Kippers, Curtains, Wheels And Progress

Time goes on and I sometimes think it’s hard to keep what’s been achieved in mind without being fooled. That applies to pretty well all spheres of human activity. The issue is always confused by interest groups: there are plenty of people who are keen to paint life as a story of endless progress, when a lot of what’s called progress is really merely change and change is often merely that – change, neither positive nor negative in the big scheme of things.

But of course there is positive change too – and today I was thinking bike wheels are a perfect example of that.

Part of today’s ride included Henley; Henley and nearby has more than the regular smattering of teeth-jarring pot-holes. According to some measures Henley is – or was – the most expensive place to buy property in England. Given the state of the roads and given the more-or-less perpetual traffic queues there, you could hold Henley up as proof positive that money doesn’t come with sense. (One suspects Henley is largely kippers and curtains, but that’s another story.)

Anyway, the stupidity of the rich aside, despite the pot-holes in Henley or anywhere else, the wheels on all my bikes are remarkably true still. That’s quite amazing given the battering they take; as they did today and as they do most days. At the risk of sounding, ahem, like an old codger, when I was young broken spokes weren’t uncommon and we’d often have to get wheels trued-up.

So, yes, modern bike wheels are examples of real progress. We should value that. We should consciously appreciate that. We shouldn’t be fooled though. We don’t need electronic gears on any bikes; we don’t need disc brakes on road bikes; we don’t need hydraulic rim brakes on road bikes. It seems to me that these are all examples of ‘mere change’: solutions looking for problems.

Of course, these are developments being introduced in a bid to make money. Whether that aspect renders what might be mere change into something good or bad isn’t immediately obviously. By turning these changes down and not buying new equipment, am I threatening livelihoods? Or does reduced consumption mean I’m helping save the planet? Should we all be trying to stop cycling becoming overly technical, to keep it accessible? Or is that stifling innovation?

Sometimes, it seems absolutely nothing is straightforward. It must be wrong to wish for ignorance and the certainty of a simple world view. However …

And even if we do all accept robust wheels as a positive development, do they contribute to the neglect of Britain’s roads? Would we be passively accepting our rotting infrastructure quite so readily if every other bike trip meant a broken spoke?