Suspended Animation

At any given time in the cycling industry, or maybe actually in the cycling zeitgeist, there is a primary animating idea that gives the underlying industry its focus and motivation. For example, the animating idea in cycling in the ’90s was the first mountain bike boom. Then there was a swing back to road riding, road racing, and everything on pavement. A certain bike company sold us on skinny tires with the help of the cyclist-who-must-not-be-named, riders in their droves suddenly experts on the Tour de France.

As a cycling evangelist, I thought we were witnessing the U.S.’s conversion to a Dutch-style pedaling utopia, but the gulf between pacelining and bike commuting proved too deep. Of course, once the blood doping controversies of the ’00s ramped up to fever pitch, all of that momentum bled away again, and we needed a new idea.

We all believed at one time.

These “animating ideas” bring new riders to the party, so the end of one idea isn’t a problem, as long as there’s a new idea to take its place.

As a tool for freedom, the bike should never be dogmatic, and cycling ought never be exclusive (although things did get awfully white and suburban during the ’90s). Since then, we’ve been on our way back to the dirt. In fact, the idea of getting off the pavement is so compelling that mountain bike technologies like disc brakes and wider tires have wormed their way into the road market. The roadies of the ’90s would hardly recognize the bikes stacking up at the red lights on their way out of town now.

We also, thankfully, broke the spell of the weight weenies, and got back to thinking about what makes a bike great, beyond a low total weight. Once folks accepted that disc brakes were better than rim calipers, they immediately added a full pound to their bikes and realized it wasn’t a real problem. We’ll just glide past the implication that the industry had been lying to them about weight for 30 years.

It seems odd to me that the key to unlocking this whole trend has been the “gravel” bike. First of all, gravel describes a very, very small amount of the surfaces these bikes are ridden on. They’re dirt bikes. They’re unpavement bikes. They’re not-road bikes, although the magic trick they perform is…wait for it… you can also ride them on roads, and that’s probably, despite the misnomer, what’s most compelling about gravel bikes. They’re versatile. They give riders MORE freedom than either a road bike or a mountain bike and honor the fact that few people are either very serious roadies or very serious mountain bikers.

We’re all hobbyists. Some people build ships inside glass bottles. Some knit sweaters. We pedal around in circles. It’s ok. It doesn’t mean you don’t look cool in your leotard and your tap shoes (don’t think about that too much).

I’ve talked to hundreds of people buying their first gravel or mountain bike in the last five years. They gave me two reasons for wanting to take their cycling in that direction. First, they were just so tired of dealing with cars. Even as America’s drivers came to accept cyclists more generally, the distracted driving of people on cellphones made the whole enterprise more stressful than any hobby should be. Second, they wanted to be able to ride in more places, on more surfaces. It’s funny how many of them felt it important to tell me they would still mostly be riding pavement, but just wanted to maybe try, just a little bit, to ride on unpaved bike trails and dirt roads.

I didn’t tell them that a road bike would still do those things. I made a living selling bikes, and anyway, a gravel bike is much more fun to ride on dirt than a skinny tired road bike. I like helping people find the woods. No one ever called me to say it didn’t work out for them. People love the freedom cycling gives them. Getting back to the dirt is just an expression of that idea that recognizes how riders don’t feel free on roads they have to share with cars.

This brings us to today, still in the bloom of the gravel revolution, but also watching the eBike find its place in the personal mobility paradigm. That so many eBikers are not what we, the cycling hobbyists, think of as bike riders makes the current moment sort of bittersweet. We have wanted more people on bikes, but we expected to have more in common with them than this. Bike shops are moving eBikes, but I’m not sure they’re seeing the same uplift in their fortunes that came from the advent of gravel, because many eBike riders aren’t regular bike shop visitors. They buy a bike and don’t come back.

I think about the future of what we do, for a hobby and also, in my case, as a business, and wonder where it all goes. Is the eBike the herald of a new phase of cycling, when those of us who were content to pedal ourselves around become overwhelmed by a general public reacting to climate change, traffic, and the high cost of living by creating a newer, larger cycling culture, one that is both electrified and much more practical, not besotted by the bike as a machine or riding as a way of life. Are we, devoted bike riders, reaching a new state of suspended animation, out of new ideas? And if so, is that even a bad thing, given what seems to be coming next?

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  1. khal spencer says

    “At any given time in the cycling industry, or maybe actually in the cycling zeitgeist, there is a primary animating idea that gives the underlying industry its focus and motivation.”

    It is, I think, to make money and stay in business.

