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 by: Bill Oetinger  4/1/2018

Degrees of Phredness

Seventeen years ago this month I wrote a column called Fashion vs Function in which I took issue with people who set up shop as arbiters of style in the world of cycling. I questioned the right of anyone to cast aspersions at any other rider for the way they dress or accessorize their bikes. I was pretty huffy about it. I was the righteously indignant defender of phreds everywhere.

What (or who) is a phred? I couldn’t provide an adequate etymology of the term in that prior column and I still can’t. You’d have thought the lexicongraphers of the world would have caught up with bike slang in 17 years but apparently not. Throw it at google and all you get is a reference to a metric employed in DNA sequencing for the Human Genome Project. That’s obviously not it, although, come to think of it, perhaps each person has some innate phredness encoded in their personal DNA.

My understanding of the word in the context of cycling is that as a noun it refers to a person and as an adjective to a tendency in that person to be a little geeky-nerdy-uncool about their bike and bike kit…to favor pragmatic priorities such as safety and comfort ahead of the siren song of fashion. Fashion in cycling is usually, if not always, atuned to some facsimile of racers and racing kit; even more precisely to some idealized embodiment of the heroes of the golden age of racing: from Gino Bartali and Fausto Coppi to Eddy Merckx and Sean Kelly.

For a deeper appreciation of this point of view—the anti-phred, pro-racer mindset—look no further than the Velominati website, where the self-appointed Keepers of the Cog lay down The Rules regarding correct cycling behavior, including all the right and wrong things to do with your bike and your kit. Every cyclist should have at least a passing acquaintance with The Rules, if only because they offer a fairly accurate—if somewhat over-the-top—window into the heart of traditional cycling. If I said The Rules are a tongue-in-cheek spoof on cycling tradition, no doubt the Keepers of the Cog would howl in outrage, insisting they’re entirely serious. But…c’mon… Their take on cycling could be summed up by a rainy day at Paris-Roubaix and the ever-pithy admonition: “Harden the fuck up!” (That right there is actually Rule #5 on their list.) As the first two weekends in April bring us the twin towers of the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix, this seems like an appropriate time to be dipping into that world.

Anyway…while I was rather tart in my critique of style arbiters back in that prior column, I confess that I can see both sides of this matter and can well relate to Emerson’s old bromide: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” So allow me this time around to acknowledge both the starchy traditions of cycling and also the practical—if nerdy—phred paradigm.

Most cyclists who consider themselves to be embedded in the cycling culture will have at least a tiny compass buried somewhere in their bike-minds that points to the true, magnetic north of professional racing. How powerful a pull the pro peloton exerts on your attention will probably determine how obsessively you hew to the traditional orthodoxy laid down in The Rules or, conversely, how willing you are to wander astray and indulge in quirky little fashion crimes that would appall or at least amuse the more devout members of the Church of the Spinning Crank.

The most ardent adherents to the traditional rules would have you believe this is a cut-and-dried, black-or-white issue. Zero tolerance for deviancy! Being of a more liberal, wishy-washy turn of mind, I am inclined to see it as a matter of degrees…degrees of phredness. You can honor and admire the pros—especially the iconic pros of yore—but still grant yourself the leniency to use or wear assorted items that a pro would never touch. Some of this is simply the reality that most of us are not pros now and never have been. In our real world we are only a pale approximation of them and of what they do. So get over it. Adjust accordingly. Cut yourself some slack.

That said, the poetry and valor of the pro world still compels our attention and our admiration, and when we wander away from its elegant, brutal purity, we are compromised in small ways…sometimes not so small.

Although the purists might disagree with me, I have to believe that what constitutes the velo-correct standards of The Rules are in flux, shifting, if only at glacial pace, as the years go by. For one obvious example: helmets. Not that long ago, no pros wore helmets and therefore many other cyclists did not do so either. Back in the day, helmets were phred. But in 2003, during the Paris-Nice stage race, Andrei Kivilev died after hitting his helmetless head on the cobbles. I wrote a column—exactly 16 years ago this month—about the use or non-use of helmets. That was the tipping point. (Not my column but the general uproar after that sad fatality.) Shortly thereafter the UCI decreed helmet use mandatory in racing and shortly after that, you almost never saw a serious rider without a helmet. The “better dead than phred” thinking went by the board. I doubt anyone is going to see a rider in a helmet today and think it’s uncool. However, wearing any non-cycling helmet, such as a rock-climber’s helmet, while riding a bike…that is phred.

The Rules state that no frame pumps are allowed. This is clearly a pro-race-driven conceit. In all races and on most training rides, pros are going to have a follow car with a mechanic who can jump out and give you a fresh wheel when you flat. But for the rest of us? We have to look like a pro—no pump—even though we don’t have the luxury of a sag behind us? Get outta here! The Keepers of the Cog suggest using CO2 cartridges in lieu of a pump and I know many amateur racers and race wannabes who do that. My own experience with cartridges is limited but not encouraging. We had them on our rental bikes in Italy a few years ago and after a ridiculous rash of flats, we had burned through all our little canisters. Lemme tell ya, trying to track down a fresh supply of CO2 cartridges in the town of Porlezza is no easy task. We finally managed it but it put a big crimp in our day’s ride. Naturally, after we were resupplied, we didn’t have another flat for the rest of the week.

