Wabi-sabi for mechanics

The Professional Bicycle Mechanic Association’s Mechanics Minute newsletter has been crossing our virtual desks and it’s pretty awesome. So we thought we’d share the most recent edition with you. Check it out!

By Ric Hjertberg

Wabi-sabi is a traditional Japanese aesthetic that’s become well known in the West. Roughly defined as the beauty of imperfection, it is regularly invoked in architecture, fashion, and lifestyle discussions. Even without it, western culture has always seen beauty in imperfection—an abandoned gas station, archeological ruins, a quietly bleaching bone in the desert. However, in Japan, it’s more than just one way to see things. It is key to the fundamental nature of beauty and authenticity, as much as the Greek concept of perfection in the West.

Wabi-sabi’s three underlying principles: nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. Few mechanical scenes are as much in tune with these concepts like bicycle mechanics. We work on bikes to slow down their wearing out, all the time knowing that the goal is a machine turned to dust through valuable and enjoyable riding.

We regularly adjust our repair strategies to fit the use, the costs of replacement, and the time available. Beauty comes from work appropriate to the bike. Few vehicle mechanics are challenged with the extremes we enjoy: from high tech ornamentation to rusting dumpster salvage.

More than most trades, bicycle mechanics is informed by riding itself. It’s very rare that a bicycle mechanic is not intimately connected to cycling, riding and reflecting on the machine’s function. Our work is infused with this awareness. It’s journey, not destination, oriented.

The real reason I’m reflecting this way relates to tools, those wonderful extensions of our hands that make the work possible. While we all admire and envy a perfectly formed and balanced tool that is nearly new, there is great satisfaction to one that shows wear and even less-than-perfect function. It might come from a relative or be a survivor of a tool kit you’ve largely re-equipped as your career grows. These unique, imperfect, and worn items are part of the way each of us embraces this work. Here are a few of my own favorites, tools that embody wabi-sabi for me. They keep us grounded, give our boxes character, and help make the workshop feel like home.

What’s your favorite wabi-sabi tool?

unnamed (5)

unnamed (6)

unnamed (7)

This piece was originally published in the Professional Bicycle Mechanic Association‘s Mechanics Minute newsletter.


Two Wheeled Musings

Words by Paul De Valera

My bicycle is my best friend, my only true ally in this world. My bicycle will never betray me. Though it may break and throw me off into a bush or get a flat and make me push it now and again, it won’t ever work toward my undoing — not intentionally, that is.

My bicycle is always there when I need it, and as long as I take care of it, the bike will take care of me. By using my bicycle, I get to go places, see things and travel under my own power. Powering myself makes me empowered. My mind becomes sharper and my body stronger. By using a bicycle I become a better person, a stronger person. The bicycle is a stalwart companion when all of my human interactions have failed me again for the umpteenth time; when tears race down my face as I pedal to the top of a mountain, each pedal stroke has a leveling effect, bringing me back to balance. All the sense of loss, hurt and anger created in this world are pedaled out. My bike is propping me up when, if left alone to my own strength, I would be in a fetal position.

196 Musings 1 (1)

When I’m troubled, the bicycle unravels mental and emotional knots, helps to solve problems and keep me even-keeled. There could be times when you can’t articulate what is wrong, but your bicycle won’t care; it will just be a good friend to you and take you on your way for as long as you need. It has eternal patience. When my father died and I was sobbing out of my head with grief, I shunned the comfort of my family and got on my bike. I rode and rode and even pushed up a few peaks. As I kept pedaling, I processed my whole life experience, and before I knew it, I felt better because I had my best friend ever to lean on: my bicycle.

Every other morning, I try to get up and to the top of the mountain as the light of day is just glancing over the horizon. There is nothing like getting to the summit of a lonely peak and being greeted by a sunrise; it never fails to put a smile upon my face. While you can try to sum up life in trite little pithy sayings that can be slapped on a bumper sticker, these little things here on my bike are really what, to me, build up a good life worth living. And while I can’t remember every sunrise, I can remember the place it takes me, and that is what always brings me back.

There is a tree that I like to ride to; it’s a lonely tree on a fire road that has become my quiet place. When I get there I just take a moment to soak in the quiet. I don’t need to stay long — just a taste is all. The sounds of traffic, phones, endless talking and noise to no end will always be, but for now, right now, it’s just me, my bicycle and my quiet place.

196 Musings 2 (1)

One day it will be gone. Even though I’m strong now, one day I won’t be. I burn, yet one day I will be burnt. I intend to ride long hours into my long years, but I will not be blowing past carbon fiber wonder bikes uphill on a 44-pound cruiser forever. The day will come when I can’t ride like I used to, and the day will come when the trail is just a memory and no longer a daily plan. So I ride.

