Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Soul of the Machine

Hint: It's not chocolate, it's ...

When Fat City Cycles was sold to the holding company owner of Serotta Competition Cycles in ‘94, bike junkies everywhere wondered what would happen to the soul of the company. Riders discussed whether or not a Slim Chance or Yo Eddy! Made by Serotta’s builders still constituted a Fat Chance. The issue arose because the new owner of Fat City announced none of the old employees would be retained; only Chris Chance and his partner would move to Saratoga Springs, NY.

Soon after, Steve Elmes, Lloyd Graves and other former Fat City employees announced the formation of Independent Fabrication, complicating the question. There was no doubt any bike made by the Serotta staff would be fine, but the people behind Indy Fab had been touted as the heart and soul of Fat City. So what were they now, (pardon me) chopped liver? For those concerned with brand equity, the situation was something of a conundrum: In what did the soul of Fat City reside? Was it the bike with the FCC decal or the bike made by the world-famous staff in Somerville, Mass?

What gives a bicycle soul? People talk a lot about soul and which bikes have it. There's no doubt a Sachs or Weigle has it in spades, but some of that is only appreciable when you get off the bike—you can’t really admire the lug work at 25 mph. We can discuss beauty all day long, but bicycles are made to be ridden and the most important part of any evaluation of a bicycle should be based on the ride of the bike, not how cool the paintwork is (which, in the case of Weigle, Joe Bell or Brian Baylis is undeniably so). Judging a bike on ride quality is the only way to level the playing field, otherwise the bikes made by corporations would all be considered crap. Oh wait, I suspect there are a few bikies out there who already think that.

John "Columbine" Murphy's hand-cut lugs and stem

As a rule, soul is associated with any bicycle made by an individual; Sacha White's Vanilla Bicycles have soul even though most cyclists don't know much about the guy (worth finding out). Simply put, if the decal on the side of the bike is the name of the person with metal slivers in his (or her) fingers, the bike has soul. If the decal only carries the name of a corporation and therefore doesn’t point to an individual with the hands of a craftsman, we don’t recognize any soul. We seem to grant certain manufacturers soulful status due to the quality of their fabrication. I think most cyclists would agree that bikes from Serotta, Seven and Indy Fab all have soul. And yet you can’t know who built the bike just by looking at it.

At what point does soul evaporate? How much of that has to do with the head of the company serving as the personality of the company itself. Rob Vandermark doesn’t build frames himself, but who would argue that Seven’s personality, its soul, isn’t inextricably linked to his own. Seven is certainly a projection, a manifestation of Vandermark himself. It's the same for Ben Serotta. But what is Moots now that Kent Erickson has left? Wasn’t the alligator Erickson’s alter ego?

Richard Sachs was—for a time—bewildered by the fact that his most expensive frames are his most popular. The reason is simple: His most expensive frames demand more of his time. More of Richard’s workmanship translates to more of his soul in the inevitable calculus of craft. Who would want less of the legend?

The sexy lines of the LeMond Tete de Course

So now to play Devil’s advocate: Why can’t the bikes from the big corporations have soul? The auto industry isn’t like the bike industry; if it were, Ferrari would be disparaged for their engineering prowess. Consider that some of the biggest bike companies around build bikes from some of the most advanced materials available and ultimately sell some of the most expensive bikes on the market. So why can’t Trek, Giant or Specialized be cool in the way the independent framebuilder is? As a guy interested in the technical advancement of the bicycle, I’ve learned more by talking to bike company engineers in the last year than I have from anyone else in the industry (save the fitting gurus at SBCU, but that’s another post).

In my mind, I’ve begun to visualize the conflict as the difference in sprinting styles between the Merckx generation and current PROs. Merckx and his contemporaries had to execute their sprints with finesse and through high rpms. Today, it’s all horsepower. You don’t see Ale-jet or McEwen turn the pedals at 150 rpm but their accelerations explode with Porsche ferocity. Both sprints are things of beauty, as surprising in their unfolding as opening a Christmas present. So why should we prefer one to the other?


Anonymous said...

The reason, IMHO, bikes from corporations don't have soul is because of the headlines and copy used in marketing. If a corporation is constantly trying to dominate the market by being everything to everybody or by endlessly touting new innovation designed to make it the best bicycle ever then there is no soul.

Some companies adhere to tradition and cling to successes. Some also look at change, consider it and then evole. That is soul.

