Practical Advice for Transportation Cycling

Sometimes, all that matters is getting from Point A to Point B as cheaply, safely and efficiently as possible. You don't need a fast bike, you don't need a pretty bike, and most of all you don't need an expensive bike, you just need one that works.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Opinionated Blogger Friday: The Unracer

Ah, bicycle racing. It's a strange sport, obsessed as much with technology as with athleticism, riddled with doping scandals, melodrama and clashing egos. It's a fringe sport in America, seizing the public consciousness only in the case of major events or when a when there's a major meltdown.

The vast majority of commuter cyclists have never, and probably never will, raced. Some have dabbled in racing, and do the occasional local event, while others are enthusiastic amateur racers who incorporate their practical rides into their training routines.

Then there are the Unracers, utility and recreational cyclists who view racing as an abomination on the cycling world, a plague that infects bicycle design and renders otherwise beautiful machines unfit for practical use. Rather than sneering at heavy tubing or outdated parts, like the Weight Weenie, the Unracer eyes your too-low stem and too thin tires dismissively and wonders when you're going to get a "real" bike.

Many Unracers have never raced, but quite a few are former racers, who tired of the competitive world and now ride for practicality and enjoyment. One of the best known, and well spoken of the "reformed racers" is Grant Petersen, founder of Rivendell Bicycles. Petersen may have actually coined the term "unracing" to describe his current approach to bicycle design. In his book "Just Ride" he discusses the joy of just riding to for the sake of riding, and an approach to cycling and to bicycle design that prioritizes practicality and comfort over speed.

I have quite a bit of respect for Petersen, and find myself agreeing with him more often than not, but find I differ with him on the emphasis on not racing. By dismissing racing and fast riding, I think the Unracing movement misses out on one simple point: going fast is fun.

I think consumers do need to understand that a bike designed for competitive riding may not suit their everyday commuting, touring or leisure riding needs, but they need to understand that in the way they understand that a two-seat convertible is not the ideal vehicle for grocery shopping or taking the kids to the movies. Racing bikes aren't inherently bad, in fact, they're really well-designed to do what they do, which is cover a lot of ground as quickly and efficiently as possible. They're a lot of fun to ride, even if you're not a competitive type. On the other hand, just like that little deuce coupe, you might not want to make one your primary means of transport, racing bikes suck at carrying groceries.

Racing bikes are fun as both toys and sporting equipment. They're good for racing, and for fast, sporty riding. Regular, non-racing road bikes are good for a lot more things. You can stick on fenders and a couple bags and ride to work, or the store, you can take them on tour, go for a leisurely cruise, or, if you're not ultra-competitive, you can strip of the bags and racks and race them a bit. If you can only buy one bike, don't buy the racing bike, buy the all-around road bike.

You can be a racer, or you can not be a racer, but don't fall into the trap of defining yourself by what you're not. Don't be an "unracer," just be a cyclist.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading your blog entry on unracing. I read just ride too, the big take away for me was that the fringe sport of road bicycle racing has influenced the design of most bike companies so much over the years that when a newbie or a person who wanted to get back into cycling hits up a bike shop there are 3 distinct types of bikes, mountain, hybrid and "hardcore racer." 5 years ago I felt the itch to ride a bike again after a nearly 10 year hiatus, since it had been a long time and bike design and designations had changed I told the bike store owner that I was interested in a good quality bike I could tool around town on or hit some of the local paved trails on. I left with a purpose built racing was fast, it was light and it was no fun for me to ride. I ended up selling that bike and getting a nice used touring rig that I set up with racks, panniers and handlebars that upright so I can sit comfortably. I can still go fast when I want to, and I often do, but I'm able to be comfortable when I'm commuting or running errands on my bike. Other than going fast, those are all things that I couldn't do or couldn't easily do one the racking bike that I was pushed toward only 5 years earlier.
    I say this, not to be argumentative, but to demonstrate since the overwhelming majority of bike store employees, publications and leaps in technology are racers or directed to racers, too many people get bikes that don't do what they want the to do- either at all or not very well.
    I am not anti racer, I'm more agnostic, I have no ill will toward any discipline in biking, I just think that if more people understood that there actually is more to biking than the Tour de France that more people may take up biking.
    Again, I enjoyed reading your post!