Between the two of us, my partner and I don’t consume much. Except for rent and utilities, by far our greatest expenditure is on food. There’s just not much else out there necessary or interesting to buy. This does not mean that I don’t have a deeply inculcated consumer impulse. I get fixated on acquiring certain possessions, thinking it will somehow make my life better, or fill in a hole where I feel like I’m lacking – and as such, the advertisers have done their job.
It makes sense that I would feel the need to acquire new stuff, or at least stuff new to me. But it’s not the marketing of specific products that makes me want to buy and obtain, rather it’s that the culture of marketing seems to have fostered my acquisitive nature. How do I know this? Well, the thing I’m preparing to purchase, though still wrestling with the decision in my mind and with my partner, is a new tandem, as I’ve mentioned here before in the context of it being our wedding registry. When was the last time you saw a tandem advertised? Of course if you’re reading this and you’re not one of my personal friends whose arm I’ve twisted to read my blog, you may in fact be interested in bikes, and maybe even interested in tandems specifically, and therefore are exposed to bicycle advertisements. However, I definitely am interested in tandems, but I don’t recall being exposed to any tandem advertisements recently.
The bike industry is not shy in advertising, and it is quite relentless in releasing new product lines each year that are slight modifications, often mere cosmetic/style changes from the previous seasons, in order to get people to replace the old with the new. This marketing I am definitely exposed to, even if it’s not specifically selling tandems.
Tangentially, the style of the street feeds into the consumer impulse, that is, the culture sells itself. When I lived in Chicago, I wanted to ride around on a fixed gear “urban” bike, as was the fashion – and I did, too, and then I sold that bike when I moved back to the country (though I’ve seen single speeds and fixed gears doing long rural rides down here in the NC hills, even centuries, it just doesn’t seem like it would be that fun or useful to me). Sure, I appreciated the simplicity of having less moving parts to keep clean and functional in the dirty city of the long winter, but in the end, nothing is more functional than my touring bike with full fenders and racks.
One of the style movements within bike culture is that of “vintage” bikes. The Let’s Go Ride a Bike blog is sort of in the middle of exploring the style and utility of vintage bikes. Like diving through bins in used clothing stores, the appreciation of and search for high quality and attractive older bikes is nothing new. Steel Bridgestones that have now spawned the community around Rivendell became vintage collectors’ pieces the year they went off the US market in 1994 – it was primed to do this since their chief marketing director Grant Peterson was already resisting new trends and embracing vintage design. Acquiring vintage bikes is in a sense more noble than simply expressing a fashion – it’s a culturally couth way of consuming and recycling at the same time. It prevents all that imported metal and rubber and plastic from ending up in land fills, preserves some historic design, and reminds us how little has actually changed about bikes. Some people choose the vintage route for the practicality and longevity of some older designs, as well as the cost savings. Then there’s the style aspect.
What I’m wrestling with is my desire, a huge lust, that I’ve been harboring since I first rode a Co-Motion Big Al back in 2000: that I must a shiny, new, top-end tandem. I sicken myself a little when I think about it. I’ve picked up the magazine Bicycling the past few months after a hiatus of many years, and I’m surprised by what I see. Besides absolutely horrendous writing (like this misogynistic and rival-baiting masquerade of journalism), what really turns me off are the short bicycle reviews where they give a flaccid description of a new bike, some snappy but useless pros and cons. It’s not these elements of the reviews that bother me. Rather, it’s that when they review the latest carbon contraption, they don’t bat an eye at the price tags of these bikes. $10K-20K! The reviewers don’t even comment on it. I think if you’re looking at a bike that retails for $20 grand, the first thing one should ask is not how compliant the seat stays are under the force of a professional racer’s acceleration, but whether the performance and new trinkets really add that much value to your life. And, that distaste forces me to ask myself just that about a spendy new tandem.
As it stands, my honey and I have a very capable, “vintage” rig. A 1991 Burley Duet, considered a fine standard of the “entry-level” tandem market at the time. The stout steel frame handles extremely predictably, is remarkably stable at low and high speeds, absorbs the road but has no noodle feeling whatsoever, has sensible, durable components (48-spoke wheels!), smart design features (I love the pump peg, and the drum brake, but we can debate whether it really is a good idea to to have the right hand brake actuate both the front and rear rim brakes, while the left operates the drum brake, or whether it’s not). It’s heavy, probably around 45lbs, but it could probably survive a short military engagement. Every time I get excitedly talking about acquiring a new tandem, and then the talk comes around to the cost, H reminds me of how dependable and comfortable the Burley is, and then I’m back to convincing her and myself why I would want to lay out months of income for a new one.
There are a few reasons I’d like a new tandem that involve the bicycle itself. First, a new tandem would allow us to get fitted properly together (though the Burley feels fine as is). Second, we could get it spec’ed with the latest, yet still practical components. A new Co-Motion, even a steel one, would weigh about 15 pounds less – this may be the greatest reason. I’d also like a tandem with traveler couplers. I already ride a Co-Motion Co-Pilot (which I actually bought used with great success/luck on eBay) and have flown with it on numerous occasions. The couplers on the tandem have the added benefit of being able to break it down if you really really have to in a pinch in order to fit it in a car or some other space not normally equipped to handle its size.
Perhaps the most compelling reason to get a new tandem is the romantic notion that a new tandem would be ours and only ours, and would achieve some sort of metaphorical status in our relationship – an active tool and symbol of the work we’re be putting in together toward our continued happiness. On the other hand, the tandem is just an object, so I wonder if somehow, insidiously, my deeply-rooted consumer nature (which, to her credit, my honey does not share with me) is adopting these tones of symbolic grandeur to justify its base motive. And to what end? Sarah Goodyear, an editor of Streetsblog recently reminded me of an apt tandem adage: “No matter which way you’re going in your relationship, you’ll get there faster on a tandem.” This goes both ways.
The other morning, as we were tandem commuting to work, my honey and I got to debating whether we really need a new tandem. I went on about tech (wouldn’t disk brakes be great?), about lower weight (we’d shoot up hills!), about the couplers, about being able to choose a shiny new color rather than this dull blue. She was basically unaffected by any of these arguments. Then, as we were finishing the commute in Chapel Hill, a single older woman on a bicycle caught up with us and was enthused that we were riding a tandem. What she was really excited to talk about was that she and her husband had recently acquired a brand-spanking new Co-Motion (with couplers, no less!) and that it was the best ride ever. When she rode off, my honey tried to think of how I might have planted that woman, like, I somehow paid her off to bike up to us right then like some tandem marketing angel. Of course I could not have, but it also might have worked.