Which shifter would the Taoist choose?
(cover picture: the author at one of their favourite pastimes: dishwashing)
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.” —E.F. Schumacher
Formulated somewhere in the mists of time(1), The Three Treasures of Tao are life guiding principles a follower of Tao should heed to in order to achieve peace and virtue. They are as follows: 1) Compassion, meaning the respect for our fellow life forms 2) Frugality, meaning not-wasting but saving of energy or material and 3) Humility, or not-being-in-front, meaning not seeking active authority over others. In this essay I will try to relate these ancient ideas, that I see as a means for good life, to the world of bicycles, mainly through the concept of Simplicity, in which I see the Three Treasures coming together.
Simplicity means doing things in the most effortless way. It is about leaving out what is extraneous and unnecessary and making do with what is enough. I feel the world is filled with ever growing complexity and that it is widely considered progress. But I want to offer an alternative view of progress - instead of focusing on adding more to existing ideas, true progress consists of refining traditions by simplifying, shaving off the unneeded, and on the other hand trying for completely new ideas.
I kind of wanted to leave friction shifters(2) out of this article because of their cliché status as “The Simple Bicycle Component”, but it seems that I can't. So I will present a comparison that I recently read on Grant Petersen's advertisement text for Rivendell's(3) new Silver 2 friction shifters: that of the hammer and the nail gun. The friction shifter is the hammer, it gets things done while taking a bit more time and skill than the technically more complex but more efficient nail gun, which in the world of shifters would maybe be an electronic shifting system like Shimano Di2 or Sram eTap. Using the hammer is not necessarily as fast or easy as using the nail gun, but in many cases it is the most graceful and gratifying way. Of course the choice depends on whether you have an artwork to hang or a barn to build, but here we come to the question of how many cyclists need the equivalent of tools for building a barn, meaning semi-professional powerful tooling? Wouldn't a hammer suffice? And to add a layer of (for once called-for) complexity to the issue, that in a philosophical essay I feel is important: if you had to first make the tool yourself, instead of it being made for you by unknown cheap labour using non-renewable fuels somewhere on the other side of the world, which option would you find more simple?(4)
Another comparison that comes to mind is of house cleaning. I often prefer getting down on the floor and wiping the dust and debris off with a damp rag rather than get the noisy vacuum cleaner out, even though it would probably be more efficient. But what kind of living is it to always look for only efficiency? The world will never be ready, so we might as well enjoy work and life as we go along and at least sometimes appreciate the quiet and humble nature of the floor wiping rag.
But there are different types of people, and I have to admit that simpleness doesn't appeal necessarily to everyone. I guess it takes a certain type of person to appreciate the hammer instead of the nail-gun as the best solution to a problem, and many will continue to use their nail-guns, vacuuming robots and electronic shifting and full suspension along with cadence meters, power meters, GPS tracking and 4000 lumen headlights. Whereas some people will ride triple-tall cargo bikes with retrodirect(5) gearing, enjoying their special and in every way difficult contraption wholeheartedly. My bike background being in D.I.Y. and bike kitchen culture certainly affects my views on things -- seeing, using and repairing things after they have been discarded or sold second hand gives you a better idea of the long-term value of a design and it has led me to embrace simplicity as the highest idea. Some examples of simple bicycle technology are presented in the technical commentary section after this essay.
When viewed solely and directly as a working interface, complex technology can be in some ways more user-friendly, and often is. Like building a barn with the nail-gun, of course it is easier to navigate on a GPS device than on a paper map, or change gears and slow down on push-button electric shifters and extremely powerful hydraulic brakes. And sometimes these functions can be very useful and needed, and they can make cycling easier and more approachable. It would be very important to make bicycles and cycling available for as many people as possible, and the ease-of-use is of course an important issue to consider. Not that simplicity and user-friendliness are by any means contradictory! But one should not concentrate only on one while forgetting the other(6). With a scalpel-sharp mind, unaffected by harmful traditions, superstitions or opinions of so-called authorities like professional racers, we should design bicycles to be easy to produce, easy to maintain, and easy to use. We must realize that the same type of bicycle is not the best for everyone, which brings us back to the superiority of flexible small-scale local production. On the same note, one ca