Monday, April 6, 2009

Record of Futility

I bought a month-old mountain bike a little while back -- a fine, critically acclaimed Iron Horse Azure with a mix of XT and Deore parts and the rave-inducing DW-Link suspension.
It seems a bit ... well, maybe effite isn't the word, but it at least seems a bit contrary to pet a mountain bike and marvel at its fine machinery. I haven't done that. I just like bashing around on hairy singletrack and learning through trial and error how to succeed, and how to bloody up my shins.
My road bikes, on the other hand, sometimes leave me in awe. The first of them, with a brazed Reynolds 853 steel frame, came with a full Ultegra gruppo -- right down to the cassette, bottom bracket and chain, and it is a mechanical marvel and scalded-cat sprinter that is a pleasure to ride. The other one was also a fine investment: a beautiful carbon-fiber Bianchi 928 with Ultegra shifters and RD, and 105 FD, chain and cassette and a Mavic wheelset, which a bikeshop-owning friend secured from Bianchi's end-of-model closeouts.
There's an incredible amount of craftsmanship invested in them. Start with the frames -- the carbon one's meticulous layup, or the masterfully welded joints on the steel one and the alloy mountain bike. Then consider the intricacies of machining and assembling the flawlessly performing Shimano components, or the time invested in building the wheels, and the tires, and even the laborious manufacture of the various bolts and saddles and grips and bar tape.
If you think about it, the work that goes into any one of the three is awe-inspiring. And under a good rider, the return on investment would be phenomenal: I have no doubt that anyone from Jeremy Grimm to a ProTour rider could win just as well on my Bianchi as on his. The mountain bike isn't a racer, but any rider who wants to have a ball on a sophisticated XC bike would probably love spending a few hours on it.
I couldn't be much happier. I really don't deserve what I have, much less anything better, and I am quite positive that there has never been an occasion where anything on my race bike -- even on my older steel one -- ever cost me a race I might have won had I squandered a bit more money on it.
That, though, was what I thought until I saw the new crankset from Campagnolo.
My eyes befell it quite by accident on the Performance website, and I immediately averted them. I felt unworthy of even looking at the finest bit of Italian machinery since Sabrina Ferilli, and yet I had to have it. It suddenly dawned on me that my struggles in the Cat 4 field last year had far less to do with my poor conditioning than with my poor equipment. And here was the solution -- on sale, for only $950!
That is only $200 more than I paid for my complete full-suspension, XT-and-Deore-equipped mountain bike. And only $750 less than I spent on my carbon-and-Ultegra Bianchi.
I suddenly felt like I do in those dreams where I'm in front of my college class with no clothes on and it's the last day of the semester and I haven't cracked a book.
I was ashamed. All these years, I've been riding crap. The glee I'd felt over getting an $1,800 mountain bike for $740 faded as fast as I've faded in races on my crummy, heavy, inferior Ultegra junk.
Sure, this new Campy crank is made of plastic and some machine-turned bits of alloy, glued together by grade-school dropouts -- Italian grade-school dropouts. But it must be awful, godawful fast to retail for a grand, because that's what I paid for my steel bike with the full Ultegra gruppo.
The steel bike and its precision machinery have only 18 gear options. With this crank from the 11-speed Campy gruppo, my bike would have ... well, 18 gear options. But they would surely be better. The Ultegra cranks on my two road bikes have never missed a shift (except because of operator error). But the plastic Campy crank would not miss shifts even better.
That was just the beginning of my revelation. Since then, I've discovered the $435 Super Record cassette, the $210 Super Record front derailleur, the $475 Super Record rear d and the $85 Super Record chain all await the opportunity to offset my poor conditioning and extra weight with their mechanical miracles. And the shift-brake levers are even cheaper than Dura-Ace!
I can't wait to pull out my credit card and start mowing down the competition.

- JN