Thursday, August 12, 2010

The photographer's bike

Peter had just completed a cyclocross race, and he showed me his bike, a Giant Trance X2. He didn’t do badly at all, placing sixth overall. He chalked it up to using the wrong type of bike for that particular kind of terrain. He should have ridden a hard-tail bike, he said, something maybe a little lighter than what he had. But this is what he had, and this is what he rode. He shrugged: no big deal. One cannot help thinking that he is kind of proud of the dirt on his bike.

Admittedly, I know little about cyclocross, or CX, as I’m sure Peter refers to it. I had thought that cyclocross bikes were similar in appearance to road bikes—same drop handlebars, fatter tyres.
So I followed the cryptic references Peter had given me and sensed that the motley group of riders with whom he competes have neither time nor patience with such subtleties and ride whatever works. They sport no uniform. They don’t want to be taken for professional riders or take themselves too seriously. The ample references to velociraptors in their website confirms that they ride fast and compete aggressively but view the beers at the end of the day just as important as the race itself.

Yet the Peter’s Giant Trance X2, although a stock production bike, is anything but a casual piece of machinery. It has a frame made of aluminum, full suspensions, Shimano Deore drivetrain, and massive disk brakes. It isn’t one of the lightest but certainly one of the sturdiest.
Peter does not let himself be distracted by equipment he doesn’t need. He likes to do his research. He let me borrow a text book he has been riding about bicycle mechanic properties. It’s full of equations and diagrams.
He has been riding bicycles “for ever,” he says. Although born in San Francisco, he grew up in Northern England, where his parents moved. His father is an avid cyclist, and Peter tagged along in rides across the northern English countryside.“He would stop at pubs for beer,” he remembers, “and I would have a soda.”
He returned to the Bay Area after high school, taking his time before going to college. In the end, he decided not to go or pursue a career. For  a while, he worked as a computer technician but was soon bored with it and got a job in a bike shop. He liked his work, but the work environment was not congenial, and Peter became a bike messenger. The work was tough: long hours, miles and miles through city traffic. When he had  the chance to move to another, better regarded and more considerate courier company, he grabbed it. He found an interesting group of people and he has still many friends among them. About a year later, he began working at BikeNüt.
At BikeNüt, Peter wears many hats, sometimes behind the counter, advising customers, but more often upstairs, in the shop’s repair and assembly area. Here Peter does what he does best: never still for even a second, he performs a kind of ballet, spinning a wheel with one hand and reaching a tool with the other while keeping a mental checklist of what remains to be done. He squanders no movement and carries out all tasks with precision and speed. At the end of each job, he returns all of the tools to their assigned place.
He has a keen perception and seems to know right away and exactly what is wrong with a bike. One has the sense that his confidence stems from his passion for cycling in general and from working within a shop, a culture really, where he is well liked for what he does and who he is, and that he, in turn, finds stimulating.

Peter has more in his mind than just bikes. He is a photographer, an amateur photographer, he makes clear, and has no plans to become a professional. Amateurs are not taken seriously in our age of ever-escalating specialization. Yet, at their best, amateurs are those who are passionate about what they do, they work at it endlessly, and do not disconnect it from the way they live. That’s the way Peter is.

Peter bought his bike through the shop just over a year ago. Yet, the Giant is only one of his five bicycles. He has one for riding in the city, a road bike for riding around the Bay Area, and others he hasn’t bothered to describe. He is not one to meditate and admire his bikes. He talks about them not as objects but as if they were projects, a common characteristic at BikeNüt. As projects, they can be examined objectively, criticized for what they lack, and, with appropriate adjustments, taken to a higher level of performance.

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