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22 July 2015 3 comments

Before the Fall (and After)

Correspondence Friends Saddles, Bags, Etc. Bicycles Monthly highlights Travel & Adventure Cycling
By Jack Thurston
Before the Fall (and After)

The other day, I was idly window-shopping for secondhand bikes on the web. All of a sudden transported to a moment more than twenty years ago, on a dusty country road in the middle of Transylvania. A friend and I were cycle-camping around Romania and we'd stopped to greet the one and only other foreign cyclist we encountered on our entire trip. We began swapping stories about roads and campsites and soon learned that he was on a six month journey across the European continent, from Portugal to Istanbul. I was impressed but what made an even greater impression was his bike.

It was a machine of serene, understated beauty. The glossy gunmetal grey frame was made of aluminium, back in the early 90s this was an esoteric, futuristic material that was used to make aircraft, not bikes. The welding was so silky smooth I had to resist the urge to caress the head tube. The shiny black panniers were were totally waterproof and saddle was a Brooks Professional, with hammered copper rivets. This top of the range Cannondale T1000 stood for everything beautiful and functional that a bike could be. [caption id="attachment_15131" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Object of Desire: A Cannondale T1000 touring bike from 1991"] [/caption] I looked down at my MBK hybrid and saw everything ugly and pointless: the horrific white and mauve fade paint job, the oval ‘Biopace’ chainrings, the gooseneck stem and nasty plastic handlebar grips, the tatty foam saddle with its silver stripe of gaffer tape, the nylon panniers that were sun-bleached, frayed at the edges and admitted every drop of rain. [caption id="attachment_15130" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Look Away Now: Fortunately no photographs of my own MBK hybrid exist, but this ladies version of the same model gives you an idea"][/caption] As you can imagine, up to that point I’d never really given bikes much thought. As long as the tyres were hard and there was oil on the chain I was happy. But on this remote, dusty country road the scales fell from my eyes. I had eaten of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good bikes and evil bikes. Things would never be the same again. [caption id="attachment_15136" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="In my prelapsarian state (right), enjoying a Romanian picnic lunch with Daniel Start (left) my touring companion"][/caption] On my return I attempted to address the situation by buying a brown leather Brooks saddle. But it was just lipstick on the pig, and when the MBK was stolen from the garden shed, I was secretly relieved. I could start again, though it was shame about that saddle. From that point on I began to seek out more knowledge about bicycles and bicycle parts, both their aesthetic qualities and their functional virtues. I felt like I was gaining admission into a secret world, and I lingered in bike shops for longer than was polite and stole furtive glances at other people’s machines while out and about. Soon enough I was able to have long involved conversations about the merits of different frame materials and construction methods, shapes of handlebars and the design and set up of cantilever brakes. But I was still a penniless student so I scraped together enough for a secondhand Dawes Londoner, from a stall at Camden Market. Beneath the ill-advised paint job was respectable Reynolds 531 ST tubing and it was equipped with a handsome TA ‘cyclotouriste’ chainset, nifty Suntour bar-end shifters, a Blackburn aluminium pannier rack and a nicely broken in Brooks B17 saddle. I soon started upgrading other parts, methodically wrapping and rewrapping the bar tape, trying out different tyres and adding a fancy German hub dynamo lighting system that turned night into day. But there was a darker side to my ever-expanding knowledge of and interest in bikes and bike parts. It was the gnawing feeling that whatever bike I was riding was never quite good enough, that the key to happiness was an upgrade to a new, improved and rather more expensive part. If my gears slipped I began to think evil thoughts about the Tiagra rear derailleur. If only I’d sprung for 105, or Ultegra even! While suffering on a climb, I’d begin to think I really needed a set of lighter, stronger hand-built wheels. I began to wish I had never lost the innocence of my carefree days when a bike was just a bike. Just as it’s difficult to forget how to ride bike, it’s hard to put aside the knowledge and appreciation for bicycles that we all inevitably accumulate. The challenge is to remember that the ride is always more important than the bike. There will always be an upgrade available and though some may be worthwhile, most are better ignored. Though a severe case of GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) can convince you that a new purchase will make you a happier, better person, the positive feeling will be painfully fleeting. Retail therapy always requires a repeat prescription. There are few products that are exceptions to the rule of the continual upgrade. Having achieved something of a Platonic form, a Brooks saddle is so perfect that it really can't be improved. Both practical and beautiful, simultaneously best value for money and the best that money can buy, once I’ve fitted a bike with a Brooks it never crosses my mind that my saddle might need an upgrade. Until the Cambium came along. Dammit. [caption id="attachment_15177" align="alignnone" width="640" caption="Brooks Cambium C17: Improving the unimprovable?"][/caption]
Oh how I lusted after the so out of my price range Cannondale T1000 back in the day!

Now I split my time between a Surly LHT with B67 and a luxurious suspended recumbent.
Paul 23 May 2016 at 18:56
Any saddle other than a Brooks is a downgrade. I have the C15, B17N and B17...each is exquisite. They improve any bike.
Thanks for the wonderful story!
John Welch 23 May 2016 at 18:57
I have a Jack Taylor Super Tourist (built in 1967), a Jack Taylor Super Tourist Tandem (built in 1969) and a Jack Taylor Club frameset (also built in 1969). The first two have the original Brooks saddles fitted by Jack Taylor. When I built the framset, I tried another brand saddle which featured gel padding thinking it might provide additional comfort on long rides. BIG mistake! There was no additional comfort and it quickly wore out. That bike is now fitted with a Brooks B17 saddle as it should have been from the beginning.
Charles Whitham 23 May 2016 at 18:57