When did a ride become so complicated?

Easy rider

The other day I was listening to one of The Bike Show podcasts and broadcaster Jack Thurston mentioned something like “the age of innocence” with cycling, when a ride was simply about jumping on a bike and enjoying the feelings, whether the wind in your hair or a moment of escapism. I certainly remember the days.

This isn’t always the case these days. Now even a short ride needs a moment of forward planning, there’s mental check-list. On a simple level, have you got the tyre pressure right and is the chain lubed? But it can get a lot more complicated. But now with the news yesterday that Shimano are bringing electronic shifting to a second groupset, it seems the bike is becoming ever more sophisticated. These days you might have to check your bike computer’s got enough memory for the ride, that your drivetrain is charged, that your heart rate transmitter’s working, that the parts are properly torqued and you’ve got electrolyte mix in your drinks. I could go on.

Don’t get me wrong, if you have a race car or own a thoroughbred horse then high maintenance is the norm too. And a perfectly functioning lightweight road bike is the definition of efficiency, a pleasure in its own right. It’s just that the marriage of man and machine requires some counselling sessions in the workshop and increasingly, with a computer too. Even during the ride itself for many there’s often a squeak or click to annoy, maybe an electronic gadget is flashing numbers and you and if something develops a serious fault mid-ride you probably can’t bend it back into position.

As a child I remember never cleaning my bike. Instead you just poured oil on the chain and “the cogs” at the back. It was probably noisy, it was certainly filthy but it was always simple fun too.

If I started with a reference to Jack Thurston, I’ll finish with one too. I’d developed a mental image of the Londoner as a modern day “easy rider”, someone who didn’t fuss too much over the bike and for whom the simple pleasures of cycling were, refreshingly, still important. But then I noticed via Twitter that he’d bought a GPS device for the his bike and an eyebrow was raised. Sure enough soon came more messages involving uploads, firmware, flash cards and more. It was all getting a bit distant from a simple bike ride. And then this happened…

Old map

30 thoughts on “When did a ride become so complicated?”

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Unless it gets to the point when I have no choice, I will not be getting e-shifting. To m, cycling should have minimal impact on the environment & electronic shifting goes against this principle.

    Tyres still need “enough” air, but helmets, glasses, bottles still takes too long to get ready at times.

    “New cycling” has a lot to answer for, so many of those who are new to cycling seem to be beholden to technology rather than enjoying just the bike and learning to use that tool properly.

    I wonder how long it takes the old guys with the old bikes to get out & ride.

  2. Interesting post, but everyone has a choice to not opt for an all hi-teck approach and have a bike of stalwart and inexpensive parts, keep maintenance at a minimum and just ride. While it seems silly a hipster thing at most, the fixed gear hype may have started out of this. At least the “simple no bullshit bike” thing is brought forward by a lot of people.
    On the other side of things there’s the dentist that take their hi-end carbon bikes out for sunday rides. After having spent multiple thousand of dollars for that bike they need more stuff to spend their money on. Like $250 jerseys, the next gen groupset or chain lube at the price of vintage single malts.

  3. I tweeted a while back that every one of my bikes had clipless pedals these days, and that fact made me a bit sad. Of course my race bikes always had them, but living in the Netherlands (where I always had a bike like the childhood one you describe above) meant there was always some degree of carefree simple cycling to be had on my runaround bike. In moving to the UK, I suddenly left the ranks of the carefree cyclist and became a 100% “serious” one. This observation wasn’t really understood by my English friends which made me even more sad: is it true that cycling around London these days for people like myself (who spend most of our miles in lycra on skinny tires) has had to become about safety and efficiency rather than just jumping on a bike in whatever you’re wearing and riding it? I didn’t set out to put clipless pedals on my runaround bike here, neither did I intend to wear lycra on it, but that’s what gradually happened. Riding a bike is subtly different here in the UK and to be honest I really miss the NL in that respect!

  4. Does technology have the potential to simplify a cycling?

    I’ve been borrowing a friend’s Garmin, and I think it has simplified my riding. A few minutes spent planning a route prior to leaving and you don’t need to worry about map reading – you can just cycle and follow the line. Super simple. I’m not using half the features but it works for me.

