Bicycles Make Friends

Bicycles Make Friends

Photo: Nico Roche and Aurélien Clerc at AG2R La Mondiale Spring Training Camp, Provence Region, France reflecting on a wonderful experience sharing cycling, suffering, newly designed team wheels (mathematics), and friendship.

My passion for cycling, suffering, mathematics, and a life that is bigger than mine has awarded me with more than 30 years of experience and global travel to meet and interact with extraordinary people. This is my first article in my ongoing blog where I will share stories and perspectives of my lifetime in the cycling industry. I’ll share insight from personal experiences and experiences of my colleagues, evaluate products and events, interview people important to the cycling world, investigate health and performance, contemplate the future, evaluate the current, and reflect on the past.

As I think back to my earliest memories, athletic endeavors and mathematics have been an enjoyment and fascination for me. At a very young age I recall thinking that competitive swimming might become a passion. I was introduced to the sport of swimming by a swim instructor named Gary Dilley who was a Silver-medalist at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, just one-year after I was born in 1963. I realize that my interaction with him at a young age gave me a very personal understanding of the passion a person can develop for sport. At age 8 I began playing competitive tennis, rising to a level of National (USA) competition by high school. Also, in high-school I added cross-country, and track. In college (US Naval Academy and Ball State University) I competed in tennis, squash, cross-country, and triathlon.

Triathlon was fantastic. It posed the most impossible challenge to master. It demanded time and focus. It was loaded with health and nutrition challenges, and then there was the equipment and the technology all combined in competition with the most obsessive and competitive group of people you will meet.

Triathlon was my introduction to cycling. I am competitive by nature, and every sport was enjoyable, not for the sake of the sport, but for the competition. Triathlon represented what seemed to me to be the ultimate competitive environment. For years I competed in both professional and age group events. In reflection, the sport didn’t matter, it was the competition… until cycling.

Cycling was different. Cycling is about suffering as much as it is about competition. While cycling is only one sport compared to the three sports of triathlon, cycling represented more. I found the same obsessive competitive personalities, the same health and nutrition challenges, and the majority of equipment and technology in triathlon is cycling related, but what triathlon lacked that I found in cycling was depth, depth in physical suffering and depth in the culture of cycling. Don’t misunderstand me, the suffering in a full IRONMAN® distance competition is life-changing and emotional, but the suffering in cycling is part of the culture of cycling.

Hours turn into days, days into weeks... months, years, and decades of suffering is a special place to live life, and misery loves company- and builds bonds of friendship. Bicycles make friends… good friends. I first experienced this thought as a reflection thinking back to the friendship I developed more than 30-years ago with Keith Lewis, the person who introduced me to cycling, and the years of suffering I experienced with him sharing cycling experiences.

“Cycling is an excruciating sport - a rider’s power is only as great as his capacity to endure pain - and it is often remarked that the best cyclists experience their physical agonies as a relief from private torments. The bike gives suffering a purpose.” -The New Yorker on Team Rwanda, and inspired by Jonathan "Jock" Boyer, one of the most important figures in competitive cycling, founder of Team Rwanda, and the first American to race the Tour de France®.

At some point, I realized that the environment of pain and shared understanding of suffering builds bonds with other cyclists and also with inanimate cycling equipment. Just like the teammates and companions you rely on to take a pull, to talk you through the pain, to share the suffering, cyclists learn to depend on their equipment, they challenge it during a race, expect it to perform on demand, and care for it afterwards; as a result an emotional connection to their cycling equipment is created.

Enter my fascination with mathematics, and especially the special mathematical constant π (Pi) which is approximately 3.14159265. Pi is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. Pi is also an irrational number, which means that its value cannot be expressed exactly as a simple fraction. As a result, Pi is an infinite decimal. I was fascinated with the concept of Pi as an irrational number which represents infinite value to engineers of circles. Pi is an irrational constant with a valuable purpose, similar to the concept of how the irrational constant associated with suffering finds purpose in cycling. I suppose I first considered the concept of Pi as a mathematical utility as part of my fascination with bicycle mechanics, and specifically bicycle wheels.

Suffering represents the essence of cycling as a culture, and bicycle wheels represent the mechanical essence of cycling equipment. Bicycle wheels (okay, and the tires) are the components of the bicycle which connect the rider with the road or the trail; they are the single piece of mechanical equipment which simultaneously touch the tarmacandirt and the bicycle. They also, arguably represent the most mechanically significant cycling component. They impact speed, comfort, durability, reliability, and offer infinite variability that can fascinate a cycling obsessed enthusiast and engineer (like me). 

Anyone who knows me, knows that my lifetime in the cycling industry has been largely focused on bicycle wheels. While my obsession with cycling, and specifically bicycle wheels, is emotional, they fulfill a need for a very practical and enduring creative and mathematical challenge which I enjoy.  Furthermore, the design, engineering, and manufacturing of bicycle wheels means that I have had an opportunity to create something that takes on a life of its own; something that is bigger than me. 

My first introduction to product design, and the possibility of being part of something bigger than me came in 1988 with my introduction to Myles Levin, Profile Design's first Marketing & Sales Director, and an invitation to join him at the Texas A & M University Wind Tunnel to test a handlebar design of mine (our more than 30-year friendship began on that trip). Profile Design was a sponsor of the United States Cycling Federation, and representatives Chris Carmichael and Steve Penny there with several young junior cyclists, one of which was George Hincapie (a future article). I didn’t realize it at the time, but that experience created the concept that I came to understand- that my designs become something that a cyclist can take on his or her own journey, and in a very unique way, I get the exquisite privilege of being a part of their cycling culture.

Perhaps cycling is not suffering at all; perhaps cycling is healing- not just a sport, but a culture which can help to alleviate true human suffering through teamwork such as building coffee bikes for Rwandan coffee farmers, uniting otherwise adversarial counties as teammates in global competition, creating multinational design and manufacturing opportunities and strengthening relationships and respect in business through supply chains.

Perhaps simply, cycling and bicycles build bridges, knock down walls, break social barriers, find equality without racial prejudices, and see the world as a place where everyone can share a common language, culture, and respect.

Perhaps, “Bicycles make friends.”

Paul Lew, "Bicycles make friends"