Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Steve-O and More Planned Obsolescence

I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to put these Angry Thoughts down on paper, but such is life. I’m compelled to mention the confluence of events that precipitated this post. I’ve already mentioned the way the cycling community in the Midwest disappears when it gets cold, like your testicles when you jump into 32 degree water. That is Exhibit A. Exhibit B is the organization to which I belong, which as of 12 months ago included three locations and now includes but one. Yeah, the last year has been tough. Well, the boss took a week off for personal reasons, and while he was away, a paycheck bounced. I’d like to say it was a horrible surprise, but it was the third time it’d happened, and I wasn’t surprised at all. We’d discussed laying me off in January anyway, since Uncle Sam has so much more money than we do. Well, when he got back, he asked if I wanted to take December off as well. I did. The shop has been driving me fucking bonkers for the last six weeks anyway, and I’ve got some personal projects I’ve been neglecting.

A couple of weeks ago, a regular customer, let’s call him Steve-O, stopped in. Steve-O is a fairly hardcore tourer, and the quintessential retrogrouch. Steve-O has never owned a new bike. He was now looking at the Long Haul Trucker from the Midwest’s favorite illegitimate child, Surly. I have nothing bad to say about the LHT. In fact, I own one myself, and if you put a gun to my head and told me to pick just one of my six bikes, it would be the LHT. My greatest hope in life is to find the female equivalent of the LHT: simple, sturdy, strong, and easy on the eyes in a utilitarian kind of way. She is a beautiful machine. I mean the bike, although I hope the woman will be a beautiful machine as well.

Steve-O’s problem with the LHT is not with the frame, but with the mix of components those crazy bastards at Surly have decided to hang on it. Put simply, he’s suspicious of the durability of a 9-speed drivetrain. Here we go.

At first blush, his logic seems sounds: in order to accommodate more gears, chains have gotten narrower. A narrower chain must contain less metal. A chain cannot be more durable if it contains less metal. Ergo, a 9-speed drivetrain is less durable.

I know what you’re thinking. You think you’re clever, but I’m a step ahead of you. You recognize that Steve-O’s logic does not take into account the quality of the metal, the construction of the chain, or the diligence with which you might care for your drivetrain. You’re thinking that you’d bust out some commentary about steel alloys, or bushinged vs. bushingless, and tell him that, in eleventy billion miles of riding on 9, 10, and even 11 speed drivetrains, you’ve never, ever, broken a chain. You think you’re so clever, you naïve son of a bitch. But you lack the advantage of having experienced Steve-O’s existing bikes. They are the most marvelous and neglected pieces of shit you have ever had the misfortune to lay eyes on. His bar tape hangs in tatters from the drops. His cable housing is riddled with cracks, and his cables are always, always, frayed. He brings his bike in, complaining of a “creak in the bottom bracket,” and it is always the chain, protesting its neglect in frequencies heard only by Andy, our loyal shop dog. With this knowledge, I fortified myself and made preparations to lose an argument.

“So, what are your reservations about the 9-speed drivetrain?”

“I read on a touring forum that some guy had broken a 9-speed chain.”


In my defense (or yours), I made all the aforementioned arguments. I had seen his bikes, but I thought he might understand that better alloys and better construction could yield a bike with more speeds and better durability, but he would hear nothing of it.

“In the good old days, you didn’t have to replace chains, or drivetrains. I’ve got 20,000* miles on the drivetrain of my Kabuki.” (* This is not a typo. That’s Twenty. Thousand. Miles.)

Deep breath. Collect your thoughts.

“Well, I’m afraid if your expectation is 20,000 miles out of a drivetrain, any drivetrain, you’re going to be disappointed. Chains just weren’t designed to last that long. I mean, that’s like hoping for 10,000 miles out of an oil change.”

HA! Check! There is no defense to the Automotive Analogy.

“No, I don’t expect 10,000 miles from an oil change, but I do expect 400,000 miles out of my cars.”


This tidbit of information revealed to me that I could not win this argument. Yes, some vehicles last for 400,000 miles. Some drivetrains last for 20,000 miles. Some people live to 110. They are the outliers, but it does happen, and if it happens, then it means that, in his mind, Steve-O’s drivetrain is as likely as any to last for 20,000 miles. It turns out there is a counter to the Automotive Analogy. It is the Outlier As a Standard Worldview.

I threw in the towel, because after all, what the fuck does it matter to me? My motto is: “Give me enough time, money, and beer, and I’ll fix a rainy day.” Sure, I can build you an LHT with an 8-speed drivetain. Give me time, money, and beer. While doing inventory, I came across a set of 8-speed Ultegra bar-end shifters. I shot Steve-O an email and told him that all we needed now was an 8-speed cassette and we’d be in business.

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