In Praise of Dumb Gear
Enough already with skis and headlamps that can talk to our phones. The whole thrill of being outside is in escaping the modern tyranny of tech distractions.
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Smart gear is dumb. Well, not all of it—I like that my heart rate monitor talks to my watch, which talks to my phone. But then I have special needs, thanks to an occasional heart arrhythmia. I’d rather ride like I ski—with zero data. And often I do exactly that on mellow mountain bike outings. I even leave the phone in the car. Dumb gear is where it’s at.
My dogs have confided in me that they feel no need to track intervals with a fit collar. After a 30-minute setup that involved a call to customer service and multiple reboots to get the Bluetooth firing, my smart headlamp landed in a gear pile in the garage, where it’s now free to talk to the spider and the fly. With headlamps, smart is an on/off switch. I thought it would be worthwhile to track my sleep, but thanks to a borderline unhealthy low resting heart rate (see: arrhythmia, above), my oh-so-smart watch thinks I’m slumbering when I’m reading or laying awake at 2 a.m. stressing about something my asshole phone just told me.
Last month, one of my favorite ski manufacturers made a smart ski. Embedded sensors tell your phone whether your weight is a little forward or a tad back and whether you’re getting a deep flex out of the ski. Now, skiing isn’t golf. Outside of competition, there’s nothing worth quantifying. The best GS racers in the world ski in the back seat—tail gunners, according to Bode Miller. And the best freeskiers barely bend the ski. As for me, who gives a shit what I do? If my ski starts talking back, I’ll make an Adirondack chair out of it. I recreate outdoors to escape nagging software.
Sensors in my daughter’s ballet shoes won’t make her dance better. My son and his teammates on the high school mountain bike team don’t need power meters to get faster. Power meters are for old dudes. Sport is about learning to control your body in space and time, growing accustomed to stress and recovery. Ned Overend was America’s greatest mountain bike racer, and he trained and raced off perceived effort. To ski well, you need to keep your shins in the front of your boots, engage the core lightly, look where you’re going, and breathe. That’s about it. Sounds easy, but because snow and terrain are always changing, it takes a lifetime to figure it out. If you’re looking at a screen, you might miss some crucial insight. Also, the universe.
Besides, evolution has equipped us with some pretty good innate tech. Our mitochondria are like little bots converting fuel for exercise. Our eyes can detect ripples in the snowpack at 60 miles per hour. But our bodies aren’t some tool. They’re us, just as a ski or a bike or a new pair of trail running shoes can feel like an extension of our being.
The more we train, the more we know that the body and the mind are one, absolute. Athletes know this to a lesser degree as muscle memory. When trained, the entire system knows what do and we barely have to think about it. Such effortless action is euphoric. And it’s not Bluetooth-compatible.