Aesthetic Choices

Aesthetic Choices

The bike above is the icon of my youth – a 1980s Cinelli Supercorsa with Campagnolo Super Record components. Back then, I was riding a crummy Peugeot 10-speed with heavy tires, rattling fenders and poorly-shifting derailleurs, and I dreamt of a lithe racing bike.
When I finally was able to afford one (a Bianchi, since Cinellis were out of reach), I loved the fender-less wheels, the narrow tires, and the almost ethereal appearance of my bike. I promised myself that I’d never ride a bike with fenders again.
A few decades later, my preferences have changed. To my youthful eyes, my current bike would have seemed bulky and unappealing. The big tires, the wide fenders, the racks, the lights… It is a lot of bike, and it wouldn’t have squared with my vision of the ultimate performance bike. Most of all, I would have thought that the randonneur bike offered less performance than the racing machine.
Today, we know that both bikes perform equally well. We now know that wider tires don’t roll slower than narrower ones, provided they use the same supple casing. Physics tells us that the weight of fenders and lights has only an insignificant effect on climbing performance, and our on-the-road testing has confirmed this.
For me, the randonneur bike, with its lighter-gauge frame tubing, actually climbs better than the Cinelli with its heavier frame. The Cinelli is geared more toward a strong sprinter, and I am more of a climber and long-distance rider. But a racing bike could be built with a lighter-weight frame that would perform like my randonneur bike, so that isn’t a good reason to prefer one over the other.
It’s also churlish to chastise a rider on a sunny day for not having fenders, or to look down upon a weekend rider who may never ride all the way through the night, but prefers to ride a fully-equipped randonneur bike.
In the end, it comes down to aesthetic choices. I have grown to love the look of a good randonneur bike. The fenders serve to accentuate the wheels, the small rack makes the entire bike look as if it is moving forward, and the lights add interest to the bike. To me, a racing bike now almost looks incomplete, as if the builder had not yet finished his or her task.

Even so, I fully understand the appeal of a great racing bike, whether modern or classic. The track bike is the ultimate expression of that aesthetic – it’s the bike reduced to its simplest form. The racing bike then adds only the parts that are absolutely necessary: brakes and derailleurs. The tires are only as wide as need be. It’s a minimalist aesthetic that contrasts sharply with the randonneur bike’s “fully equipped with everything in its place” look.
Whichever we prefer, it’s useful to realize that we are making aesthetic choices. There’s no need to defend one preference over another because of its imagined performance advantages. (It’s different if you are actually racing, or riding in wet weather, or at night. In that case, the machine that is specific for your activity is the best choice.)
Some people scoff at aesthetic choices as being superficial, but I consider them very important. Few of us sit on upturned fruit crates in our homes – and just like our furniture, our bikes are important for our enjoyment of our daily lives. And like our clothes, our bikes present ourselves to the world. Let’s be proud of our aesthetic choices while respecting those of others.
Photo credit: (Cinelli)

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Comments (40)

  • Msrw

    Really thoughtful observations, Jan.

    October 16, 2015 at 5:05 am
    • Greg

      Agreed!! We *can* just all get along, on different bikes for different hikes…..

      October 16, 2015 at 2:03 pm
  • Mr. Palomar

    great post – nice to celebrate good design!

    October 16, 2015 at 5:21 am
  • David Morgan

    It is always so enlightening to read your views! Not only do different riders have different steeds/choices, some of us are blessed to have a good collection from which to choose: eg. I have a 1990 RB-1 with 6800 (no lights nor fenders) for high performance club/event road riding; a humble MB-3 commuting steed with fenders, lights, and front basket for Fall/Winter/early spring commuting. They are equally appropriate and welcomed for their respective tasks.

    October 16, 2015 at 5:21 am
  • calcagnolibero

    Jan this is the best article you have ever written

    October 16, 2015 at 5:30 am
  • ORiordan

    Exactly. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
    It gets worse when you bring colour into it (color for N American readers..;). I recently heard a talk from a bike manufacturer who said that colours like blacks, reds and whites will always sell but they have huge arguments about some of the less conventional colours they use in their range and it really is the case that some will love a colour but others will hate it with a passion.