    1. Emlyn Lewis says

      Khal, yes, but riders have to “buy into” the idea, which is why warmed over Biopace isn’t typically an animating idea.

    2. khal spencer says

      Absolutely true, Emlyn! Gosh, I remember back in the late eighties when Biopace was proffered as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Not quite. But sometimes I do wonder which is more important, the marketing department or what we find out on those road rides.

      I used to think those ultralight open pro tires were awesome. Until I came in dead last in a TT in Honolulu after suffering three flats, having used up two spare inner tubes and having to walk the bike until someone tossed me yet another tube. Ultralight tires are actually pretty slow when combined with broken beer bottles!

  2. Pat Navin says

    On the plus side of the growing ebike trend, it IS removing vehicles from the road. I’m in Santa Barbara right now where, despite the recent spate of frighteningly intense deluges, one can ride a bike comfortably 340 days a year. The preponderance of ebikes during morning and evening commuting hours has grown exponentially in the past few years. More ebikes means fewer vehicles. I’m all in favor, and, given my health situation, at some point I may make the leap due to electric cycling.

  3. Balky says

    A couple of points if I may:

    1) Gravel bikes are great (I have one) and I welcome a toning down of the road bike race mentality that they offer but hardtail XC MTBs are still also really nice and really versatile. Especially the ones that still run 2x drivetrains and tyres in the 2.1″ to 2.2″ range. I see a lot of new hartail XCs coming out shod with 2.35″ tyres and several gravel bikes either supplied with 2.1″ or capable of accepting them. A little too much of an overlap perhaps for both to run a 2,1″ tyre? A bit too much of a peek behind the curtains? The flat bar gravel bike is also an interesting creature. Other than the lack of a suspension fork (though not always), what’s the difference between it and a XC hardtail?

    2) Certain aspects and segments of the eBike audience are jarring for sure but overall I think eBikes are helping to bridge the aforementioned gulf between pacelining and commuting. IMHO, commuter and cargo eBikes are right on the money. They lower barriers for non-cyclists to use bikes for jobs that cars traditionally do which helps everything from empathy for cyclists on roads to advocacy for more infrastructure which is good for all cyclists – powered and unpowered. eMTBs I have more mixed feelings about. On one hand they help older riders to keep riding and often get used for bike commuting by some when they’re not being ridden on trails. On the other hand they also attract a certain type of rider who really has no interest in cycling culture, fitness or what bikes really are and who, it seems, would quickly switch to an off road motorcycle if only they were allowed to ride motorcycles on the trails they’re eMTBing on. Now, I know that not everyone who buys an eMTB is like that but at the same time, in all the decades I’ve been mountain biking, I had never had an exchange like the following before the advent of the eMTB. So, I was riding my XC hardtail (see above) on some new-to-me trails when I came to the junction of 4 or 5 other trails where I stopped to drink and rest. Three eMTBers had done the same. I said a casual hi and sat on a log to drink a few metres from them. They talked amongst themselves about this and that deal they’d gotten at work that week. Some minutes later, I throw a leg over my bike again to get going when out of the blue one of them says, “You’re not going up there are you?” pointing to a particular trail. He continues, “…coz it gets pretty steep and rocky and you probably won’t make it on that thing.”. I had no plan to go where he was pointing. I said, “OK, thanks. No, my GPS says I’m going down this other trail. First time here.”. And away I went. Again, I know that’s one random example that probably relates to nothing but I just found it all fairly bizarre.

    1. erikthebald says

      Sounds like many exchanges I’ve had with mtn riders over the years, usually relating to my choice of single-speeding, riding a full suspension bike, or not riding a full suspension bike.

  4. erikthebald says

    Excellent article Robot. Cycling has always had the zeitgeist thing going. Maybe the changes seem to be coming quicker lately. I think it is a combination of the bike industry, the clientele, plus consistent nature of change in genera.

    We have an industry that feeds itself by selling trends in cycling to people that enjoy chasing trends within cycling. It’s what enthusiasts do, whether it be bikes, cars, tiny trucks, what-have-you.

    Plus, as you and others here have mentioned, the world is a changing place for all the reasons. Some of that change I’m not always happy about, but that’s a me issue since that change shit is inevitable.

    I’m all for the gravel bike thing. It will be as polluted as other genres of cycling by the serious and/or greedy types, but as for the casual rider it is a boon to have those bikes being made and marketed. I have bitchin cyclocross bike so no new school fancy pants gravel bike in my future, but my special lady friend will likely add one to the stable soon.

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