Brutal! Look what happens to a bike after 18,000 miles On the importance of stuff

It is with some pride that I announce that Martin, my 2011 Marin San Anselmo touring bike, has finally met his match. At some point in the last few months, the chain stay of his frame cracked and snapped in two.

The fact that neither I nor a professional bike mechanic noticed anything wrong apart from a strange skipping in the chain is testament to how amazing bikes are. Martin was literally snapped in half and I was still more or less happily pootling around.

It’s impossible to say how far Martin and I have travelled together since I bought him in 2011, but a rough estimate using data from various bike computers suggests somewhere in the region of 18,200 miles—more than enough to qualify as a ride around the world.

The first picture I have of Martin, only a few hours old. Look how shiny!

Martin: A timeline of adventure

Note: if you’re not at all interested in bike touring or my holiday snaps, then feel free to skip ahead to the next subtitle…

Our first journey together, nine years ago, was around the coastline of Britain. Two months of putting one wheel in front of another, wild camping together in fields, under hedges, in forests and on canal towpaths.

A year later, we repeated the trick in Tunisia, cycling through olive and palm groves, between salt lakes, past Roman ruins, and through two different kinds of desert to the sand seas of the Sahara.

The largest salt pan in the Sahara: Chott el Djerid in south Tunisia. Martin took me there in 2012.

In the wet summer of 2016, Martin (now officially christened Martin) rode in duet with a vintage racer called Joy from London to Vienna. We matched tracks from the South Downs to the Bavarian Plateau, from the banks of the River Thames to the vineyard sprawl of the Danube. Our accommodation, still wild, upgraded to hilltop castles and monasteries.

Camping at Stift Melk, Austria. The abbey is famous for its 18th century frescos and the 11th century tomb of Saint Coloman of Stockerau, an Irish pilgrim mistaken for a spy, tortured and hanged. Martin took me there in 2016.

More recently, Martin found true companionship in the community of bikes that is Thighs of Steel. In 2018 and 2019, we covered over 2,000 miles together across Europe, discovering new countries, new friends and new talents. Martin got himself a chainring downgrade which helped us over the mountains. In Athens, he even got himself a blue tattoo, of which he is still very proud.

Climbing up into the mountains of Romania with Thighs of Steel in 2018. Martin carried me there.

Finally, in our swansong year, Martin learnt the healthy pleasures of daily rides during a catastrophic pandemic, playing his part in the incredible Around the World project that raised over £130,000 for refugees. And, of course, in the lockdown-lifted summer, Martin came full circle: imprinting the south coast with his tyre tracks exactly nine years after he last toured Britain.

Lands End 2020 (L) and 2011 (R). Martin carried me there—twice.

Consumerism gives stuff a bad rep

I don’t want to blow this out of proportion: we’re living through a pandemic. My old bike is broken. I’ll get another one. It’s no big deal. But I’ve never had nearly as much fun with any other object as I’ve had with Martin.

When I flipped him over and saw the thick black crack against his mud and sand-flecked white skin, I felt like I’d slipped into an alternate universe.

A broken frame was nothing more than we deserved: nine years of high-impact, heavyweight touring caught up with the partnership. It was bound to happen one day or another. I was lucky that it didn’t happen while I was out touring—although, on reflection, maybe it did.

Throwaway consumerism has, I think, dirtied the purity of possession. Many people, myself included, have hankered after ascetic minimalism: a glorious rejection of the waste and want that modern capitalism has brought us.

But it’s worth remembering why certain convivial objects are precious to their owners—and perhaps to hold all our purchases to a similar standard of value.

What did Martin ever do for us?

A bicycle extends our human frailties. We become bionic, able to move many times faster and further than we ever could on foot, and much more efficiently. I have done things with Martin that would have been unimaginable without him.

I’m thinking, of course, of the life-altering adventures I mentioned earlier, but I’m also thinking of our day-to-day. Martin made it possible for me to live an expansive twenty-first century lifestyle without ever needing a car or taking an aeroplane flight.

Every week, without complaint, Martin lugs my heavy shopping bags five kilometres across town. Together we’ve visiting sixteen different countries, excluding England, Scotland and Wales. Every day he teaches me something about perseverance, self-reliance and community.

Martin’s made me oodles of new friends and ridden me to work, school and social events—especially during my years in London, where the cost and patchy provision of transport makes travel in the city such an unequal battle. (Hence why The Bike Project gives free bikes to refugees.)

But at what cost?

You won’t be surprised to read that I’ve run the numbers… The original Marin San Anselmo cost me £488.99—still the most I’ve ever spent on a single item. But I’ve spent many times more on maintenance and spare parts over the years. To be precise, over his entire lifetime, owning and maintaining Martin has cost me £3,323.

That’s a heck of a lot of money, but—get this—counting from the day I bought him to the day he broke down at the end of my cycle around southwest Britain comes to exactly 3,323 days. Martin cost me one pound for every day that I owned him. Or about 18 pence per mile.

That, to me, is incredible value. There aren’t many other possession that have given me so much. Certainly some of my books, my Alphasmart Neo2 typewriter, yoga mat, guitar, teapot, plants and running shoes. Not much else that I can think of.

What about you? What possessions bring outsized value into your life? I’d love to hear from you—especially if you hold all your purchases to this standard.

On the naming of things

It is only right that we celebrate our most highly prized possessions—and, yes, give them petnames. I never loved Martin so much as when he was baptized Martin and grew a personality. My girlfriend at the time misread the brand name ‘Marin’ and contrasted his blocky functionality with the sleek lines of her own vintage racer.

