Saturday, 20 November 2010

You've Never Had it so Good?

When I started in the trade in the early 1980's, one of the most popular bikes on the market was the Peugeot Premiere 10, a ten-speed steel-framed sports bike.

The bike had (in it's standard format as we received it in the UK, anyway), CLB or Weinmann side-pull brakes, steel 700c rims, alloy hubs, Huret gears with plastic non-indexed downtube levers and a steel seatpost.

As I recall, the retail price in the mid 80s of this beast was about £110, at a time when a shop bike mechanic was earning about £65.00 a week take-home - so it was around 2 weeks' pay.

These numbers might not be bang on, but I don't think they're too far off.

If we fast-forward to today, most mechanics in the UK probably earn around £325 a week take-home. For, say, £700.00 in this day and age, not only is the choice vastly wider, but the bicycle iteslf will be so night-and day different as to defy comparison. A bike like the Premier (albeit with probably a rather less accomplished frame) might sell for about the same cash price as it's predecessor ... about 2 or 3 days' pay.

So what am I saying here - well, the retail price of bicycles is at an all-time low against earnings, and the bikes that are available to us are technically hugely advanced against their antecedents, that much is obvious.

It's at this point however, that a small, suspicious voice whispers in my ear ... "there's no such thing as a free lunch" or "it may be a gift horse, but it might be worth looking it in the mouth" ...

Virtually every part of that old Peugeot bike was made in Europe. We can say with a fair degree of certitude that almost no part of it's modern equivalent will be made in Europe. Does that matter? Well, fundamentally, I think it does, yes.

I'll grant you that I am sitting here, typing this, on a computer made in China, but in Europe, we've barely had a micro-electronics industry to give away, whereas we have most certainly had a manufacturing base encompassing a huge range of bicycle parts, amongst other things - and as we have chosen to move more and more of that industry to whichever parts of the globe have offered us the opportunity to manufacture and ship at ever lower cash prices, so we have damaged our own society, our own future prospects, and, to boot, we have created a system which encourages a greater and greater ravishing of the environment. Just because that environmental damage is in Taiwan, or China, Morocco or Korea ... to me, it doesn't make it any more acceptable.

I know this is an old saw, but to my mind, it doesn't make it any less true.

Well, whinging about it is all very well, but what to do - we are, after all, where we are.

What it seems to me we need to do, is to promote the recycling of these imports here, we need to re-learn maintenance and repair skills which the apparent cheapness of replacement products have encouraged us to forget, and we need to ask more searching questions about how and where products are made.

We need to encourage industry closer to home, and allow that industry to generate the income that permits the R and D that has allowed distant economies to overtake our own so quickly and thoroughly - and if we can't reverse it, we need to do all that we can to stem the flow of capital from West to East.

Am I an idealist? Certainly. Am I niave? I don't think so - as the use of bicycles increases at all levels of UK society for everything from utility to leisure, commuting to racing, the opportunity exists to open up access to the bicycle by promoting not just the sale of recycled bicycles (allowing those who might never otherwise have been able to afford a bicycle, or those who would be for other reasons disinclined to spend so much on a bicycle, to buy one) but the other elements that promote cycle use - maitenance classes, pressing for better driver behavious, better riding skills and an improved social image of cyclists as a community.

It's only in this way that we'll get to a situation where my Godchildren, for example, should they wish to, will have the opportunity to work actually making something, rather than just working to buy and dispose of an seemingly endless succession of disposable products ...

You know, deep down, that the way we live at the moment, with the drive to constantly consume, is wrong. The revolution has to start. The question is, are we brave enough to face up to what we need to do, and to do it?


  1. Sorry FMIL, only just seen your comment - and what, indeed?

    It's the insidious drive to consume that's happened. With it comes the idea that self-worth is in some way connected to possession. Not everyone is a squillionaire, so product to satisfy a burgeoning, artificially-created demand has to be made cheaper.

    If we can't do it in the UK, we'll import - not just bicycles, but anything.

    What depresses me about bicycles is that almost none of the supposed "improvements" that we have seen in the last 10 years have diddly to do with what people need, but everything to do with what people are seduced into believing that they want - a further driver on consumerism, a further driver on production not on these shores.

    As I say, whinging won't fix it, but it's nice to know it's you *and* me against the world, now :-)