Hey Rube!

There was a time not so long ago when many cyclists wished on shooting stars that their beloved sport would become more mainstream, mostly for the TV coverage and so that they wouldn’t have to explain the leg shaving and lycra quite so often. It seems that now we’ve all been cursed by their selfish wishes. An ever-growing flock of write-by-numbers articles have been appearing in mainstream publications, heralding the arrival of cycling as “the new golf.” Just to be clear, by the “new golf” they don't mean that cycling is an engaging form of moderate exercise, but rather that it is an activity that allows well-off people to "network” when they should just “work” and on which they can spend boatloads of money for shiny equipment and executive trinkets.

Well, that’s just great.

Along with all of the other jackasserey that comes along with being the new golf, there are the inevitable follow-up articles about the stupid amounts of money people will spend on various aspects of the sport, be it on travel, engaging in Walter Mitty ride-alongs with the stars, or buying bicycles that cost more than Toyotas. These articles typically involve at least one comparison to a custom suit and/or a reference to Fifth Avenue, Rodeo Drive, or, for the more global thinkers, Milan.

So it’s not surprising to see the latest New York Times contribution to the genre, because nobody writes about pompous people buying shit for three-to-ten times what its worth like the Gray Lady. This latest round, irritatingly titled “Cycling Success Measured in Frequent Flyer Miles” focuses on people who travel absurd distances to buy their bicycles simply to get a buying experience that makes the Mercedes dealership seem like the DMV. Don’t get me wrong, people should spend their money on what they want, provided they actually have the money. If what they want is bike stuff, that’s good for the industry that I’m extremely peripherally involved in. And I certainly don’t subscribe to the popular notion that nice equipment needs to be somehow “earned.” But let’s not pretend the social posturing accompanying this alleged trend isn’t ridiculous.

To whit, the coverboy for this particular piece, Dr. Jason Newland, traveled from his home in suburban Kansas City, Kansas to Waitsfield, Vermont to buy his new Serotta at the Vermont Fit Werx (chapeau for the transparently BMW use of the “e” rather than an "o" in Werx - very Euro). Dr. Newland is shown proudly holding his new Legend Ti over his shoulder while sporting pleated khakis and a crisp starched shirt. Many crueler writers would make jokes about this pose being the primary use for this particular bicycle, but I’m not going to go down that path. In fact, I have a lot of empathy for Dr. Newland, a triathlete who set about his noble quest in order to get a bicycle more suitable for his sport(s) than the Cannondale road bike he had. You know, more aero.

So, 1,400 Gold Card airline miles and $7,000 (not including travel costs, as the NYT article carefully notes) later, what has he acquired in his search for speed against the clock? A road bike with aero bars. Not, mind you, a Serotta triathlon/tt bike. Not that object of aero-geek lust, the Cervelo P3 Carbon. Not some overpriced semi-exotic eye-candy Euro-pro time trial bike, like a Colnago, or Pinarello, or Wilier. Not even a run-of-the-mill swoopy carbon TT bike, like a Jamis.

A road bike with aero bars. And Ksyriums.

I’m sure the folks at VFW did a bang-up job with the bike fit and set him up at the bed and breakfast with the fluffiest pillows and best damn pancakes in Vermont, but I can’t help but wonder if VFW took a little bit of advantage of Herr Doktor. There’s a lot of value in a good fit, no doubt. But if Dr. Newland’s motivation was really to get a more aerodynamic bicycle, as described in the first paragraph of the article, then he could have gotten just as aero by hitting the closest decent shop in his local Kansas City area and dropping a modest few hundred dollars for some bars, barcons, and snazzy reverse levers for the Cannondale. Because other than the bars and possibly the fit, there’s not a whole lot about his new bike that screams aero or time trial. It says expensive, yes, but not aero, which makes it pretty clear what the real goal was. If he’d spent a bit more of that $7,000 (not including travel costs) in a bike shop instead of on Expedia, he could have also floated himself a set of wheels with an aerodynamic signature better than a Cuisinart. (I’m assuming if VFW set him up with some high-zoot aero wheels, they would have been in the photo. After all, if you don’t run your Corimas in the Style section, where do you use them?)

Of course, people who have worked in shops know that there are any number of factors that could have led to Dr. Newland getting the bicycle he did. These include personal fit considerations, the unbendable desires of the client, or the strong, inexplicable magnetism between doctors and ti-carbon Serottas. So it’s probably not fair to imply that VFW took him for the metaphorical kind of ride, rather than the touchy-feely one to “gauge his riding style and position.” And we all know that if you’re really looking to fleece someone, selling them an actual time trial bike is a damn good place to start, and VFW clearly resisted that urge. But the marketing bullshit from VFW and its brethren that made it into the NYT piece makes it hard to resist pinning it on them. Here’s a sample:

VFW: “It’s a bit of a concierge service here.” Not too bad on its own, but it follows a delightful anecdote about the staff sharing leftover pizza and wine with a customer during a scrumptiously rainy afternoon. One wonders what delicious romantic dalliances might have ensued.

Cadence: “[Customers] want to scratch all their itches.” This one was in reference to customers making the purchasing trip part of a broader vacation. It’s also a bit creepy, in that I’m pretty sure they’re implying that, in addition to providing excellent bicycle-related services, they could arrange for a hooker (no, TT nerds, not that Hooker). That’ll give you an itch you need to scratch all right, but I’m sure the on-call doctor they no doubt employ could write you a script for some cream that’ll clear it right up.

SBR Multisports: “The wife wants to shop on Fifth Avenue, and the gentleman wants to shop at SBR.” At last, there’s our Fifth Avenue reference. Bonus points for the butler/tailor/waiter usage of “the gentleman,” instead of the more proletarian “husband” that would usually correspond to “wife.”

Regardless of who’s to blame for Dr. Newland accidentally buying a $7,000 (not including travel costs) butchered road bike instead of the $7,000 (not including travel costs) triathlon bike he set out to buy, I can’t help but feel that the NYT is the real villain here. The whole article just seems cruel. As we all know, the NYT usually sticks to talking about its own battle-hardened New Yorkers when it comes to reveling in the excesses of conspicuous consumption. But this article is a departure from those usual celebrations of absurd spending, and an unsavory one at that, because it dwells upon the mal-spending of a well-meaning rube from Kansas, inviting us all to have a knowing chuckle at his considerable expense. They’ve searched out an earnest Midwesterner, a simple pediatric infectious disease physician, exposed his monetary de-pantsing for all the world to see, and supplemented the humiliation with ridiculous quotes and associated prose highlighting the jackassedness of the entire enterprise. That’s just wrong, and I won’t stand for it.