Giving names to inanimate objects might sound silly, but I think it helps combat throwaway consumerism. A name and a personality is the beginning of a story and, when we tell stories about our favourite possessions, we honour, not only their service, but also the ingenuity, engineering and natural resources that went into their construction.

And this ingenuity and engineering is what’s so beautiful about the design of a bicycle. When Martin’s chain stay snapped, what did I lose, exactly? Why didn’t I feel this way after the rear mech sheared off, or all those times my chain snapped or wore out?

Indeed: what is left of that 2011 Marin San Anselmo that I bought from the Cycle Surgery in Camden Town nine years ago? Nothing more than the handlebars, forks, frame and rack. Everything else has been replaced—even the name.

Stuff has a soul

This reminds me of the ancient philosophical conundrum known as the Ship of Theseus: if you replace, one by one, all the planks of a ship until there are none left of the original, is it still the same ship?

The same metaphysical question is asked of Abraham Lincoln’s axe, which needed its handle and then its blade replacing. It’s a question that could be asked of ourselves: we shed our skin every few weeks and every ten years we get a new skeleton.

But as well as posing an insoluble philosphical question about the persistence of identity over time, the Ship of Theseus prompts us to think about what happens at the end of our stuff’s life.

Aristotle decided that the fully-replaced ship was indeed still Theseus’s. And if a yes is good enough for one of the more practical ancient philosophers then it’s good enough for me.

A great ship is a great ship forever. A great axe is a great axe forever. A great bike is a great bike forever, even as the parts are replaced one by one. Because well-designed stuff has something about it that endures. We could call it a soul.

So I’ll keep what I have of Martin—the original handlebars, forks and rack, as well as all the other components I’ve bought more recently—and replace the broken frame as I have replaced bent wheels, snapped chains and worn brake blocks.

The bike is gone, long live the bike!

What now for Martin Jnr?

Thankfully, a friend has very generously leant me her spare bike to ride (thanks GC!) until I’ve found a new frame for Martin Jnr. One of the more alluring options is the idea of spending this lockdown building my own bamboo bike frame.

I first came across the Bamboo Bicycle Club ten years ago, when I had neither the money nor the cycling experience to justify investing £300 in a wooden bike. But now… Now they do ‘home build kits’—surely it’s meant to be!

The Shock and The Reason

In this postmodern, information age of imagination, the pandemic is a confrontation with realities—both the one we have created over the past fifty years and the one that was always there, bleeding behind the screens.

The reality we simulate

In The Utopia of Rules, David Graeber described an historical shift since the 1970s in the development of technology, away from physical objects and towards simulated projects:

What technological progress we have seen since the seventies has largely been in information technologies—that is, technologies of simulation. They are technologies of what Jean Baudrillard and Umberto Eco used to call the ‘hyper-real’—the ability to make imitations more realistic than the original.

If you doubt the essential truth of this broad assertion, then consider your life in 2020. Many of your human activities, I’m sure, have been reduced to their simulations:

  • WFH instead of with colleagues in the office
  • Email instead of love letters
  • Dating apps instead of meeting strangers
  • Sport, drama, comedy on television instead of in the crowd
  • Video calls instead of birthday parties
  • Emojis instead of touch

These simulations are only possible because of the development of information technologies. They’re not the real thing, but they’re the best we can do at the moment and I’m sure many of us are very grateful.

But these simulations didn’t come out of nowhere. As Graeber continues:

The technologies that emerged were in almost every case the kind that proved most conducive to surveillance, work discipline, and social control. … Information technology has allowed a financialisation of capital that has driven workers ever more desperately into debt, while, at the same time, allowed employers to create new ‘flexible’ work regimes that have destroyed traditional job security and led to a massive increase in overall working hours for almost all segments of the population.

The evolution of this society has been like boiling the proverbial frog: change has been so gradual that few people notice until it’s too late.

But this year, without warning, the hyper-real dropped the ‘hyper’ and became pretty much the only reality left to us. This abrupt shift to a life entirely mediated through screens has confronted us with what, perhaps, we might otherwise have forgotten.

The reality that bleeds

Conspiracy theories notwithstanding, Covid-19 is caused by a virus—a virus with what I’ll call a ‘bleeding reality’.

The virus is no simulation. It is not a threat that leaps out at us from behind a screen, like bankruptcy, trolling or slow broadband. It is a real and present danger of the kind that, in wealthy societies, we are not used to confronting, personally, daily.

The threat of pandemic has shown us our direction of travel, from bleeding to simulated reality. It’s zipped us to the end of the hyper-real and asked, Do you really want this? When bleeding reality is stripped away, what are you left with?

It’s the same discombobulation caused by technological revolution, as described by Marx and Engels in the Manifesto of the Communist Party:

All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

It took millennia for physicians to dream the idea that intangible viruses could kill humans. Funny that something we can’t see, smell, taste or touch should be what cuts through the imaginary play of light to show us what is real.

The Shock and The Reason

The pandemic has shown us that bleeding reality still matters deeply, and in a way that the simulated worlds of surveillance capitalism never will.

We hear of a vaccine and realise that real science matters. We read a book and realise that real art matters. We climb a tree or swim a river and realise that real nature matters. We sit alone in our houses and realise that real community matters, and that fairness, justice and equality really do matter too.

Your life isn’t meaningless. It’s not postmodern or ironic. It is real. Your life matters, desperately.

The pandemic has been a shock, but that shock has helped us come to our senses. As Marcel Proust wrote:

Some moments after the shock, my intelligence, which like the sound of thunder travels less rapidly, taught me the reason.