The Eloquent Hack: The Unconscious Art of Aesthetic Self-Sabotage

Looks matter. Or do they?


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We all have our blind spots; these dark motes in our minds where we just do not perceive things correctly, if at all. Maybe it’s a patch of paint on the wall that isn’t the exact same tone as the rest of the room, but it has been there so long we just don’t notice it anymore. Or maybe, like some kind of dyslexia, it’s something that has always been there, right in front of us, and we just … don’t … see … it. And sometimes, we collectivize those blind spots. We reinforce them so that all of us share the same blindness, and no longer notice the obvious reality of what is going on.

These blind spots, and how we extrapolate from there into a state best explained as aesthetic self-sabotage, is something I really began to wonder about when I was shopping for spokes to build up a set of wheels last month. Aesthetic self-sabotage, as I see it, is a situation where we make decisions based solely on appearances, and by so doing, end up at some sort of functional disadvantage. We are so swayed by how something looks that we actively avoid choices that will improve our performance, or be functionally superior, and instead willingly choose to pursue an outcome that will not perform as well for our needs.

Exhibit A: The Downhill Baggy Clothing War of 2008. Downhill racing is as elementally pure as it gets. Rider and bike versus the clock. Races are decided by tenths, sometimes hundredths, of seconds. Downhill racers go to obsessive, fanatical lengths in order to gain those precious tenths or hundredths. Secret chain lubes, removal of derailleur jockey wheel seals, tire cutting, taping of loose clothing to fit more snugly. Everything matters. In spite of this, and in spite of the very clear, stopwatch-proven reality that skinsuits were faster than baggy motocross clothing, and that helmets without visors were faster than helmets with visors, many of the best downhillers in the world protested loudly enough in 2008 that they actually got the UCI to enact a ban on skinsuits and visor-less helmets. A ban that is still in effect today. The reasoning behind the ban? The fastest racers in the world did not want to look like dorks.

Dorky or second-saving? Josh Bryceland during the 2008 World Championships at Val Di Sol, Trentino, Italy. Photo: Sven Martin

It could be argued that the contemporary look of 2008—a bright and contrasting ensemble of baggy, motocross inspired nylon clothing that fit and breathed about as well as a set of Hefty 35-gallon trash bags and screamed “runaway clown”—was just as dorky as the skinsuits that this look overthrew, but at the time, the cultural ethos was that skinsuits and visor-less helmets were lame, and that the runaway clown look was cool. So the decision was made, with full knowledge of the aerodynamic consequences, and the sport ‘progressed.’ A handful of racers, who measure their performance and their worth by the fractions of seconds that differentiate them from each other, elected to enact rules that MADE THEM SLOWER. At least it was a level playing field, I guess. The riding clothes that we all wear today, 13 years downstream of that decision, have some genesis in that moment.

The reasoning behind the ban? The fastest racers in the world did not want to look like dorks.

In a totally unrelated way, downhill racing led to a proliferation of the suspension arms race, which in turn led to a very different knock-on effect. I am referring here to the insidious trait of being Overbiked. Downhill racing did not directly cause this, but the increase in suspension travel and the improvement in suspension performance that downhill racing engendered led directly to a very similar evolution in suspension quantity and quality across the entire spectrum of mountain biking.

This evolution has for the most part made bikes more comfortable, better handling, and more reliable. Buuuut, it also led to our current state of riding where we suffer from an embarrassment of riches. Modern trail riders can choose anything from plus-tired hardtails to 150mm travel (or more) 29ers, with a whole galaxy of options in between. The proliferation of naming strategies to try and keep riders accurately informed as to what exactly the latest and greatest bikes are greatest at has been similarly Byzantine. Riders can choose from XC, XC/marathon, trail, aggressive trail, all-mountain, park, freeride, DH, dirt jump, plus-bike, fatbike, and whatever else I am forgetting, all with these vague and confusing areas of overlap. So what do almost all of us do? We get a bike with more travel and bigger tires than we probably need.

Okay maybe not you. But everyone else does. I do, time and time again. I find a bike I am super happy with, ride it and love it, and then without fail, I start futzing around with it. A longer fork, some meatier tires, an overstroked shock, and suddenly the bike is heavier, arguably more capable, but also kinda less capable. Or, I get antsy with the bike that works just fine for 90 percent of my riding, and decide I need a bike for those times when I am ripping shale in the high country. Something I get to do a few times a year. So I ditch my trusty “just right for around here” steed in favor of the bigger, beefier ‘all-mountain’ holy grail. Why? Because I cannot resist the allure of those shiny new parts and great big tires that speak to my lizard brain. They whisper to me in my dreams; “More… You want more. Go on, get some MOAR…” Like a magpie finding a shiny but useless bauble for my nest, I am helpless to resist this urge.

A mere year later at the Schladming World Cup Finals in 2009. Photo: Sven Martin

Which brings us full circle back to spokes. This is one area where I KNOW what I want. I want to build a set of wheels with good old-fashioned stainless steel spokes. Problem is, I can’t find any. Not in the gauge, length and butting that I want, at least. I can find black spokes, no problem. They are often even called “black stainless steel” spokes, but they are not what I want. I want shiny silver stainless steel spokes. I believe that gram for gram, shiny silver stainless steel spokes are stronger, less inclined to corrode and less brittle than their swarthy counterparts. I am not alone in this belief. If pressed, most spoke manufacturers would even concede that this is true. But here we are, in a retail world so completely dominated by black spokes that it is nigh impossible to even find silver stainless steel spokes anymore.

Black spokes now are a whole lot better than they were 30 years ago. But they are still not as good as plain old stainless spokes. I asked an engineer at a prominent wheel brand about this last year. This is a man who has an entire career in bicycle and wheel metallurgy, and whose depth of knowledge is profound. When asked if stainless steel spokes were still the best performing choice for building wheels, he didn’t even hesitate. “Absolutely,” he said. “In every measurable sense, stainless steel spokes are a superior choice for building wheels.”

Why, then, are ALL the spokes on ALL the wheels now black? He laughed, and said: “Because we’d be committing retail suicide if we tried selling wheels with stainless steel spokes. Line two bikes up on a showroom floor, both of them identical except one has stainless spokes and one has black spokes. The consumer will buy the bike with black spokes. Every single time.”

Aesthetic self-sabotage. Maybe we didn’t intentionally choose this, but we kinda did. With a sigh of resignation, I gave up looking for the right length DT Revolution spokes in a culturally unpopular color and decided to go for a ride. In my baggy clothes, with my kinda overbuilt half-shell helmet and visor. Aboard my slightly-too-heavy, too-much-travel bike with overkill tires. I still had fun. But at the same time, I couldn’t help wondering if someone was playing a joke on me.

Title Photo: Anthony Smith