Those first days of school are an indoctrination. We executed the circles, the lines, the angles that make up the letters movement by movement, like sheets of paper spat from a printer. The repetition is as much to remind those little brains what to think as how to draw a curve. Soon it’s numbers, then math, the problems factored until the result is automatic, as natural as falling rain.
It seems as if each new problem, every conjugated verb is a lack of faith, a basic statement of mistrust, disbelief that we’ve learned anything at all. Over and over. It’s the shorthand for what numbs the brain, a rejection of process, a plea that there are other efforts in life, good reason to chase new pursuits, other ways to learn if this one didn’t work.
What most of us didn’t realize was how long division was rarely about the divisor, never about speed. The repetition was a study in process, a lesson in work. How many of us bored of it, anxious to move on to something fresh, something new, anything different?
Those early school days were an introduction to concepts that as cyclists we hold to be self-evident truths. Of course, most of us didn’t appreciate the true nature of what we were learning. How in doing addition problems over and over we were learning what work is. What it means to train.
But here we are, tens of thousands of kilometers—or miles—later. A spin so perfected we know the difference between 172.5mm and 175mm cranks. We feel the slip of a seatpost in the knees. Work, in its simplest sense, is our only path to speed, to experience, to enlightenment.
One of the legends of frame building told me that he thought the only want to hone the craft of frame building was by spending some years in a production environment. It’s not until you’ve done dropouts or bottom bracket shells for days on end and are sick of them that you can hope to gain the experience necessary to develop that muscle memory. That’s the point, he said. Once you’ve done several thousand dropouts, when you pick up the torch you don’t have to worry about remembering just what to do, it’s automatic. Not until you don’t have to worry about the craft are you in a position to think about it.
Think about how many times you’ve been sliding back in a group and made that tiny acceleration to move onto the wheel of a rider coming by you. You may do it a dozen times or more even in a short ride. Somewhere in our past it stopped being an exercise in how to do; rather, the very thing you do.
For at least some of us, those years in school were just an interruption in the fun we wanted to have. Cycling gave us the chance to have fun for hours on end. And not until we got our fill of fun did we begin to think about what it means to really work.
My neighbors were talking about the water they get in their basement and the constant work it takes to maintain an older home. Both of our houses were built before 1935.
I asked if they’d prefer to live in new construction, all wall-to-wall carpets, flat, smooth sheet rock, simple 1/4″ trim around all the windows and doors. They screwed up their faces in disgust. They would much rather, they averred, pump a little water out of their basement two or three times a year than live in a modern, cheaply made, soulless McMansion.
We all nodded our heads and basked in the glow of our sanctimony, banishing thoughts of sump pumps rattling to life in the middle of a rain soaked night. Better to own a home with some character and style, and do the work to maintain it. Our homes are an expression of our values. The medium is, as we’ve been told, the message.
The metaphor extends.
Would you rather own this car, a 1964 Ford Thunderbird, or a 2004 Toyota Camry?
The Camry gets better gas mileage. It breaks down less. It is, perhaps, more dependable. But no one is ever going to pull up next to you at a red light, look over and yell, “DUDE! SWEET RIDE!!!!!”
In twenty years, classic car shows will still be filled out by the cars built between 1930 and 1970. Architectural Digest will still name check architects who built California bungalows in the ’30s and ’40s. They will still picture the thatched-roof cottages of British yesteryear.
The ultimate complement you can pay a craftsperson is to refer to their output, be it a house, a car or a bicycle, as a modern classic.
For a few years I flogged an ’80s Moser 51.151 around town as my everyday bike. The steel frame had been absorbing road shock for 25 years. There were scratches on top of scratches in the once cool paint job. It was/is a bike at the end of a very productive life. And, despite it’s advanced age and poor condition, guys would regularly ride up next to me at red lights and say, “Dude! Sweet frame!”
Modern building trends in house, car and bike industries are toward cheaper construction, machine-made products, and overall standardization. Such methods do not produce classics. Classics are produced by the hands of men and women who have put time and thought into their crafts. Classics strike a sublime balance between style and substance.
It takes a lot of marketing dollars to pass off a mass-produced product as somehow valuable in classic terms.
Classics sometimes leak and sometimes break down and eventually rust through, but that is true of all things. Entropy is anything if not consistent. With a classic, the quality persists, despite the predations of time. You know one when you see one, set back from the street on an ample lot, idling at a red light, or pulling alongside you on a group ride.
These are objects in whose lines you can see the contours of human thought, if not the sweat their creators shed. They are messages from the past, and encouraging signs that we have yet lost that thing that makes us special.
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