Are We Blinded By Bling?

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This year marked my first trip to Eurobike, the enormous trade show at which all parts of the bike industry converge on the small German town of Friedrichshafen. In three days I took notes on products from 32 different brands, plus spoke to many more. As a team of four, we published more than 40 stories, plus live videos, pre-recorded videos, and took many, many photographs. We hunted out the newest inventions, the latest products, and the strangest sights. But I can’t help feeling we missed out the most important stuff.

Yes, we’re a mountain bike magazine, so naturally we focus on those products. And weird tech that may or may not give a glimpse into the future is interesting, if not yet practical. It’s easy to roll your eyes as you’re shown yet another bike with a battery strapped to it, or walk past a stand which specialises in just the elastic that holds your bib shorts up. But there are lots of stands that barely register, our irrelevance filter is on, and we walk straight by in search of more gears, lighter carbon, or plusher travel. Come with me as we head into the show…

Some things are easy to poke fun at.
Bet this is great on rough surfaces.

Right next to the stairs to the press room are a number of different tricycles. Most have baskets, some have e-assist, and there are no curious crowds milling round them. But for the people these are designed for – people with mobility problems or lack of balance, these bikes could well spell the difference between dependence and independence, isolation and integration, access and exclusion. I’m just as guilty as everyone else of walking past – I don’t even have a picture, having been distracted by some neighbouring novelty folding bikes.

For when the family planning doesn’t work out.

Outside in the demo area there are bikes for carrying people in twos, threes and fours. Bikes with great big platform areas for lugging loads, bikes with boxes, bikes for families with more children than will fit in a Vauxhall Zafira. These are practical bikes that to British eyes have an air of the hipster about them. Practical only if you have a segregated bike lane to cruise along, plus a large garden or garage to store your oversized beast of a bike in – and who in the UK can claim to have both of them? These are bikes for those absolutely determined not to use a car unless absolutely necessary, they’re political statements, a subversive status symbol: the opposite of a Chelsea Tractor.

The Buffalo Bike, not sexy, but important.

In one of the main halls is the SRAM stand. There are shiny bikes, and pro bikes, and Eagle cassettes. I think there was a juice bar. And then there’s what might well be the most important bike in the entire show: a step through steel bike with integrated rear rack, a kick stand, and 26in wheels. This is the Buffalo Bike, in the World Bicycle Relief corner of the SRAM stand. It’s not even the latest model – it’s decided that there’s no need to spend valuable money on having the newest version sat on display here, instead of out in the field, being used by a girl to get an education which might just pull her entire family out of poverty.

These bikes do not have all the bells and whistles – well, OK, they probably do have bells, and reflectors, and maybe even mirrors – of the high end bikes that the cycling media is looking for. They’re not tested in wind tunnels, or made with carefully laid weight and epoxy saving weaves. There’s no pro-team spec, or commemorative race winning paint job. Superficially, there’s no a lot to get excited about.

So many important choices to be made.
It’s easy to want things we don’t need.

Indeed, we gave more coverage to tat and outright consumerist nonsense than we did to these bikes. It’s easy to boggle over bikes which it’s hard to see have any purpose in the real world – who invested their savings in a bouncy, folding, height-adjustable, e-monstrosity? How much of a statement does someone need to make about how interesting they are to need wheels made of rope, or a bike that looks like a wartime motorbike? And shoes – glitter shoes, novelty shoes, carbon shoes, grippy shoes and disco slippers. Yes, there’s a curiosity factor here, and as fans of all things bike, it’s easy pickings.

However, as a fan of all things bike, I feel I might have failed to cover the things that are the most important. Mountain bikes are fun but they’re not affecting an individual’s ability to get about their daily lives. The bikes I have walked by are the ones which have the ability to change the environment around us, the society we live in, and to change lives. The things I’ve written about are little more than toys; these bikes are tools.

