Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Form, Fit, and Function - A Tale of Two Freds

A little while ago, BikeSnobNYC took a blogger to task for pedaling around in high heels. Actually it was more the tone of the high heel wearer's comments that prompted the aside, which came at the end of particularly embarrassing rant about this guy, who tries to make a buck selling "getting started" advice. Normally I read BikeSnob for a good chuckle, and I take his critiques at face value. This one seemed a bit personal, and I guess that "Bike Shrink" offers advice is one thing, but to sell it? Why, thats, thats....

...The American Way. Even if we never know whether the advice is worth the fee. Some of you may scoff, but what Bike Shrink is trying to capitalize on is the fact that a lot of well-meaning people spend tons of cash to get started in the sport of cycling. Simply sorting out the basic necessities, the terminology, and the culture creates all sorts of confusion. Let's face it: the cycling biz is a racket built around slick unhelpful marketing. Caught in the middle are the bike shops that just want to stay in business. I'm not accusing anyone of dishonesty, all I'm saying is that finding gear that really works - and fits - is a crap shoot. I can't say how much cash I've thrown away on gear that wasn't worth the paper it was wrapped in, and I can't be alone. But that's neither here nor there. The real task is figuring out what's what without making a Fred of yourself.

Being a Fred isn't the same thing as being a Newbie. Newbie is a synonym for beginner. Its a friendly word that doesn't carry many negative connotations. Fred, on the other hand, is a pejorative - on the order to poseur - and can sometimes mean "fool". There are all kinds of Freds in all kinds of places, but Freds are only Freds in the cycling world. In the navy, a Fred is a "dink" or a "non-qual" (non-quals are the worst). In the cycling world, a Fred is a person who acts outside of the local or universally accepted mores of the cycling culture. For sure, nobody tries to be a Fred.

But it's not hard to do. Cycling is a semi-exclusive sport that attracts a lot of egos and narcissists. Just look at the professional peleton. Even so, the barrier to entry into cycling isn't insurmountable by the average Joe, but it does require a little well-spent cash. Here I'm reminded of the episode of "Malcolm In The Middle" where Malcolm's father takes up race-walking. The point is, the expense is usually the first detour on the road to Fred-dom. Everybody wants to fit in, and a lot of people come to cycling wide-eyed. Without experience to steer their choices, most wind up committing a few faux-pas that earn them the outward disdain or the sideways glance from some of the established crowd. Thus the niche that the BikeShrink aims to fill.

What's more, there are so very many ways to be a Fred, because we see now that Fredness is a matter of perception. The high-heeled pedaler boasts that she can blow by fully-kitted riders on expensive bikes without the benefit of traditional cycling garb. Indeed, she is woman, hear her roar along the road in boutique jeans and shoes. But she is no Fred because she refuses the to wear the badge of spandex. To her, any rider in a road kit is a Fred. Especially ones on bikes more expensive than hers. To the high-heeled rider, cycling requires style and class, and technical clothing doesn't measure-up.

Aside from bicycles being a cross-cultural thing, I think she's on to something. Fit and function are one thing, but style is quite another. Finding all three elements in cycling gear takes years of trial-and-error and a few shiny pennies. Sometimes its all for naught once one realizes they will never look good in a jersey and shorts. High-heeled pedaler is dismayed because she believes the cycling mores of "looking good" is akin to being confused with bad art school homework or an Old Navy mannequin. I'll agree, there is some very bad design and artwork in the average cycling outfit, but whatever is printed on the kit means something to the wearer. I think the real objection is not finding the necessity to wear in public what amounts to loud, pretentious underwear. Fred or no Fred?

Cycling might be the only sport where its possible to express your style in technical clothes. Myself, I prefer a certain subtlety if I can find it. Pro team kits are right out, and most everything else seems garish. Right now I'm the poster boy for Pearl Izumi. The Hincape stuff might be the worst-looking in terms of price, and Giordana exemplifies everything that's wrong in Europe. I have seen a few things out there that might work for my personal taste, but I have to buy them online. You never know what you'll get if you buy online, or how much it will cost to return it. That goes for anything cycling related, not just clothes. Shoes and saddles make the most difference in cycling and they are the hardest things to buy in terms of form, fit, and function. Unfortunately LBS can't invest in the inventory required to make shopping for gear easy. So its either take your chances on the Internet or buy LBS.

Over the years I've learned to embrace my Fred. In the beginning, my Fred was the over-confidence in my abilities after years out of the saddle. Then it was the goofy clothing because I refused to wear spandex. Then it was looking even goofier after I did. Then as my fitness returned, it was the poor bike handling skills and getting carried away on bike paths. Then it was the mistakes in training and nutrition, and not listening to the mechanics at the bike shop about equipment and adjustments. Then it was the awkwardness of finding a like-abled group, and being a Johnny-come-lately. Now its my white helmet and hairy legs.

I've been on the St. Louis roads for ten years now. It's taken that long to find all the things that work for me, and I'm finally comfortable with my equipment and my style. I like to train hard if for nothing else but to keep myself in good shape with age, and to maintain the ability to keep up with (and sometimes pull) a group of respectable riders. In the end we are all enthusiasts and we are all competitors and we all have our insecurities. But if you stick with something long enough, blah blah blah. I refuse to shave my legs.

P.S. - I read the other day that I might not be a Fred after all. I have white bar tape on the Masi. Alas, I let it get pretty dingy and I don't care to change it, so its back to the Fred Leagues for me.


Anonymous said...

Bravo - a great read!

AVVICI said...

I agree that cycling is very 'cross-cultural' I just completed my 3rd triathlon and I have come to realization that cycling is my best event. I want to get into a few more events, However I wanted to comment on the cross cultural ascpect. I met a now close friend form Florence at my 1st triathlon it was amazing that even though we come from two completely different backgrounds we shared a strong bond due to cycling. Well, thanks for a the good read.