Ultimately, it comes down to love. Riding a bike, for me, is love, and I can never love enough. One day I will be old and wrinkled; I will have lots of white hair and many, many well-used, well-loved bicycles with scratches, rust and bald tires. But I will know that I did what I did out of love. I will look back at all of those rides without regret. So never make an excuse to not ride; make an excuse to go. You’ll never regret the choice.


Skinned Knees and Black Eyes

Words by Andrew Titus, illustration by Juliana Wang

Last week, for the first time in probably 15 years, I hit the ground and, man, I hit it hard. Right up-over-the- handlebars hard. When I finally came to a stop I had skidded some 10 feet across the gravel. Thought #1: am I okay? Is there a big pool of blood nearby? Can I move my leg? Thought #2, exactly five seconds after Thought #1: is the bike okay?


I caught my breath, did the quick check to make sure that nothing was permanently damaged and — started laughing like I wasn’t in my right mind. What a rush! That was AWESOME! I hobbled upright, taking it pretty easy on my leg, looked at my torn up elbow and ripped shirt, lifted the bike up and gave the front wheel a spin and — laughed and laughed and laughed! Maybe it was the adrenaline, but I somehow doubt it; I’m something of a connoisseur of the neurological cocktails that our system is capable of producing, having spent much of my life in pursuit of adventure. I was a ripped jeans kid, a fish hook in the arm kid, a skinned knees and black eye kid, a go kart with no brakes, hose water drinking, tree fort building, wasp nest crashing kid. In many ways, as a grown up all that’s really changed is that I’m better at it.

And that means, quite literally, that I don’t wipe out as much anymore but when I do — well, apparently I laugh like a fool, get back on the whip and make sure that all things mechanical and biological are in good working order and take off like a bat out of hell, just like I was in my right mind. The bike, because I know that you want to know, is in great shape. And me? Well…

Screen Shot 2017-05-28 at 9.30.21 AM

In addition to spending my time thrashing the hell out of myself on the gravel roads and trails on the bike, I’m also a long distance runner; perhaps more accurately described as a looooooong distance runner, on average knocking out 80-120 kilometers on trails in the woods per week, splashing through creeks or busting my ass pushing through snow, early in the morning to late at night and sometimes straight ahead through both. I have no need to justify it — it’s what I do, like a BASE jumper or a weekend downhiller or a free soloist, this is my poison. And so, while the crash didn’t do the bike any damage, I had to wonder about my knee. It’s just not quite… right. Something in there just doesn’t feel on.

For a lot of folks I know, this would spell disaster, because while I am definitely of the opinion that the difference between addiction and dedication is that one harms you and your family and the other one contributes to the well-being of both (and, trust me, I know), telling a runner to take a few days off to recover from an injury is very much like taking the sookie from the baby’s mouth. Think a sick grown man is pathetic (I want my MOMMY!)? Runner’s withdrawal is waaaaay worse — like a soccer player faking injury, only real. Like an existential crisis crossed with the breakup of a romantic relationship and a sudden realization that the peanut butter jar is empty AND the store’s closed. Like a kick in nads. Like nothing you can imagine.

I know, because that’s been me.

But lately I’ve come to see the bike the way I used to — as a toy and a tool and a vehicle and, perhaps most importantly, as both emblem of my against-the-stream attitude and mainline to my personal freedom. The bike is not JUST a mode of transportation, but one that engenders that peculiar brew of envy and disdain from the less liberated (usually expressed through garbled shouts from windows of speeding cars) and enriches my well-being perhaps more than any single thing. The bike is the answer to all my questions.

Which brings me to William Carlos Williams and his excellent commandment, “Say it! No ideas but in things!” Like the cat from “Full Metal Jacket” who had scrawled the words “when I die bury me upside down so the world can kiss my ass!” on his helmet, this declaration of the inherent interdependence of our tawny notions and the actual stuff of our daily lives is a proclamation of what it means to be all-too-human.

Ideas, in no uncertain terms, decidedly do not fall from the sky, they come up from the ground and smash into your knees and elbows. Ideas are wicked and unexpected bumps on the trail when you are traveling WAY too fast that catch the front wheel and throw you hard to the ground. Ideas smack you up, straighten you out, and are the stuff of lives lived full and well.

Screen Shot 2017-05-28 at 9.30.36 AM

I ride my bike everyday. I ride it to work and back, in every season, through every kind of weather, at all times of the day. I ride my bike to get places and to remind me that the places we go are, after all, an expression of who we are, the choices we’ve made, our priorities. I ride my bike for fun (because really people, if you’re not having any fun in your life then what is the point?!), and for exercise and to solve problems. Sometimes all the world’s problems, other times just my own.

And that’s no metaphor.

