Groupsets and Guilt

Well, I made a decision. Decided on a frame, clicked a digital box, paid invisible money. It will be here in a couple days.

I went with the Cannondale CAAD 12 Black Inc., which seems to offer the light weight, race geometry, and badass looks of the Canyon I had planned on buying, at a similar price. From what I can tell, the whole “Black Inc.” thing doesn’t really mean much; it’s the same as the CAAD 12, but with a cooler paint job. Works for me–a paint job doesn’t make a bike, but it can certainly break one.

So, with a frame and wheels figured out, I’m on to the final step: groupset. I know I want to go electronic–I made that decision when my shifter cable snapped 60 miles into a century last winter. I waffled between Sram Red eTap and Shimano Ultegra Di2. eTap is more expensive, but there are no wires to deal with, and even a mechanical novice like me can supposedly install it. Di2 is about half the price and offers many of the same shifting advantages, but isn’t cable free and is reported to have some issues with cables popping out of batteries and the like.

I’m leaning towards eTap. Here’s why

  1. This is the last bike I will buy for a long time. As Donna says, treat yo’self.
  2. I spend more hours per week biking than on any other voluntary activity (work does not count as a voluntary activity, since the purpose of it is to accumulate money and vacation days to spend on biking.)
  3. I’m getting a sensible aluminum frame and aluminum wheels, not elitist, fragile carbon, so I can allocate money elsewhere in the build.
  4. Shifting is the aspect of riding I notice the most, so why compromise?
  5. Cables and seat tube batteries intimidate me. I want to be able to (mostly) put this bike together myself, from scratch. I want to actually attach all the various pieces I’ve assembled, to see the bike go from a collection of objects to a fully functioning machine. That’s one of the main reasons I opted not to buy a complete build. While I suppose I could figure out how to install Di2, it seems a hell of a lot more complicated.
  6. Early adopters look cool when the technology becomes ubiquitous.

But these could all just be post-hoc justifications of my wanting something that is maybe a little too nice, a little too expensive, a little too unnecessary. Rationalizing a want, rather than wanting something rational. For the difference in price between Di2 and eTap (or between either and a perfectly good mechanical groupset), I could literally save children’s lives in Africa by donating to the Against Malaria Foundation (one of the world’s most effective charities that distributes anti-malaria mosquito nets around the world). That fact is not lost on me; I am aware of my own selfishness. Yes, I already donate monthly to charity, but I could donate more and spend less on this bike without affecting my own happiness in any substantial way. Peter Singer’s famous analogy gnaws at me because I know I could do more, because I know that lots of what I buy is by any definition unnecessary.

Or, think of it this way: for the $1,000-$2,000 difference in price between groupsets that are ultimately 95% similar in performance, I could buy more than 10 Buffalo bikes for people who need bikes to go to school and retrieve clean water, needs which make mine (things like “my mental health” and “getting a good workout in”) seem pretty puny. The truth is that any of us cycling-obsessed people could. All the money spent on kits and racing and bikes, most of it to look cool or be a few grams lighter, doesn’t really make us happier. It could do more good elsewhere. Ultimately, I think we would still enjoy cycling with vastly less stuff. Fewer bikes, fewer jerseys, fewer wheelsets. If everyone had a perfectly decent aluminum bike with Shimano 105, we wouldn’t stop feeling the wind in our faces or seeing beautiful vistas or laughing with friends.

I’m not lecturing. Just plumbing my own guilt. Because despite knowing these things, I am still going to get eTap. No doubt, it will be crisp and wonderful. But it won’t be morally defensible. Not really.


Times like these, home from a fun ride on a gorgeous late summer evening, I realize how many things I love about cycling. How grateful I am for everything it adds to my life, how lucky I am to be able to ride. It can be far too easy to take a strong heart and pain-free joints for granted.

So here are some things about cycling I love, the transcendent parts of riding that make all the boring and painful parts worth it. We’ve all seen lists like this on websites and in cycling magazines. They seem a little too easy, a little clickbaity. Maybe this list will sound like that. I don’t know. All I know is that I mean these things.

Quiet roads along quiet creeks.

The way light from a sinking sun shatters though the treetops, bright but not blinding.

The unspoken agreement to pause a conversation on the descent and resume it seamlessly at the bottom.

Pre-ride panckakes. Post-ride pancakes.

Two-hour loops with a little bit of climbing but not too much, where you get a workout but still feel fresh when you get home.

Swooping through shady spots, feeling the rush of cool air.

Waving at old men on porches who would normally never wave at a man in lyrca, and seeing them smile and wave back.

Talking about rides you’ve done. Planning rides you might never do.

Riding two or three wide in the middle of the road because you know there are never cars on it.

Coming back into town after rush hour.

Seeing the light change to green just as your faux-track stand is about to peter out.

Riding with friends, sometimes.

Riding alone, sometimes.

Discovering a perfect new road.

Forgetting your heart rate strap, and realizing you don’t miss it.

The first pedal stroke. The last pedal stroke.

Pressing “save” on your Garmin.

Realizing a hill wasn’t as steep as you remembered it.

Taking the bike path back to your neighborhood, even though you say you hate maneuvering around pedestrians, because sometimes it’s nice to just ┬áride a bike like a kid would ride a bike.

Man Outside the Arena

Yesterday I rode upriver to watch the Tour de Millersburg, a classic race around here that is known for good racing and local hospitality. It’s a stage race, with a time trial on Saturday morning, crit on Saturday afternoon, and road race on Sunday. I did it last year; it was my first race in Pennsylvania. I did okay (especially since I raced the TT Eddy Merckx style, and there was no Merckx category). Thought I would be doing it this year for sure.

