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New-itis

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"Rear derailleur design: Minimum qualifications -- Engineering Degree, MBA, and Six Sigma Certification. Interest in cycling a plus."

There are hundreds of posts like this on websites of bicycle manufacturers. Stumbling all over each other, they're in a frenzy to feed a market of weekend fashionistas and hardcore bike racers. In a global recession, this industry's booming.

Cell phones cycle so fast our brains are constantly forced to upgrade, and now it's bicycles. Is technology driving this addictive behavior to every gadget that moves? Or are we?

Trendwatching.com calls it "new-itis," and if we have this affliction, we know who we are. We stood in line at 4 a.m. to grab yet another generation "smart" phone. We were trendy for three weeks, then recalls and malware apps set us up for Wizard Appointments to wipe stuff clean.

The cycling industry has duly noted this affliction, and a devouring pack of newby bike riding techies are the Beta Testers of choice. Freshly juiced from another procession of seductive catwalk racing bikes in the Tour de France, we're in line too.

We text and hit immovable objects, because if we don't get one back in five seconds and counting, it could make or break our fragile lives. It validates our worth as a socially skilled animal.

In cycling, social skills must make room for motor skills. There's lots you can do when "unplugged," as the documentary Connected popularized. Do the laundry? Do professional sports spectating and eat lots of hot dogs? Or maybe do that bike in the garage...

Now you can participate and do thousands of group rides, races, 100-mile fundraisers... and your social and technology skills will stay tuned up. Rather than rummage for the new Android, change out your gym membership for a cool bike and reveal your hard body to the outside world.

So, if they're hiring, why not design bikes? Could be fun. But, what's "Six Sigma" anyway? Here's Wiki:

"Lean Six Sigma methodology addresses process flow and waste issues with focus on variation and design as complementary disciplines aimed at promoting "business and operational excellence" to achieve stable and predictable results of process outputs by identifying and removing the causes of defects for quantified financial targets."

Whoa. If I need all this "Six Sigma" expertise, how long is the test phase before my high tech design rushes to market? Not to worry, they're standing in line out there, just spray paint it, box it, and get it out of here. The consumer, yet again, is the Beta Tester.

Problem is, stakes are high. Minimum outlay for the latest "smart" phone with goodies? $500. A trendy bike? $5000 at the low end, and the bicycle industry's just getting warmed up. They're making so many quirky changes to what we call a bike, another PhD is required just to shop.

Proprietary innovations drag us to the altar of the manufacturer, scratching our heads... holes for bottom brackets big enough to drive through, wider wheel hubs to fit cogsets running 12 speeds or more, deep dish rims that need two inch valve stems on the tires just to pump them up... replace a worn out shifter cable? No problem! It'll be done in three weeks when our mechanic figures out how to route it and lube it to get rid of that tension problem.

Next week's career listing: "Cable sheathing engineer with MBA in friction reduction resins, plastics, and elastomeric polymers. Experience in aviation, robotics, and space travel a plus." Dang, another PhD in zero gravity materials...

Save wear on your body and brain, you need little of it. Press a button on the proprietary shifter lever and you've got any gear, plus a saddle with the massage option! Last year, Parlee rolled out a prototype that reads brain waves. Now you do nothing. Just think about shifting while you get a nice massage. Bike messengers rejoice! Think about your bike and it'll meet you on the 63rd floor...

After years of customizing my racing bike, I thought about all this. It wasn't easy riding frames too big and pushing heavy parts uphill. I'd been zoned into my bike for so long, I wasn't prepared. When I couldn't find an English threaded 68mm 1.37x24 octalink titanium bottom bracket, I was stunned.

We've got "Forever" stamps, why not bottom brackets? Was this the end of the custom bike? Just walk in and pick something out without a test ride? I've got to add bikes to my list of phone carrier contracts signed in the dark?

This forced me to shop, my least favorite sport. I got scary close to "new-itis." I shopped 'til I dropped, spending more time in stores than on my bike. Shifter levers were clunky huge, complicated, and slashed my fingers. Compact cranksets didn't have the big end. Saddles hurt like hell. So many opinions, so little time. My quads deflated. I was grumpy and jumpy and felt like a day trader on the floor. Buy! Sell!

Finally, I imploded. I told friends with fancy bikes I'd build one from scratch. They told me the bike's not the problem, I'm the problem, and I don't want to try anything new. Deflecting catcalls, I did weeks of online research into the night. I had no life. Facebook tried to shut me down...

With a leap of faith, I hired a custom frame builder and returned to some basics. Aluminum for the frame, and a straight-up groupset embarrassingly a year out of date with no recalls. Carbon fiber anywhere I could afford it. A custom built wheelset with Circus Monkey hubs and rims built by, as one bike store employee claimed "a seven-year-old in Korea" (he was right).

Who did I think I was, attempting to compete with experts? I braced for public humiliation and a spectacular crash as I jumped on my finished product. End result? I love my rabbit-fast light bike, and they gotta work harder to catch me. How did this happen?

Catcall alert... "You'll crash when those new carbon spindles break" ... Then, I got it. I weigh 95 lbs., the new bike 14 lbs. Bikes are getting so light and so brittle, these Big Guys are shredding them. I'm in a category appropriate for anything. My body to bike weight ratio is now 15%. For a 185 lb. cyclist, 15% is a 28 lb. bike. Who would agree to that?

Bicycle manufacturers might benefit from the engineering of hang-gliders and shaped skis decades earlier. When bodies didn't move as fast as technology, skis turned without warning and ran off a cliff. Hang-gliders banked hard and hit the ground. Engineers had out-performed themselves. The urge to tag anything "Comp," even if it's just a glider, had them pushing the envelope too far.

What did I notice after tons of shopping and research? Backlash. There's a quiet revival going on of proven design and materials. Engineers may be pushing, but customizing cyclists and The French are pushing back. There's a bicycle weight limit in the Tour de France.

A PBS documentary aired in 2010 could be good medicine for treating "new-itis." Wanting to be first, British engineers tackled Leonardo da Vinci's flying machine from his original drawings. They hired the World's Hang glider Champion to pilot it and rolled out their glider to an open field. One look and she refused.

They scrambled through notes. All was in order. In a desperate move, they added one tiny detail they'd tossed as "irrelevant." They rolled another out to the field. Their pilot checked it out, harnessed up, and flew further than the Wright Brothers.

Lessons like these in the cycling industry may come too late for me to get comfy riding fast and furious on an out-of-the-box bike tomorrow. Until then, I've more to do. I'm still trying to unclip my fancy new Italian cycling shoes out of my fancy new superlite carbon titanium pedals with a Six Sigma Newton meter setting.

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