Compare Shimano to Campy. One has soul, one doesn't. Many reasons why and some may disagree but the answer should be plain to see.

Anonymous said...

James Brown had soul. Bicycles (no matter how lovingly crafted) don't have soul. Sorry.

mogley said...

bicycles don't have soul??? how can you even comprehend this site?

noel. said...

I've been riding a 2003 Trek 5200 since, well, 2003. It's gone through numerous upgrades in componentry and the only things that are still OEM are the frame/fork.

For the past year or two I've been quietly plotting my next rig, and have generally been lusting after the Euro sleds with the "monument" names on 'em like Merckx and Colnago. Bikes with the soul of the sport behind them.

But while I sometimes feel twinges of crappiness that I'm on a big-brand bike from the Waterloo mothership, I have more recently come to realise that my sled has more "soul" than I knew or ever thought possible.

This soul has been accumulated through the innumerable tough lonely kilometres ridden in all weather conditions, on loads of dirt/gravel roads, in races and training all over the world. It's become an extension of me and my experience.

So I would argue that perhaps many bikes have a certain cachet rather than soul as a result of their manufacturing origin.

Absolutely a very select few bikes have soul "out the door" (Vanilla and Sachs being, as you mentioned, excellent examples), but to my mind it is the accumulated experience of a particular bike and it's owner/motor that gives it the true soul of which we all lust after.

Anonymous said...

I agree with anon #1, bike can have character and mystique, but not soul. The soul is in how the tool is used and the passion of the rider using it. Its the PRO style (or the utter disregard of PRO style ie, Rivendell) that gives the allusion of soul.

The PRO peloton could ride a huffy with more soul than half the goons I see out on nice weekends.

Radio Freddy said...

IMHO,whether it's white shoe covers or James Brown, "soul" is defined by the ability to stir emotion.

gewilli said...

Gary Klein's rides had soul, and they did a great job of keeping that soul...


until the corporation of trek sucked the life blood from the bikes...

they looked different...

they lost the care and attention to detail that comes with your name and your pride in each weld...

Bontrager, much the same way...

Or in a different application take a Croll. Walter Croll's bikes were beautiful bits of art. The name/brand was bought by someone else, and the bikes were not the same. That said. My bike still has soul. It did then. It does now. But rather than the soul of the moniker, it is my soul. Kinda like noel is talkin about.

Serottas in the mid 90s had wicked heaps of soul...

Merlins same era...

Merlin is another example of loss of birthright soul. The finish changed. The welds changed. (reborn in seven in a way though i guess).

There are two types of soul i guess. One innate, bread into the bike from the hands of a craftsman or craftsmen that care about each pass of the torch or waft of the paint gun. The other granted by loving use and abuse.

Bikes do have soul. And yeah. If you click with one, it has the same blessed effect as all of james brown's soul thrust upon you.


Il Bruce said...


Soul v. No Soul

Let's take a look at the Fat Man's recent history.

Colnago Dream=soul

Waterford 2200=soul

Specialized M2=satanic

Surly CrossCheck=soul

Bianchi Pista=not so much

Paramount=soul in spades

Can a taiwanese tigged lead sled have soul? If a Schwinn Varsity can so can a Surly. So why not the Pista? TOo much to too many. Rides Ok but hipsters have sucked the soul out.

I still am looking for another ride to rival my Paramount. So many look at it and just see Schwinn. Poor souls.

Anonymous said...

...re: "the sexy lines of the lemond tete de course"...for me, not so much, but it's interesting that all the 'big corp' bikes come w/ that 'warning' disclaimer...

...the only 'warning' sticker on my old french & then italian road bikes was the invisible one that made you realize that if you didn't love, cherish & ride that bike to the best of your ability, you were a fool...

...because of that, the gitane, the old peugeot, the garlotti w/ the chrome cinelli fork, the colnago that ugo de rosa confirmed that it was "possible" he built, well, those bikes seem to have been created w/ soul & i certainly did my best to instill what i could, out on the road...

Anonymous said...

hmmm. using the auto comparison, bikes like trek, giant and (less so) specialized are the fords and chevys vs. the vanilla, hunter, soulcraft,inglis/retrotec, black cat bicycles, etc. which represent the select/sexy brands like ferrari, etc. there's no cachet for the cognoscenti in the big brands (even top of the line models) in part because anyone can and does have them. the details are all stock: materials,angles, clearances, brazeons, components...these are supplied and the possibilities for soulfulness are removed. the soul is individual. you can polish the hell out of a turd (even a glossy carbon fiber one) and yet not make it shine. having said all that , any turd polishing we do through personal interaction with our bikes can do nothing less than brighten our own souls.run what you brung, and don't just run it- run the hell out of it.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Watts said...