    The attraction of electric gears to me would be in never having to adjust them – wipe the dirt off and skirt some oil and you know your gears are working correctly. I’ve not electric gears, but if this promise holds true, it would be the simplification of looking after the bike that I’d buy them for.

  5. It seems progress can be measured at least in two ways… your post got me thinking, Norwegian rider Fredrik Willman, former Skiil-Shimano, does not have SRM or GPS either. He prefers riding solely on feel. Strange that a pro rider so thoroughly dismiss technology. I, as a recreational cyclist, can do so quite easily and enjoy “just riding”.

    You don’t need all kit known to man to have a good time on the bike.

  6. Great post! I’m convinced that the trend for fixie bikes is a reaction against the over-engineered full suspension mountain bikes, which are way over the top for city use. But you’re right, judging by the streets round here, this trend has peaked and everyone wants a road bike + accessories.

    I’m lucky enough to have a folding bike for scooting about and a road bike for long distance riding. The folding bike has a kevlar belt, rather than a chain – no need to oil. The road bike has a decent groupset, which actually makes maintenance easier.

  7. It’s a fair cop. I have been very anti GPS over the years and I still believe turn by turn instructions infantilise riders and diminish the the noble skills of map-based navigation. In fact, I am even more anti cycle computers that sit on the handlebars with average speed, distance travelled etc. As if that is important to look at set of dull blinking, essentially meaningless digits when there’s a beautiful world all around. On a tour of the Pyrenees a few years ago I ended up removing my cycle computer and deciding that the end of the day would come when my legs said it was the end, not when I’d reached a target or ’round number’ on the odometer. And if my average speed dropped to an embarrassing number, so what? Every ride is different.

    As an erstwhile defender of tradition and simplicity, my reason for buying GPS is that it’s seems a very good way, in the absence of something more traditional like the hobo code to share route knowledge routes. Every cycling club has its own club run routes and many of these are brilliantly-conceived, avoiding major roads yet covering a lot of ground. More and more clubs are sharing them via GPS. Southern England, where I live, is a crowded place, and it can be hard to improvise good routes that avoid busy roads. Using a GPS track from the growing global repository seems like an efficient way of seeing more places without spending too much money on paper maps and too much time at junctions puzzling over them. I can also give something back by creating, testing and sharing my own routes using excellent tools like Bike Hike and Cycle Streets”.

    What I won’t be doing is using the GPS as a bicycle sat nav. The GPS won’t be choosing a route for me or giving me turn by turn instructions. It won’t be telling me my average speed or distance travelled, until perhaps the end of the journey. I’ll still use my trusty collection of paper maps for planning (and backup on a tour) though perhaps they’ll be packed away rather than be mounted on top of my handlebar bag. And one thing’s for certain, I’ll be sure to record my experiences with the new technology for the radio show.

  8. Which is all fine until something goes wrong. I get so many people coming to me saying that they haven’t really looked after their bike and not had it serviced or checked over for years and can I just give it the quick once over.

    When I tell them that the chain, chainrings and cassette are worn down and that’s the reason why each time they get out of the saddle, the chain slips causing a nasty crash in the gentleman’s area, they say, how much to repair/replace?

    They come to me saying that the pedals are moving in a funny way while they ride and make a grinding noise. I explain that this is because the grease in the bottom bracket went by the by some time ago and it’s so loose it might just fall apart. They say, how much to repair/replace?

    They can’t work out why the brake keeps rubbing, and I explain that one of the spokes on the drive side of the rear wheel broke some time ago by the looks of things and the rim and spokes (and probably the hub) are now damaged beyond repair. They say, how much to repair/replace?

    The fact is that the riders in the ‘age of innocence’ might not have done many miles or might have been able to do all of their own basic maintenance. They wouldn’t have bought cheap components which wear out within 6 months whatever you do. They would have cleaned the bike occasionally and noticed when parts were broken.

    By all means, bemoan power meters, gps readers and the like, but remember that like any piece of machinery you do need to make sure it’s looked after!!! 🙂

    I wrote a piece about old school cycling not so long ago: http://suffolkcyclesurgery.blogspot.com/2010/10/back-to-old-school.html

  9. My technology issues consist of sticking the Garmin onto the bike and turning it on. While I get my gloves, arm warmers, long pants, overpants, jacket and beanie on, the GPS does its satellite-location thing, and then it sits and waits for me until off I go. Until I realise I’ve forgotten my lights — and I need them here, or I’ll run into wildlife on the road, if not fallen branches from the storms. Winter time is far more sucky for riding than the tech ever will be!

