Although there were years during which I stubbornly refused to admit that I would reach this point, I recently decided that I needed to consider purchasing a bicycle to offset some of the distance running that has been my passion over the last twenty or so years. It’s not that I’m having any problems yet—although I have to admit that it’s not as thrilling as it used to be—it’s more that I’m persuaded by the collective wisdom of all the guys I’ve met over the years who have told me, with a powerful sense of resignation, “I used to love running, but my knees gave out, so now I do a lot of biking.” Before the knees go, I’ve been thinking, I might want to get familiar with the next stage of activity.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve started looking into the type of bike I would like. When I approach a purchase like this, I generally follow the following routine—although not necessarily in this order: 1. I talk to a lot of folks who are enthusiasts, 2. I do a bit of web research, 3. I go to shops and showrooms, usually with someone who knows what they’re doing; 4. I spend a week getting over sticker shock; 5. I make a decision and quit listening to anyone who might dissuade me. It’s an imperfect system to be sure, but it’s a system that gets the job done.
This experience, however, was unlike others in that my level of ignorance was far beyond what I had thought. While I hadn’t been on a bike in over twenty years since a bike accident in Chapel Hill put me in the hospital, I didn’t expect that the technology, or expectations, had changed quite as much as they had. (Side: maybe the product differentiation was always as large as it is now, but my income level as a grad student didn’t encourage me to be aware of it).
A few Saturdays ago, my friend Liz took me shopping at Gran Fondo, self-described as “Nashville’s premier bike shop, specializing in Italian and European bikes. We’re your store, whether you’re a casual enthusiast or a top notch racer.” Given that I haven’t been on a bike in years, I’m clearly not a top notch racer. I think it’s safe to say that I’m also not a “casual enthusiast;” I’m more of a “taking a peek at the possibility of doing some bike riding at times” kinda guy.
When I arrive, Liz is already at the store, and she introduces me to an incredibly helpful biker/salesperson. I tell him that I am just wanting to get started biking, and I’m only interested in getting my toes wet, so, at best, I want the basic entry level bike for both exercise and perhaps some commuting. He, of course, knows just the bike I want. He pulls it out, has me pick it up, and I’m shocked that it feels so light. It’s almost unimaginable to my neophyte biker’s mind.
Then, however, I look at the sticker—over $1,800. I realize now that this is not a shocking price to bike enthusiasts, but to someone raised on Sears “Better” models, I almost pass out. Thinking quickly, I revert to one of the tactics I often use in such situations---“Say something that makes you sound like such a rube that these people will want to get you out of the store quickly,” I tell myself.
“It looks like you forgot to put the pedals on that one,” I say, and the sales guy patiently explains that the pedals are purchased separately, along with the shoes that click into them.
“It doesn’t look very comfortable to sit on,” I observe. Again, the sales guy explains with even greater patience that this is because there is no seat on the bike yet. Again, I’ll have to buy the seat separately.
After a little more discussion in which I’m told that I should be ready to spend 25% more than the price of the bike to get everything else I’ll need to ride it (e.g., pedals, seat, helmet, shoes, those tight bikers clothes, gloves, flat kit, pump), I tell them how grateful I am and stumble out of the store, stunned. I have a hard time thinking about anything outside of bike economics the entire drive home.
Don’t get me wrong: the folks at Gran Fondo are wonderful, and every “serious” biker I know swears by them. Nonetheless, for someone who thought “good” bikes could be purchased in the $700.00 range, I felt dizzy. When I remember the $8000-$9000 bikes the salesperson had also shown me, for sake of comparison, I felt a bout of spontaneous combustion coming on.
Nonetheless, over the next two days, I started rethinking the experience, rethinking my bank account. “You know, I can afford this if I readjust my priorities a little.” “Hmmmmm, I’ll never start riding a bike unless I get a decent one.” “If I don’t get one of those, then other bikers will know that I’m riding a cheap bike.”
Then, I caught myself. No matter how much older I get, no matter how much my income improves, part of my reactions are always one based on social comparison. It is at this moment that the words of another of my biking enthusiast friends—Ben—come to mind: “You gotta remember, John, a bike is just a bike. Don’t spend too much on it. Get one that does what you need it to.”
OK, so time to think. What do I need it to do? I need to be able to ride for several hours comfortably, and I need to be able to get up hills. I need to get a workout. I need to keep up with other physically fit folks who are not triathletes or racers. Do I need to reach my ultimate potential as a bike rider (i.e., do I need to get up hills as fast as possible given my physical limits? Do I need to travel as far as possible given these limits?). No, I simply want a fun work out on a reasonably comfortable ride.
With this reflection in mind, I end up settling on a midrange Trek purchased from the witty folks over at Cumberland Transit. It came with a seat, pedals, and a free first time bike owners’ class. Moreover, Mike, the salesperson, helped outfit me with all the rest of the stuff I’ll need. It feels light (certainly not as light as the ones I saw at Gran Fondo, but light enough for my needs). I’m able to get up and down long hills without dying. I can ride for over two hours and my hands feel fine. In short, it does what I need.
And yet still, I find myself wondering if I’m the guy with the cheap bike, if I should have invested more. When I first starting writing this post, I meant it to be an indictment of the ways in which income encourages us collectively to make greater and greater product differentiations, for higher and higher costs, as a way of signifying income levels—even given that the more expensive products are, indeed, measurably “better” in different ways. However, as I reach the end, I find that it’s probably more useful to turn the critique on myself. Why, given that I carefully thought through the ways a “bike is just a bike” and purchased something that fits my needs, do I continue to internalize layers of social comparison? Will this ever pass?