On a purely technical/performance basis, the corporations have the option to have engineers do much more R & D with neat tools like Finite Element Analysis (FEA), 3D Solid modelers, etc. They also have the pockets to develop testing and fixtures to verify designs as well as the "seat of the pants".

The fatigue life testing certainly gives a rider some mental assurance when decending at 50mph on a carbon fork for example.

The great Italian makes have a positive stigma as "artists" blended with ride tuning but largely on steel frames. They make (made perhaps since carbon has pretty much taken most of the market these days)carbon bikes these days in Pacific Rim countries and import them for finish. This hardly qualifies as soul. More like coat-tail momentum.

Do the corporate bikes have soul? Guess that depends on what you want. Appearance, attention to detail, small production numbers, single builder construction etc, shoot, lots of things contribute to brand perception. This doesn't mean it's a "better" (define better of course)but different.

So, I guess it just depends:-)

Trek ha

Anonymous said...

sascha has such a great eye.. and erichie just gets it. i'm glad we're an era of choice and that there are guys names on the frames that are doing the riding and thinking too.

big shout-out to dario pegoretti and mike zancanato as well.

hey.. what's with this other noel.. i'm noel damnit.

see you on the road...


e-RICHIE said...

"Consider that some of the biggest bike companies around build bikes from some of the most advanced materials available and ultimately sell some of the most expensive bikes on the market. So why can’t Trek, Giant or Specialized be cool in the way the independent framebuilder is?"

ya see - that's the thing.
they are (as) cool atmo.
these brands are making great bikes. it's just that some folks choose not to get it.

Ron George said...

This whole concept of bike soul is new to me, or perhaps I haven't thought so deep about it until now.

One has to define clearly what he,she means by soul. Which I deem will vary from person to person, so its a very subjective thing.

Some say its the ride quality, fit and its distinguishing handling characteristics on the road.

Some say even if ride qualities seem average, its the fact that they spent so much time on it that it carries a stream of memories that was between only the rider and the machine.

Some say its the creativity, time and artwork that when into design. Even if they don't ride it enough, if they know there's a hype about a master craftsman, they'll probably even go buy it. Sure, you can have lots of nice paint and "sexy" shapes for the bottom bracket, and X amount of stiffness here and Y amount here, but if the rider didn't like it, it probably has no soul.

And then you have numerous other reasons for soul.

So I believe that defining soul clearly important, but it is also very difficult. Thats also complicated by the fact that a bicycle is non-living, and no cost factor could really attest to soul-ness. If someone knew how to calculate soul of non-living things or anything for that matter, he'd be pretty rich by now.

But that's hardly how it works, is it? Simply because notion of soul is very personal.

My philosophy is that granted how much ever a person loves his or her bicycle by looks, if he or she doesn't ride it or spend enough time on it to know it intimately, its not going to get worked upon and is probably going to sit somewhere and rot. There is no justification for giving a bike a lot of importance when you don't reach your potential on it.
Even if thats a 10,000 dollar bike. How much is "enough" time, only the rider knows.

And by getting worked upon, I mean the bicycle, this truss upon which he spents hundreds of hours every season, slowly but certainly becomes an extension of him. He can express himself with it. With that much time spent on his machine, his "soul", his expression, and his immortality gets into bike, maybe through telepathy, maybe through osmosis of sweat or pain I don't know :) and it overwhelms possibly anything external than that which went into the make. That includes who made it, which factory, which country, Belgian or French, what color paint...nothing is significant. If you can't achieve what you want with the bike, its useless (granted all other factors are top notch)

For an example of expression, think of what Lance Armstrong did with his bike. No matter what he rode, he'd spent enough hours on it before the Tours to know how he could use it like only a master can. He vented his anger on the Europeans after their attitudes to him during his cancer struggle and simple crushed his opposition when he got back. Madone 5.9 or 5900 SL, either were Lance's passion to win the greatest race of all, and his anger as well. What he did with that bike, and that bike itself, yes, it was an extension of him. (whether he took drugs or not is not for me to debate on. And I'm not a huge fan of Lance either)

This is probably why Bettini 'talks' to his bike as well.