The bike IS the conveyor of my life, it is how I MOVE through world (with balance and speed, momentum and, most of the time, observant of the minute details), it is an EXTENSION of my thoughts and the quiet that abides. It is how I attend — because if you don’t show up, how are you going to learn anything at all? It is the poetry of my motion and the longing in my heart to just be, right here, burning the asteroids of energy that course through my blood.

I looked down and there was no blood pooling on the ground. I caught my breath. I hadn’t been paying enough attention. The leaves were just starting to bud on the trees and while it was warm, there was some mist in the air. I was the only one on this trail, my path, breathing and trying to gauge if everything was okay. And then I laughed. Out loud. Because, man, this living thing is exactly all it’s cracked up to be. No metaphor necessary. All the art in the world, right there.

This piece was originally published in Bicycle Times 36. Subscribe to our email newsletter to get fresh content delivered to your inbox every Tuesday!



Essay: Bringing bicycles out of hibernation


What’s in your neighbor’s garage? Do you know? Have you ever noticed a lonely bicycle?

My neighbors are a bit of an anomaly—where I live in Colorado is an anomaly. The guy across the street has a high-end carbon mountain bike that gets upgraded fairly frequently. I regularly see a guy drive by in a beat-up old Subaru with a gorgeous titanium hardtail on the roof. Every morning, scores of parents on cargo bikes haul their kids past my house on their way to the elementary school up the street.

On the corner opposite mine lives a quiet gentleman who doesn’t drive; he only rides a silver, big-box store bicycle with a huge orange flag attached to the back, a drink holder on the handlebar and thick foam padding wrapped around the bar ends. Anywhere he needs to go is accessible by off-street paved path or bike lane. Across the street, the elderly friend of one of my elderly neighbors gets around on a gas-motor-powered bicycle that one of the teenagers on the next block built for him.

A mountain biker who lives two blocks away actually knocked on my door one afternoon just to say “Hi” because he recognized my truck from a piece I wrote for Dirt Rag magazine.

I haven’t always been in a bicycle-loving area. Shortly before leaving Texas, I lived in one of those charmless, cookie-cutter neighborhoods where all of the modest homes looked exactly alike and the streets were all named after a variation on a theme. Despite not being a particularly upmarket neighborhood, it was gated, and perhaps that gate is why people tended to leave their garage doors open.

My husband and I would go for walks at night and I would look into my neighbors’ garages. Almost all of them housed a bicycle or two; almost all of the bicycles were older and in obvious disrepair, or stored in a manner that they were obviously not being used. I remember wondering why all of those bicycles were there, why people hung onto them, still. I also wanted to know this: Why had they bought them in the first place?

When I was a kid, it was still a “thing” for everyone to own a bicycle, though not necessarily a fancy one. That was true for adults and kids alike, sometimes for no specific reason. Even my mom still had a blue fade step-through hybrid until a few years ago. She bought that bike for about $300 after giving up road riding when I was a toddler, and it stayed in the family for the next two decades. Sometimes we’d just ride around our neighborhood, which only netted us a few miles, but that alone made owning a bike feel worthwhile.

I thought of this again on one of my daily dog walks. The mutt and I hit the road during the lunch hour (without routines, working from home can drive you nuts) and though this neighborhood isn’t gated, people still leave their garage doors open when they’re home. Despite the high level of cycling participation here, I still see them: bicycles hanging dusty and rusty from ceilings; chained to back fences with broken parts; hidden behind large boxes or shelving units.


And I know that not all of the owners of those neglected bicycles are too old or unfit or unwell to be out on two wheels. I see them in their running clothes, pushing their baby strollers, loading their climbing gear into their hatchbacks, working on their older homes. What was the charm, the dream or the goal that got those people to buy those bikes in the first place? I want to know. I wish I knew.

I wonder what would happen if we tried to bring those bicycles out of hiding, out of retirement. What would happen if we tried to reach people who don’t go to the local shops, read the Facebook cycling forums or frequent popular riding routes? What would happen if we simply invited those bicycles out to play—if we literally put flyers on doorsteps and invited people to a park one evening where mechanics were ready to clean and tune the old bicycles and friendly neighbors were ready to serve grilled food, cold drinks and lead the whole crew on a casual ride around town?

Could we remind people of why they bought their bicycles in the first place? If we could, it would benefit all of us.

Those kinds of casual social rides do take place where I live, but there’s never been a component to the events that says, “Bring us your tired, your downtrodden, your neglected machines.” I have friends who own old bicycles that don’t function properly, and that is the number one excuse they give me for not riding. Go to a bike shop? That’s intimidating, time consuming and expensive. And yet, on the rare occasions that we do pedal together—even if we just coast one mile down the hill to a happy hour downtown—they love it. My friends will talk about riding more, which means investing more, which means noticing cyclists more readily when they drive, which means supporting more riding opportunities where we live.

