Spend enough time riding and talking about bikes and you’ll come across the idea that certain bikes have souls.
I’ve always dismissed this notion as hopelessly pretentious and transparently materialistic. People have souls. Bicycles have wheels, tires, and very occasionally, genitals. The whole idea of a “soulful” bike as I saw it was to market the ineffable joy and beauty of cycling to people who think they can simply fork over a few bucks and buy soul like it’s a 35-ounce container of Utz Cheese Balls, or to help people feel special because they spent way too much for a Colnago.
Recently, however, I’ve begun to come around. That’s because last year, I acquired a bike I love so much that I’ve been forced to contemplate the possibility that it is indeed more than the sum of its parts. I’ve also found myself reflecting on why I feel as though this bike has a soul, and whether this rarefied state is something quantifiable that anyone can achieve with the right components, or if it’s something that just happens, like organisms in the primordial soup.
Before going any further, I should state that I will not address the existence or non-existence of any sort of supreme being, godlike deity, or supernatural authority. Not only is that well beyond the purview of a whimsical bike column meant to be enjoyed while pretending to work or using the toilet, but I’d also argue it’s immaterial to the subject at hand.
Merriam-Webster defines the word “soul” thusly: the immaterial essence, animating principle, or actuating cause of an individual life
Regardless of whether we’re devout or atheistic, certainly we can all agree there’s lots of stuff in this world that’s alive and possesses an immaterial essence. Sure, you can deny the existence of god, but even if you do, you wouldn’t deny the existence of, say, Paul Giamatti.
Of course, the first problem you run into when claiming that bicycles have souls is the seemingly irrefutable fact that they’re not alive. When you turn off the TV, Paul Giamatti is still walking around doing things, but when you get off your bike and walk away, your bike falls down. However, you could also argue that if absolutely nobody watched Paul Giamatti on TV, and his dry cleaner and his butcher and his family and everybody else also refused to acknowledge him in real life, then not only his career, but indeed the very idea of Paul Giamatti as a person—his immaterial essence, as it were—would cease to be. Unless you’re a solipsist, you have to acknowledge that the reality in which we live is informed by our collective perception of it. In that sense, an unwatched Paul Giamatti is no different than an unridden bicycle. However—and this is crucial—if his films and TV shows keep streaming and agents keep pitching him scripts and people continue to recognize him in Duane Reade, even if he’s not actually working at that very moment, he lives. By the same token, the bike—as long as we are using it or looking at or thinking about it—does have an “immaterial essence.” It is alive.
So is all this enough to support the claim that bikes have souls? Well, not necessarily. I also use, look at, and think about our SodaStream, and it even performs miracles (Jesus turned water into wine, the SodaStream turns it into seltzer). But I’d never go so far as to say it has a soul. And there are plenty of bikes that are also, undeniably, soulless. I love Citi Bike, and the system has become an organic part of life in New York City, but nobody who’s ever ridden one would say those bikes have souls. Barnacles maybe, but not souls.
It’s much more useful to contemplate a bike that does seem to have a soul and reverse-engineer just why that is. In my case, that bike is a new-to-me 2001 Litespeed Tuscany with 10-speed Record and a smattering of components that span the last two decades. Aesthetically speaking, it’s far from exquisite; rather, it’s purposeful, utilitarian, possibly even ugly. But there’s just something about it that connects with me in a way few bikes ever have, and as far as I can tell, here’s why.
I didn’t go out shopping for this bike. In a way, it came to me. (I just so happened to have a wooden bicycle that the vintage bike shop Classic Cycle, in Bainbridge, Washington, wanted for their museum collection, and they offered it in trade. I gladly accepted, because when it comes to bike frames, titanium > wood.) I also didn’t choose the components, or even test ride the bike before taking delivery of it. Instead, I just snatched it up when the opportunity presented itself. Or, if you prefer parables: the seed grew, I knew not how; but when it was ripe I grabbed my sickle, because the harvest had come.
It Tells a Story
To some people it’s just a used road bike, but to me it’s a rolling narrative of road cycling in the early aughts, and it’s practically Proustian in the way it brings me back to a period in my life when I’d look at titanium Litespeeds and 10-speed Record groups with profound longing. Bike trends and technology moved on, and the longing faded as longing does, but there’s something immensely satisfying about having a long-dormant yearning fulfilled. It’s like I sent myself a present from the past. Also, it’s mostly made of parts that aren’t in production anymore, so while it’s not exactly rare, there’s this sense of it as something unique that can’t easily be bought.
It’s Not Precious
There’s nothing soulful about perfection. We’ve all ogled those bikes at NAHBS, but owning a work of art seems stressful, and the act of commissioning someone to painstakingly build your dream bike leaves little room for chance imperfections, which are of course an essential component of character. An imperfect bike is full of “individual” life. The Japanese call this aesthetic wabi-sabi; Grant Petersen of Rivendell calls it “beausage,” the beauty of usage. I call it “funky.” It’s entirely possible that that perfect custom bike may not acquire a soul until it’s changed hands a few times, gotten dinged up, and eventually winds up with someone who used to dream of owning a bike like that 20 years ago.
It Rides Beautifully
I mean, a bike can’t have soul if it rides like shit, now can it?
I Offered Up a Sacrifice
I’m not saying I spent a lot of money for it. I’m saying I did something far more meaningful, which was I refused money for it. A while back, someone who must also think 2001 Litespeed Tuscany’s have souls contacted me and offered to pay me a princely sum for it—enough to buy a brand new titanium bike with disc brakes and a tapered headtube and whatever else you’re supposed to have nowadays. I can only offer two possible explanations for why I refused: either this damn bike and I are soulmates, or I’m stupid. Obviously, I choose to believe it’s the former.
It Is Transient
As much as I may love this bike, I recognize that nothing is forever, and that the pursuit of the “forever bike” is folly. One day it will probably move on. Hey, my kids also have souls, but if they don’t leave the house eventually, I’m kicking them out. If this bike were a mere object I’d guard it jealously until death, but since we both have souls I know that we must ultimately be free to pursue our “individual lives.”
Hopefully that offer is still on the table when the time comes.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Classic Cycle was located in New York City. The story has been updated with the correct location of the shop, in Bainbridge, Washington. Outside regrets the error.