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By Tom Demerly.

Cyclist reads paper

Our love affair with material things, the gadgets we call our “stuff” is a mysterious romance. Like all love affairs it’s up and down. Sometimes your stuff serves you, sometimes you serve it.

I work in the “stuff” industry and have a fervent love of “stuff”. I make a living selling it. As a devotee of “stuff” I try to moderate between servant and master in my interaction with stuff. It’s a tough balancing act, one I sometimes lose.

It’s easy to get consumed by the love of “Stuff”. I see more and more of the mania that surrounds stuff. In the triathlon business especially, more new stuff seems to be the answer to everything. Our stuff tends to suggest our credibility: “She must be serious, look at that bike…” For some people the burden of that purchased credibility creates a bizarre anti-stuff.

I know I get stuff to validate myself. When I was a kid I saw race car drivers and astronauts devoting incredible resources to optimizing their stuff. Special tires for their race cars. Fireproof gloves. Space suits. Special food and important wristwatches for use in space. These men need the very finest stuff. Price? Ha! Don’t ask! This is important stuff for race car drivers and astronauts. They do not concern themselves with the trivialities of cost. Cost be damned- we are going to the Moon! Winning the Gran Prix at Monaco! Only the finest, most advanced stuff will do. So among my stuff I had Pillsbury Space Food Sticks and Timex wristwatches like the astronauts and the race car drivers. I wanted to be like them. I needed good stuff. When I got my first stuff as a boy, I had arrived. After that- those first $20 Adidas running shoes, special shoes for running, it was on- my love of stuff. I haven’t looked back.
Bike and triathlon stuff is a special category. It is accessible. It has become an industry. Even though the stuff we drool over is expensive, from $2000 wheel sets to $5000 bikes to $300 GPS/heart monitors, we can still pull together the resources and rationalize owning it. I understand that 100%. As a pretty typical middle class guy I know I’ll likely never own a million dollar business jet or a $500,000 race car. I can’t have that stuff- don’t have the cash. But I can have a pretty nice bike and some cool electronic gadgets. That is my stuff, my Ferrari and business jet. So I think a lot of people validate the purchase of exotic bike and triathlon equipment by reasoning that it is their “ultimate sports car”. I can identify with that.

Strange and hallowed rituals surround our reverence of stuff. When we are buying new stuff we conduct an odd dance people call “research”. This is a terrible perversion of the word “research” as it suggests some orderly, empirical process. We don’t buy stuff that way. Regardless of what we may think, we buy almost entirely on emotion. Researching which stuff is best is a futile and worthless investment of time. We convince ourselves it is the most important part in this mystic stuff relationship with stuff. We compare stuff to stuff in an utterly ridiculous and fruitless attempt to divulge which stuff is best. We are practicing a form of rationalization that our brain needs to make it OK to buy stuff. Once that process has been conducted ad nauseam we get confused from conflicting or identical data and opinions and default to buying the coolest looking stuff. Don’t lie, I do it too. Everyone does. It’s the dance of stuff. Trick yourself into thinking you are making a rational decision and then buy on looks.

Even suggesting that someone’s “research” of stuff is a waste of time is sacrilegious. Of course you must research the stuff you buy. The fruits of research are like Egyptology- if we spend enough time on the Internet and canvassing the Hieroglyphic opinions of friends and “experts” we will unearth some utterly unobtainable stuff that is cheaper, stronger, faster, lighter and generally better than all other stuff. The golden sarcophagus of stuff. The research does not lie. If you do enough research, make enough Excel spreadsheets comparing stuff and read enough reviews you will find the ephemeral best stuff. It is like King Tut’s tomb, complete with the attendant curse.

The curse of the best stuff is that it is a moving target. By the time you’ve completed the research dance to discern the best stuff the target has moved. Like painting the Golden Gate Bridge once you reach the end you must start all over because your efforts are now rendered obsolete by that bastard of stuff ownership, newer stuff. It’s the curse. You may have the best stuff, but only for a moment. Better stuff is on the way. But the actual ownership of stuff is like a running river. At some point you have to stop watching the water run by and jump in. If you don’t, if you stand on the river bank of consumership watching the newest stuff cascade by only to be replaced by more new stuff from upstream, you’ll never own any stuff. Eh gad. A life without stuff: Unimaginable.

My friends make fun of me because every description of the stuff I own is prefaced with the proclamation, “This is super hard to get- you can’t get it...” I recall some prized stuff that belonged to my friend and stuff devotee Michael R. Rabe. Michael R. had a pair of team issue Rudy Project sunglasses. They had a special color scheme but more importantly the sunglasses had “NOT FOR SALE” stamped on the inside of the temple. Not for sale? All stuff is for sale… If a person can’t buy a given piece of stuff, how would they obtain it? What if I wanted a pair also? When you asked Rabe he would tell you, quite simply, “These aren’t for sale…” Rabe’s sunglasses belonged in a mystic realm of hyper-stuff that has matter and substance, but is so hard to obtain it cannot be purchased. This type of hyper-stuff transcends the bounds of mere product research. It is above all that. If it isn’t offered for sale to the commoner for dirty money then it is somehow more sacred. These acquisitions hover well above mere commerce. When Rabe died I went to his house and looked for those sunglasses. They were gone. I could not get them. He was right. Rabe had achieved a sense of oneness with this new realm of hyper-stuff. He simply got stuff- he no longer had to subordinate himself to buying it. He had become like the race car drivers and astronauts. His stuff simply… appeared. This ability to just get stuff without paying for it is where the high priests of stuff ownership dwell. Sometimes they are given stuff just for their opinions on it. The very highest order of stuff-dom. This completes the circle of stuff ownership. You no longer research. Instead, you are the research others do. You have achieved mastery of stuff.

