by Bart Egnal
Spring is here. Can you hear it? The drip of melting snow: a siren song speaking of a time away from the trainer and with no leg warmers – and of new gear. Yes, that’s right. You know you want it. After all, one the best things about riding and racing bikes is the new stuff.
For fellow roadies, let me point out that our sport is unique in its gear-centricity. Before I became a die-hard cyclist, my sport was basketball. In basketball, there’s really only one thing to buy: shoes. And I remember feeling queasy after plunking down $250 for the hottest new Air Penny kicks, or the new Kobe sneakers that had just dropped. I rationalized the purchases by thinking of how many days of wear and use I’d get out of them until I reached joy.
Now that I’m a cyclist, this feeling of splurging and the rationalizations that followed seem quaint. What drives you to acquire new gear may vary.
I quickly realized my addiction was to the promise of “free speed.”
Now, if you’ve ever raced a bike, you know that this pursuit is well-founded (really!). When you’re heaving up your guts trying to hold a wheel, listening to the sound of your poor-fitting jersey flapping you say to yourself, “If I was wearing a bespoke skinsuit and using a Team Sky 3D printed bar and cockpit, the watt savings would allow me to breathe with an open mouth. And maybe attack.” So when you are ejected from the back of the peloton, you do three things. You notify the race commissioner (to avoid the indignity of a $30 fine). You do the ride of shame to your car and pack up. Then you start searching the web for that skinsuit and stem/bar combo, stat.
While writing this article, I reflected on a short list of things I have acquired in this pursuit. The list includes (but is not limited to) an aero stem, multiple sets of carbon wheels, aero helmets, skinsuits, speed suits, disc brakes, 10-speed cassettes, 11-speed cassettes (I am aghast at recent launch of 12-speed), Di2 with external battery, internal battery, hidden junction box, climber’s jerseys, lightweight skewers, carbon pedals, power meter, power pedals (three iterations), shoes, shoes with carbon soles, a Garmin head unit, a Garmin with mapping and a Garmin with touch screen.
Just reading this list, I realize I have a problem. I admit it.
Yet as the years have gone by, I’ve been forced to accept a tragic reality: I have reached the point of diminishing returns. Despite the watts I have supposedly saved, I still find myself having to pedal my bike and crouch down to get more draft. My angry glances at my aero computer (OK, so I didn’t buy that piece of gear) did little to increase my speed. Now I realize that the amount I would have to spend to eke out a meager two-watt savings at 52.57 km/h is more than my newborn child’s RESP could hold.
Even the bike industry seems to recognize this. I see fewer and fewer ads promising x-amount of watts saved at 40 km/h. Instead, we see more versatile bikes and gear, for adventure, for time with friends, for looking stylish and more. And darn it, it’s working on me.
Although I no longer need anything, I find myself still excited by a new bike, by a new set of wheels, by the idea of moving to disc brakes, by getting a sweet new helmet. Having attained my level of comfortable mediocrity in the middle-age masters pack, I aspire to little more than to keep buying gear that I am excited to use when the snow melts and when I’m keen to ride. What’s my point? I realize now that my lust for gear may have been justified by a quest for free speed, but was in fact a way to get excited by the sport even when I was sitting in front of a screen instead of on a bike. And when I did get something new and got out on the road, I always took joy in the difference.
It’s one of the truly neat things about our sport – there’s always something new to buy. It may not make you faster, but embrace it. Just don’t tell your significant other how much you dropped on that carbon stem. It was worth the 2 g you saved.