a savage misdeed to let the Son of Man’s old bike continue its dereliction or join the leagues of the discarded, locked at bike racks, waiting for the end of days.
“Slow down there, chum! How’s about you leave that old bike behind? You don’t need it. C’mon buddy, there you go. Put it down. Yes. It’s safe now. Yes.”
Now the bike is mine. Now I am taking it apart, cleaning it, lubing it. Very nice, very nice indeed. The irreparable parts: removed. The dry-rotting tires: replaced. Everything left is cleaned, baptized in the chemical solvent bath. Purified. This is redemption. This is why I chose my faith. A vessel brought low as me is thus lifted by my hand, back into good grace. I perform the rites of quality control. It is now better than it ever was.
From this parable the discerning reader might see that my position as bike shop priest is founded on conflicting pretenses. My faith commands me to repair and to maintain; it says that all bikes that were made well must be treated well; inefficiency is the path to damnation. But the leaders of the industry insist it must grow. There are people within it trying to make a living, and the best way to do so is by selling new products.
And now I must confess one of the great secrets of my industry.
All those different bike companies you see in the shops, all the colors and shapes; it’s all a ruse. What is a bike brand, I ask you? The image most citizens think of is a group of engineers tweaking and toiling over new designs while technicians labor on one masterwork after another. But I protest, it is not so. The construction of life is at present maintained by the power of convictions, far more so than sense. The basic design of the bicycle is the same now as it was in the 1890’s. Since then mankind added gears, fiddled with brake designs, played with angles, and swapped materials: steel begets aluminum begets titanium begets imaginarium, and so on. These are incremental modifications, the culmination of generations of tinkerers building off others. The casual observer hardly notices the change decade to decade. What a bike brand really consists of is a group of administrators, market strategists, and graphic designers drinking coffee in a St. Paul suburb. A quick look at the staff section of any major bike brand’s website will show the total number of mechanical experts they employ could fit in a single confessionary.
True, enlightening technological breakthroughs do happen, but their timing is unpredictable and rarely offers a competitive advantage to just one company. In the 1900s the French inventor and cycling apostle Paul “Vélocio” de Vivie, invented the first bike with the ability to shift through multiple gears. His design would have made him a millionaire, if every other constructeur between Marseille and Paris hadn’t copied, tweaked, and rebranded it. In the dark periods between epiphanies, the industry keeps sales up by inventing new categories of riders, each requiring a specific tool: road bikes, gravel bikes, endurance bikes, touring bikes, light touring bikes, sport touring bikes—a single basic design re-sold to the same innocent believer. The value of these rhetorical transmogrifications to the company investors is immeasurable, but the soul of the bicycle, its inherent worth in the eyes of its owner, stagnates—supplanted by the body of newness posing all a-sparkle on the showroom floor.
Finding my religion challenged by the industry it serves, I finish working on my Foundry and leave the community non-profit shop – then I decide to quit the business altogether… But not before going to the distributor with my industry credentials and buying all the things I know I’ll never be able to afford again: a wheel truing stand with 3 planes of adjustment, two torque wrenches (the first can measure 1-28 Newtons and the second does 20-53 Newtons!), a tensiometer, a new set of cone spanners (you probably think I should have had these already, and I do, but they wear out quickly so it’s good to have spares), a crown-race remover, chain wear gauge, and a few more devices that are too esoteric and boring to dare publish in these secular pages. With all this equipment I can build my own temple.
Machines are tools; humans are tool users. Who, then, uses humans? What are we here for? Why? Walter Benjamin, a Jewish German cyclist and philosopher of modernity, who died fleeing the Nazis, said that these are times when one shouldn’t rely unduly on their ‘competencies.’ He said all decisive blows are struck left-handed, and I believe him. I do not know god. I do not know truth. I am no prophet. I am not worthy. I am not worthy. I am not worthy.
Ideologies are to the vast networks of society what rocket fuel is to the space shuttle: you cannot just fill the tank and light the fuse; you must administer measured amounts in carefully considered stages, all with much deliberation and consultation. Any other way and a person might lose contact with planet Earth. I cannot claim to be an authority, but I do know for certain that our world is not made for strict dogma. When godliness can’t be maintained, build a new God.