As a species our ability to develop and consume stuff exceeds our ability to best employ it. An extreme example is the atomic bomb. Atomic bombs are serious stuff. Developing the bomb was like opening a box of snakes. Once you let the snakes out, you play hell trying to get them back in the box so you can control them. Snakes and bombs can create a lot of problems. The same thing is true with all the new stuff we invent, buy, own and use. Too much stuff is a lot of snakes out of the box. You’ll never get them back in. War tends to breed a kind of frantic stuff development and use with no regard for the consequences. So does sport to a lesser degree. Imagine if we bought bikes that way- just buying and buying and using and using until we knew we had bike superiority over every other triathlete and cyclist: An arms race of bicycles. Look what happened to the Soviet Union in all that mess. They didn’t have good enough stuff, we had better, they lost and you still can’t buy a proper bike in Russia.

The greatest Pandora’s Box of stuff, the bottomless abyss of stuff is electronic analytical tools and gadgets. I own them all, or they own me. They speak via infra-red telepathy in coded vernacular and utter beeps and blinks and have alarms and settings. To attempt to control the mystic realm of heart monitors, GPS’s, power meters and other computer ancillaries you must become a new age, electronic Merlin. Or Frankenstein. You pour over manuals and speak in odd words. You download and uplink, acquire satellites and calibrate work loads. You do what your stuff tells you to do lest you suffer the ultimate indignation of stuff ownership: Not understanding what your new stuff actually does. If you have become this you have- I’m sorry to tell you- sunk to the bowels of stuff ownership. Your stuff owns you. It rules you. It commands you. If you’ve ever gone on a long run with a GPS and tried to download your workout only to find the file somehow corrupt you know what I mean. If this causes the workout to no longer exist to you then you have a problem. Your stuff owns you. It’s out of control.

About a half century ago we didn’t have much stuff. We just rode. Bicycles were made of cro-moly and there wasn’t much technology in cycling compared to today. In the ‘50’s they thought they had adequate stuff- and they did- but didn’t imagine they needed power meters, downloadable heart monitors, GPS units and carbon fiber frames or wheels. Now we have more stuff, and we’re convinced we need it all. We are also better athletes doing tougher events. There was no Ironman triathlon in the 1950’s. It is worth noting that at the first Ironman there were no heart rate monitors or power meters. But then again, the winning time in the very first Ironman wouldn’t win the men’s 45-49 age category today.

I know that stuff works. The way that stuff works, if you wield it correctly, is a delicate conspiracy. When everything is correctly employed in just the right manner to fortify our performance magical benefits arise. In modern vernacular this is being dialed. When I did my first Ironman in 1986 in Kona, Hawaii I tried to be dialed. I had bladed spoke wheels, a Colnago road bike, clipless pedals and special shoes for my bike called “Ironman” shoes. There were no triathlon clothes then so we cut up running clothes and shortened singlets to make triathlon clothes that looked like what we saw Dave Scott and Scott Tinley wearing. I was 24 years old then and was healthy and uninjured. Today I am 45 and have had too many injuries to list but I can do Ironman two hours faster than I could in 1986. Two hours. I attribute almost none of that to athleticism and nearly all of it to better stuff. When I first did Ironman there were no Powerbars, no aerobars, no miniature heart rate monitors, no liquid food sources, no triathlon bikes. Compared to now we hardly had anything I guess. I’m convinced better stuff makes it easier and faster to do Ironman.

The balancing act in our desire for stuff has to come when we start to put too much reliance on stuff- when we ascribe obsessive significance to stuff. That’s where the baloney starts. A friend of mine recently made the rather sagacious observation that the more athletes talk about stuff the less training they seem to do. The best bike racers I ever met have told me they didn’t know (or care) much about stuff. They just rode. Between them these fellows have about 20 Tour de France finishes and exactly 10 wins. I figured they thought about stuff all the time. I was surprised to hear they actually did not. They were more focused on their training.

I may be 45 but I’m not ready to start talking about “the good old days” and saying crap like “steel is real”. Old bikes were heavy, shifted poorly, rode like a log and didn’t really look that cool. The new stuff is definitely better. I don’t yearn for the old stuff. It wasn’t that great. Someday the stuff we have now that we think is so cool will seem archaic. It’s the downstream of stuff, and the current we must negotiate in our relationship with stuff. But regardless of how we moderate our interaction of stuff the key to it is we must own our stuff, not the other way around.


© Tom Demerly, Bikesport Inc.
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