Welcome to Inquirer Mobility

By Dave Llorito

Amidst this pandemic, there’s a new “epidemic” afflicting many. Cyclists call it “upgraditis,” a never-ending quest to upgrade their bicycles. It is a serious issue. While new or upgraded bikes bring happiness to cyclists, it can also ruin their bank accounts and relationships with their spouses.

The quarantine measures since March to battle Covid-19 have driven many to buy bicycles. Bicycles are the best and most affordable social distancing modes of transport. When gyms closed, many dusted off their bikes or got new ones for exercise, recreation, and travel. The physical and mental health benefits derived from riding bicycles are enormous.

The problem is, once a person starts loving bicycle riding, same person also starts spending a lot of money for upgrades. 

It’s this obsession for upgrades that’s causing shortages of bikesand spare parts in the country and abroad, worsened by disruptions in global trade. Pre-Covid-19, anyone can walk into any bicycleshop and come home with a new bike. Not anymore. Friends took several months to assemble their bikes, with some parts brought in from the US. Others pay outrageous prices. 

How does one get upgraditis? Many of us beginners go to bikeshops and take whatever is available. “It’s just for exercise,” we say. We ride it for a few days and suffer sore butts. So we thought of buying a “better” saddle. Our hands get numb, and we scour the internet for the better handlebar. It’s the start of the “disease.”

Once a person is hooked on cycling, he suddenly finds himself searching for the better crank set, the better cassette, the better brake set, the better seat post. He starts to ride with friends and feels he needs lighter framesets for speed. Should it be titanium or carbon fiber? Once a cyclist starts obsessing about these things, upgraditis has totally set it.

There’s a “severe” form of upgraditis. It’s called N+1. Cyclists explains it as the “formula” for the “right” number of bicycles one must have. N stands for the total number of bicycles one currently has, and keeps adding one. It’s a continuing cycle. There’s one bikefor road rides, one for mountain trails, another for gravel, one for commutes, one for loaded cycle touring, one for bikepacking, and a fat bike for the roughest terrain. I heard some cyclists who are into N+1 rent warehouses to store their bicycles sans their spouses’ knowledge.

There’s a limit as to how many bicycles one can possess, however. The formula is S-1, where S is the number of bicycles one currently has at which the spouse kicks the cyclist out of the house. The problem should not go that far.  

Overall diagnoses: there’s no vaccine for upgraditis but it can be moderated. One need not break the bank and shatter peace in the family to enjoy this passion. How? 

Know what you want. The first bike you buy can set you on the irreversible path to upgraditis. I bought my first bike, a folding bike, without much thinking years ago. It was supposedly for rides around the barangay, for exercise. In just a week I was riding around Cavite, Laguna, and Quezon provinces. I upgraded it to be more capable for riding up the hills but still proved inadequate. So I got a new steel touring bike which, I learned later, was setup for rides off-road. It felt slow on pavement, so I bought a new set of wider rims and narrower tires for quicker rides on roads and gravel and powered it with a new group set. The bike now rides like a cloud on pavement but I ended spending more. 

Lessons learned? Know what you want to do from the start and where you want to ride.  

You fancy speed and the look of Tour de France riders? Get a road bike – those “racer” bicycles with very thin tires. You want to ride roads and occasionally gravel paths, get a gravel bike (usually with 38-47 mm tires). 

Do you see yourself shredding the trails on mountain sides? Get a mountain bike – those with two-inch tires or wider, some with suspension. You can use same bike for bike-and-camp (“bikepacking” in current parlance) at some point. 

If you want an all-around bicycle – for commutes, hauling vegetables, coffee at the corner café, travelling to other cities, or tracing Marco Polo’s journey on the Silk Road – get a touring bike. It’s bombproof and has the eyelets for racks, bags, water bottles, and repair kits. Touring bikes are beasts of burden that guarantee comfort and stability for all day riding. 

Long story short, look deeply into your soul, know what you want, get a spreadsheet, and plan the details, including the costs. Be deliberate from the start so that you don’t have to spend for upgrades later. Building bikes by increments is a trap.             

Not all sore points on the bikes need upgrades. In many cases, the reasons for all the saddle pains are not with the saddle per se. It can be due to bad bicycle fit. Wrong bike size, too short or too long stem, wrong saddle and handlebar levels – all these guarantee pain. The cheap saddle or the cheap bicycle will do just fine if its properly dialed in to one’s riding style. Learn the principles of bike fit as much as you can, tweak the setup from time to time until you hit the sweetest, most comfortable spot.

Be wary of marketing hypes. These days, “gravel bikes” (those drop bar bikes with 40-47 mm tires and slightly longer chain stay) are all the rage, even here in the Philippines. In truth, there isn’t that much gravel roads in the Philippines for these bicycles, except in few remote, rural areas. We do have some hilly, muddy terrain and some manicured tracks that are great for mountain and trail bikes. We buy gravel bikes just the same and show them off to friends on paved road rides. We buy them because it’s the newest thing being shown on “bikepacking” websites.             

No shame in buying second-hand. There’s a thriving market for second-hand items: frames, drive trains, wheels, bags, you name it. They are usually sold 20-50 percent cheaper than brand new. If you have the patience to scour social media pages of these items, you will see a lot of gems. 

When traveling long distances, a cyclist spends more time on the road, learning more about new places and their peoples, creating beautiful and vivid memories. A cyclist uses his or her own energy for mobility, making every travel a feat of great accomplishment. One doesn’t feel that way when speeding up on motorized vehicles over a blurry landscape.

Cyclists are better off spending money more on these experiences and memories, and less on expensive bicycles and accessories.     

 *Dave Llorito is a former journalist who currently works for an international development organization. Pre-Covid, he spent his weekends and holiday breaks either hiking mountains or cycling to remote seaside villages for camping and watching the sunset.  

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