(Written March 15, 2009)
Lately I have been considering the purchase of another bike, or frame on which to build one, to take the place of and use the parts from the 52cm Surly Cross Check which is too small for me. I don’t exactly need another bike—I have several already—but I don’t have a light touring/randonneuring bike such as the Surly was built to be. I have a racing bike, a commuting bike, and a utility bike, each very good examples of their kind, and none really suited to a long ride in the country, which is the kind of riding I like to do. The kind of bike I have in mind would be light, fast, have low gears for grades, have racks for bags, and a dynamo lighting set. The racing bike is fast and sporty, but lacks low gears and is not really suited to racks, fenders and a lighting set. The commuting bike has the low gears, fenders, rack and lighting set, but is heavy and slow. The utility bike lacks low gears and is heavy and only fast on the level or downhill. The Surly Cross Check frame combines strength, adaptability, space for racks and fenders, and the ability to have a wide gear range, at a reasonable cost. The Surly Long Haul Trucker frame is more suited to touring, but a bit less adaptable otherwise.
What I am trying to rationalize is whether to go with the moderate-cost Surly, or with a more expensive, higher-quality lugged frame, old or new. What I would really like is another frame like the one I had in the 1970s, which had all the qualities I want. Such a frame will cost about three times the price of a new Surly frame. If I find a used Surly frame, I may come out close to even on the frame, because the 52cm I have can be sold for the same price I pay for its replacement. A Surly frame will be serviceable and will use all the same parts I have already got. Perhaps its main drawback is that my existing handlebar bag racks won’t fit properly on modern threadless stems. There are ways to work around that.
If cost were no object… those sweet words… I would simply buy the lugged frame of my choice and build the bike I want to build. But cost is an object. That amount of money is enough to be a concern, especially for a bike I really don’t “need”.
I also see that it is easy to “fight the last war,” i.e., to get the bike that suits a set of requirements from the past, but not the future. Do I really need this kind of a bike? What kind of riding will I be doing? And that brings up the question of what I think I will be doing with my life for the next few years.
I bought my racing bike, used, because I got a good deal and I wanted a nice bike again. I built the commuter from another used bike for the specific task of riding to a specific workplace in 2007. I bought the utility bike because I liked it and had wanted one for a while. I bought the Surly because I thought I was getting a good deal, but I had no specific use for it in mind when I got it—I worked that out later. Indeed I had been in the process of turning my racer into a light tourer, and stopped when I got the Surly.
The riding I anticipate doing this spring is recreational riding, and some utility riding—shopping and other errands. The recreational riding I would like to do is to go out for a whole day and cover some miles. This I might do locally, or when visiting family in New England, or maybe I would take my bike somewhere within an hour or two in search of more interesting rides.
The thought which gave rise to the title of this essay is the question of whether it defeats my intention to have “too nice a bike”. There are plenty of bike enthusiasts out there who treat the bikes like a kind of jewelry with wheels on. The bikes are lovely, but how much would you ride something that rare, expensive and beautiful? It reminds me of the antique car owners who never drive their cars because they are too nice to risk in traffic. A bike that can’t be replaced becomes a liability. And I thought to myself that people who ride bikes professionally, bike racers, probably don’t get sentimental about them. They may have bikes they prefer, but to them the bike is a tool, like a hammer, to be used until it wears out and then replaced. In fact, being sentimentally attached to your bike might be a liability for a racer, since they have to push themselves and their bikes to the limit. If you are concerned about what happens to your bike, you might not push hard enough to win.
And indeed, a tourer has other considerations from a racer. The racer needs to complete the race, but the pros can blow out a bike and start the next race with a new one. Obviously this is not the same for the lower-level racer who has to buy his own bike and probably maintain it too.
But I ask myself—if I intend to ride, indeed maybe even to ride in distant places, am I better off to have a bike I can easily replace if it is stolen or damaged?
Then again—I have only one life and a finite number of years (no one knows how many) in which to ride. Do I want to spend it riding inferior bikes because I think that’s all I deserve?
I would dearly love to justify spending the money on a high-end lugged frame. And that’s basically the reason for all this rationalization. I know where I can get what I want, I know what it costs, and I know I want it… and that my finances are not really ready for it.