But things change, and this year I found myself on the sidelines (sidewalk, in this case) watching as riders flew around the crit course. I was there by choice, having paused racing indefinitely earlier this summer because it was becoming not fun. I thought it might make me miss racing, might ┬áspur a return to grueling intervals and putting my health in the hands of strangers with compensation issues. Well, it didn’t. Not at all. Not by a long shot. It’s not often that I have been perfectly content in life, but I was there, sitting in the sun eating a peach while watching the peloton flash past in a blur of silent, suffering color. The figurative grass didn’t look greener. It looked like a lot less fun.

I didn’t want to trade places with these dudes.
Since quitting racing, I haven’t watched any races up close. At Millersburg, I was struck by how different the spectator experience is. From the outside it’s just a pack of people on bikes within a broader canvas: tidy streets, top-40 radio from the announcer’s tent, mothers pushing strollers. Three-quarters of the time the course is empty and quiet and even idyllic. Then the motorbike comes through honking and the people crane their necks and the riders sweep by, increasingly fragmented into groups and individuals but still basically a collective, separated from the spectators by the reality of their experience in that very same time and place. Then the silence returns. On the outside, there is no stress or consequences. No danger, no pain.

On the inside, it is all stress and heartbeats and clenched nerves and ambition. There is no quiet–there are grunts and spinning hubs and shifting derailleurs, fuck-yous between ragged gasps of breath. The narrow focus a race demands pushes everything else to the periphery, sensed but not acknowledged. Birds chirping, a blue sky, the smell of animals roasting on a backyard grill.

It’s remarkable, how these starkly different worlds occupy the same few city blocks for an hour at a time on a Saturday afternoon. And it’s remarkable how easily I’ve traded my citizenship, swapped one for the other, and how I feel no regrets about it.

One of my favorite speeches is “The Man in the Arena,” delivered by Theodore Roosevelt. Here’s part of it:

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

I love that. I agree with the premise: it’s one thing to analyze and criticize from a distance, and quite another to actually be out there trying. But I think there’s an addendum. Credit also belongs to the man (or woman) who has been in the arena chasing happiness or fulfillment or self-worth and has found, after the struggle, that those things exist somewhere else.

“I Hate Exercise”

I was talking to an old friend recently. They’ve battled weight issues for a while, and to their credit, are making another attempt at getting in shape. Elliptical machines, gym memberships, counting calories, the whole thing. I hope this effort, one in a long line of them, is successful. But I can’t get over something they said in our conversation:

“I hate exercise!”

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised; lots of people probably feel the same way. We live in a country where 70% of the population is overweight or obese (plus, there are plenty of skinny folks who benefit from good genetics but hate exercise just as much). Still, the comment made me sad. I can’t help but think that my friend is missing out.

Exercise, which for me is cycling, running, and hiking, has given me so much. It has added an incalculable amount of joy to my life. It’s crazy to think that only two years ago I was mired in a post-college, post-athletic career funk and didn’t do much besides walk around the neighborhood. Looking back, I might have been depressed. Now, I can’t imagine my life without cycling and running. The endorphin and dopamine rush, at this point, is crucial to my sanity and happiness. I truly believe that. Factor in the other benefits–structure, the feeling of accomplishment, the competitive fix, the social connections, the simple joy of using my body in nature–and it becomes obvious that exercise is one of the pillars of my life and identity.

There are other ways to exercise. I promise.

But why do those benefits attract me, and not others? Why do I enjoy (for the most part) pushing my body, while other people dread it? My initial thought is that they haven’t found the right exercise. There’s a reason I haven’t touched a weight since my final college baseball game–I hate weightlifting. Same goes for treadmills and pretty much anything else you’d find in a gym. There has to be something for everyone, right?

I don’t know. I don’t think so, to be honest. For whatever reason, it seems like some people just don’t enjoy the physical nature and/or hand-eye coordination of sport. I know quite a few who have tried it all–gyms, endurance activities, etc–and don’t enjoy any of it. It’s no wonder that they find it so difficult to work out. I wouldn’t ride my bike if I hated it. Maybe they haven’t actually tried everything, and there is something out there they would enjoy. Maybe not. Sports, while different from one another, aren’t that different.

What about the word “exercise” itself? The term connotes a primary focus on health; while health is certainly one reason I ride, joy and adventure are what really motivate me. Perhaps viewing physical activity through the exercise prism shapes our perception of the activity. We view it as a transaction, a certain amount of misery in exchange for calories burned and pounds lost. We limit our imaginations. We don’t even consider the fact that moving our bodies can be fun. Kids run around because they want to. Most adults do it because they think they have to. And it’s difficult to enjoy obligations.

But again, even if exercise is reframed as play, with an emphasis on joy and adventure instead of drudgery, I still think there will be people left out. For them, an easily paced hike up to a gorgeous overlook isn’t all that more appealing than plugging away on a treadmill as their reflection stares back at them in the YMCA window. I worry that my friend fits into this category. That a lot of people I know do.

Yes, health issues related to lack of physical activity are scary. But it’s more than that. It’s the feeling of showing a friend a book or movie that that changed the way you see the world and hearing them say that it sucked, that they didn’t “get it” at all. You wonder why the magic is lost on them, and why it is so evident to you.

Maybe some people just hate exercise, and it is as simple and complex as that. Maybe the best you can hope for is that they will do it anyways. It’s strange, hoping people do something they hate, ostensibly because it will make their lives better.