On Being Tricked into Buying Too Much Specialized Crap

Photo: vkphotography

Photo: vkphotography

In any recreational or extreme sport I've done, I’ve found that the best product is not always the “specialized” product marketed towards your purposes, though it is very often the most expensive, and are largely arbitrary or aesthetics-driven [part of the “uniform” of a yogini, a climber, a skier vs. snowboarder, a cyclist…]. Once upon a time, there was no REI. People climbed in wooden clogs and protected themselves with lengths of rope. People bundled up however they could and threw their stuff into knapsacks; there were no space-age high-performance fabrics, no ergonomics specialists. 

Come to think of it, I see this all the time with photography, too, where some poor shmuck will feel like being a photographer means he has to buy $9,000 lenses that he has no idea how to use, or that he has to use six different soft boxes to light a model for one studio shoot. Contrarily, many of my favorite photographers use the most rudimentary, jerry-rigged, low-fi gear of all. It's all about the driver, not the car! 

Of course, when it comes to the sports I have experience with, my approach is also "adapt" rather than "prepare".

Like backpacking. I almost never bring a tent when I'm backpacking. I rely more on a map and compass than I do on having enough food. On my last solo backpacking trip, three weeks in Yosemite, I tested out my pair of Vibram five fingers because they were marketed for hiking—when they inflamed my tendons, I just hiked barefoot, no biggie.

[In that vein, after much deliberation I've decided to go with my sleeping bag, a tarp, and a mosquito net. It's not enough to make things exceedingly comfortable...but it's enough that I'll be self-reliant if I can't find a host or one falls through, and won't weigh nearly as much as a tent.]

But I have a lot of experience backpacking; it isn't daunting anymore. I lived in the backcountry non-stop for half a year when I was nineteen. Backpacking and hiking were my only modes of travel, leaving plenty of room for trial and error, and exploring my limitations. I've hiked fifteen miles on an empty stomach with a full pack at 10,000 feet above sea level. I've taken off-trail shortcuts. I can afford to take some risks and cut some corners because I can calculate what the risks are.

And even if you're not quite as much of a nut job as I am, if we're talking backpacking, skiing, or rock climbing, I could also easily tell you what "must-haves" really, really are not must-haves, suggest cheaper/lighter/better substitutes for specialty gear, and tell you which items you can get away with buying used or low-end. My partner's dad just scored a pair of $800 Rossignol skis from two years ago, including bindings, for $5 at a Savers. They look like they may have been used once; one wax and they were good to go. Cross my heart and hope to die.

Cycling, on the other hand? I'm clueless. I haven't had those years or even months of rigorous beta testing. What climbers call a gumby, what skiers and boarders call a gaper, what skaters call a poser, what photographers call a GWC. When I first decided I would go on this trip, all I knew how to do was get on my bike, pedal, brake. I am in a self-guided accelerated-learning course, not only in terms of physical conditioning, but also studying [ergonomics, necessary gear, bike components, DIY repairs...].

So, I've been researching. But the demographic of experts doesn't really see me as part of their audience. Cycling, in particular, is a hobby that seems to attract people with lots of money and very little free time, but a predictable lifestyle that allows them to make long-term commitments.

The Complete Guide to Long-Distance Cycling, the book I'm currently reading, is a great example. I've learned a lot from this book, but it's also done a good job of using a doomsday, worst-case-scenario approach in order to convince me that I need to buy a million things [like several pairs of padded shorts, and leg warmers, and a million toiletries, and so on] in order to avoid an untimely end [or at least the ER]...and that I cannot possibly train effectively without a cycle computer, heart monitor, and stationary bike. If I were a middle-aged professional with a predictable annual schedule, consistent cash flow, and superfluous paranoia, I might take a lot more of that advice.

But that's not me. I'm a crazy quasi-hippie who burns bright and fast, but not always steady. Frugality is compulsory for me. And my life runs in fast, dense chunks, rather than a steady flow: I can more easily devote every waking moment of one month to intense learning and training than I can devote two days a week for several months. 

So, I've sought out experienced cyclists at various bike shops, sporting good stores, and REI, and barraged them with questions, hoping to find some who share my adaptation-oriented, minimalist sentiments. 

My favorite so far has been an older guy who told me he tours in cargo pants and old tshirts and doesn't bother with special rain gear or gizmos, and doesn't like to wander around towns "looking like a cyclist". A man after my own heart. 

I've been buying equipment in little batches as I've learned more about what I might need [or really, really want and have a good use for].

A few cool items and tips I've picked up:

  • Proud of this one: For cycling shoes, I'm using a pair of Scarpa rock climbing approach shoes on clearance [got a kudos from some cyclist employees at REI for that one]. Cheaper, and better, than those "casual/street" cycling shoes recommended for tours [since I want something that'll double as a street shoe]. These are low profile [to fit in cages], laces go all the way to the toes [for easy loosening if/when my feet swell after a long day of riding], the soles are stiffer than "street" cycling shoes but more walkable than super aggressive racing shoes. I re-laced them so that the bows are on the outsides of the shoe and less likely to get tangled up while I'm pedaling, even if they come untied. Plus, they'll be useful when I next go hiking or climbing. Score!
  • Discovered that several items are cheaper at REI and sporting goods stores if you get them in a color that's being discontinued. I was going to pass on a sporty rain jacket/windbreaker and find another way to deal with the weather...till I learned that it'd be $35 less if I was just willing to get one in light purple.
  • I've been offered sponsorship of a GPS/safety watch, so we'll see if that pans out! Will obviously be posting more about it, if so. 8]
  • Skipped a lot of the bucket list things: the jerseys, the hydration pack, the solar charger, the route maps [which would be great...except they're $15 a pop and I'd need to buy about seven]. However, I did cave in and get one pair of padded bike shorts [considering the mileage of this trip, I think that is a totally reasonable luxury] and one of those little charge-storing doohickeys [which I might exchange for a generator that charges my electronics while I'm cycling...supposedly there's now one that's safe to use for a phone].

I've also got some very specific items with me in order to smoothly bridge the worlds of cycling and modeling [i.e., avoiding tan lines and blemishes, and having basic makeup/wardrobe without substantial bulk and weight], and feel I've managed to be pretty clever about some of my solutions—but I'll save that for another post.

Update: Tomorrow is my biggest test yet, where I show myself just what I'm cut out for [I hope]. I'll be starting my first multi-day trip: about three hundred and fifty cycled miles in six days, largely moderate terrain but with a couple intimidating climbs.

My training over the last few weeks has seen me improving enormously, but I'm still pretty nervous. I'll have Alex with me, and will be carrying minimal gear, since this is going to be my first accurate taste of what touring is going to be like. Wish me luck! Will post photos and so on afterwards, of course. 8]