    October 16, 2015 at 5:55 am
  • Mike Hassur

    This past summer, I was on a solo ride heading toward the Carbon River Entrance to Mount Rainier. As I was crossing the high bridge, the Fairfax bridge, just pass Carbonado; I encountered two cyclists riding bikes with fenders and lights heading the other way. After crossing the bridge, I decided to turn around and catch up with those riders to give me someone with whom to ride on the way back. I was on my Calfee Dragonfly racing bike, & I figured that I would have no problem catching up to the other two riders. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They just seemed to be cruising along in their own world and enjoying the scenery as I labored behind them trying to catch up. When I finally did catch them, they greeted me warmly and explained that they had spent the previous night camping at Ipsut Creek Campground and were in the process of heading home. One of the riders was Jan Heine. We had a short – but enjoyable – ride together before heading our separate ways outside of Buckley. I learned my lesson that day about making assumptions regarding the speed of a bike with fenders. Thank you, Jan, for a nice memory.

    October 16, 2015 at 6:12 am
  • Patrick Moore

    Well said.

    October 16, 2015 at 6:26 am
  • Casey Leonard

    What a great velo opinion. Thanks!

    October 16, 2015 at 6:58 am
  • marmotte27

    A racing bike is indeed a choice based on aesthetics, the aesthetics of professional racing. It’s the only cycling aesthetics most people know and want to emulate. Utility cycling is not something that many would associate with that word.
    But aesthetics notwithstanding, the fact remains, that to most riders, who do not actually race, a racing bike is not very useful. Since I bought my randonneur the scope of my riding has expanded tremendously. Gone are the days where I would look at the skies once it was daylight enough to see if it rained, that I scrutinized weather forecasts to see if I could look forward to a ride or not, that I cancelled a ride due to bad weather or suffered through one, because it started to rain half way. One could find quite a few analogies in clothing or home funiture for that as well.
    But as you have shown many times, there is no real dichotomy between the useful and the beautiful. Your great service to cycling was and is the ‘resurrection’ of another aesthetics than that of racing, that of the randonneurs, aesthetics that allow to marry utility riding and riding for pleasure, and to do so with efficiency and style. It should be brought to the attention of the wider public once more.

    October 16, 2015 at 7:04 am
  • On the drumlin

    About ten years ago, I visited Michael Barry Sr. at Mariposa Cycles, not long after I found myself on two wheels again and much longer after owning a blue Cinelli B. I had had a Brooks saddle shipped to me from Mariposa, and I had always wanted to see the shop. He was very friendly, engaging and knowledgeable and asked if I wanted to see his bike, which was hanging on the wall at the front of his shop. We stood in front of it, and I blurted out “It has fenders!”. “Well,” he said, “I don’t think a bike looks complete without fenders. Do you?” I live on a dirt road in northern Ontario, and after ten years of constructing various bikes, I now would have to say “No”.

    October 16, 2015 at 8:58 am
  • Lisa

    Agree! Aesthetics should definitely come into play when choosing what you ride. Anyway, to each his own. 🙂

    October 16, 2015 at 9:32 am
  • TimJ

    Great post, I wholeheartedly agree that the (aesthetic) pinnacle of bike design is the 70s and 80s, basically anything before the compact frame. Even your old Peugeot was probably a good looking bike, even if it was junk. Speaking of aesthetics, one thing I can’t yet get used to is disk brakes. On a mountain bike, they are fine, they match the industrial look and feel of so many mountain bikes, but on a racing bike…just not there yet!

    October 16, 2015 at 9:45 am
    • Greg

      I agree! A solution for a problem that doesn’t exist….

      October 16, 2015 at 2:46 pm
    • Conrad

      Agreed, and from a function standpoint too. Disc brakes are good for bikes with suspension. Dubious for cyclocross bikes or bikes designed for a 32mm tire; the added weight and complexity probably isn’t worth the added braking power. Discs are less than pointless for a bike designed around a 23 to 25mm tire and I hope this ridiculous trend doesn’t catch on.

