Terroir

If you don’t love bikes, really love them, stop reading now. The things I’m about to say will sound nuts. Know that, in addition to spending 10,000 hours riding bikes, I’ve also spent decades studying them. You don’t have to believe what I’m about to say, but you should know that I believe it.

Terroir is an agricultural term coined by the French to describe the unique geographic, climatic, and methodological factors that influence the characteristics of a crop, most typically wine grapes. Oenophiles (wine people) will maintain that you can taste the terroir of a great wine.

I am here to tell you that you can perceive the terroir of a great bike, too.

This is more than a matter of materials, but a bike’s raw materials have their provenance. The commercial steel tubesets have long histories, with different makers in different countries alloying their steel and treating it in unique ways for varying personalities. Titanium is mined in China and Russia, but can be milled there or in North America. It comes in a slew of diameters and wall thicknesses, which many bike builders then modify with proprietary techniques to produce a signature feel. Carbon fiber comes from Taiwan or mainland China, but is also produced in Utah. Carbon tubing can be filament wound or roll wrapped, the layers of material built up in a variety of ways, shaped. And every bike builder has a philosophy about how they handle their materials.

The question is, do all of these variables have attachment to place? I believe they do, maybe not in the traditional sense of crop characteristics emerging from soil, but in the more tangential sense of local cultural values informing material choices, manufacturing techniques, and the final character of the bikes. It’s in the shaping of the builder’s philosophy that you get the bike’s terroir

Think of the bike builder as a farmer. There are small farms (one-person, custom builders) and giant corporate farms (e.g. Trek, Specialized, Giant, Cannondale, et. al.). The bikes they design and build are informed by where the designers themselves ride. Some will try to build bikes for geographies they haven’t ridden, and these nearly always fail, because the experience of riding a bike is physical, the way the dirt feels beneath your wheels is different in the Pacific Northwest than it is in New England, where I live. The rocks come in different sizes. The roots sit closer to the surface, or deeper. It rains more, or less.

All of this is in the designers mind as they think through lengths and angles, spacing, clearance, pivot arc, bar type, tires, gearing, etc. Sometimes the designer is also the builder, and then the bikes comes out just like s/he dreamed it up. Sometimes you have builders who also ride, who execute the vision. And then sometimes you have builders who hardly ride bikes, do it in a different way, in a different geography, and are executing the design solely based on technical specifications. The bikes produced via this last method can be good, but tend to be pretty homogenous. That’s even what they’re aiming for.

In the case where the builders live and ride and work where the designer lives and rides and works, you get this secondary input. As they go along, they ask questions of the design and imbue it, in small ways, with their own ideas. The bike gets even richer in this way, even though the final product might not be exactly as the designer intended. The point is, the bike builder’s (collective noun) riding experience is embodied by the bike, and that experience is made of terrain and weather, and even to some degree, of the local cycling culture. For example, here in New England where I live, riders tend to value rugged things, because we have four seasons and our terrain was hewn during the last ice age. It’s rough. Riding here requires heartiness, and hearty bikes, and so New England’s bike builders produce that sort of bike.

In partial contrast, the West Coast builders I know tend to incorporate more style into their designs. Their weather is mostly not as variable as ours, and the terrain, while sometimes really epic, can also be softer and smoother, just by virtue of soil type and dominant tree species.

What I have not said so far, and yet is also in the front of my mind, is that the big bike companies, who design in the US and Europe and then manufacture in Asia, mostly make characterless bikes, bikes you can project your own values on. That is not, in and of itself, a bad thing, but if you’re like me, and you love the machine as a manifestation of a passion for riding, then you’re looking for a bike with greater depth, more complexity, with discerning nuance and a genuine reflection of your cycling culture.

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