    Writing from a cold, dark and damp Tasmania, where we’ve just had our shortest day of the year.

  10. Lots of good comments and as ever, the “good old days” are probably an illusion.

    But it does seem that bikes are becoming more complex, a full trained mechanic is more than a mechanic, they need engineering skills and increasingly, some electronics expertise too.

  11. Very interesting article and comments..Preperation pre ride is frustrating and time consuming and as I get older I get worse! From checking the weather to making sure the bike is in order – even switching tyres if the roads are going to be wet and flinty!
    On the gps track – I have a garmin 705 and whilst I use it to record my performance the key aspect of its use to me is that it enables me to explore the country around my home allowing me to follow many different routes, something that I could not do before.
    I use ride with gps and strava both are excellent sites which make cycling more fun and interactive.

  12. I think it is possible to think that current-day cycling is becoming too technology-oriented without necessarily being a Luddite who yearns for the day of square wheels.

    I have a big philosophical problem with Di2 and similar electronic shifting. A bike is a mechanical device – that is a very large component of what makes a bike a bike (other than the obvious). The core aspects of riding a bike – pedaling, shifting, steering – have been functions of a direct mechanical interface between rider and bike.

    It is one thing to have electronic accessories attached to the bike – but bringing in electronics to handle one of the “core” aspects of riding a bike somehow cheapens/detracts from the “purity” (to use a rather sanctimonious word for want of anything better) of cycling.

    How the heck does UCI ban fairings, limit the aerodynamic elements of modern cycles and let this slide? Oh wait… it is the UCI.

    And lest I be accusing of being old-fashioned, I ride carbon, I have 2 Garmins and a couple of power meters.

  13. I’m really with Jack. I know quite a handful of people planning their route on the Garmin in advance and then slavishly following every instruction and with their eyes focused onto the device. No look for the scenery and very dangerous in the corners.
    I even don’t take map along and like to get lost occasionally. Best way to learn your way around and discover really amazing places and streets. Though I don’t take off my cycle computer, post ride evaluation and tracking of the training is important to me, and if it’s only because of the insurance.

    I believe one can still have a carefree ride with all the technical gadgets, one just shouldn’t become their slaves.

  14. Re: mechanics needing electronics expertise

    Likewise the evolution of automobile mechanic education in Germany:
    First it was “car locksmith”
    than “car mechanic”
    than you had to choose between mechanic and elcitrician in the 2nd half of the education
    now it’s a whole new job called “car mechatronic”


  15. When I was a boy, I had to cut strips of skin off my legs, and glue them to the rims because I couldn’t afford real tyres… 😉

    Seriously though – the key as always is to use all these gizmos as a ‘tool’ or ‘facilitator’, and not view them as the key to the ride. It’s a bit like a referee in a sporting contest – they are there to help the game go smoothly, and the best ones are the referees you don’t notice…

  16. Under seat pack and a frame fitting pump are the way to go I’ve found, then I can just stick cycling shoes on and ride if it’s a nice day. I’ve found that jeans and a shirt are pretty bearable really for anything upto about twenty five miles at a reasonable pace.

    In fact it’s pretty liberating really after spending what feels like forever getting ready to go riding.

  17. I recently rediscovered the joy of just riding. I now have an old “road” bike I put together with no “gadgets”. I haven’t even put a front deraileur on it and I stay in the 39 all day (apologies to bigringriding). I tow a trailer with my son in it to the grocery store, the park, the Beer store, MacDonalds (for him not me) and sometimes just for the hell of it. I have come to realize it is actually great training. He is getting heavy!!!

    PS: I still have my bike with all the technology. Who says you can’t have your cake and eat it too!!