      October 17, 2015 at 10:59 am
    • Steve Palincsar

      Have you ever read Jan’s book _The Golden Age of Handbuilt Bicycles_? I think 1970s to 1980s is a bit late.

      October 20, 2015 at 10:04 am
      • nic

        Take a long look at the Cinelli on top of this post, sir. It says it all…As a youngster I wanted dearly to become a road racer and it happened. Racing is incredibly hard. It transforms you deeply and the memories follow you forever. When one take the time to admire a bicycle, in fact, in his/her head he/she ‘s riding. A racing bike is top, if you ‘re a racer.

        October 20, 2015 at 2:27 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          I raced for 10 years, and it was a lot of fun, taught me a lot about cycling and myself. But for me, just riding bikes is more fun than racing. I don’t need to constantly worry about who’ll attack and whether my legs will be up to countering, or whether my planned attack will be successful.

          October 20, 2015 at 6:08 pm
  • Don Compton

    Great write up.My Rivendell Roadeo is my favorite bike ( sorry no fenders ). It’s heavy compared my friends’ carbon bikes, but I don’t feel hindered in the least. And the geometry fits me to a “T”.
    But, the cherry on top for me, is the appearance of the lugged frame and it’s wonderful ( Waterford)
    paint. The analogy regarding furniture is perfect.

    October 16, 2015 at 10:47 am
  • Chris L

    Great post!! I often struggle with finding a bike that has all the characteristics I prefer that also looks good to me. I think the ultimate solution is to go custom. My aesthetic preferences are the current crop of Randonneur bikes and 80’s MTB’s with flat top-tubes. Neither meets my riding needs though so I have to compromise on aesthetics. Someday I hope to find both in a bike.

    October 16, 2015 at 11:25 am
  • Ty

    Thanks for this post Jan. Very well said.
    I wish some of the racing wannabes in the SF Bay Area (BSNY would call them “Phreds”) understood this. ..
    A couple of years ago when I rode my first double century, the Davis Double, I was passed by a lot of riders in carbon bikes in full race kit, who would comment “Nice fenders” as they passed me on my steel Randonneur Bike with fenders, Berthoud Handlebar bag, etc.. At first, I thought they were being complementary but as the comments continued, I realized they were being condescending for the most part.
    Since I had already passed my 50th birthday I didn’t let their juvenile attitude bother me too much, rather I was amazed that adults could act this way. I continued peddling along knowing that if it did rain, or the terrain did get tough, that I could still continue, whereas their ride would likely be at an end, or at the least, very unpleasant.
    When I hear the term randonneur bike, I think useful bike. It is not a one-trick pony. Thank you Jan for opening my eyes to this.

    October 16, 2015 at 2:35 pm
  • MG

    Good thoughts in this post. Yes, there is something to having the right tool for the job, but aesthetics almost always has a role in the bike or bikes we ride, and how we build them up.

    October 17, 2015 at 5:08 am
  • Bryan Willman

    A large part of the Jan’s message might be described in the following metaphore:
    Yes, high quailty tennis shoes are very comfortable. But there are lots of great walks in fields and woods where you’d really be more comfortable in muck boots or hiking boots. And yes, for walking on the beach or kayaking, the hiking boots would be a bit much.
    It is worth your while to look past the marketing for tennis shoes to think about boots for hiking and sandals for beach walking.
    So it is with cycling as well.
    (And trucks, and houses, and clothing, and flashlights, and knives….)

