We live in an age of hyper-specialization when it comes to cycling. Not only are there bikes for riding on every conceivable surface—pavement, gravel, snow, sand—but there are also seemingly endless performance permutations of each, from superlight to aero. This is even true for riding around the city or carrying stuff. Once upon a time you’d put a basket or a child seat on your bike and that was that. Now you’ve got to decide whether you want a cargo bike, and if so, whether that’s a longtail, a bakfiets, a front-loader, or a…
I’m not complaining here. At least as far as gear goes, we’re living in a golden age of cycling, and as long as you have a fairly good sense of how you’re going to use your new bike, it’s pretty damn hard to buy a bad one.
Even so, I sometimes lament the passing of the days when we made do with what we had. Remember how when you were a kid, there were only like three TV stations, and it always seemed like there was something new and exciting to watch*, but now that you can stream every show ever made on demand, directly from space, you’re like, “Eh, there’s nothing on, I guess I’ll just rewatch Arrested Development again”? Well, whether it’s bikes, or entertainment, or the 75 different microbrews available at your local supermarket, we've gained much in variety, but lost the ability to appreciate what we already have.
Consider cyclocross. Believe it or not, there was a time when you couldn’t just walk into a bike shop** and buy a complete cyclocross bike. Assuming you even knew what cyclocross was, if you wanted to get a special bike for it you had to find a frame and build it up yourself. Getting your hands on that frame wasn’t always easy, either—an ornery human being at the bike shop had to order it for you, probably from Europe and out of a catalog made of paper—which meant you might even have to get a custom builder to make you one instead. In fact, given how ornery bike shop humans were, the latter approach was probably easier.
Because going through all that trouble just to see if you enjoyed riding on grass really wasn’t worth it, the cyclocross-curious would do something that's almost unthinkable today: they’d just show up on whatever. That’s right, no skinsuit, no Year's Best Cyclocross Bike according to the gear editors at Glossy Bike Magazine, no spare wheels for the pit—just a mountain bike or a touring bike or something else with enough clearance for something wider than the razor-skinny tires that were fashionable at the time, and maybe some jorts. Today we reserve such behavior for deliberately irreverent races such as the SSCXWC, but back then it was just called riding your bike. In fact, so common was this “run what you brung” approach that ’cross race promoters would even specify “mountain bikes without bar ends welcome.” This inclusive attitude was lots of fun, more and more people showed up, and eventually cyclocross became the popular discipline it is today—so popular, in fact, that participants in every category have reached near-roadie levels of proper preparedness.
At least as far as gear goes, we’re living in a golden age of cycling, and as long as you have a fairly good sense of how you’re going to use your new bike, it’s pretty damn hard to buy a bad one.
But cyclocross wasn’t the only context in which riding the “wrong” bike could feel oh-so-right. Steering a road bike onto the dirt once felt almost transgressive, instantly winnowing out the riders unwilling to besmirch their white shorts and Colnagos—but now of course the white-short set also have gravel bikes so their Colnagos can stay clean at home. For years, part of the appeal of the track bike in an urban environment was that it was the “wrong” bike for the city; now it’s the default one. (Well, the basis for the default one, anyway.) Indeed, before the proliferation of off-the-rack, ready-to-ride fixed-gears and singlespeeds and fendered-and-basketed townies, one of my greatest pleasures as a bike nerd was making my way through the living bike museum that was New York City, where messengers and commuters stripped their bikes of gears and decals, or wrapped them in inner tubes for protection, or fitted them with milk jug decals and theft-proofed their quick-release skewers with hose clamps.
So am I saying that young people today have it much easier now? Fuck no. Stagnating wages, student debt, an affordable housing crisis… Being able to order any kind of bike you want with your cell phone hardly makes up for all that. Even so, we’re all a bit coddled these days when it comes to the ready availability of all manner of stuff, and that coddling can lead to an underappreciation of the inherent versatility of the bicycle and the sort of free-wheeling (fixed-gear bikes notwithstanding) experimentation that led to all these different categories and disciplines in the first place. It’s great to have just the right bike for every occasion, just like it’s great to have an outfit for every occasion. However, it’s even better to have that one favorite pair of jeans that works for pretty much everything. And the only way you break in that favorite-jeans bike in the first place is to ride the hell out of it all the time—even when it’s the “wrong” bike for the group ride.
So while I wouldn’t argue that you should have to make do with only one bike (I tried it for a year and failed spectacularly), making do with one less bike can be surprisingly fun; I've been using my mountain bike for cyclocross for the past couple years now, and it’s been fantastic—though it is holding me back in one respect, which is that it keeps me from taking bike racing too seriously.
But that’s reason enough to do it.
*If you answered, “Uh no, gramps” to this rhetorical question then you are a millennial or younger, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
**A “bike shop” was a kind of store that sold bikes