Bottomline : IMHO, if the bicycle cannot be an ally in the struggles we go through in life - racing, maintaining fitness, travelling, attaining peace or tranquility with oneself etc, if we have to fight that thing to do something something we have planned out with it, its probably got no "soul", even if it might, say, get us from point A to point B.

So before one jumps onto say Trek or Giant or any other high volume manufacturer is substandard over say, some European competitor, think deeply about it. One cannot give a meaning to soul immediately after purchasing a bike. It takes time, a lot, perhaps in that process you'll dump that machine to go for something else. But its a process.

Having said all that, this affair is simply too complicated for me to give a word such as "soul" to a bike.

You may ask this question. If a person buys a 25,000 dollar boron frame showpiece and hangs it on his wall, does it have a soul?

On the other extreme, TOO MUCH "soul" can be dangerous. I refer you to the UK man who had sex with his bike. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/11/14/nbikesex114.xml

That kind of thing can sent you to jail !! LMAO!


Ron George said...

"Merckx and his contemporaries had to execute their sprints with finesse and through high rpms. Today, it’s all horsepower. You don’t see Ale-jet or McEwen turn the pedals at 150 rpm but their accelerations explode with Porsche ferocity."

Do you have any sources documenting RPM's during Merck's time?

The high rpm strategy must have easily countered for the low torque if thats what you mean, so I'm thinking the horsepower couldn't be drastically different from today could it? Considering the rider Eddie was and some of his peers, the horsepower dished out was probably superior.

Whether riders were undergeared or whether it was coaching philosophy, high cadence is quite an energy efficient way to do things.

Also in today's sprints, the lead out train that Cipo made popular wasn't present in those times was it. Considering that, I can understand finesse to win a sprint in Merck's time.

However, there's indeed a lot of finesse and diplomatic maneuvering in today's races.

The Ride said...

Can a bike have soul? If a tree falls....


My view is that soul is a both a perceived experience and an intrinsic quality. I ride both a low volume steel and high volume alu road bike. One has Campy, one has Shimano. I love them both for different reasons. One is hand made and I believe has soul imparted by the maker and through my experiences with it, the other is machine made but has soul imparted by me through my experiences with it. Therefore, if I cared, I might say one bike may have more soul than the other.

How do you view soul as an implicit quality? I suppose its based on knowledge and is subjective. The soul of my steel bike would transfer to a stranger buying it who knew about the maker and valued those qualities. A stranger may not perceive any soul in my Alu bike depending on their own personal viewpoint but that may also be the case for the steel bike depending on the buyer.

As people who love bikes we should be careful about confusing "soul" with "cool" but thats another debate altogether.

Anyway, thanks for making lunchtime much more interesting for me.

Todd Colby said...

Hegel recommend that we all ride bikes en route to our becoming actual. Jarry rode a bike and wrote poems in tight cycling clothing. Beckett loved his bike (read Molloy) and certainly in The Third Policeman by Flann O'Brien you'll find about 60 pages of the best writing about a bike ever...so clearly the inspiration that writers and philiosphers feel from bikes implies some sort of energy contained in a bike that only those with the right receptors are able to receive. I count myself among the receptors!

Anonymous said...

Souls require persons; recognizing soul requires a relationship. When you have a person build a bike and you know that person and you have input into the design of the bike as part of the interaction -- and you know that next year the builder won't be saying that your bike is obsolete or made of superseded materials -- then you are more likely to feel long term affection and to attribute soulfulness than if you're worried if your Tarmac or Madone (a great bike)is this year's color.

Those are great bikes, there is no doubt about that, but when you buy them, you're just a consumer. They can't even be modified or messed with == a Surly is more likely to come to have soul than a Madone or a Prince or a C-50. That has nothing to do with how 'good' the bike is from a performance standpoint. It has to do with your role in the interaction, and in my opinion, the highest role is in knowing the person who built that bike, the second highest is in making a pre-built bike your own in some identifiably unique way.

The hierarchy can continue. The best road bike I've ever had is my Seven . . . but it has less soul than my DeSalvos because with Seven the nature of the interaction was more about a company providing great service, the interaction with Mike DeSalvo is more about learning about how a craftsman thinks of his craft and how that translates into something uniquely suited to what I do with bicycles.

Soul is in that interaction; as Todd suggests, it's dialectical and it's resolution is the bike.

