Saturday, September 19, 2009

Single Speed Simplicity

“The bicycle has such aspects of freedom that an artist clings to. To combine these two, it's a romantic journey.” - John Bailey, event organizer, Singlespeed World Championships

A rainy night in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau, following an all-day drive across the state, hoping to find a room in Moab, Utah. Such are the risks of impromptu, unplanned vacations. Last year at this time I had no trouble in bedding down after a similar all-day trek. But this time would be different, Moab being the nexus of a regional mountain biking event, drawing people from across the country to the southeast corner of Utah, such that there was not a spare room to be found.

Eventually, later that evening – well after dark – I found a modest room at a little motel across the border into Colorado, in Dove Creek, and bedded down for the night. The next morning I made my way to Durango, via breakfast in Cortez, only to find another bicycling extravaganza in full swing, the Singlespeed World Championships. This time I lucked out by finding an elegant (and rather pricey) room at the General Palmer; a far cry from the humble motor lodge of the previous evening.

Such is one's luck when unplanned travel via V8 roadcar meets well-organized bicycling competition; there was almost no room at the inn.

“One could say the singlespeed, with its one gear and lack of shifter, cogs and derailleurs, represents the bicycle in one of its purest forms.” - Brandon Mathis, Durango Telegraph

This idea of simplicity was on my mind while traveling, and foraging for documentary-type photographs. While nothing could be simpler than a one-speed bike, I'll take the speed, comfort and convenience of my car any day, thank you. At least for distant travel. Not so the young man I met in downtown Durango, Adam, who managed to gather enough cash together for a one-way trip from Cortez, to compete in the SSWC; his plan was to sell the one-speed Schwinn cruiser bike, after the race, to fund his return trip. Oh, he also had a dog accompanying him, who guarded the truck during the race. Simplicity. Life pared down to its most essential.

I was equipped with my Lumix G1, and an assortment of manual focus, legacy lenses to accompany the kit lens. Not exactly the one-speed cruiser of cameras. When Adam described the arduous up-hill climb during the race, and how he quit before gaining the top, I was reminded of the auto-focus kit lens to my G1, and how easy it is to compose and shoot without the additional thinking required to manually focus; quick, effortless snapshots can be easily had. But those old manual lenses do something else that the kit lens doesn't: open up to wide apertures, permitting hand-held exposures in dim lighting.

“That's why they made bikes with gears,” I quipped to Adam, “even though cruiser bikes are cooler looking.” And that's essentially the same observation pertaining to cameras: old manual focus cameras are cool looking, but it's easier to have the modern conveniences of auto-focus and auto-exposure. What we really desire is a camera with modern features, able to be controlled like a manual. A cruiser bike with gears; a hybrid: the best of both worlds.

I don't know if Adam sold his Schwinn for enough gas money to make it back to Cortez. I told him that if I'd brought my truck it would've been a done deal. Of course, that's all I need: another bicycle. Just like I don't need another camera, or manual typewriter, either.

The bicycle and typewriter are similar in other respects, too. You'll notice that Adam didn't ride his bike all the way over the mountains from Cortez to Durango; he took his truck. And you'll also notice that a computer is still needed to get my manual typings onto the Internets. So, despite all the romantic notions of manual film cameras and a bicycle commuting culture and retro-technology (like typewriters), we use them more like adjuncts – style enhancers – to our more mundane, contemporary systems of social communication. Which is not a bad thing, since it implies that our retro-tech tools are still firmly entrenched within the larger cultural context.


Blogger James Watterson said...

Well said! I am a huge bicycle enthusiast and own several single speeds. I prefer Fixed Gear Bikes over geared bikes any day. Fixed gear is a rear locked single speed hub. You don't coast. It is like an exercise bike in many ways. When you slow the pedals you down you bring your speed down. Being an x bike mechanic I have seen so many different road racing bikes and can honestly say that if you choose the right gear you can easily keep up with all of the speed weenies.
Picture of my fixie which now has road tires on it. Built from the frame up. *sigh* I miss working at a bike shop..

10:00 AM  
Blogger deek said...

Just curious, is that first photo HDR? It looks so crisp and detailed, which usually doesn't happen unless its composed of multiple exposures.

I suppose all the reflections could have tricked my eye, though.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Joe V said...

@James, that's a cool, modern-looking fixie. I bet you have lots of fun with it.

@Deek: Sorry, the opening image isn't HDR, just an in-camera JPEG from the G1, using its Dynamic B/W film mode; but thanks for the complement. I credit the good light of Durango, and a polarizing filter over the lens. Oh, and I was running the lens near wide-open aperture and close-in to the middle of the handlebars, to achieve selective focus, to throw the background out of focus.

5:22 PM  

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