I received a $7200 Diamondback road bike to review for the magazine. I’ve ridden it and it’s a very good bike. But, something has been nagging at me. As I start to draft the review in my head, I keep getting stuck on ‘$7200 Diamondback road bike. $7200 Diamondback road bike. $7200 Diamondback road bike.’
I have no problem with the simple fact that Diamondback - a brand mostly associated with mountain and BMX bikes - is offering a high end road bike. I’m a big believer in ‘WTF - try it and see what happens.’ Because you never know.
Specialized started out as a bearded dude selling hard-to-find European bike parts out of a VW van. Now they make some of the best and most desirable road bikes in the world. BMC started off as distributor of Raleigh bicycles and is now essentially owned by a hearing-aid company; Time’s owner manufactured shopping carts before bicycles; Look started out as a ski-binding manufacturer. Just because a company doesn’t have the tidy and enviable pedigree of Colnago doesn’t mean they can’t sell a great road bike.
But, a great bike isn’t always a desirable bike. As much as I think the $7200 Diamondback is a great bike, I have no desire, no passion, for it.
I struggle with these feelings, or lack thereof. I’ve long felt that, as a bike reviewer, I’m supposed to be impartial and unemotional about the bikes I review. I’m beginning to feel that striving to be impartial and unemotional isn’t practical at best, dishonest at worst.
As I was grappling with these feelings, NPR’s TED Radio Hour happened to be on the radio as I was driving to the store to pick up cashews and dried mangos. I’ve not paid much attention to TED Talks as it struck me as easy intellectualism: the kind of thing people in Boulder nod along to as it reinforces their existing beliefs. I’m about to show that I’m guilty of the same thing. Fuck it.
Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale, was giving a talk titled ‘What do we value most?' In it, he lifts some examples out of the worlds of wine and art as he discusses how story and our beliefs influence how we experience an object.
He notes how numerous studies have shown that a person is more likely to enjoy a wine if they believe they’re drinking something rare and expensive. Brain scans show that the parts of the brain associated with pleasure light up when the believe they’re drinking rare and expensive wine, even if in actuality, they’re drinking two-buck-Chuck. Bloom says, “It’s not just then that you say it’s more pleasurable, you say you like it more. You really experience it in a different way.” [emphasis mine]
Bloom also mentions Marla Olmstead. Olmstead was a 3-year-old art prodigy whose paintings were selling for a great deal of money, until, a report on 60 Minutes showed her being “coached” by her father as she painted. Almost overnight, the value of her paintings fell to nearly zero. As Bloom notes, the paintings didn’t change, but the history behind them did. And because the story changed, so did the value people placed on the paintings.
Just because I like things in threes, here’s another example of story influencing an experience. This time, it’s Joshua Bell, a world-famous violin virtuoso performing in a Washington D.C. metro station wearing street clothes. He plays for 43 minutes. Over 1000 people walk by him in that time and only a couple stop - if only for a moment - to listen as one of the best musicians in the world plays some of the most challenging classical music written, on a three-million dollar Stradivarius. It is inferred that because Bell was out of context - playing in a metro station where he could be heard for free and not in a concert hall where tickets cost hundreds of dollars - most people didn’t believe his performance was worth much, if anything. “nothing about him struck me as much of anything,” says a woman interviewed for the article.
The bike world has its examples of removing, or altering, story changing how people experience a product. In an issue of
Bicycling Bicycle Guide from 1987, two frames that looked identical, but were made of different steel tubesets, were reviewed. In a 1996 issue of Bicycle Guide, seven bikes, all built with identical parts, geometry and paint, but with different tubesets, were reviewed. More recently, Germany’s Tour magazine did a test called “Blind Date” where all the frames were masked and built with the same parts. The common theme is the lack of story and context caused havoc in the reviewers heads and the results were far less clear cut than those found in a normal bike review.
Journalists, and I put myself in that group, are probably more susceptible than others to having their experience influenced by story. That’s because we’re trained to look for story. I can honestly tell you it’s much easier to write about a Colnago than, say, a VeloVie, simply because of Colnago’s rich history. It’s probably easier to enjoy a Colnago than a VeloVie for the same reason.
As I prattled-on about in my ‘What matters?' post, "Modern bicycles are so good and efficient that the difference between the bike that feels right and makes me feel faster and a bike that feels awkward and hateful is largely in my mind and a product of the innumerable variables that preceded the moment I clicked into the pedals and accelerated away." Story is one of those innumerable variables. It doesn’t change how a bike performs, but it changes how I feel about a bike. I don’t think I’m alone in that regard.
In a blind test, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn I preferred a VeloVie to a Colnago. But, I don’t think anyone actually rides a bike “blind.” Our perceptions influence our feelings because we’re passionate creatures, not logical creatures. I’m glad of this. If we were strictly logical, then all bicycles would be simply reduced to ‘What’s the least expensive bike I can buy with Dura Ace?’ Nothing more than a commodity.
The $7200 Diamondback’s only sin is that it doesn’t yet have a story. At least one that looks desirable up against Colnago, Specialized and the many other brands I could list. But, a story needs a beginning. Perhaps that’s what this Diamondback is: in 10 years we might look back and say, “That’s the bike that turned Diamondback into the most desirable road bike brand in the world.”