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08 January 2009


low tech writer

These essays are now also available in book form, printed on real paper



Some years ago I attended a fundraiser for an organization that was involved with micro-financing in an African nation. At the beginning of the evening, a missionary presented slides of life in this unquestionably poor nation. But as she showed pictures of the locals riding bicycles between home and work, making the point to the fairly wealthy audience that bicycles were their only form of travel, I detected more than a hint of standards projection - the assumption that these Africans were somehow not at an acceptable standard of living because they couldn’t afford cars, or at best that they were to be pitied because they had to ride bicycles everywhere. What? I personally prefer my bicycle to a car. Sure a car is sometimes very helpful, and my family has one (in an area where many families have more than two). But there are so many reasons why I prefer bikes. I’m not so stupid as to imagine that the poor prefer poverty, but to look down on a culture that runs on bicycle power is to mistake simple and cheap for destitute. Wrong. Poverty sucks. Bikes do not. Not having a choice sucks, but cars are not the best choice most of the time. A “car in every garage” will not be the sign that this African nation has a sustainable economy. When everyone in the society can care for themselves and their families, and pass on the blessing to others, then the society will be healthy. I assume bikes will continue to be the primary form of transportation in many a developing economy.

I love bikes because they are supremely efficient machines and even the most expensive, highest tech bike is low-tech compared to where the big money goes. And no matter how much carbon-fiber they contain, they still have the lowest carbon-footprint of any serious transportation. All it takes for me to fuel up for a ride is to eat yummy food. I do not emit any toxic fumes when on my bicycle, and, just for the sake of argument, if I ever did you’d be glad I was on a bike rather than sitting in your car. When I ride, I burn calories, help my heart, and clear my head at the beginning and end of every work day.

Cars … can go faster and farther and carry more stuff. No argument there. But if the existence of the automobile makes us more able to shop farther away, and makes developers more bold about building big-box destination stores, which can sell stuff cheaper, which in turns drives smaller local shops out of business, which in turn, makes it necessary for us to have a car so that we can shop farther away … then, I have a problem with cars. And this is not to mention all the problems our planet has (local and global) from the noxious by-products of automobiles.

I try to ride everywhere, but it isn’t always easy. Suburban city planning caters to the automobile. It is inconvenient to commute and shop by bicycle - stuff is just so spread out. And bicycling is often dangerous. I taught my children that when riding on city streets, they should “ride like prey”; imagining that every car was a potential bike killer. It’s not just theory with me. I’m constantly having near misses. Apart from all the near accidents, I’ve had cars swerve at me for fun, and even got pelted by an egg once. Two years ago, I was hit by a UPS truck one late autumn night. Even though I had blinky lights all over me, I simply was not the car she was looking for as she pulled out of a driveway onto El Camino. I was a bit shakey when I started riding again, but I still ride.

The bike above was built from recycled junk parts and is one of several I have. I also have a fairly inexpensive folding bike for travel. I have a mountain bike I bought when I worked at REI. I have two road bikes that were given to me: one is built up as a racer, and one as a road/dirt cross bike. But the bike above is my pride and joy: I should probably give it a name. I built it from a rusty, beat up Nishiki Colorado mountain bike frame, vintage 1983. I took a year collecting parts for cheap and free. I ended up spending about a hundred dollars on new parts and Rust-Oleum. The bike has one single speed and a coaster brake. It needs nothing more for the flatlands on the San Francisco Peninsula, but I’ve ridden it up into the hills and even off road. I think it says “bicycle” more than any of the others currently cluttering my porch. Until I think of a proper name for it, I call it my “Two Wheeler” because it looks and feels like the first “real” bicycle you get when you graduate from a tricycle.

The Two Wheeler scorns the arms race to add more gears (road bikes now can have 30), to find the strongest brake technology (side pull -> cantilever -> linear pull -> hydraulics -> disc), to build frames out of more and more exotic materials (steel -> aluminum -> titanium -> carbon fiber), or to shave ounces off so that you can win races. There are precious few bicycle companies out there that don’t join the arms race. You will not see their bikes in your local bike shop, but you can find them if you want to. The Two Wheeler is strong and light enough with an alloy steel frame and inexpensive aluminum mountain-bike wheels. The coaster brake requires a hundredth of the maintenance of any of the above brake technologies, stops the bike on a dime, and is insanely durable.

And did you notice that saddle? That’s a genuine brooks B-67 made with the same cow parts that equestrian saddles are made from. The saddle is really the heart of the bike. Comfy, springy, and learning the shape of my rear end like no foam-filled, gel-injected, scientifically-designed bike saddle ever could. Furthermore, when the foam in a normal saddle starts to break down, it’s a goner; when my leather starts to stretch out a little too much, I’ll just tighten the nut in the front 1/4 turn, stretching the leather tight again. It takes a while to break in, but so did the leather boots I wore in the mountains when I was a kid. It’s worth it. This saddle will be in my will, and since my legacy will probably be on the light side, this bike seat will probably be the one thing my kids fight over when I’m gone.

My friend Paul saw this bike for the first time the other day and said, “It looks like an old Mercedes.” That’s also the way it rides. I’ve already helped one teenager in my church build his own Two Wheeler from a junk bike after he fell in love with mine. I have another friend searching for a frame right now for his new bike that we will build. The Two Wheeler inspires like other bikes can’t.

Bottom line: the bike cost me a hundred times less than the cheapest new car (and still a whole lot less than any new bike), is a true hybrid drive (runs on coffee, meat, toast, beer, etc), and provides a long list of health and well-being benefits that even insurance companies can’t deny. All I have to do is watch out for UPS trucks.