Get Thee Behind Me, Gear

Ever since some caveman spent a lot of time fashioning a fancy hunting club, and, subsequently, spent more time admiring and maintaining the club than actually using it for hunting, the human species has encouraged a Cult of Gear — gear for gear’s sake. Thousands of years after that caveman (c’mon, you know it was most likely a man, although in modern times, even the smarter sex has fallen prey to Gear) started us down that expensive, lust- and jealousy-filled path, American capitalism has found Gear to its liking. Plain old lower-case gear isn’t what most outdoor companies now sell — after all, there’s really only one time most people need to buy most outdoor gear, and that’s the first time. How much different can a lightweight stove become over a few product cycles — whoops, I mean years? Instead, it is Gear that is for sale; buy Product X and you will be outdoorsy and mountain-hip, regardless of whether you actually make it to the mountains or even live anywhere near outdoor adventure. It is a classic bait-and-switch. They’re selling a culture, a lifestyle, but we’re just buying unnecessary material goods, that lovely old mainstay of American (and, more lately, Chinese) economic growth.

In my obviously open-minded and tolerant opinion, there is no outdoor industry worse about selling people Gear than the bicycle industry. I speak as a professional in that industry since 1997. What I’ve realized over the years is both sad and comical. It’s sad because we don’t use our industry’s resources to create true and healthy acceptance of bicycles as a realistic mode of transportation and recreation, as useful tools for everyday life. Instead, we’ve devoted virtually all those resources towards racing R&D and re-purposing racing products for the general market, even though the average end consumer doesn’t need, say, a carbon-steerer-equipped fork or suspension technology that really only performs at potential under the extreme demands of a professional rider. It’s comical because, for the same reasons, there are now thousands of poor saps riding around looking like Lycra-cased sausages, muffin tops spilling over every possible skintight hem, hunched over long top tubes and low-rise stems meant for lean, flexible racers, struggling to climb with the 39×23 low gear with which their $3,000 carbon road bike came equipped, a grimace of pain/frustration etched in their red faces, thinking, “Can’t wait to get off this damn thing and drive to the liquor store.” It’s as if GM sold almost exclusively NASCAR replicas — when going to the lot, you’d have to dig around in the back corner to find a plain old Malibu sedan. And when you almost inevitably drove off the lot in Dale Jr.’s race car, you’d quickly end up hating it for its lack of practicality, hurting yourself, getting into trouble, or all three.

Despite all this, American bicycle companies continue to sell race-developed bikes to the general non-racing public. Why? Many reasons come to mind, but featuring prominently is the American worship of Gear. Buying Gear is the easiest way for many people to become what they wish to be — it’s much easier to buy that team-replica bike than to actually be in team-replica shape. We care less about creating our own experiences and more about mimicking admired figures’ experiences. Hence, the multitudes who want to ride that damned Lance guy’s bike, wear Lance’s bracelet like some teen-crush class ring, and ride in Lance’s “Mellow Johnny’s” team kit — the facts that they’d probably be much more comfortable and have spent way less money on a more practical set-up notwithstanding.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not saying race bikes should disappear. I’m just saying the worship of Gear is making the bicycling experience less about bicycling for many American cyclists. The same is true for many other outdoor pursuits (and even many other areas of our so-called culture). I, too, once maintained an unhealthy worship of Gear. I had not one, but TWO carbon-fiber, dual-suspension race bikes, each worth somewhere north of $7,000. Yes, I did race. I was sort-of fast, but probably would have been just as fast on a bicycle worth much less. Eventually, having been around world-class racers and world-class race bikes for a while (as a team mechanic), I realized all that race stuff was just a sub-set of the whole bicycling experience, despite the fact that the industry insists on pushing race as reality. Realizing that (along with the fact that I had too much money tied up in silly plastic bicycles that cost ridiculous amounts to maintain), I sold both race bikes and replaced them with a relatively inexpensive, steel-framed, single-speed mountain bike. At that point, my cycling experience became about the experience of riding, and not about the bicycle I was using. This was for two reasons: One, by voluntarily acquiring a heavy-ish, Luddite-inspired bicycle, I had effectively extricated myself from a pervasive culture of newer, lighter, better. Two, my new bike was charmingly simple, keeping worries about breakage and maintenance to a minimum. I didn’t have to think about the bike. The Gear became the gear, and outside of the riding experience, it had no meaning. It was a freeing sensation.

Just going out and getting simple, solid gear won’t necessarily cure you of Gear-frenzy, as I discovered after I began riding my new bike. As it turned out, the bike industry hadn’t ignored the single-speed movement. In fact, it had done a great job of packaging it as the latest-greatest-new-badass thing to do, be, buy. Of course, I hadn’t been ignorant of the fact that the industry was selling single-speeds, and I certainly wasn’t one of the first to begin riding SS. But there is something about riding an SS that makes other SSers talk to you, and after my unwitting initiation into this new club, I realized that, for many other riders, single-speeds were just another manifestation of Gear. The industry had figured out that most people weren’t about to ONLY ride SS, but they sure would buy another bike if the industry could make it hip, cool, hardcore. The end result, of course, is that there are now thousands of perfectly serviceable SS bikes hanging in garages that get ridden twice a month, consigned to occasional mimicry of someone else’s experience. Gear, thine will be on consumer earth as it is in corporate heaven, amen.

The point I’m meanderingly getting at here is that it doesn’t matter what gear you use, as long as you can forget it while using it. I needed a kick in the ass via simple bicycle to make me forget Gear, but if you can ride your carbon wonder-machine and not obsess over grams and graphics at the same time, then more power to you. I’m well aware that a lot of people will argue in favor of the Gear fetish, generally by saying they need all that stuff they obsess over to “get out there.” Where I live, practically every house has a visible overflow of an amazing variety of outdoor trappings (which mostly leads me to wonder what all my fellow citizens do for a living, should they actually have time to enjoy all those toys). But, by having all that stuff, we’re doing ourselves a great disservice. The more we focus on the gear, the less we get of the experience the gear is there to facilitate. I remember countless times out on the trail, surrounded by amazing natural beauty, when someone would come upon me just admiring the view — and then proceed to make some conversation about my gear. I don’t want to talk about gear — look around, man! The experience of being out there is the reason for the gear, not vice-versa. When we look back at the end of our lives, would we prefer to have memories of many adventures and experiences, or memories of all the Gear we worshipped, memorized specs on, bought and stored in closets? Say it loud: Get thee behind me, Gear — I’ve got trails to ride, mountains to climb, landscapes to look across in awe, conversations in camp to have and experiences to experience. You, Gear, are just a tool along for the ride.

After spending years traveling the world as a bicycle mechanic, Joey Ernst settled in the best place he’d been:  Southwestern Colorado. This is his first piece for the Gazette.

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