  18. Great thread. Depending on the day, mood, aim, I occupy either camp. Technology provides choice. Options. You can take it or leave it. I just wish it was more affordable. But JFK had it right, “nothing beats the simple pleasure of riding a bike”

  19. There are times I jump on the “shopping bike” an old clunker with flat pedals and baskets and pop over to the grocery store or local bike shop. It’s nice to just jump on and go now and then. We’re trying to record data via Garmin units to improve the quality of our “RideGuide” cue-sheets/maps for our clients though I don’t forsee replacing them with sat-nav as some of our competitors claim to have done. A dead battery means you suddenly have no clue where to go, just as a dead battery on your electric-shifting bike means trouble. It is sad to see a simple activity like cycling become so dependent on gizmos — I still relish the feeling of freedom when I gave up racing – tossed away the heart rate monitor (no power meters back then!) and yanked the cyclocomputer as well. The sheer joy of “just riding” was great, but too often we’re unable to do just that. When we have a day “off” over here between tours, we’ll often just take off and see where we end up — it’s a great feeling.

  20. I think it depends on what kind of ride you are going out on. I enjoy taking out the cruiser to ride with the family or head down to local pub for drink with friends on a hot summer night. No fuss.

    The commute to work is on the CX bike which takes me there on hot summer days to -20C with 6″ of snow in the winter. Because of the versatility of a cross bike, it’s an ideal commuter.

    If it’s a long or fast ride, it would be the road bike. High performance frame and components that responds when you want it to go faster.

    For me, it’s having the right tools for the job. And if takes a little maintenance and tinkering, then so be it. It’s all part of the process.

  21. Great post. I started cycle commuting a while back, but was put off (doesn’t take much, admittedly) by increasing amounts of spurious equipment being foisted on me by well-meaning enthusiasts (notably, a dentist).

    I just wanted a healthier alternative to driving my battered old van – something I’d just need to get serviced once a year and need minimal personal skill to maintain and use. I’d pictured myself grabbing the bike and rucksack out of the garage, trundling the few miles to work in my T-shirt and shorts/waterproof and fluorescents (mainly the latter, as I’m UK-based), and ditching the bike in the lobby. After a few weeks of adorning myself with indecently tightly-fitted lycra, emptying and re-loading the panniers, taking wheels off and on, fiddling round with keys/codes for numerous bike locks, and clumping round the car park in cleats with arms full of cycling paraphernalia, I was gladly back in the Escort’s embrace. And that’s before ranting about weekly cleaning sessions and various other tightenings and loosenings I never comprehended, plus worrying about fixing punctures at 5am at the side of a country lane. I was quite surprised how easy it was to muck up gear changes too … you’d have thoughts watching Andy Schleck for three weeks last July, I’d have picked up a few handy tips. The only innovation that appealed to me was the puncture-less tyres, as I wanted to cycle primarily for exercise, I was quite happy to put up with the increased weight.

    Sometimes less truly is more. Love the idea of city centre free/hire schemes where you can pick up and dump bikes as needed, but sadly not an option where I live.

  22. Great post,
    I started road cycling with a heart meter when I was 17. Until I was 22, I had never ridden without hr and speed. Then, I was fed up changing batteries and and troubleshooting the wireless stuff; so one day I simply tore it all off my bike-I didn’t miss it for years!! The thing is, if I have this stuff on my bike, I want it to work. I can’t stand broken stuff. Now, after some years I got a super simple wired speedometer(hard to get these days) and most of the time I only look at the clock(plus, it is reliable and only has one battery).
    Less can be more.

    On the subject of the raw mechanics I am lucky, because I really like caring for my drivetrain. I love it when it makes almost no sound at all. Like a bee humming…

  23. Once again it’s all about perspective. It could be argued that bikes are more complicated. On the other hand on many modern carbon frames you can now install the headset and bottom bracket bearings with no tools. As a former shop mechanic who has faced and chased many a head tube and bottom bracket shell this was a pipe dream back in the day.

    Granted I ride di2 and love it. I am planning on putting ultegra di2 on my commuter when it comes out. Strictly from the maintenance and adjustment standpoint (there essentially is none, other than charging a battery once every 8 months!) it is wonderful.

    Lastly, just rode a 100 mile ride with a buddy both on di2 equipped “race” bikes a few weekends back. No GPS needed, just used my internal sat nav, amazing that I can do this since remembering phone numbers is apparently now beyond me in the age of smartphone.

