The line shifts from left to right and back again beneath my wheel, the shoulder of the road marked by a thin strip of white paint, its surface reflective where it hasn’t been worn away by tire tread and time. I spend a lot of time looking at that line, staying to its safe side when there is room, wondering how safe the line really makes me as my fellow travelers sit in their driver’s seats noodling with the stereo or texting their friends a fresh LOL.
When my bike was being built I had the opportunity to sit with the painter to talk about finish ideas. I knew I wanted a matte, battleship gray color to feature, but didn’t know quite what to do with it. He pulled out a gray tube, and told me to follow him. Into the drying booth we went, where he located a matte red sample and held them together. I knew in that instant what my bike would look like.
In steep stretches of pavement, on Pyrennean climbs and throughout the Alps, you will find the fractured scrawling of so many cycling fans who, over the years, have urged their favorite riders on with painted benedictions or sometimes cursed certain other characters with fierce imprecations, too. Most of these amount simply to the repeated statement of a rider’s name. The lengths of road anointed with these markings have always reminded me of the altars and memorials humankind has maintained since time distant, all cluttered with the well-wishing and magical thinking we allow ourselves to believe will have some influence on events.
The charm of these locales has only been diminished, in my opinion, by the invention of the Nike Chalkbot, a corporate-sponsored (albeit charity-inspired) robotic cycling fan, made to channel the fervor of fans who might not have the wherewithal to make it to the site of the race to paint the road themselves. But what are those words worth, chalked mechanically on the route, if not imbued with the sacrifice of travel, the pilgrimage, or the real human effort of applying paint to asphalt?
How your bike is painted makes a difference. Whether you have the opportunity to speak with the painter beforehand or are simply choosing a set colorway and scheme from what’s available at your shop, you are still expressing something about yourself with your choice. You want something understated, or you want something that looks fast, or you want something that won’t look like any other bike on the road. These are all personal expressions, and they are all important. Even if you say you don’t care, your not caring says something about you.
I used to think a time would come when all the roads here in Boston would be lined with bike lanes, that the proliferation of paint would make us safer. I’ve since abandoned that idea. I was riding in a bike lane the first time I got hit by a car. I’m not sure who said it, but someone smart, someone deep in our cycling community said, “Paint is not infrastructure.”
Paint has this way of telling you which way to go, of drawing your attention and letting you express yourself. The bike isn’t made of paint, but sometimes paint makes the bike. So I ride the white line and try to stay on its right side, and I tell myself I’m safe, that paint is important. To cyclists, it always has been.
Image: Matt O’Keefe
I imagine it drives engineers nuts. They spend all their hours trying to understand how the interaction of material and shape can produce an objectively better ride, doing hard stuff like math and testing, and then a designer comes along and slaps an eye-popper of a paint scheme on a competitor’s bike and suddenly they’re getting outsold 2-to-1. For all our talk about what makes one bike better than another, we all want to look good.
In the ’80s that meant splatter schemes and sparkle, neons and contrast. These days everything is either matte black or some permutation of the classic black/white/red. Bicycle aesthetics work in these small spirals, everyone seeming to riff on one color-way or one basic pattern, until some brave bastard dares to do something both different and repeatable.
I like geometrical shapes. I don’t care for splatter. Diagonals bother me. The Pegoretti above floats my boat. I don’t necessarily want to grab your attention with my bike, but if you do happen to look, I want my bike to be both sharp and unusual. I don’t want it to look like yours, but I don’t want it to look like a Ferrari Testarossa either.
Coming up with the next big thing is tough. I’ve been involved in projects like picking a season’s new colors. What you discover quickly is that, to do it right, you can borrow from no one. You have push out into the new and hope your idea of new somehow resonates with the masses.
It is possible that features and benefits are important, that engineering is, for some people, the thing that inspires their want, but I have been told for years that people buy things emotionally rather than rationally. And, my experience suggests that nothing inspires that emotional buy-in quite like a slick paint job or an elegantly crafted line. It is hard to feel compelling emotions about a bike’s stiffness, not impossible, but hard. Of course, in the best examples, engineering and design converge, but these are rare and precious, and usually very expensive.
This week’s Group Ride asks, how important are looks to you? Have you ever convinced yourself you wanted a bike based on a rational analysis of your needs, only to be swayed by a pretty paint job on another ride? What do you think looks good? How much will you pay for it? And have you ever bought a great ugly bike, only to watch it sit in the garage, because you just didn’t feel inspired to ride it?
You will not find a bank of safety glasses at the doors to Notre Dame in the fourth arrondissement in Paris or St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, but you will find one here. And you will put them on if you want to behold the wonders within.
You might kneel here, but OSHA guidelines suggest it’s probably best not to crouch in metal shavings. Perhaps a standing prayer of wonder and gratitude will suffice. The lathe. That pile swept over by the side represents more than a few grams that will NOT have to be carried up some local climb. Long racks of straight gauge tubing stand by, potential ready to become kinetic.
In the 1860s in Paris, not so far from Notre Dame, blacksmiths pounded out the first bicycles. Today, men and women in the aforementioned safety glasses cut, cope and butt tubing. Connect the dots. Let history repeat.
In front of the machines, big toothpaste-colored behemoths, the floor is worn where the craftspeople have stood over a period of years. Cutting, coping. Cutting, coping. Cutting, coping. In steel-toed shoes.
The machinists do their jobs. Over and over and over. Crafts like these appear brutal, but the nuance is deep. Experience is hard won. It takes time. Each of them has turned out thousands and thousands of bicycles. Proprietary processes prepare the final tubing. Avert your gaze. Magic is happening. Transubstantiation.
Bright fluorescents reveal every shadow, every burr. Joints must be welded, ground, polished. The welders study schematics, comparing what they see on paper to the parts that have arrived at their stations. Fine beads are drawn into micro-tight gaps. Alchemy. The philosopher’s stone as welding torch. What looks like a bike emerges, bolted into a rolling jig.
Scotchbrite brightens. Afternoon sun streams in through high windows, a small radio battles the factory sounds. Are these hymns for the newborn? No, it’s Eddie Money on classic rock radio. Same difference.
There are no pews here. Standing room only. Everything clean, but worn. Well worn.
Do not enter the paint booth, the final altar, lest mortal sin be done unto the frame. Chemical stripper burns if left on flesh. Do not rush the painter in his or her plastic jumpsuit. Pray for patience. Pray for dryness.
Await the miracle.
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