The saddle is worn out now.
I pulled my Independent Fabrication down off the wall hook the other day, propped the rear wheel against the leg of my workstand, pumped 110 front and rear, slipped a bottle into the cage on the downtube, then, with one hand on the saddle, began to wheel the bike out of my shop, my shoes clacking on the hard concrete floor, the open garage door framing a brilliant yellow soon-to-be-spring light that seemed to hang like drapery I’d have to pass through.
I thought it would be cool to ride through that light. I stopped there in the garage, swapping hands so I was holding my bike by the bar, and just as I started to swing my leg over the rear wheel to mount up, I noticed a loose flap of leather on the nose of my saddle. An inch-long section of the cover had unpeeled from the bottom left edge, and not recently: the pistoning of my thigh while riding had worried the strip into a tight curl.
This was no defect, no rip, no unfortunate cut. My SLR must have something like 30,000 miles on it. It has a patina, like a great old painting, and is crackling the same way. Its deep, rich black has gone gray. I ran my thumb over and over the curling leather.
When it comes to philosophy I’m more of a sprinter than an endurance guy, so just about all I really know about the Japanese ideal of “wabi-sabi” is that it is an appreciation of the imperfect and the worn. The best summation I’ve ever heard — from Duane, one of those guys who seems to be sitting around down at South Mountain Cycles no matter what day or time you drop in — is that beauty and truth can be found in the acceptance that nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.
I study riders who are better than me, the local good ones I spin around with, the near-greats I occasionally latch a wheel to, and the rare, pure thoroughbreds who, thanks to my job, I have been lucky enough to ride beside and behind — Tour de France champions from the mid ‘80s deep into the 2000s, some of the monsters of the Classics, a few of the best domestiques of our era. In all of them, to different degrees, there is a slightly careless, almost ragged, worn-in manner to the things they do on a bike — their pedaling action and their stance and their attacks and turns and all of that, of course, but also in how they sit on the top tube after a ride, or drape a hand over a brake hood, or tilt up the bottle for a drink, or any of the other innumerable, otherwise insignificant interactions with their bikes. They don’t think about this ease any more than my saddle thinks about being worn. Maybe that’s part of why I find both so beautiful.
And so full of truth.
Beauty by itself isn’t enough. The appeal of the well-worn drives our culture to pay extra for jeans that have been overwashed and custom-distressed before reaching the store shelves, and for shirts with paint streaks artfully pre-slopped on, and for factory-frayed sport coats. All it takes to buy a worn look is greed or gullibility.
To possess it, you have to earn it.
I paid for that torn leather in miles and sweat and sacrifice, and its imperfection was beautiful only because the miles and sweat and sacrifice had created it. Sometime, probably soon, my SLR will pass from worn-in to worn-out and I’ll have to replace it. (Neglect — riding with a stretched chain, running bald tires, not wiping down your bike after a rain ride — is not something I admire.)
But as I rode out into the light that day, and on yesterday’s ride and I hope today’s and tomorrow’s, my battered saddle grants me just a little bit of what I admire so much in those other riders, that carelessness I care so much about, that imperfect something I find so perfect.
Originally published in the March 21, 2008 Sitting In