    October 17, 2015 at 10:54 am
    • David Kingsley

      I think you are missing an important part of Jan’s message. He has often claimed that both racing and randoneuring bikes perform equally well for paved on-the-road riding, not just OTHER kinds of riding, and he makes that point very explicitly in paragraphs three to five in this post.
      If you try to combine your suggested “tennis shoe” metaphor wiith Jan’s actual text above, you would end up with something like this:
      “To my youthful eyes, my current boots would have seemed bulky and unappealing. The big soles, high sides, heavy laces, and waterproofing. … It is a lot of footwear and it wouldn’t have squared with my vision of the ultimate tennis shoe. Most of all, I would have thought that the heavy boots offered less performance than the lighter shoes most tennis players wear.
      Today, we know that both types of shoes perform equally well. We now know that large boots don’t run slower than lighter weight tennis shoes, provided they use the same supple casing. Physics tells us that the weight of large boots has only an insignificant effect on running performance, and our on-the-court testing has confirmed this.
      For me, the hiking boots, with their flexible construction, actually run better than the tennis shoes. The tennis shoes are geared more toward a strong sprinter, and I am more of a long rallies player, continuing over multiple sets. But tennis shoes could be built more like my hiking boots, and then would perform as well as my favorite hiking footwear, so that isn’t a good reason to prefer one over the other.”
      Although I’m a long term reader of BQ, and enjoy Jan’s perspective, I find I often disagree about both bikes (and shoes) !

      October 18, 2015 at 8:45 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        I think the comparison of bikes with shoes or cars or other equipment is difficult, because bikes are so unique. A bike is a significant piece of machinery, yet it really is just an extension of the rider’s body. As such, the frame and how it interacts with the rider’s pedal stroke biomechanically is one of the most important parts. Equally important are the tires.
        Both my favorite racing bikes and my favorite randonneur bikes have basically the same frames and the same tires… so they really aren’t much different. They make look different to a casual observer, but those really are just aesthetic differences. (On the other hand, a bike that looks similar, but has a frame made from sturdier tubing and tires with stiffer sidewalls will not ride and feel remotely like the bikes I like.)

        October 18, 2015 at 9:34 pm
  • Tom

    This reminded me of a time I was riding with a friend of mine, me on my Pearl White Waterford with high polished Superbe Pro bits, my friend on her black carbon Calfee with coal black components.
    Someone rode up behind us, and said, “Wow, what a pretty bike!”. I turned around to thank him for the compliment, and saw that he, on a black Calfee, was looking at my friend’s bike!

    October 17, 2015 at 12:16 pm
  • Mike O.

    I just took the fenders off my Waterford. Now it just doesn’t look right.

    October 17, 2015 at 3:05 pm
    • 47hasbegun

      I don’t think my touring bike would ever look right without fenders.

      October 19, 2015 at 5:21 pm
  • Tim D

    I have some bikes. Some have mudguards, some don’t. Some have downtube shifters, some have STI, some have no shifters at all. Some have fatter tyres, some skinnier. Some have a saddlebag, some a bar bag or no bag. Some have a horizontal top tube, some sloping. I like riding all my bikes.

    October 18, 2015 at 12:37 am
  • Brian

    Timely post. I did my first brevet this weekend (200K). There were many different types of bikes on hand,: racing bikes, dedicated rando bikes, carbon bikes, aluminum and steel bikes.The differences were many.
    The unifying theme seemed to be how friendly and supportive the other riders were. I fell in with a group of four riders, 3 of whom had participated the most recent Paris Best Paris. One was on a Velo Orange Touring bike, another on a disc brake equipped Salsa Vaya, one on an aluminum/carbon Giant racing bike and the fourth on a carbon/titanium Serrota racing bike. All were very generous with their time and experience. The ride was the focus and the bike simply a medium for it. I learned a lot and enjoyed myself immensely. The people I met played a large part in my enjoyment.

    October 18, 2015 at 6:35 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I am glad you had such a good experience. I think it’s typical of randonneuring. The bike always should be just the tool – the ride is the goal.

      October 18, 2015 at 6:59 pm
  • David Pearce

    Speaking of your sleek chrome beauty, I’ve loved it ever since you described it in the beginning. I still don’t “get” how you shift the front derailleur, but obviously it works, because you wouldn’t have it any other way. I think the front derailleur will remain a mystery to me, until I get a chance to shift one like that with my own hand and legs, but finding one like that is not an everyday occurrence!
    The only thing that rankles me a little about your bike is that it seems the front rack tilts a little forward, but maybe it’s just an optical illusion. Still, I like the front rack better in the Rebour illustration, or the Alex Singer 1947 Randonneuse, our October feature photograph. I’m actually really interested in the metal working of the Alex Singer rack, which is wider than it is long, but that makes total sense, since a rack of that configuration would support a handlebar bag better and keep it from drooping over the sides as one sometimes sees.