When organizing community cycling events, it might seem like a small thing—or maybe even a hassle—to offer free bike repair, but I think it could make a significant difference. Sometimes you have to approach a bike ride as a total non-rider in order to invite those dusty, rusty, old machines out of hibernation, and get them back into the lives of our neighbors.



Essay: Patience

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 10.52.59 AM

Words: Chad Ament
Photo: Ian Hylands
Originally published in Issue #40

I was stopped along the side of a narrow ribbon of pavement in the hills of Tennessee, where the roads are glorious and the traffic peaceful. In complete silence I stood watching the sun lower itself, at an almost imperceptible rate, behind the ancient Appalachians.

“It gets even better,” the man in front of me said softly, breaking the stillness like a leaf falling into a pond. “Everyone leaves too soon before the best colors come out. You have to be patient, not leaving until you can’t even see your hand in front of your face. Only then is the show over.”

We exchanged backgrounds. I explained I was only in town for a weekend bike race, but was very much enjoying exploring his rural area. “Lifelong local,” he said. “That mountain over there,” he motioned with his hand, “the sun is balanced right on top of it if you come back and watch in January. Either the 17th or 18th is usually the best day, I haven’t made up my mind yet.”

After a few more minutes of stillness he spoke up again. “I used to travel a lot too, used to be athletic, ran track in school. I retired from work when my heart went bad, seems to happen when you turn 55 years old, just something about that age.”

We then returned to stillness. The sun, now noticeably lower, persuaded me to leave the peaceful serenity of the field and complete my ride back to the hotel. The man and I exchanged appreciation for the conversation, and while he never told me his name, he did say if I ever return, “You can find me in this same spot any night with a clear sunset.” After a short pause, he added, “At least for a while yet.”

Miles away on the bike, I crested a hill and popped out of the wooded canopy I had been concealed under to a sky that, though it no longer had a visible sun, was as vividly colorful as any sherbet I have ever seen. I thought about the man in the field, and I could imagine the smile on his face growing as the colors got bolder and bolder before dissipating into darkness. I arrived back to my hotel, but not before all light had gone.

There is only so much time in a day, as we are reminded by every setting sun. Sometimes it is not until the very last light that the best colors come out, only then is the show over.



Essay: Finding home by bicycle

Pedal 50-3

I realize it seems odd to live near some of the country’s greatest mountains—mountains that enticed me to move here to begin with—and to spend my summer weekends running away from their cool-air majesty. In the sweltering heat of the lower, rolling corners of Colorado that don’t appear on tourist websites or Strava segments, I am finding a little taste of Texas.

I am not interested in moving back to the Lone Star State, but lately I find myself searching for small tastes of the place I still reflexively call “home.” Things like good Mexican food from colorful hole-in-the-wall restaurants that don’t have English translations on the menu but do have tributes to the late singer Selena on the wall. Things like endless rolling hills crossed by low-trafficked roads that wind up, over and around farm and ranch country, all drenched in a hazy blue sky that affords sunburns, 50-mile views and plenty of space to think big and feel small.

Pedal 50-1

The former is somewhat hard to find, so I learned to make my own homemade flour tortillas and annually import special meat seasonings (via my mom when she comes to visit). The latter is what I have lately been after on my bike, which means eschewing Colorado’s famed mountain routes and driving sometimes two hours in search of the unloved barrenness of plains and plateaus. And I’ve been wondering why I’m doing it.

Those tastes are not inconsequential and, though I did not really intend to seek such experiences, the search seems well underway. The Hill Country north of San Antonio is where I cut my teeth as a bicycle lover. I jumped straight from learning to ride late in life (age 10) to placing third in the elementary school bike rodeo to 30-, 40-, 50-mile road rides far from home as a teenaged cyclist. For some reason, I have missed those long, rambling, head-clearing days on the bike.

Pedal 50-2

Last weekend, I found one of those rides an hour from home: 50 miles of dirt roads that drift straight and narrow through the low hills southeast of Denver. Gradual climbs and descents punctuated by occasional short steeps are well familiar, as are the strong smells of cow manure, the summer sounds of frogs and crunching gravel, the need to hold your breath as a truck pulling a horse trailer barrels by (don’t want to breathe in too much dust) and the sanity-questioning intensity of riding through the middle of the day sans shade. The only things unfamiliar were the clusters of pine trees and, on the return trip, the stunning view of Pike’s Peak shrouded in thunderstorms.

On roads straight and brown and sweet-smelling as a raw two-by-four, you can do quite a lot of thinking. Or not. I believe that’s the point. The time in my life when I was disappearing on long road rides in central Texas coincided with upheaval, growth, questioning (my teenaged years, remember). At 30, I don’t share the same life angst felt by my high school self, but I am again at a point in life requiring persistent deep thought.

