October 28, 2011

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose

A little while ago I was on a training course at work about writing economically and effectively and efficiently. Clearly there's a need to use plain english to aid the understanding of an audience whose familiarity with a topic could be close to zero, but indeed also serving, without overt oversimplification, an audience possessed of no little prior knowledge: an audience who quite rightly could feel offended at having to wade through ridiculous baby talk. They also encouraged us to construct short sentences. And, as part of the process that any half-decent writer ought to undertake before putting finger to keyboard, or as is my wont, pencil to recycled paper, how to write a plan—a brief, if you will. But I'm not at work, and I'm writing for the hell of it, so my plan involves only the words 'Brompton' and 'saddle', plus an answer to the question, Am I Sitting Comfortably?

The answer, for those of a more fragile disposition who might prefer as little suspense as possible, is a resounding No. More correctly perhaps, the answer is No, Well Yes, Well, Kind Of. And actually, sometimes I become just a little bummed out about the whole thing.

Many of you I expect might remember the halcyon days of bicycle accessory catalogues, when suddenly everyone had forgotten about Brooks and Carradice, but before the market became rad and funky and well crucial, when clothes turned from the nice, CTC-approved muted hues of blue and grey and greeny-beige that you could eat while enjoying cucumber sandwiches to the fluorescent assault of Bula and Chums and Oakleys with red lenses, alongside Cannondale's sideline in hot rod t-shirts with piranhas on the front. John Grafton probably hadn't yet graduated with his degree in numerical control part programming; your choice of consumer suspension forks was just one: an inventive upstart called Rock Shox; and Ground Controls were still the hot tip for riding up mountains. This was the day of the Selle Italia Turbo saddle.

It was one of those designs that seemed to fit everyone, and every kind of riding. Crusty old men with beards and saggy panniers who weren't using Brooks were probably using Turbos. Thirty-something men were using Turbos on steel Saracen Blizzards and Specialized Stumpjumpers for cross country mountain bike races, and twenty-something men were using them to ride to university. If you were a bit Brookish but liked the Turbo, you bought a San Marco Rolls instead. Women didn't have much choice but to use a Turbo or a Turbo-like Terry, because saddles with holes hadn't been invented.

I never even had a Terry. I had to make do with a horrible Matrix saddle at first, which became replaced along the way with an almost as horrible thing, a Selle Cattivo or Cuscino Basso Costo or San Luis Obispo, or something foreign-sounding like that. People with money later branched out, like the manufacturers who'd suddenly discovered elastomers and gel and computers, so you would see them perched on Turbomatics, Turbolites, Turbobios, Turbo Gels and Turbo ProTeams, or perhaps it would be something more deviant like a Vetta TriShock or Specialized's ProLong and Joe Blob saddles. By then, us girls could sit on Joe's partner, Betty. Really. Of course it all changed when someone invented titanium and the Selle Italia Flite was born. The original box had a picture of one in flight set against a cloudless sky, which I thought was brilliant. A saddle was now more than just something to sit on: it was a style icon of curves and expensive materials, and it was something that delighted the weight weenie brigade. For quite some time, the Flite was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. Later ones had Kevlar corners for gnarly stuff, or cheaper Vanadium rails which broke. They even made one out of carbon fibre but it was about a million Pounds and no-one bought it.

I did buy a titanium Flite though. I remember it cost as much as a nice pair of SPD shoes but I'd more or less destroyed the not very good stock saddle from my mid-90s Rockhopper and I needed a replacement. Well shoot but wasn't the Flite just the most comfortable saddle I'd ever tried? In fact, for at least ten years it was; it was absolutely perfect. The black leather top became polished to a brown sheen, the natty red stitched lettering gradually turned a pleasing shade of patina and it lived through summers and winters. Then one day it became the most unbearably uncomfortable thing and I just couldn't stands no more.

I did put on a little bit of weight, after all that sort of thing happens to people from time to time. But perhaps I simply wore out the poor thing; I certainly covered enough miles during that time, and what little padding it did have might have broken down under my super sharp sit bones. Perhaps in discovering the incredible and bizarre world of recumbent bikes I lost my hard-won toughness. Yes, that's it, I blame the recumbents.