    October 19, 2015 at 8:12 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      There is a photo of a rider shifting an original René Herse derailleur in the René Herse book… It’s not that hard – you reach behind your leg and move the lever. It’s similar to reaching for a water bottle on the down tube, just a bit further back – behind instead of in front of your leg, which also means you can continue pedaling to execute the front shift.
      Regarding the Singer rack, it’s square. Very minimalist, and quite a bit shorter than a Berthoud handlebar bag, but then, Singers were about light weight, and most riders probably didn’t carry a big bag. On my Singer, the bag rested partially on the front fender – not a problem, but the fender’s polish was quickly lost where the bag touched.

      October 19, 2015 at 7:36 pm
  • Charles Nighbor

    Jan, You’re just trying to justify living in wet, soggy Seattle by liking a bike with fenders.
    I live now in Walnut Creek, CA, and after 30 years of riding in the rain in Seattle, I live were fenders are hardy ever required: YES!
    Charles Nighbor

    October 19, 2015 at 12:14 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Charles, does your car (assuming you own one) have fenders?
      I agree that for most riding in Walnut Creek, fenders are not required. The same applies to Seattle, by the way. If you schedule your ride to fall in between fronts coming through, you can avoid much of the rain. However, fenders also allow you to go out when there is a “chance of rain”.
      Speaking of Walnut Creek, I remember a desperately uncomfortable ride up Mount Diablo on a fender-less bike when a “chance of rain” manifested itself in a cold drizzle… And when I visited the desert around El Paso, TX, I brought a fender-less bike, since it was easier to pack. They had the first rain in months, and the roads were wet all week I was there. At that point, I noticed that even in El Paso, all cars on the road had fenders…

      October 19, 2015 at 6:51 pm
      • Bob C

        Your remark about flying with a bike without fenders because it’s easier to pack hit home with me.
        This might be a nice topic for a piece in BQ: packing a fully equipped randonneuring bike and the associated preparations. For example, if you run a hub generator wire through the fender, you need to add extra spade connectors to remove the fenders easily, etc.
        You touched on some approaches to this in the rinko bike story, but I think a more detailed article on packing fully equipped bikes would be nice. I’ve done it about 12 different ways and flown with bikes many times — and still feel that I haven’t found an optimal solution. I’d love to see what others do.

        October 19, 2015 at 9:17 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Your comment is timely, since I am putting the final edits to the Winter 2015 Bicycle Quarterly. It’ll include detailed articles on how to make Rinko bikes, which have the advantage of packing small without requiring much disassembly.
          For example, spade connectors will always be trouble spots in the future, so the ideal bike has none. In fact, the Rinko bike featured (my Mule) has generator-powered front and rear lights without any connectors, yet it packs into a bag that meets the size requirements of many airlines, and is also small enough for easy travel on trains, in taxicabs and other modes of transportation.

          October 19, 2015 at 9:27 pm
    • B. Carfree

      Perhaps you just haven’t been there long enough. When the drought passes, you may find that many days from October to April in the Bay Area have rain or wet roads and fenders can be mighty nice. I recall some epic flood years (’81/82, ’86) that followed the drought of ’76-77, so you may be in for some deluges.

      October 20, 2015 at 9:32 pm
  • Owen

    I grew up in Marin County and in the early 90s knew three different people who rode custom Charlie Cunninghams–two of which were Cunningham Expeditions. Rare species and even rarer sub-species indeed. The guys with the Expeditions rode them all over Mt. Tam’s fire roads and trails, which at the time were completely 26″, full suspension MTB territory. These all-rounders and and what their riders did with them formed my aesthetic choices very early; their looks, versatility and attention to detail still remain what I think the ultimate bicycle should be. Thanks Jan for posting the link to Charlie’s medical recovery fundraising campaign, regarding aesthetic choices “Let’s be proud of our aesthetic choices while respecting those of others–” I couldn’t agree more!

    October 20, 2015 at 2:34 pm

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