Pedal 50-4

I am certain that is what has triggered the intense desire for these types of bike rides. Physically, I have no need to go home. Mentally, I have every need to go home to the types of places where I remember doing my best thinking, and that means riding through my memories on roads like the ones I explored in my youth. No other activity grants me such access to both the past, present and future all at once, while giving me time to think about it all in cadence with my physical self. Pedal strokes align with breaths align with miles align with thoughts.

It’s a big part of why I love to ride.



Essay: This car up

Words: Cirrus Wood
Illustration: Alex Despain
Originally published in Issue #39

Imagine another room appeared suddenly in your house. Or if a room had always been there and you just never noticed. This room is a self-directed chamber, wandering and windowless, with doors that open and shut on their own. Sometimes it’s on the first floor, and other times you go up the stairs and find it on the second. An errand might send you to the basement where you find this mysterious room had followed you down. No matter where you go it always seems to get there first.

You might understand now my suspicion of elevators. It’s a silly form of distrust. Anachronistic even. And it’s mostly because I have no idea who is actually driving the thing. Every other form of transit, from submersibles to hot air balloons, has some knowledgeable service person to conduct you along your journey, to offer words of advice, to cheerfully maintain comfortable service. But in a modern elevator a mechanical ghost does all the work.

BT 39 Essay illustrationI would never have guessed when I began working as a bike messenger in San Francisco that this would be the form of transportation I use with greatest frequency. I ride the same bicycle all day, take two trains, but in an average shift I ride six elevators.

I haven’t kept precise track, but it would seem that at least a third of the ones I ride were made by Otis. The variety of Otis elevators is astounding. I can’t think of any other form of transit where one name holds so much of the market, or with such diversity. There are Otis elevators by Union Square that lift one upward as though in a flying birdcage, and other more contemporary ones along Market that make you feel as though you’re locked inside a bank vault. There are a few cantankerous ones in SoMa that give an excellent idea of what it might be like to ride out an earthquake in a filing cabinet, and on a grander scale, several absolutely cavernous models big enough for surgery.

The second most common elevators are Westinghouse models. But unlike Otis, there are no new Westinghouse models being made. They were acquired by the Schindler Elevator Company in the late 1980s. Only the newest buildings have Schindler elevators, and whenever I get in one all I can think of is: “Schindler’s lifts.”

In a Schindler car, every piece is always in top form. The lights will brighten at every floor. The button that closes the door will actually close it, and quickly too. In any other lift, I would be glad for this, but something makes me feel ruffled when I enter a semi-crowded Schindler, the crowd rearranges, and someone hits that button. What are they doing? We can fit another person! Don’t they realize this is a Schindler?!

When I enter 525 Market Street with the delivery I head straight for the elevator. Unlike most of the high-rises, 525 has no concierge. The majority of the concierges I meet are quite personable, but there are a few who fulfill their role with the sort of militancy best reserved for guarding nuclear research facilities. But at 525 there’s none of that. There’s barely even a lobby between the entrance and the elevator doors, and the elevators themselves are the modernist type, all faceless steel, gliding in a vacuum, leaving the passengers unsure if they’ve actually gone anywhere till the doors open again and the tiling has changed.

There’s something foul in this elevator. A slight, but detectable smell, vinegary and meatish, like a spoiled tin of Vienna sausages. In a few more floors it will be gone and we can all pretend it wasn’t us. This is a blessing of urban life, the continuously presented opportunity to dispose of the past with every passing block. Or in this case every floor.

The doors open on the 27th floor and I exit. The customer has left instruction to leave her order at reception, which I do, then pause a moment. This lobby is decidedly unusual. The light is soft, and every surface made of the same black stone, except for the far wall, which is glass. There’s very little in the way of decoration and the bareness only strengthens the sharp lines of the structures outside the window as you gaze out. This is the room’s focus, as though I had walked within a camera obscura.

The main subject within the frame is the Shell Building. It’s a stunning structure—a succession of tiers and artful cornices, carved in shapes resembling sheaves of wheat and large scalloped shells. A gothic revivalist wedding cake.

Then a picture entered my mind. San Francisco has recently become the darling of disaster movies, each centering around the destruction of some attractive landmark, which means Sutro Tower and the Transamerica Pyramid were both spared but the Golden Gate Bridge was stomped repeatedly. To watch any of them you would think the films’ creators were absolutely furious with infrastructure. The city would eventually meet its end in an earthquake, naturally.

