by Troy Boone
Over the past few years, I've developed my appreciation for singlespeed and especially fixed gear bicycles. I've come to believe that my fixies are more real than the other bikes in my stable. Come with me as we explore the meaning behind this statement. I'll show you how you can build your own bike to give it this extra quality, which I'll label 'soul'.
How can we get a grip on the seemingly indefinable concept of 'soul'? My own starting point is gestalt theory. Gestalt theory emerged as an intellectual movement in prewar Germany. Its central tenet is that experience cannot be disassembled and subjected to piecemeal analysis as the materialists had tried to do. You've probably heard the classic gestalt soundbite: "The whole is more than the sum of its parts."
Gestalt theory is a psychological and philosophical movement whose concerns are with humans and their interaction with the world. But bicycles also have an intimate connection with us, and I believe we can usefully apply insights from the theory in the attempt to better understand them.
Gestalt theory tells us that we have to view a person as an integral system, not a mechanism to be broken down into component parts. I believe the same can be said of a bicycle.
On the face of it, this statement may seem crazy. Of course you can break a bike down into its parts. Pass me that wrench! If you've been near a mass-market bike store right after a delivery, you'll have seen the mechanics go through the reverse process as they build a row of Diamondbacks right out of the box. Count 'em: 5, 10, 15, 20...
But how many people would try to claim that the row of Diamondbacks possessed one ounce of soul between them? It's my contention that you can no more find the soul of a bicycle by taking it to pieces than you can find the soul of a person by using a scalpel. That's because the soul of a bike resides in the memories which attach to its parts, the human choices which informed their selection, the relationships of the parts to the whole. To perceive the soul of a bike, you must understand the intention of the person who put it together.
I'll return to this concept of intention later. Right now, I want to look at what happens in its absence.
Before they arrived at the store, those mass-market Diamondbacks were cobbled together on a production line. Bicycles rolled down it with little human input. The guy tightening headsets with a powerdriver probably never saw a complete bike. Tomorrow he'll be working on go-karts, next week on baby buggies. And he'll likely be catching the company bus to work, not riding a bicycle that he assembled himself.
Can we be surprised if the bikes he worked on came out soulless and dead?
The whole intention of products made in this kind of environment is to keep costs low by minimizing human contact. The products are at best bland, lacking in spirit. At worst, they can carry with them a type of negative karma. This is especially true if they have come from those places of antagonism and redundancy which are often found in large-scale industry or within governments more repressive than our own.
Now, imagine a bike built by an individual, someone trained and focused on the final outcome, someone with a vision of a complete machine. Imagine the builder choosing tubing and frame angles to match the subtleties of a specific rider's build and stance. Imagine them specing transmission components for the territory on which the bike will be ridden, picking the best tires for the local climate, choosing colors and shapes to reflect the owner's temperament. Imagine them lubing, torquing, and setting up components to the rider's personal needs. Imagine them stepping back from the finished bicycle, head cocked, giving it a final quick wipe with a rag.
That's instilling one's own spirit into a functional and personalized work of art that will become part of another's transportation, recreation, fitness, a lasting source joy. That's how intention gets imprinted on a bicycle's karma.
Of course, for many of us, the vision of a personally-built bike is unattainable. But intention doesn't belong only to bike builders. I believe that you can bring your intention to bear on your own ride, transferring something of your soul into it. Newly intended actions create new karma.
This is partly common sense. After all, if you're pushing your abilities, it's natural to have an intimate knowledge of your bike's every moving part: the smooth flow of a singlespeed drive train; keeping cadence on a fixie while going down hill without jumping the chain or striking the pedals; the comforting hug of a precisely angled saddle. Because objects reflect their creator's spirit, the more mindfully you ride and work on a bicycle, the more your bicycle will be imbued with your own personal spirit.
By the way, I have found offroad fixed gear bikes to be particularly soulful. I think this is because the rider must constantly focus or (dare I say) meditate on the task of non-stop pedaling, regardless of the path's challenges.
But I encourage you to look further than your own input on the bike. After all, karma is an ongoing process. Ask yourself always: what is the true cost of my bike? Who suffered in its production? What natural resources did its makers deplete? Your answers to these questions may ultimately lead you to buy from a local fabricator rather than a mass producer; to recycle parts; to replace enamel paint with powder coat; to minimize your need for expendable parts altogether by going fixed or single speed, thus adapting and improving upon your own abilities. Any one of these choices will provide an opportunity for you to grow, to deepen your connections with things...
Perhaps this is all too early. Chances are you're on a mass-market bike and maybe feeling a little uncertain right now? That's OK. Start small. Redemption is progressive. Figure out your ideal handlebar. Pick components in a color that reflects some personal symbolism. If you're like me, your first intentional bike build will be a tentative business. Much can be achieved as you pedal, modify, customize, or otherwise transfer focused energy into your ride. Perhaps it will never have as much spirit as a design idea that you've conceived and then intentionally fabricated, but still its soul will develop.
And so will yours.