From the pages of Velo: Unattainable perfection

In the 2012 Buyer's Guide, Caley Fretz muses on the constant pursuit of engineering perfection

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Editor’s note: In place of Caley Fretz’s biweekly column, The Torqued Wrench, we look back at his column for At The Back from Velo‘s 2012 Buyer’s Guide. Look for a return to Caley’s regular column in two weeks’ time.

Enjoying the ride, irrespective of the destination, is a prerequisite for appreciating cycling itself, a sport in which our personal athletic flaws flap unconcealed in the breeze. If we all gave up at the realization that we’re not destined for the Tour de France, there wouldn’t be many of us left.

From this perspective, each of us is a blissful Sisyphus — cheerfully pushing our respective boulders upward, striving for our own personal peaks, content in the knowledge that we’ll never truly reach the top.

The cycling industry is no different. The hundreds of people responsible for the bike you ride aren’t in it for money, fame or power. Your local bike shop owner isn’t likely a rich man or woman. Working in the cycling industry is a lifestyle choice; a decision that lunch rides are more important than stock options, that designing carbon layups for a 700g road frame is more gratifying than doing the same for a Boeing wing. They create bikes with the same passion with which you ride them. They are pushing their own boulders, just as you are pushing yours.

Despite aggrandized claims to the contrary, the perfect bicycle has never been created, and never will be. But engineers continue to drive onward, sometimes by enormous leaps, sometimes by baby steps — occasionally with an inspired invention, but usually with a tiny evolution of existing technology. They do it to enhance your ride. They do it to keep the sport’s momentum moving forward. And of course, they do it to sell more product.

And we lap it up, because most of us are hopeless geeks. The machines our sport revolves around are an important element in our enjoyment. There is no other sport where man and machine work as one as they do in cycling. And so we love to tinker; we love to play. We obsess, personalize, and endlessly upgrade. We seek the beauty of brilliant engineering, of designs that encapsulate tangible benefits and breathtaking visual appeal. We usually do so without a second thought for how the union of art and science sitting before us was created.

To be in the middle of all this creation, all these brilliant, impassioned people, is a thrill. If I could engineer any one of the wonderful things to hit shops this year I would die a happy man. Instead, I’ll content myself with riding them, and writing about them. As the expression goes, “Those that can’t do, write.”

Those of us lucky enough to write about bike products are shipped around the world with the explicit duty of informing the riding public of the latest and greatest the industry has to offer. In 2011, I saw electronic drivetrains take another step toward the mainstream at Shimano’s Ultegra Di2 launch in Switzerland. I saw aero road bikes gain further legitimacy as Scott launched its phenomenal Foil outside London. I saw more aerodynamic and stable rim shapes with Enve Composites in Utah; I also saw the introduction of disc brakes into the world of drop bars on Tim Johnson’s SRAM-equipped cyclocross rig in Colorado. Velo’s editorial staff sees all four as vital evolutionary steps forward — which is why the first three are on the cover of the Buyer’s Guide. All are outcomes of an industry committed to continuous advancement.

It’s tough not to be a fanboy. I get as excited as anyone by shiny new technology. And of course there is a fundamental conflict of interest within the industry, and within my job. Shimano and Scott both paid for my travel across the Atlantic. Enve subsidized my trip to Press Camp in Utah. And, of course, the vast majority of Velo’s revenue comes from endemic ad sales — money from the very companies towards which I’m supposed to be impartial. It’s no wonder that some of you see what we write as thinly veiled PR.

But reporting exactly what these companies would like me to report is not in the industry’s best interest, nor my own. Despite my deep respect for the men and women behind every product, to pretend that they have rolled their boulders over the top of the mountain, that they’ve created perfection, is naïve and a disservice to everyone involved.

There is no such product. Every frame is not both laterally stiff and vertically compliant. Some are better than others, or simply fit the needs of more riders; nothing can fit the needs of all. The concept of unattainable perfection, that we’ll be rolling these rocks uphill forever, is required for further creation, innovation, and evolution. That ideal alone is motivation enough to maintain my objectivity.

Soon enough the best of today — the products within this Buyer’s Guide — will be the old news of yesterday. The wheels of progress will continue to turn. As a result, your ride will become more comfortable, faster, safer, or perhaps just better looking. And just like this year, we’ll be here to tell you how, and why.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.