But in my version, nothing would topple, only be shaken loose, like coins off a bedsheet, then rise upward, every structure suspended—houses and boxes, towers and pyramids. A mass of floating glass and concrete come unmoored. Then a sweeping tongue of fog would push through the Golden Gate and lap them all across the bay, where inland thermals loft them all yet higher where they join the jet stream. They would float as loose balloons. Grace Cathedral, the Ferry terminal, the Pyramid, the old Mint. Later, above the Sierra, they condense into clouds and rain down. The valley will flood with them—the Merced and San Joaquin overflow their banks…

I have a tendency to daydream, a bad habit when your work requires timeliness. There’s no reason for me to stay. I’ve dropped off the package and there are other jobs waiting. So I turn, walk back, and catch the other car down. I get in and the doors close. This car has the same stink as the first. You’d think in such a fancy office high-rise the custodial staff would be more attentive. Did someone boil hotdogs in a pair of underpants between floors?

Oh, I realize, gazing around the empty car. It’s me.



Opinion: If the sock fits

Words: Anna Schwinn
Illustration: Stephen Haynes

The cycling industry has a massive problem with women. This problem persists despite small victories including the rise in prominence of women’s racing and the increase in shops and brands that cater to female consumers.

The big issue? In this industry, men and their product needs remain the default. Products designed to serve the needs of men, which do a halfassed job of serving the same population of women, continue to be marketed as unisex. If you’re a woman and a consumer you continue to have to wait for trickle down products—items that are first developed for men then adapted for women when companies feel like it, usually with fewer features or options, and many times at a lower quality but a greater cost. And this is stunting our industry.

The biggest indicator that this remains an issue is in the core product of our industry: the stock bicycle. We are often distracted by the marketing being inappropriate or consumer experiences being negative, but at the end of the day it’s all about the bike.

The first step a person takes to becoming a cyclist is walking into a bike shop and purchasing a stock bicycle off of the shop floor. The problem is that the standard range of unisex sizes, a range that works for nearly all men, does not work for a sizeable percentage of women. If the bike isn’t there, the consumer isn’t either.

If-sock-fits-WEBTo frame this, I have to drop some numbers straight from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention*. The average adult American man is 5 feet 9 inches tall, and 90 percent of American men are in the range of 5 feet 4 inches to 6 feet 2 inches tall. Most stock bike sizes cover that range of human stature pretty well. That means that if you’re a guy in the U.S. you can expect to walk into a bike shop and find something that you can ride away on. Most bikes designed around the predominant wheel size (700c/29-inch) will have a geometry that fits you well enough and offer a consistent level of handling. You, sir, are catered to.

The average adult American woman, however, is 5 feet 4 inches tall and 90 percent of women fall between 4 feet 11 inches and 5 feet 8 inches in height (the 5th and 95th percentiles). If you fall under 5 feet 4 inches you begin to run into issues such as toe overlap with your front wheel, top tubes that are too high to stand over, uncomfortable fit and poor handling.

For you, cycling is a lower quality experience. These problems are exacerbated when fatter cyclocross or gravel tires are dropped into the mix. If you are in that 5th percentile or lower, good luck finding anything at all. Your neighborhood bike shop might even say that you are out of luck—that you need to seek out lower spec’d children’s models or make a significant investment in a custom frame.

But it doesn’t stop there. The UCI minimum bicycle weight requirements apply to all size frames, regardless of the rider, meaning that women’s race bikes have frames that are proportionally heavier to compete on. Also, UCI dimensional requirements ban different sized wheels so that frames are unable to utilize a smaller front wheel to better accommodate bike fit for those with short reach requirements.

And though these race requirements would, on their surface, appear to affect only race bikes, it is important to note that race technology largely dictates product trends and development investment in our industry. The industry standard for testing bicycles (ISO) requires that small bicycles for short people with lower weights and power outputs pass the same tests at the same loads as those designed for much larger, heavier and more powerful riders — meaning that small frames tend to be overbuilt.

Modern drivetrains have minimum chainstay length requirements to properly shift so that even if you wanted to design an appropriately handling small frame around a small wheel (26 inches or 650b or 650c), you could not utilize those drivetrains.

And then there is the pervasive problem of “down spec’ing” women’s product, where women are charged more for “women’s” bicycles that feature lower quality components. I understand that this bias towards the standard men’s bell curve also affects large and small men, but not nearly to the degree that it affects women as an overall population.

And sure, companies may extend a model line or two of their total off ering to the smaller sizes to give those riders something at all to ride, but really it’s just throwing small statured cyclists, predominantly women cyclists, a bone. Why do we not question the lack of small bicycles in stock, “unisex” size ranges?

Because it is inconvenient for the industry at large. Designing product to serve smaller (predominantly women) cyclists to the level that we serve our current male default consumers will require investment in time, testing and tooling. It will be expensive and it will take thought. Most critically, it will require that as an industry we acknowledge that our market, when considered as a whole, looks diff erent and has diff erent product needs than the group we currently serve. We must reestablish our default.