I’m not putting frame pumps on the phred list, no matter what The Rules say. Nor, for that matter, am I putting clinchers there. The strict traditionalists will say it’s tubulars or nothing, but again, that presupposes a follow car and easy access to fresh wheels. In the real world of everyday, ordinary riders, clinchers make much better sense.

Bikes have evolved considerably since the days of Eddy and Sean. Most of us still admire a lovely lugged steel frame, but do we ride them? Do we think Eddy and Sean would ride them now? Not likely. But while I ride a Madone with a fair bit of curving and swooping in its carbon-fiber frame, at least the top of the top tube is horizontal. I draw the traditionalist line at top tubes that drop way out of horizontal, leaving the rider sitting on about two feet of seat post. That’s just wrong! Is it phred? I don’t know. I just don’t like it. Harrumph!

But I do deviate from The Rules in some significant ways. I have a rear-view mirror that attaches to my sunglasses with a couple of little alligator clips. I use it all the time. I discussed that at length in that 2001 column. Not going to beat that dead dog again, but 17 years of riding have not changed my mind about that one. I will say though that I draw the line at bar-end mirrors because they can quite easily get tangled up with another bike’s bars in pack riding. Tangled handlebars is what took Andrei Kivilev to the ground, just for one example. I also use a fairly large seat bag. This is also frowned upon by hardheads. They prefer a seat bag slightly larger than a kidney bean. Mine is big enough to hold not only two tubes, a multi-tool, a patch kit and tire iron, but also my arm warmers and vest when I shed them midway through a ride. This is definitely phred. My pals rag me about it. I don’t care. Hey, it’s only about 30% the size of one of those Brooks saddlebags your die-hard randonneur would mount. It’s not THAT big.

Speaking of the rando gang reminds me of a couple of other phredish items they run: fenders and lights. Now, okay, both of those make abundant sense in the context of brevets, where you’re out all night or in all sorts of weather. No problem with that at all. The fenders can even look cool on the right kind of retro-bike. I like the ones that look like they were pounded into shape with a ball-peen hammer. Lights obviously are essential at night. But I have a teensy problem with folks who run their lights during the day on club rides. They say it’s for safety, so they can be seen. My jury is out as to whether the lights will make them more visible to the average driver. But they sure are visible to me…the brightly blinking red LED taillights strobing through my brain when I’m on the guy’s wheel. And when I’m up ahead and I look in my very phred mirror and see the white LED blinking on some bike behind me, I always get a little red-alert that says. “car back!” The little spot of light looks like a car’s headlight or else sunlight reflecting off a car’s chrome. In my front brain I know it’s a bike, but in some hard-wired back brain, that little white light triggers a spurt of alert  that always gets me jacked up. Not a lot. Just a little. Not a big problem. Just a little one.

And under the heading of making yourself more visible to other road users, here are a couple of items that are definitely phred: tractor triangles and assorted reflective accessories. The former item needs no introduction. You have to have wandered a long way away from the cool orthodoxy of The Rules to get to a big orange triangle on your back. I’m not going to even try and defend that one. It’s 100% phred. As for the reflectors, I know some otherwise very cool (and seriously fast) riders who wrap atomic yellow straps around their ankles, extending out to the sides maybe six inches, all of the space covered with some wizard reflective stuff. Do they work? At night, I expect they’re great. In the daytime? That I don’t get.

Finally, the item that got me thinking about this column in the first place…or in the second place if you count the first column from 17 years ago. That item is Cat-Ears. In case you’re drawing a blank on the name, they’re little blocks of cloth or felt or faux-fur that strap to your helmet straps in front of your ears to damp down wind noise. They’re been around for awhile. BikeRadar ran a test and review of them back in 2012. They came to the conclusion that they are quite effective in doing what they set out to do, at least at lower speeds. They did however have a little bit of a problem with how they look: some felt they look like a couple of bushy sideburns, evoking images of Elvis in his Las Vegas days. I’ve seen a couple of folks on club rides with them and although I didn’t think of Elvis, I did think of phred.

Pretty much every one of the items on this list, from helmets to clinchers, from cat-ears to mirrors, addresses a need and goes at least some way toward fixing the problem it aims at. Well, maybe not tractor triangles but most of the others. The history of the bicycle is a history of inventiveness run rampant. Remember soft-ride beams? Elliptical chain rings? Velcro water bottle attachments? Strange saddles that were supposed to end sore butts forever? On and on. And most of us, at one time or another, bit on some new gizmo that we thought was going to improve our biking life. I know I have. I guess the question is: how closely do you want or need to adhere to the party line as expressed in The Rules? Or, on the other hand, how deep are you willing to dive into the uncharted seas of geeky practicality? As evidenced by what I see out on the road—and by my own decisions—it’s going to end up being that question of degrees…a sliding scale of wayward phredness.

Bill can be reached at srccride@sonic.net

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