    Thanks for the though provoking post.

  24. Well,
    for me – recovery ride days are the days where I just get on the bike and ride. Put it in the 39 chainring, and spin away. Look at the scenery on your rides, enjoy the feeling. Not the least of which, is the change to ride your non-race bike (maybe old steel frame), and enjoy cycling. It can be amazingly refreshing and invigorating.

    I am not so much bugged by the technology per se, but the amount of prep time nowadays is tiring. Literally, between getting ready, dressed, bike prepped, bike computers set-up (including HR monitor scan, Power Meter calibrated, displays on Garmin set-up), sun-block etc…. getting ready to go riding takes 15 – 20 minutes. So if I plan an hour ride at work during lunch, I then end up with the situation where I am taking 2 hours to fit a ride in between stopping work, and then getting back to the desk.

  25. First ever racing trip to Belgium from Australia last year (only took 35 years in the execution) rolling from the finish line back to the car, no helmet, no offcials barking at you threatening $50 fines & suspensions for not wearing your helmet for 200 meters, the breeze ruffling across my now follically challanged skull brought back wonderful memories of much simpler racing days.

    That being said was involved in a big crash in a club race on the weekend saw a friend fall very hard resulting in a smashed helmet and a headache, shudder to think what the result would have been with a leather hairnet. While all progress is not great and we sometimes yearn for the past, looking at todays standards of living & opportunities, I would rather be riding my current bike with 5-10 minutes prep time that one from 100 years ago, … make that even 30!

  26. still ride an old steely – shifters on the downtube etc. maintenance pretty much sweet fa. bit of air in tubes, quick lube every couple of weeks takes care of it all really. ride prep consists of stuffing my riding bag (pump, tube, cash, etc.) into jersey. am often riding without computer now as well, you just listen to your body and actually determine and feel your speed from whatever gear you happen to be in. is great, can’t recommend it enough. and i guess if you want really take it back to being a kid, have mini-races in your head against your heros or sprint just for the hell of it. actually speaking of that, was riding behind a pack of kids a couple of months ago (most looked like they were in their mid-teens), and jeez they were having fun. pretending to sprint in slow-mo, going for imaginary finishing lines, practicing their downhill positions and laughing at each other. you couldn’t help but laughing at it to. the packs i ride in would have been all like ‘mate, cut that crap out’ or some other discerning look and comment. we put these pressures (to have the gadgets, to keep up with fashion, to make sure everything is just right etc) on ourselves really, and that’s the innocence you lose.

  27. I have a single speed that is available for me to just jump on anytime and ride where ever whether it’s just to make a 1.5 mile loop in my neighborhood in the dark without the chamois, or to cruise the rec trails, or to visit a friend. That is it’s sole purpose and it gives me some of my best pleasure on a bike.

  28. While this post is rather old, I’ll still be posting…

    I’ve stumbled upon this by googling for “Why has EVERYTHING become so complicated”, and indeed, it’s not just about bike rides (while they’re a good example).

    EVERYTHING that just used to be “simple fun” (more or less) has become extraordinarily complicated.

    Car driving (got the safety belt attached? Cellphone hands-free? Child seat installed?), running a web site (got the Imprint right (Germany)? Data protection terms (Germany)? Does it display right on mobile devices?), Online banking (PIN-TAN-Generator, EC-card, etc. etc.).

    One thing that is the principal culprit for driving everything more complicated than it needs to be is: SAFETY and SECURITY.

  29. Mountain bike, handlebar-controlled gears are great, but otherwise, forget it. They are over-enginneered, particularly when compared to ordinary touring bikes in the 1960s (when I did a 3-week, 80 miles a day tour of the UK on 8 gears). For exampl, adjusting the height of the handlebars involves buying a stem costing around £30 which while raising the handlebars, brings them nearer to you. In the old days, you undid a nut raised the handle bars and did the nut up again. And those absolutely useless little ‘high-tech’ pumps without a flexible hose. I tried using one for two years and only succeeded in letting down my tired – every time. Eventually, I bought an old-fashioned plastic pump – which works like a dream. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it – unless you can get enough gullible people to part with their hard-earned cash.

    P.S. I don’t like the idea of bikes on mountains. They should be for walkers only.

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