*Source: “Anthropometric Reference Data for Children and Adults: United States, 2007-2010.” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. October 2012.



Essay: Tools for Crisis Management

By Paul Willerton
This piece originally appeared in Bicycle Times Issue #31

To say the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 was “revealing” would be an understatement. It spawned offshoots that rocked the world, such as the automotive industry crisis of 2008-2010. Followers of financial markets were handed more landmark moments in a two-year span than they thought they’d see in a lifetime. While automakers asked for bailout packages, Congress cast blame in all directions. As the big three U.S. automakers were handed huge sums of money, they were accused of having the wrong lineup of products, not building what consumers actually wanted.

With the congressional hearings playing on the television in the background, I sat up in dazed, distant thought. During the 1990s, I lined up and plunked down fat monthly auto payments to the companies that were now under intense pressure. Gas was cheap, at least compared to today, and driving bigger, burlier vehicles was the trend. After all, it’s in our nature to burn the cheapest resources at our disposal.

My conclusion was that no matter how bad things get, there is no stopping the bicycle.

While I listened, I had more than a twinge of regret. Resources were disintegrating at an unprecedented pace. I thought of all those payments I had made on vehicles eventually sold at huge losses. The operational costs alone I had spent in the previous 15 years on those massive metal beasts would have been enough to buy homes, outright. None of it made me feel good. Some positive things did emerge from all the pain. Political affiliations shifted. Lifestyle choices and plans for a less wasteful future were backed by the resolve to make them reality.

Like many areas, my town was hit in brutal fashion during the crisis. Sadly, a few formerly well-off people made the conscious choice to end their lives. It’s shocking to observe such graphic punctuations in the midst of a mere financial crisis. When losses mount and all news is bad, going for a bike ride isn’t a bad remedy.

Copy of BicycleTimes 31_54

Coincidentally, it was during that time I discovered the electric bike. Somehow, the simple act of throwing a leg over an electric bike and gliding away became incredibly empowering. Riding any quality bicycle can deliver a similar feeling, but there were realizations that made the electric experience different. The fact that the crisis was happening simultaneously no doubt fueled stronger feelings.

My conclusion was that no matter how bad things get, there is no stopping the bicycle. If I never owned a car again, I’d still shuttle hundreds of pounds of supplies to and fro. I could carry passengers. The worst weather would always pose a challenge, but if push came to shove, cycling would somehow get it done. Crisis? Let’s ride it out on bicycles. Electric bicycles, too.

Did the measures that went into place to stem the bleeding of the crisis work? While the jury is still out, I’m not waiting to have the right bike for when we find out. It’s not a doomsday prophecy. It’s a personal style of cycling developed during the crisis period that makes even more sense today. There are a lot of big vehicles on the road, still. Somehow those hefty SUVs riding on shiny 22s look precariously pre-Crisis. Are they the vehicles that were passed down to freshly-minted high school drivers? Destined to ride out their years within city limits? Meanwhile, the rising number of young families adopting the bicycle equivalent of the SUV is astounding.

What is the SUV of bicycles, anyway? Here in the USA we just love ‘em large. Who didn’t love stuffing an SUV with everything — and everyone — you might possibly want on a trip and finding the open road? My eight cylinder engine got cut to four, but that doesn’t mean I’m not bringing the SUV of bikes on road trips. My long wheelbase cargo bike with rear hub motor sees endless action at home and on the road. Its heavy duty—and I mean heavy—steel frame is adorned with parts mainly scrapped from old mountain bikes. Eight speed Shimano XT and XTR from the mid 90s has been given new life.

Conveniently, weight is not an issue for electric SUV bikes and they don’t need many gears. Sounds a lot like a pre-automotive crisis SUV, doesn’t it? The most expensive bits of componentry are of course the battery, motor and control assembly. Its 48 volt, 350 watt power system provides smooth, quiet, virtually seamless power that makes every ride a joy. There are areas where components were upgraded due mainly to concerns about safety. Big, heavy bikes that can carry multiple kids need to have super strong wheels and excellent stoppers. Its 26×2.4” tires were engineered with electric bike speeds in mind. Those could still use reinforcement, as punctures under heavy use are still too frequent.

Cyclists understand what picking the right tool for the job means. I built my electric SUV bike at a time when my interest in four wheeled SUVs waned. While the bike fills that role more in spirit than utility, it has easily outpaced the four wheel version in thrill and adventure.

