Up on the board in front of my desk at work, I keep tacked up the review of Astral Weeks that Lester Bangs wrote. I was thinking of that as I wrote this, and I was thinking a lot about misters Sachs and Gaulzetti, and about all the bikes I’d ridden and forgotten about and the few I remember, and I still can’t decide if what came out of all that makes me more or less qualified to write reviews of bicycles.
I started testing bikes for magazines in 1991. But I didn’t get to write about them, at least not right away, and when I did, the reviews were often the result of a senior editor making sense of my garbled ideas. That’s because I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.
I rode a lot of bikes, which also means that, back at my start, I didn’t ride any bike a lot. The idea was to give me a broad palate before I tried to develop a discerning one. There were weeks when I rode three or more bikes, and months when I’d ride 15 different brands. Sometimes the editors would have me ride two or three models from the same brand in consecutive days, or even one at lunch and one after work. Then they’d ask me what I thought of the bike, and why I thought the bike made me think that.
The editors never told me my thoughts about the ride were wrong, but my ideas about why everything felt the way it did were almost always dismissed by them, guys who’d long ago been through what I was then going through. I learned, for instance, that you couldn’t attribute a bike’s steering to the head angle alone, then I learned you couldn’t attribute it to the head angle and fork rake alone, then I learned you couldn’t attribute it to the head angle and the fork rake and the trail without at least considering wheelbase or, later, also the bottom bracket drop, then, eventually, chainstay length as well and, long after that—and in a duh moment—tire pressure.
Eventually, I also started riding individual bikes a lot, putting in a month or even a full season on one bike or another while other test bikes rotated in and out of my stable. Testing was much more fun then. I began to develop deep, abiding preferences about what I liked in a bike—I figured out which of a bike’s characteristics suited my riding style. A little later, maybe later than I should have, I also learned to discern characteristics that didn’t suit my style but were still finely executed—just because I didn’t like a bike didn’t mean it wasn’t well made.
All of this went on for eleven or twelve years. One of the good things about the near-hazing sort of apprenticeship I initially encountered turned out to be that I was never worried about appearing dumb: I always felt okay telling the guy who designed the bike something like, “It felt really quick to me side to side, but I don’t know why.” And, when those engineers or otherwise learned design savants gave me an explanation that was over my head, I wasn’t embarrassed to say “What the hell did that mean?”
Somewhere in there, say 14 or 15 years in, I had so much bike knowledge, and, thanks to all those years of riding everything from $300 to $10,000 bikes week after week, I had so much knowledge of so many bikes, that if someone wanted to know why a bike steered the way it did, I could finally give an answer that those old mentors of mine wouldn’t have been able to refute or even expand upon. I knew it all.
And that is the high point of any sort of knowledge or pursuit from which, of course, if you’re lucky and persistent, you find out you know practically nothing. You finally get up high enough to get a clear view of how much more there is out there to know. It’s humbling.
These days, my reviews talk more about ride feel and ride quality, and the experience of riding the bike (and even, sometimes, indefensibly, the emotions evoked by the bike). Because I ought to, I’ll mention some of the reasons a bike might feel the way it did to me, but I know, now, that those are at best clues to some more expansive and engaging mystery.
I’m not sure I could cite everything that led me to this particular place, this specific stance from which I regard bikes, but Richard Sachs had a lot to do with it. He never told me that handbuilt bikes are best, or steel is best, or this kind of steel is better than that kind of steel, or anything like that. He told me, simply, “the frame is the frame.”
Richard expanded on that in a poster I keep on my wall. (The text is also on a T shirt.) I read it every time I start to re-imagine I know a lot about bikes.
I got to review a Gaulzetti one time, and got to know Craig Gaulzetti a little, and once when we were talking he said, ”A great bike puts the wheels in the right place.” (He expanded on that, explaining among other things how that then helps the designer put the rider in the right place, but I have to go to my notes to remember the rest.)
In 20 years of reviewing bikes, my knowledge has been reduced to two simple ideas: The frame is the frame, and the wheels have to be in the right place. See if that isn’t true about your favorite bike.
Originally published in The Selection, November 8, 2011