Cycling’s iPhone Moment


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.

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  1. Patrick O'Brien

    Mr. Cole, that was an excellent piece. Thanks.

    I have recently succumbed to the lure of a good steel frame. My first road bike was a lugged steel Specialized Allez. I quickly moved on to aluminum and then a carbon road bike, not really understanding that the Allez would have served me well during that entire time. I had a similar learning curve with mountain bikes. When I look at the Niner and Soma bikes in the garage now, it reminds me how marketing made me go in a big circle. But, I am glad that I ended up with what I have.

  2. scaredskinnydog

    Really enjoyed this read, thanks. One could argue that the advent of the safety bike wasn’t the iPhone moment but rather the moment when cycling jumped the shark. Cheers!

  3. Michael

    Nice writing, August. Thank you! I have a little difficulty with the iphone moment, as I see the iphone as the opposite of everything I seek on a bike. My daughter gave me a hand-me-down phone recently, one that she had received from her mother (my wife) when Mama got an iphone. Now daughter has an iphone too, and they are lost to the world too often. They were perfectly happy to get me an iphone too, but I demurred. In the end, they hound me to turn on the phone. I do, occasionally, when I see a clear reason to be available on it. My office has a phone, and my home too. In between, I DON’T want to be available. I DON’T want to know where the nearest restaurant/bar/bus/grocery is. I want to ask someone this, in person. My bikes are like that too. I want to be unavailable when I am on them, and I don’t want to know what is around the corner. I love my bikes, each made by a friend who builds gorgeous bikes in aluminum/carbon and steel. They are my ticket to freedom and exploration. An iphone seems the opposite – it would make me available to others, and would already know what is nearby. But that wasn’t your point! You showed how cycling is different and beautiful, and not based on the technology. That is what I love, and I thank you for saying it more beautifully than I.

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  5. gmknobl

    A good meditation. Thank you.

    Now, can you come up with a way to get a good, solidly built, not heavy and most importantly, low cost steel frame? Honestly, I’d like a bomb-proof frame as my aluminum and carbon fibre one will eventually die on me, at least the carbon fibre. I cannot afford anything right now and would love to have a bike that will last me the rest of my life and allow me to ride the local TdF-like mountainous century.

    Beauty of a wonderful thing but some of us simply can’t afford these desirable works of art as much as we’d like them. Low cost – as in well under $1000 or even half that is what ends up running the show.

  6. Patrick O'Brien

    Les has a good suggestion, but vintage steel Treks can be hard to find in the right size and in good shape. You could do what I did, buy a SOMA frame, and move the parts from your current bike to the new frame only replacing those parts that are worn out.

  7. August Cole

    These are great comments. They make me see something else too: we often look for the qualities in our bikes that we want to see in ourselves. Reliable, fast, good looking, durable, storied. (Not sure where affordable fits in…) Not sure what that says about my ageing bikes, neither of which I am passionate about. But that’s another post for another day…

  8. Mike

    Steel Trek 26″ rigid mountain bike with 1.25″ slinks. That thing got me around all through high school before I had a car. My current rides are all 10x as expensive, but only just as good. And I love them not quite as much.

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  10. Duncan

    The analogy with the iPhone (and other teck) and cycling is more up to date, as well. SO many people have an iPhone because it’s cool and seems advanced. Similarly, I know plenty of ‘all the gear, no idea’ cyclists, who have bikes WAY better than they need and have features that they never use or are warranted. But it gives them a good *feeling* to know they’ve got it and so have their sporting heroes.

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