Out of all the electric bikes I’ve owned, this SUV bike has seen by far the highest usage. First of all, for two 11-year-old girls it’s the the most fun way to get from point A to B. They love it in the city and on lonely roads. The family would now rather park the car on the outskirts of a town and ride in on one bike. Who knows how long that can last, but for the last two years those rides have been a highlight of our trips together. If bickering in the car gets to where I need a break, I’m hopping out and riding for a while. If the kids come along or not, everyone’s differences are quickly forgotten.

For solo trips into the country, the bike shows its value as a hauler. Bike camping trips that previously involved packing gear like it’s a life or death ascent up K2 now enjoy near car-camp comfort. It’s amazing what a cooler full of ice, good food and beverage does for morale on a long bike camp trip. Having the power to bring along a premium sleeping pad, fishing gear, waders, boots and even a raft and oars is another bonus. Laden with this much gear, the climbing ability of a rear hub motored bike is dramatically reduced. No doubt it would be better served by one of the mid-drive units that are becoming available now.

Cyclists understand what picking the right tool for the job means. I built my electric SUV bike at a time when my interest in four wheeled SUVs waned. While the bike fills that role more in spirit than utility, it has easily outpaced the four wheel version in thrill and adventure. Close friends wondered if building the bike meant we wouldn’t be riding mountain or road bikes together, anymore. In actuality, the electric bike hasn’t reduced traditional riding at all. It has meant more time on the bike for the whole family.

Today, SUVs are rolling off automakers assembly lines. People still line up to buy them, proving Congress wrong. The allure of space, size and power rules the senses of the SUV buyer. Will it be electric SUV bicycles that turn the heads of buyers not otherwise in the market for a bicycle? If the reaction on the street to this family’s do-it-all utility bike is any indication, there is little doubt of at least one desirable electric bike market segment for the American consumer.



Essay: This is Unlearn Pavement

By Bobby Wintle. Photo by Jason Boucher.

It has existed for much time. Much more time than we are able to understand. This is Unlearn Pavement.

It was already here. Underneath. In the thick of the brush and trees. Where forgetting the busy becomes easy. Where only listening to your beating heart and deep breath in perfect rhythm matter. We just had to stop looking to find it. To stop pushing so hard. To let it show us all that we have paved over. It’s in those places, forgotten, that we begin to realize what we are made of. What we are made for.

Confusion stops. Clarity begins. The next vista or valley is all that is ahead. We are “unlearning.” It is about time.

Unlearn Pavement-1

It’s 2 a.m. and my 1-year-old daughter Emory can’t get back to sleep. It’s become almost routine to load her up in the car and drive into the night until her cries turn into deep, calm breaths. It’s 2011 and we’re new to Stillwater, Oklahoma, and the surrounding area. My wife Crystal and I moved here to build and open a shop called District Bicycles and we haven’t had much time to venture out and explore, let alone ride our bicycles.

The car keeps driving west, and Emory is still wailing. Still in town the hills start to get bigger, steeper, and the road a bit rougher. Down a steep road a T comes into sight. Left or right. I choose left. Emory starts to let up. In the limited sight ahead of me illuminated by the headlights I’m not sure if I believe what I see. Rugged, steep, endless dirt roads and hills. The edge of town has immediately turned into a gravel mecca of roads never spoken about in the cycling world.

Was this happening? Would the roads get better the farther I drove? One mile in on these deep red roads and Emory finally falls asleep. It was time to turn back and tiptoe into our one-bedroom apartment walking ever so slowly as to not wake the ever-so-precious sleeping monster.

The next morning I had no choice. I got on my bike and headed west.


The gravel and dirt roads southwest of Stillwater are a mix of sand, rock, red dirt and hills. This is where Land Run 100, our 100 mile gravel race, and the idea of Unlearn Pavement was born. When everything is taken away and only the core is exposed we have something very simple. Something that allows each person the opportunity to begin to find out who they really are, and what they are capable of. This is the heart of Unlearn Pavement.

The community here has been deeply affected by this idea that less is more. It has brought us together and given us a common thread among us to describe how each of us feel about the gravel and our time spent on it. Mile by mile, pedal by pedal, we are unlearning. We are understanding that nothing is more important than the relationships around us, the way we interact with our surroundings and environment, and experiencing all of that on a bicycle.

Riding on gravel is where this idea was born and where it continues to grow and take on its own identity. Unlearn Pavement is a time, a place, a moment experienced through the understanding that nothing under this blazing sun is new. Sometimes it is better to take away rather than to add. Getting back to the very reason of what attracted each of us to riding a bicycle is what is most important. Everything else is filler.

Go get lost on your bike. Find something worth your attention. Find yourself and your limits that you never knew existed. Welcome to Unlearn Pavement.

Share what Unlearn Pavement means to you with the hashtag #unlearnpavement on social media. Find Bobby on Instagram at Unlearn Pavement


Back to Top