Fetishizing Refinement

I’m at home. On the couch. The kids are in bed. The wife is watching TV. I’m combing through eBay’s endless stupidity for things I don’t need and probably won’t buy. I find something amazing, an old, Italian, pantographed stem. I turn the lap top, present it to the wife like a cat bringing a dead mouse to its owner. She snickers and shakes her head. “What is wrong with you?” she laughs.

This happens more than I’d like to admit.

The other day I was reading about the French classical pianist Hélène Grimaud. Among today’s classical musicians, Grimaud is known as one “who does not fetishize refinement.” The phrase stuck with me.

How often do we do this on Planet Bicycle? I spend half my life devoted to gazing longingly at pictures of finely honed machinery and/or debating the merits of a thing that varies by millimeters from another thing. If you’ve ever uttered the phrase, even quietly to yourself, “Oooh, annodized!” you’re guilty, too. If you’ve ever justified your component preferences with the phrase, “…but, it’s Italian!” you’re guilty, too.

Oh, face it. You read RKP. You’re guilty.

This level of fawning gawpery requires a cognitive leap I don’t all the way understand even though I do it every day. Rather than appreciating a thing for what it can and will do out on the road or trail, I somehow divorce the thing from its use, shine it up bright and then place it high on a pedestal.

When we imbue inanimate objects with mystical qualities, a Mavic derailleur, Campy Delta Brakes, an old steel Merckx, is it because those things are particularly good at their jobs, or because we need something to pour our excess passion into? Is it because we can’t always be pedaling? Do we just need a totem, something to carry the meaning of cycling for us?

This is fetishizing refinement.

Andy Goldsworthy makes sculptures out of things he finds out in the world. Leaves, branches, stone, water. The books that document his various projects are among my prized possessions. There are also documentaries that feature his work and include commentary by the man himself, describing his motivations and approach. They are awful. They ruin it for me. The first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club.

Once a thing becomes too precious, in my mind, the soul runs right out of it, like a pretty piano piece executed with machine-like precision, a pile of stone, precariously balanced against a steady wind, or an intricately carved lug that won’t hold a tube. At some point, cycling stops being cycling. It becomes so self-reflective, so fetishized, it’s inert.


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  1. randomactsofcycling

    Bravo Robot. To all the ‘collectors’ of the World that hang things (other than ‘art’) on the wall, I thumb my nose to you.
    What’s the point of buying a classic car/bike/thingamabob, if you don’t use it? I have always found the beauty of a functional item to be in the design and the execution of the design.
    That’s why the Italian stuff is so ‘collectable’.
    But it has to be worn, like a wood handled axe or hammer whose handle is smooth and shiny from hours of use over years and years.
    I love my Grandpa’s tools for this reason. They have been cared for and thy do the job and they represent carefully considered labour.

  2. ben

    Guilty…and it’s because we can’t always be pedaling. And this time of year refined gear is especially fun to think about since there’s not much racing to obsess about.

  3. Jank

    Guilty. Often to the point of distraction. Saddle up. Push the pedals. Ride.

    For cycling, I think part of the distraction is the intimacy with the equipment. How many hours would you spend staring down at the pantographed stem? Watching shadows cast by spokes? Dreading a squeaky pair of brake pads? listening to a deraileur thump into position?

  4. MCH

    Guilty and proud of it!

    The beauty of cycling is that it can be appreciated on many levels. Get out and ride? Great. Drool over the pics in magazines? Why not? Hang in the garage and polish? OK too. Reminisce about the full Super Record ‘nago you rode back in the 70s? Bring it on.

    As far as fetishizing equipment, why wouldn’t you? The machine itself is a masterpiece of history, engineering and efficiency. The fact that 14 pounds of materials is capable of so much is incredible. Each part is oozing with passion: the passion of all who poured their talents into creating them, the passion of the racers who helped refine them, the passion of the kids who covet them, and the passion of those of us who’ve used them daily for decades.

    Guilty? Oh yeah.

  5. Souleur

    true…Guilty on many levels

    fantasizing on new carbon goodies, carbon weaves, thick BB’s and chainstay’s…Guilty

    fantasizing on carbon hoops, tubeless dura ace C-24’s…guilty

    dreaming about the ultegra Di2 grouppo at night time…guilty

    fixated on steel frames of old, how to convert to a commuter fixie…guilty

    considerately contemplating using down tube shifters, threaded freewheels, refurbishing great old equipement in a resourceful way, on an old Bottecchia frame, tubular rims and goodies, how to tie the spare tubular under the saddle just in case…guilty

    we are cyclists…right?


  6. Jeffreo Herrachi

    For many, myself included, such obsession is an emotional tickle, a search for that old time feeling. I would disagree that any soul is lost as it was never there to begin with, rather time is renewed in ownership of the old time thing and in my case a perch to leap off in search of a new. Pedestals are best served as lecturnes to educate and stimulate action in life rather than harbor feigned idle mysticism in an object that was built on speed and wind. Life is in the patina, celebrate the aged with adventures akin to now.

    1. Padraig

      Everyone: I’m loving these comments. MCH, especially. I’m feeling like a country singer: If fetishizing a bike is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

  7. James

    I have an old Gios that I put together in the early 90’s. It is a beautiful color of blue. I built it with Campagnolo Croce d’Aune components and even built the wheels myself. I had always wanted an Italian road bike and that was the one. I used to stare at it constantly because it was beautiful to look at. To me it was always a piece of art.

    After I quit racing the Gios was relegated to various hooks in garages and workshops until I discovered it again a couple of years ago. I cleaned it up and hung it on the wall in my bedroom where I can stare at it to my hearts delight. I have several posters and pictures on my walls but my eye always lingers on the Gios!

  8. lawhaas

    I have a steel lugged specialized circa 1986. It’s red and it reminds me of American Flyers. It is currently set up as a singlespeed with Cinelli bar and stem and Campy record levers just like the ones in the famous pictures from Lemond on Alp de Huez. My wife thought I was crazy when I asked her if I could clean it up and hang it on the wall…but then I couldn’t ride it!.
    I am also crazy about my vintage Campy aero water bottle and cage. I run Paul Thumbies on my geared mountain bike. While working at a shop during college I collected other various odds and ends…I have a Record Titanium rear derailleur that is cracked but is still gorgeous……
    it’s a kind of visceral feeling i get when I look at that stuff that reminds me why I ride.
    I will always be on the lookout for a 7-11 Merckx…which will go on my wall…..as long as it’s a 54,55 or 56…so I can still ride it when the sun is out….

  9. Peter Lütken

    I own a ca 1980 light blue steel Merckx Professional, so I guess I’m guilty as charged. But I wonder – the fact that I use it as my primary ride these days and that it is currently wearing 9spd Ultegra, will this count in my favor?

  10. Steve Wilson

    There are some “cyclists” that dont have this “problem” and I pity them. You are speaking about the side of cycling that is the bike. It is about the bike as much as the rider. Or so it seems to me. I wonder too if it can ever stop. Is there ever a point with a bike where you can stand back and say: “This bike is finished. I am done building it up. This is how it will be from now on.” I cant get to that point. As soon as I change a component or switch a piece, I start wondering about the next thing I could do to make it just a tiny bit better. A little more beautiful. And how about when riding by windows or casting a shadow. Who hasnt looked to see just how damn good that machine can make you look.


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