Or do I underestimate the power of the mountain bike? They can surely change the lives of the individuals who ride them, bringing fitness, headspace, friends, confidence, escape. Play keeps us young, and sane. Maybe that is enough. Perhaps fun is something I should value more – and can value more by taking a moment to appreciate the machines that are the real life changers.

Comments (11)

    “These are bikes for those absolutely determined not to use a car unless absolutely necessary, they’re political statements, a subversive status symbol: the opposite of a Chelsea Tractor.”

    True perhaps in the UK, where (as you say) our infrastructure is almost universally incompatible with the slow pace and wide berth required for transporting cargo or passengers by bike. But of course in parts of Europe where the infrastructure *is* compatible, they’re just bikes for carrying stuff, as apolitical as a Volkswagen Golf.

    Maybe we’re not Blinded by Bling so much as having our vision Impaired by Infrastructure.

    “Play keeps us young, and sane. Maybe that is enough.”

    Agreed. Whether our bike toys or play needs that many sq m of carbon or that much complexity needing as much manufacturing and tooling resources as they do is another matter. Riding was fun when we had simple bikes as kids and it was still fun when we only had rigid steel as an option, so if we justify it on mental and physical health benefits is it fair to question the resource cost in many products we have now?
    I’m not saying we should carve our own wheels and make bamboo frames, I just think more of us are looking at all kinds of products, packaging etc or the short-lived fashion elements in them that reduce expected use spans, and seeing the waste cost staring back at us.

    @jameso There was an earlier version of this column where it went into the environmental impact – and potential justification- of access/transport over play, but I decided that I would make it another column. Watch this space!

    I’m going to ask this directly: why do all the media outlets going to Eurobike picture almost the same exact news/oddballs/future releases? Do you guys get a group of anti-riot guards leading you into the same booths, as a pack? Or do you get some kind of “incentive” to cover the same press releases as the next guy from the next media outlet?

    Fair question here, not trying to pick on you, but to understand how these big monsters get coverage, and why there seems to be a certain tone applied to all the press releases passed in the same season…

    @slimshady I can tell you what I know from being there. Firstly, there’s definitely no direct incentive – for STW anyway- to cover one brand over another. I couldn’t tell you if other media outlets charge for their coverage, maybe some do. But for us there’s only the incentive of needing to deliver stories that you want to read. There’s a handful of things we know are coming, and we arrange to go and see those things that we think will interest you first. Then we deal with the rest by taking a hall each and just wandering up and down past every booth. There’s quite a lot of OEM type booths where they specialise in one tiny component or fabric and they’re largely uninteresting from a media point of view. This year was perhaps a bit lighter on new products because the earlier date meant brands couldn’t get things ready in time. Perhaps if we all end up with the same news it’s because they’re better at catching our eye, or maybe they really are the more interesting things?

    What you’re talking about, here in the UK.

    The Buffalo bike looks great. On a similar note I once cleared out a garage full of old bikes and donated them to a charity called who put them back into action in Africa where they get a new lease of life.
    Would be nice for single track readers to be able to club together and sponsor a Buffalo bike or two don’t you think ?

    “Watch this space!”

    Look forward to that @stwhannah

    I think that sometime we lose sight of why we started cycling for leisure purposes and that was/is fun. Yes the blingy 1 kilo hardtail is lovely and an engineering marvel but it’s looks and high end carbon stuff isn’t the essence of cycling, that is as stated (for me anyway) fun. Plus while your grinning like a Cheshire cat your brain can do all the important stuff that does indeed keep you sane.

    @thebees The Forumites have previously clubbed together and contributed on more than one occasion. There were a few joined me last weekend and I think we rustled up six bikes – taking into account the match funding that is there until 3rd August. Feel free to join in!

    My daughters school just completed a trip to Malawi – 15 kids from a rural community school, the funds raised by the pupils for the trip as an exchange with a school in Malawi also funded 32 Buffalo bikes handed to their Pupil Partners and their families.

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