Anonymous said...

Soul ? You wanna talk soul ? I still got soul be-yond the grave. I'm the hardest working man on the ethereal plane and i got soul. Hit me four times; uh, uh, uh, uh, Maceo, brother, take me to the bridge. We show these mutha's who got SOUL !

Watts said...

I get what you're saying anonymous. I built custom guitars for many years. Folks love the process, which is how you describe it. That said, none of my current bikes have soul but I definitely see how folks like that vibe.

Anonymous said...

...regarding soul: the potential for soul is built into any human-powered wheeled vehicle...if you, the rider, meshes & flows w/ it, then soul is a by-product of your output together, beyond miles covered & enjoyment gained...no matter what level of cycling you aspire to...

How do i get to my old stuff said...

"This soul has been accumulated through the innumerable tough lonely kilometres ridden in all weather conditions, on loads of dirt/gravel roads, in races and training all over the world. It's become an extension of me and my experience."


Jim said...

I see two kinds of 'soul.' There's a purely artistic soul, a bike that just moves you at an elemental level that you can't really describe. Pegorettis and DeRosas do this for me. Fondriests too - but most Colnagos and Bianchis don't. IFs do, but comparable quality Litespeeds don't. Kogswells do, but the lovely, somewhat comparable IROs don't. Van Dessels, esp. the Country Road Bob, does. The Langster doesn't. I can't say why this is, it just is.

There's also an engineering type of soul - an elegance that attaches to some simple, direct, effective equipment. It doesn't grab you by the shirt and kiss you, you have to chase its excellence a little bit before you see it and come to love it. I'd give you some of the Cervelos as an example of that - there's nothing romantically aesthetic about them, but their function-dictated design has an honesty to it (and an excellence) that makes it very lovable. The high end Pinarellos and Orbeas - they are beautiful, but I don't find them soulful, in spite of all the fancy supposedly functional bits. Not everybody gets this engineering soul thing.

I have had two bikes I find directly soulful, an old Fuji Dynamic that I converted into a fixie, and a Surly Cross Check that usually rolls with a flip-flop hub. I actually miss riding those bikes, and feel a pang about having sold the Fuji and I strongly want to leave work right now just to ride the Surly for an hour before getting home. Just a little hit, please?

I have a bike with that functional soul, a Giant TCR. When I first bought it I looked on it as an expensive, high functioning tool. I can't see falling in love with one at first glance (though the '07 TCR Advanced, in 'stealth' livery is a little different). Having put 7 or 8,000 miles on it, I've come to really love its strength, the always-sharp handling, and the way I get off it and never have any aches and pains other than sore legs. It just fits and works pretty much perfectly, and even though it's getting a little nicked up and worn around the edges, I find it more beautiful all the time. I understand if you don't see it that way, though.

Eric Silva said...

This is really all about coolness. If a frame is cool, then it has "soul".

Coolness is about originality. I think cyclists want to be original. (Even in cycling friendly parts of the U.S., riding a bicycle seems pretty novel.) Getting a custom frame or a frame from a relatively obscure (but quality) frame builder is just another way to be original. Getting a frame from a company that advertises in Bicycling doesn't scream originality--and therefore isn't cool (therefore those bikes have no "soul"). Frames that are popular with those that have been cycling for a long time and probably have a few bikes (e.g. a Cross Check) are also cool, so that frame is considered to have "soul".

The purchase of a Trek or Specialized makes a certain statement, and it's not the statement most readers of BKW want to make. It's unoriginal, and therefore not cool--so no "soul". But as Radio Freddy recently noted, an inexpensive, stock frame from a large corporate manufacturer can ride like a dream.

I would like to see some sort of double-blind Pepsi Challenge with these supposedly soulful bikes pitted against supposedly soulless bikes.

I'm also curious when a corporation gets too big to produce bikes with soul. What's the threshold? Independent Fabrication and Seven have been growing quite a bit in the past few years. How many frames per year can a company make and still have "soul"? Or do they simply have a certain fixed amount of soul per company, and the more frames they make, the more thinly the "soul" is applied each frame? :)

A large company can have great craftsmen making wonderful frames, they just aren't as cool (and therefore are claimed to have no "soul").

(By the way, I have two modern Merlins--one stock road frame and one custom cyclo-cross--and they are both awesome. Full disclosure: I'm on a team sponsored by Merlin, but we certainly don't get the frames for free.)