This article first appeared in issue 89 of Singletrack Magazine. Subscribers have full access to all Singletrack articles past and present. Learn more from about our subscriptions offers:
In Issue 89, Benji Haworth told us that we should treat the guidelines of life as we do with serving suggestions on food packets, and that doesn’t change when it comes to riding a bike.
The other day I stumbled across a slowed-down Dolly Parton. By which I mean I happened upon a YouTube clip of a seven-inch single of Dolly’s ‘Jolene’ being played at 33 1/3 rpm rather than 45rpm. The resulting sound was fairly astonishing. It didn’t sound slowed down. It sounded like an entirely new song. It sounded like an amazing, sad-soul cover version by a pure toned, undiscovered talent. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it was better than Dolly’s original – which is quite possibly the best song of all time – but it was a fabulous track in its own right.
My other obsession, besides cycling and country music, is photography. Photography seems to have a healthier grasp on being creative with restrictions and recommendations than cycling. And that’s despite being populated by a similar set of essentially nerdy, OCD outcasts as the cycling world. Photography has a long tradition of not doing what you’re supposed to do with kit. I suppose this is where a great deal of the artfulness of photography comes into play.
There was the recent fad of using tilt-shift lenses to make life-size scenes appear to be miniature models. I still remember seeing the National Geographic’s tilt-shifted reportage of the after-effects of hurricane Katrina. Stunning. Alright, so tilt-shifting has been done to death now – dealt a killer blow by easy-to-do, hard-to-do-well, digital ‘tilt-shift filter’ fakery – but the first images still have the power to jolt you out of your spectating comfort zone.
Then there’s the whole hipster-tastic world of cross-processing film. (NB: Film is very much the rigid steel singlespeed of the photography world.) Using slide film and getting it developed in print film chemicals, or vice versa. The resulting images are less than predictable. You don’t really know what things are going to come out like. Colours go all kooky. Sharpness is all over the place. Vignetting randomness. Exposure is usually way off being ‘accurate’. For every roll of 36 frames that you shoot cross–process, you can safely expect that at least half of them are going to go straight in the bin.
Of the remaining half, only about two or three will be good. But they will be properly good. Properly, memorably, serendipitously brilliant in fact. And 47 times better than just hitting the X-Pro II filter on Instagram.
Sometimes it pays not to do something the way that you’re supposed to do it. We should treat life more like a ‘serving suggestion’ that you get on the front of certain foodstuffs. The world of cycling, even the supposedly carefree, cool dude world of mountain biking, is full of rules. It’s full of kit – hardware and softwear – that you’re only supposed to use at certain times when doing certain things.
To be fair to the rule makers – of which magazines and journalists are quite clearly significant members – it is great when you have the right kit for the right job. It helps (wo)man and machine combine into one glorious, synergetic (is that even a word?), transcendent organism. And it can be a real bummer when you find yourself in a situation with inappropriate kit. We’ve all been caught out during the transition from winter to spring and have had to drag chunky, rumbly mud tyres around unexpectedly buff trails. Having the wrong bits on your bike can ruin your ride. But only because you let it.
It’s the curse of knowing that you could/should be using some other sort of kit. If you aren’t aware that some other, more appropriate kit is available, then it won’t even occur to you that there is a problem or annoyance. You just deal with it and ride your bike. Remember way back when you weren’t aware that disc brakes existed? Or you weren’t aware of how much better life is with a stem shorter than 120mm? You just rode your bike and enjoyed the enjoyment.
You’ll see plenty of people riding around with badly set-up and unsuitably specced bikes straight off the shop floor. They’re not bothered by the Bakelite-compound tyres, the far-too-long slappy chain and the lack of a dropper seatpost are they? They’re having a laugh riding a bicycle off-road and that’s all they need to know. If only us know-all, experienced, mountain bikers could forget all that stuff we know about ‘suitable’ bike kit.
Yet there is a way out of the prison of knowledge. Somehow if you know that you’re using the ‘wrong’ bike kit deliberately, it doesn’t seem to be a problem any longer. In fact, it becomes something of a glory.
Yes, this sort of behaviour can all too easily tip over into the ‘look at me, look at me’ Colin Hunt-style ‘wacky’ behaviour, of which the best/worst example is the unicyclists you see during 24-hour races. And did someone say ‘fat bike’?
But it doesn’t have to be done for showing off. It can and should be done just for your own good self. It shouldn’t be done with an audience in mind. Some of my best friends ride fat bikes, but they do it alone and don’t go on about it. They don’t try to get me to ride one. Bless them, the freaks.
It doesn’t even have to be as an extreme an example as using the ‘wrong’ bike. I rode my bike last week without wearing any liner shorts. I wore the same scruffy jeans and top that I’d had on all day doing all my other non-cycling jobs and chores. I just bunged a helmet on and headed for the hills. Certainly there was a good deal of almost permanently tugging at, and adjusting, clothing. Not to mention the almost instant chaffage where one could do without it. But all that was outweighed by the simple fact that I’d just… gone out on my bike. Like I used to do when I was nine. When I knew next to nothing, except what was actually important in life.
Oh and if you’re interested, here is the “Slow Dolly” song. Enjoy: