Return to Retro

I missed this year’s North American Handbuilt Bike Show (NAHBS), but thanks to Bike Rumor and other blog sites, we got a peek at some of the showings from the floor. One particular image attracted the attention of my intern, Brian. This bicycle won “Best Mountain Bike.” Congrats, Retrotec, on making a sweet ride and winning the prize.

Brian has been working hard at straightening up the Mountain Biking History & Culture Archive, and looking at quite a few clunker images, such as the one below of Joe Breeze’s clunker.

The stylistic similarities are striking, even if they are in many other ways very different bicycles. Perhaps all I’m really dazzled by is the sloping top tube arching elegantly down to the rear dropouts. It hearkens back to the streamline design of the original Schwinns, which mimicked the aerodynamics of motorcycles and airplanes. (Check out Christina Cogdell’s briliant Eugenic Design for more cultural analysis of streamline aesthetics) Perhaps there is a structural reason for this new design, but given the company name and streamline similarities, I can’t help but think about the ways we build nostalgia back into bicycles.

Ever since cars took over the roads built for bicycles, bikes have represented a simpler time, when a person could only move as fast as their legs would allow. The original clunkers were kids’ bikes reinvented for a new purpose that was also highly infused with nostalgia. Riding these bikes reminded folks of when they were kids. Cruising around on the old beaters reminded riders of the sense of freedom and adventure they experienced while riding as a youth.

Retrotec’s bike is a brilliant blending of nostalgia and cutting edge technology. The bicycle boasts the latest in components, including a LH Thomson dropper post (according to Bike Rumor one of only two or three in the world at the time of NAHBS). The welding and design mines the past and the present to create a bicycle that makes people smile. And I bet it rides like a dream (though it looks a little large for my small frame). As always with mountain biking, it’s the aesthetics of pleasure that wins out.

Wild Writing

I cannot tame my writing. I create outline after outline, yet the words always leak out the edges and send out tendrils in new directions that raise more questions. I try to introduce a short anecdote to demonstrate what I am saying, but then that story starts talking a blue streak and leads into a whole other place, unexpected and organizationally confusing. And yet I cannot let go of these tangents. They reveal more and the unexpected places they take me unfold the world as a beautifully complex place.

Sigh.

But there must be structure. An argument. An overriding theoretical intervention. It cannot be implied, and some things must be spelled out. There must be a narrative.

So I try again. Cut and paste together another structure. Just focus on stitching the edges together. Think of it as breadcrumb trails, dropping in words where they are needed to lead the reader along the path. But this implied that I know the way, when in reality there are so many interesting junctions, and how do I decide which way to turn? Decide I must, for if not, the readers run wild and sometimes miss the most interesting vantage point. Sometimes it is necessary to say, “Look, look here!” Acknowledge the lovely side trails, but we cannot investigate these whole woods in a single day.

Trudge and tarry, trudge and tarry. This is one way to proceed along the trail. Rather than trudging, can I dance, or skip, or otherwise make my merry way? Maybe, perhaps at times. But if there is one thing I have learned from my years of long distance running is that the trudge has its virtues too. Trudges require endurance, and a willingness to push through some rather uncomfortable moments. This pace tends to be slower, but also opens up the vistas of a journey slowly, one solid step at at time. Trudging can also lead to wild places. In fact, a solid steady trudge is more likely to lead to those places worth going, and yet few may find on their breathless dancing way, for they grew weary long ago what with all the energy of skipping along. But the trudgers, they can tarry in places of dancer’s dreams.

Perhaps I need to balance between the slow march and the exuberant dance. Enjoy the exultation of surprising lines of flight, but remember to slow down and come back to the reassuring slow shuffle of prosaic prose. Because I am not on this journey alone. I carry other people’s stories. I am scouting paths along which others will follow. If my route is too rough or unexpected, my readers may get lost, and then what kind of guide am I?

Remember the best ride leaders. They create a route that leads to lovely and sometimes unexpected places. Long, arduous climbs are rewarded with secret caches of just-right sitting places with gorgeous views. On the way down, options are discussed, but ultimately the leader picks and takes us down descents suitable for the audience. The more adept can fly with glee, while others stumble gingerly, still learning. A good ending to rides can sometimes be the trickiest part. Too technical isn’t always good, since people may be tired and make dangerous mistakes. Nobody likes a boring road slog to get back to where they began, and going back over the hills again can be daunting. So finding the right cool-down flow back is key. Take the riders somewhere that keeps them on their toes in a relaxed, leisurely way. A way that allows for sure but easy breathing.

Now write…

Sharing Voice

Nobody every said writing ethnography would be easy. On the contrary, there are legions of articles, books, and chapters articulating the difficulties of this very pastime. It is a genre unto itself. Yet like so many circumstances, its difficulty cannot be fully appreciated until one is immersed in the process.

I’d like to think I take a relational approach to my research. I do not assume that those with whom I play and study need my expertise to properly elucidate what matters in their own lives. They are already actively theorizing their lives through practice in incredibly complex ways. Part of my work is to understand how this is happening and perhaps approach why. There is no question of whether or not I will get it “right,” since that would assume there is only one way to live and think about the activity of biking. However, as I tell my students, while there might not be many “right” and “wrong” answers in my classes, there are certainly better answers–or answers that produce more favorable consequences.

So I seek to balance their voices and stories with my own, for in the research process I undoubtedly became implicated in the active and embodied theorizing of this activity called mountain biking. This, in turn, must be put into dialogue with secondary literature and a general argument about the “point” of all this and why anyone should care. It’s easy to talk about, but difficult to find the word-order that does it best.

The way I craft these stories is its own theorizing. Word choice matters. Placement of quotations and embedding description. Show, don’t tell. Isn’t that the writing advice we always tell our students?

Bicicultures Roadshow Planning Begins

What fascinates me most about bicycling is their circulation as cultural phenomenon. This, combined with a fascination with how object and machines imprint themselves on our bodies, drives much of my own research. 

I also find that I think best in community. Being more of a dialoguer than an monologuer, the dissertation can be a challenging format, and the process a bit isolating. So, I have sought and happily found community with other researchers engaged in studies of bicycling cultures. What as until now been primarily an online interface will soon be an in-person encounter.

I am happy to announce the Bicicultures Roadshow: A Critical Bicycling Studies Tour de California. This event hopes to bring together some of the most engaging work being done in the many bicycling worlds that populate our roads, trails, shops, and various other time-spaces. Researchers, activists, and others interested in the social lives of bicycling are all invited to participate. See the website for more details, and please apply by February 10th. 

More thoughts and musings on this event surely coming down the road…

Being Bikes

It seems inevitable that as researchers, we sometimes become our projects. For quite some time now, I have felt as if I am biking. I do not mean this as a simple verb indicating that I am pedaling a two-wheeled machine. Rather, a fundamental part of how I am understood in much of my world revolves around the not-insignificant amounts of time I spend reading, writing, thinking, talking, using bikes. When my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances see something bike-related, they often send it my way. This is appreciated, and has helped me to grow my research archive significantly. When friends have a question about what bike to buy, how to fix a flat, or where to find trail rides, I’m their go-to.

Overall this is nice, and I enjoy my alliance to bicycling. But sometimes I want to resist. Because to quote the most famous doper of the moment, “It’s not about the bike.”

Similarly to many others, biking for me has always been about something other than a two-wheeled contraption. Biking is a tool, often a convivial one of the sort celebrated by Ivan Illich. On a daily basis, it gets me around town with minimal fuss. In the past, it has been a tool for exercise and exploration. When I came to Davis, it became a space to overcome my fear of basic mechanics and repair.  In my research, biking is a means through which to feel the traction between bodies, technology, and nature.

It’s not that I’m in love with biking, so much as I love what biking can do for me. It’s good to think with, be with, do with.