I hadn't counted on the weather, though, to blunder in with its size twelves and ruin it all. With Speedy being my main machine and my rusty Rockhopper having died and been replaced with Annie the Blue Bike, complete with inherited Flite and living more and more in the garage complete with cobwebs and soft tyres, everything was metaphorically cool. The weather hadn't been so cool, because snow had become something that happened for a few days each year and was nothing much to bother about, but then it changed and I needed a go-anywhere bike that could plough through winter crud and snowdrifts. And I wanted a saddle with a hole in it. So one day I sat on some memory foam and found myself a Specialized Avatar with rinky-dink gel inserts, and it felt tolerably comfortable, at least when coupled with a bit of padding; it was ostensibly a bloke's saddle but frankly I was hard pressed to tell the difference because by then apparently blokes also wanted saddles with holes, and it was good enough to manage a few weeks' winter riding. But ride a recumbent bike for a few years and you really do begin to wonder why anyone in their right mind sits on an upright bike for hours and hours. Think again, and you realise that there is an awful lot going for crank forward designs, like the RANS Zenetik, Citi and Alterra. Somewhere in my (n+1) list is one of those.

So it's not terribly surprising that buying my Brompton, that most practical of little bikes, was to no little extent contingent upon the saddle and by extension the general riding ergonomics being anything more than just tolerably comfortable. Few would argue that the original Brompton saddle was a hideous piece of sticky black plastic covering a piece of foam whose non-Newtonian dynamics meant that the density changed from cotton wool to concrete upon application of any pressure greater than a fingertip, but the current iteration is really not too shabby. It does however have a major failing in the three-panel pretend leather top, whose twin rows of stitching are placed precisely to wear away at one's skin, largely independent of cycle shorts. This is probably why people buy the genuine Brompton-specific Brooks saddle. Obviously I am the exception that proves the rule because the Brooks is a massive and expensive hunk of gleaning brass and leather, and my Brompton is already well on the way to shoulder tearingly heavy. A Brooks would probably result in the formation of a blue hole and another rip in the bicycle-time continuum.

You may remember me luxuriating on such bicycles as the Lightning P-38 and the RANS Vsquared, with their highly engineered foam cushions and mesh seat backs. So why, in the name of all that is sensible, did I think unearthing a 16 year-old Flite for my Brompton was a good idea? The perception of absent things often improves in the fullness of time, and the feathery slip of leather and the mythical grey metal had long lain in a box to gather dust, and possibly spiders. I actually felt as though I missed the thing; somehow feeling sorry for casting it aside for some cheaper replacement. And of course, every bicycle improves when you add something made of titanium. An evening spent fiddling with seatpost clamp bolts and carefully eyeballed tilt angles and studied hip-knee-ankle ergonomics suggested I was good to go, so the next day I headed out on my commute.

'Oh good grief, it's hard as nails!' I complained, as I drew up to the main road after a couple of minutes' riding. Did I really ride this thing when I was younger? I must've been mad. It actually reminded me of those hard plastic saddles that were standard equipment on your Mag Burner, Falcon Pro, Supergoose, and pretty much any other BMX in 1980. Then I realised my riding style used to be all-out, where anything less than 20mph—uphill, into the wind, in the snow—was naturally hugely embarrassing. That kind of riding takes some of the weight off the saddle and carries it on the great force from your legs. By the end of the day I arrived home with a further 15 miles done and, amongst the swearing and the realisation that my riding position was suspiciously stretched out by about an inch because I hadn't cranked down enough on the clamp bolts the day before, I was ready to throw the infernal thing away. Good riddance to bad rubbish, I thought . . . but...those rails are titanium!

My masterplan of buying a cheap second seatpost in order to experiment with my collection of saddles without upsetting the finely tuned original Brompton setup took a bit of a crash after that. It might not be my preferred steed for reeling off 60 miles every day, or even 20 miles, and in fact it isn't, full stop, but 1500 miles on the clock and a bunch of relatively happy outings up and down the country does rather suggest that if the disarmingly friendly little bicycle ain't broke, don't fix it. So I won't, once I've given my Rolls a quick try-out, that is. And when that fails, because I'm sure it will, I'm going to get rid of them all.

I always knew there was a reason I liked recumbent bikes.

1 comment:

The Man Who Rides A King said...

The only possible comment?

Ronnie Laws, from his "Pressure Sensitive" album, of course: