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It’s not all about racing: why the bike industry needs to take a chill pill

In this opinion piece, Steve Thomas ponders: “Why is it that so much of the cycling world seems to assume it’s all about performance enhancement and racing?”

It wasn’t the first time that the bike shop owner had tried to sell me some super expensive and very blingy piece of kit… but this time I did wonder if she was taking the proverbial.

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A carbon fibre stem, of all things. I mean, why the heck would I want to spend a ludicrous amount on money on a piece of kit that would save me a few grams, and one that would also have me worrying with every jolt in the road? I looked down at my mid-life lifebelt and just smiled politely as I declined the offer! All of this was going on as I was waiting for the mechanic to add on an adaptor to my rear gear hanger, so that I could use a mountain bike cassette with a 42-tooth bottom cog.

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For me this is the bare minimum for gravel riding in a hilly area, especially when ridden by my current self. The adaptor was the only workaround that I could find to counter a very badly specced/designed gravel bike. It had what I’d describe as cyclocross race geometry and gearing.

At the same time a friend of the mechanic walked past and scoffed at my dinnerplate-sized cassette, duly muttering: “Huh, walking speed.”

Steve Thomas it's not all about racing ride shot 2 - credit SteveThomasPix
Image: Steve Thomas

What is it with so many cyclists, the cycling media, the bike industry, and even some outsiders looking in; why do so many seem to think cycling is just about racing and performance?

When I took up cycling, as a “soon to be teenager” of the late 1970’s, it was all about escapism and adventure for me. Yes, I did reluctantly (at the time) get lured down on to the drops, and followed my own racing dream all around the world for many years.

Even so, I was never of the belief that cycling was all about racing, which perhaps enabled me to see other sides of cycling and enjoy them more.

Having spent the last 30 or so years also writing about and taking pictures of all things cycling, sadly it seems that the issue about it all being about racing is still there; maybe even more so than before.

Sure enough I do tune in to watch the carnage of Paris-Roubaix and the mountain battles of the Tour de France; although I wouldn’t break into a cold sweat to watch a full-length flat Tour stage. I would actually much prefer to watch some obscure guy’s YouTube video about riding on flat pedals while accompanied by stray dogs on a year-long adventure through the Andes.

Even the cycling media seems to have a huge divide within it. There is a very clear disconnect between race media and those of us who write about all other things cycling; and also there seems to be a complete lack of acceptance from the racing media side towards anything else.

Steve Thomas it's not all about racing ride shot 1 - credit SteveThomasPix
Image: Steve Thomas

They simply do not get the fact that cycling is not all about racing, and that not everybody who rides a bike wants to go faster or worships a disposable carbon race bike that cost them half a year’s wages, let alone sanctifies those who do ride them faster than the rest. The fact is that very few cyclists ever race, or even have a desire to, and yet for some reason even the mainstream cycling ‘world’ seems to have a very outdated acceptance issue towards this blatant fact.

There is a total lack of relevance between professional racing and the kinds of cycling that most of us actually do, not to mention our reason for riding bikes. Major brands seem to be obsessed with cutting edge performance, and I guess selling £8,000 bikes does make some commercial sense to them; although when you see these fragile things crumple at the first hint of a crash, it does make you question their thinking.

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In my opinion there’s far more comfort and fun to be had on a good old steel framed bike with wired gear shifting, and it will last you for years, or perhaps has already has done so.

Even when some pro teams and brands do get down to dabbling in other forms of cycling, there seems to be an elitist, tongue-in-cheek nonsensical tone about it. Of course, there is always the old Formula 1 theory that this is where the technological development comes from, and from where it then trickles down to us. I’ve never quite bought into that theory.

There’s far more to be learned from someone like Lachlan Morton and his exploits than there is from some tantrum-throwing prima donna who refuses to ride disc brakes, and there’s far more of a genuine connection to regular cyclists in there too. Of course this doesn’t need to impact you or your riding experience, although unfortunately it does very much colour the general marketplace, as in the bikes and equipment choices available out there. 

Steve Thomas it's not all about racing ride shot 4 - credit SteveThomasPix
Image: Steve Thomas

Luckily, there are many brands out there now who do cater more for the rest of us; even if, unfortunately, some of them have also become somewhat elitist and artisan with that. Trendy and overpriced, essentially.

It really saddens me to think back to all of the highly skilled and experienced frame builders of 30-plus years ago. They were mostly true cyclists and craftsmen who were dedicated to their jigs, many were just about scraping by financially. Most of them were also forced out of business by mass production. If only they’d have been around now, perhaps custom frames would something that we could all afford rather than the boldly painted bank-breakers we’re now so used to seeing.  

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It’s also quite telling that so many top pro riders actually go out and buy or get hold of custom steel bikes the minute they stop racing for a living, and then go out and ride them much as we do. 

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