By Michael Vlismas.
Musician Elvis Blue and I have one thing in common. It’s not the rugged good looks that we share, nor is it our prodigious musical talent (I play a piano version of chopsticks that will bring tears to your eyes). Oh no my little sprockets. The one thing Mr Blue and I have in common is that we are both in the process of the most challenging thing a middle-aged man will undertake. Buying a mountain bike.
If you’d like to upgrade your mountain bike, do me a favour and take on something easier – like climbing Everest.
“I’ve been looking for a bike now for about three-and-a-half weeks. But about a week ago I decided I’m just going to step away from it all for a bit because it was getting too intense,” says Blue as we share the pain of the most confusing process either of us have ever been through.
In recent weeks I have spoken more with my wife about bicycles than about our sons’ education. I’m asking everybody I know who cycles for their advice. I spammed Seamus, a colleague of mine, who kindly agreed to put his life on hold for a few minutes and sent me book chapters on WhatsApp with all of his advice. Unfortunately, much of it reads like the Dead Sea scrolls to this novice.
At times, this appears the most serious decision I will ever make. Then at other times, I think back to that guy I saw at last year’s Glacier Cradle Traverse. He arrived late to the start of this epic three-day stage race. He was wearing a normal pair of shorts and shirt. No lycra whatsoever. He asked his girlfriend to hand him a Flying Fish beer. At 8am. He smashed the beer and set off with the pack. Good luck, I thought. That evening he was on the podium as one of the top performers in the stage.
Sneaky simple. Clearly the man has the mountain bike skills of a ninja – under the cover of ordinary, the elite rider emerges to surprise us all.
So keep it simple then, I tell myself. Don’t get bogged down in all the technical specs of buying a mountain bike. Just keep it simple, Vlismas. But that’s not how this works, is it Elvis?
“I share your pain dude. It’s overwhelming searching for a bike. Nobody gives you a clear answer. It’s always both sides, and by the end of the conversation you don’t know what they mean.
“Cycle shops are a lot like music shops. I always feel kind of intimidated by the guys who seem to know so much. They want to sell you a bike that costs more than the small car you used to drive, so you just leave and want to go and have a stiff drink in the middle of the day.”
Yes, the cycle shop. That place you walk into armed with the most cutting-edge research and information you have gleaned from weeks of trawling cycling groups. “I like the yellow one,” you say, suddenly unable to remember anything.
Then the shop owner starts hurling words your way. For a moment, you think you are back helping your son prepare for his Xhosa exam. Then you catch a few of the words: Group sets.
What are group sets? Isn’t that when we exercise together in the gym?
Schrader. Is that a valve or a German footballer?
Cassette. What the heck? We’re in the age of CDs man. I haven’t used a cassette since that dodgy demo our punk student band posted to Barney Simon.
Chainring tattoo and crosschaining. Sounds like a gang initiation.
Endo. As in, I’ve reached the endo of my patience-o with this buying of a bike-o?
Road rash. Isn’t that what you get from campsite showers?
And the bomb. Did you know about the bomb? The guy in the cycling shop said I must ride with a bomb. A bomb people. A bomb. I found out later this is a little cylinder of compressed air that pumps up your flat tyre instantly. But the next time you’re in a public space, ask your fellow cyclist if he has a bomb and see how the room clears out quicker than a rookie cyclist with a tight budget entering a cycling shop.
“I have a long way to go,” admits Blue, summing up my own feelings.
“Everyone has a ton of advice. But what I found is that a lot of people have different advice. It looks like in cycling there are a whole lot of experts, which makes it quite difficult to find the right bike.
“One guy tells you to go for a 1×12 and somebody else says, no man, go for a 2×10. Then it’s a carbon frame with dual suspension because you’ll never make it without suspension, and then another oke says no, a hardtail is just fine for starting out. And the prices. You just don’t know where to start.”
Ah yes. The prices. How to justify paying that price for a bicycle?
“My wife can never find out about this,” says Elvis, his voice now a whisper. The kind you hear in spy movies.
“My greatest fear is that my wife one day wants to sell my mountain bike for the amount I told her I paid for it. I tested this with all of my friends, and their wives have no idea what they spent on their bicycles.”
But I fear that Elvis Blue will get to cycling nirvana before me. He is already entered for his first stage race.
“I’m just a regular oke who wants to tick something off his bucket list. I know I’ll be totally hooked. It was the same with surfing for me. Now, 10 years later, every year as a family we go on a trip somewhere in the world to surf. I was the same with running, so I can see myself probably getting really into this,” he says.
As for me, my first stage race will most likely be one of the Glacier races. I have attended both the Glacier Cradle Traverse and Glacier Storms River Traverse, and they are without a doubt the most unintimidating and luxurious entries into stage racing that I’ve seen. They serve craft beer and ostrich fillet at the waterpoints. You sleep in luxury tents with white linen. And nobody takes the racing too seriously, like my friend with the Flying Fish.
“I now know this will be life changing for me,” says Elvis in anticipation of his first stage race.
I agree. And for both of us, the process of buying a bicycle is a life changing experience.
So mark my words fellow spokes. Before you can say Presta on your pinch flat, this little rookie bike-buying peloton will be cranking into top gear.
This is not the endo. We will no longer endure empty lives being described by more experienced cyclists as “Freds (a novice)”.
This is our time to shred, Elvis Blue. All hail the knights of the knobby tyres. See you on the singletrack my full suspension friend.
Now hand me my Flying Fish.