Six years ago the iPhone emerged onstage with the late Steve Jobs, a totem for those who believe in the transformational power of personal technology. It was a turning point that opened people up to giving technology a truly intimate role in their lives.
New pitfalls appeared on the path to enlightenment. There are many who spend more time staring into the glass screen of an iPhone than into the eyes of their children. Among cyclists, a sweatier narcissism can be found in the longing gaze at a Strava segment on a tiny screen.
Fortunately, cycling already had its iPhone moment. It was more than a century ago with the adoption of the “safety bicycle” as the high-wheel design phased out. With that perspective, we need not worry about being left behind technologically even if it feels like the sport’s essence is slipping from our hands.
The rider’s role remains essential, whether dashing in the dark to the store for a pint of half-and-half or carrying a sponsors millions on their shoulders at more than 50 kilometers an hour across the Arenberg’s cobbles. While driverless cars offer a rolling sanctuary for those burdened with an excruciating commute, a bike that steered and propelled itself risks being an abomination. If anything, driverless cars may make bikes the most exciting vehicles on the road.
The best wheelsets are lighter and more aerodynamic than ever. They are unmistakable for what they are, no matter the price tag, no matter the spoke count or the braking-surface material.
As for the rest of the machine, some perspective is in order. There are wonderful technological changes taking place in but whether they are revolutionary is an individual opinion. Much of it is about measurement, such as GPS bike computers replacing the Avocet two-button devices that are the equivalent of the cellular brick-phone.
For sure there are energetic debates over whether disc brakes have a place on road bikes, or even what size rotors are best. Electronic shifting sees cyclists choose sides quicker than Yankees and Mets fans. These back-and-forth are often so heartfelt because they are, in fact, fights over very small stakes. They also take place mostly online. Once on the road, it matters so much less if your rear cassette has 9, 10 or 11 cogs. Or if a servo changed gears for you or a disc rotor slowed your carving descent.
None of this enhances the feel the wind on your cheek. Or richens the laughter of a good friend. Or deepens the fatigue and gratitude of a hard ride.
We can mount more and more electronics on our bikes but cycling’s spirit is rooted in its analog years. Steel’s resurgence as a frame material is testament to this. It is a wonderfully defiant response to disposability and impermanence – twin curses of our age. These hand built frames are surely lighter and more refined than those ridden a century ago but their lineage is unmistakable. Like the hum of a ferrous railroad track ahead of a speeding train’s arrival, a similar energy is found in the muscular flex of a bottom bracket or the delightful ping of a stone ricocheting off a downtube. The Tour de France’s centennial this summer is a beautiful reminder of the sport’s continuity that is inherent in every steel bike even if the current generation of cycling icons may never have ridden the material.
The most memorable bikes are often our first. They were ridden with abandon before we learned to bind ourselves in straps to monitor our hearts and regard small screens with devotion instead of the horizon before us. These bikes were heavy, flexy and often cheap. Batteries had no role in our joy. In their imperfection was their attraction. Feeling, not knowledge, defined our riding.
Our current bikes are the product of rational and informed choices, even if they cost more than half a year’s rent or a first car. The latest are stirring designs made from a supply of quality carbon fiber that Cold War fighter engineers would have sold their children for. They are adorned with wireless sensors and GPS navigation that the bicycle-making Wright Brothers would have put to good use — just not on the ground.
The best innovators like Steve Jobs understand innovation is less about technology than it is about discovering new ways to enhance a shared human experience.
Cyclists have known that all along.