Sunday, June 24, 2012

Too Many Choices

"The Paradox of Choice - Why More Is Less" is a 2004 book by American psychologist Barry Schwartz. In the book, Schwartz argues that eliminating consumer choices can greatly reduce anxiety for shoppers. (This same issue was first proposed by José Ortega y Gasset in Chapter 4 of his book "The Revolt of the Masses.") In 2010, when I decided to purchase new bicycles for my wife and I, the number of choices was overwhelming.

In the 1960's and 1970's, there were relatively few bicycle choices we knew about.  There were cheap 10 speeds for $100 and expensive 10 speeds for $200.  Although there certainly were some outliers, cheap Schwinn 10 speeds being a major one, and there certainly was some variation possible, 15 speeds instead of 10 speeds being an example, and there were custom bikes like my Hetchins, but nonetheless the choices available at our local bike shop were limited. Now, the choices seem endless.  Carbon Fiber, aluminum, titanium or steel frame? Racing bike, endurance bike, sport road bike, cyclocross bike, or touring bike?  700c, 650b or 26 inch wheels?  How many spokes per wheel?  Normal trail or low trail?  Shimano, SRAM, or Campagnolo components?  Rim or disk brakes?  The list goes on, and this list completely ignores whole categories of bikes such as mountain bikes, hybrid bikes, and urban bikes.

Besides too many choices, another problem was that I had to completely relearn about bicycles.  I had worked in a bike shop in the 1960s and had done all the maintenance and repairs on my own bike, so I thought I was something of an expert.  However, I had never heard of aluminum or carbon fibre frames, I racked my brain trying to figure out what "threadless headset" meant, and once I did, I continued racking my brains trying how one adjusts the height of the handlebars.  These and index shifters, sealed bearings, foldable tires, and clipless pedals are but a few of the things which didn't exist in the 1960s.

The modern stem on the threadless headset of my 2010 Surly.  To adjust the height of the handlebars, you move the spacers, the three dull and two shiny disks, above or below the stem.  In this picture, the handlebars are as high as they can go.  To increase the maximum height of the handlebars you replace the fork.  Many of us consider this innovation a step backwards.

The quill stem on my 1960's Bianchi.  To adjust the height of the handlebars, you loosen the nut at the top of the step, reposition the stem, and tighten.  If you have raised the stem as high as it will go and wish the handlebars to be higher, you replace the stem.

Even after I spent what seems like endless hours learning about the enormous array of choices in this brave new world of cycling, there seems to be questions for which I cannot find the answer.  Let's take a relatively simple example; what is the difference between a Surly Pacer, a Surly Cross Check, and a Surly Long Haul Trucker?  I pick these because they are all from the same vendor, and the vendor seems to me to be relatively forthcoming.  The vendor is quite clear as to their opinion of what each of the bikes should be used for.  The Pacer: "It is a road bike ... using frame geometry that makes it fast and efficient like a road bike should be, but it is not a racing bike.  This is a frame meant for all day rides."  The Cross Check: "This isn’t a touring bike per se, but it will handle lighter touring loads, and a front rack can make that easier...It does as good a job getting you across the country as it does getting you across town."  The Long Haul Trucker: "Its low bottom bracket and long chainstays provide comfort and stability...The frame’s tubing is thicker-walled and larger-diameter than standard road and sport-touring frames, and this pre-tunes it for the weight of cargo." That's great, but does the fact that the Cross Check "will handle lighter touring loads" imply that it has thicker tubing than a Pacer? How do either of these compare to a Soma Smoothy or a Rivendell Rodeo? I have seen tube thickness specified for a few high end semi-custom or custom frames, but have had no luck finding that out for the vast majority of frames.

Finally, I cannot help but notice that bicycles have gotten expensive. Back in the 1960's, a middle level "10 speed" cost about $100 and the bike that just won the Tour de France cost about $200. Correcting for inflation, this corresponds to about $650 and $1,300 today. Because of the wider range of choices, it is hard to say precisely what a mid level road bike corresponds to, but such bikes start at close to $1000 at the low end and go up to well over $2,000, and if you want the same bike just used to win the Tour de France, count on spending in the range of $10,000.

Don't get me wrong, I love modern bikes and relish the larger number of choices available. Some days I feel like today's bicycle manufacturers read my mind back in 1965 and are just now managing to grant all my wishes. I find the process of wading through all the opinions, marketing hype, and misinformation to figure out what's true great entertainment. I just feel like there are no easy answers, that the search for perfection is hopeless and can be a barrier to enjoying an imperfect but nonetheless glorious bicycle, and that there is no substitute for trying lots of different bikes.

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