On form versus function

The bicycle is a splendid thing. Or so says Bartolomeo Aymo in Ernest Hemingway’s book, A Farewell to Arms (Hemingway based his character on the real-life Italian racer, see more here). Many have expressed similar sentiments about the wonders of the bicycle. Indeed, contemporary writer Graeme Fife has a book-long paean to the bicycle entitled, The Beautiful Machine. Fife reflects early in the book on the qualities of the bicycle, even if a particular bike is less than a paragon of high-performance. “[The bicycle] has imbued me with a pleasure that was, is and, I trust, ever will be, as firm as the treads of that first very far from beautiful machine…”

What is it about the bicycle (and in this entire post I’m referring to the road ‘racing’ model) in particular that captivates us so? There is the liberation that it can provide, but there is also something about its appearance – its form – than can also captivate us: the beauty, yet simplicity, of its design; the elegant way that its tubing flows and intersects, the curve of the handlebars; its seemingly timeless mechanical components, not radically different from a model 100 years its junior. In choosing a bicycle, good design is highly valued – hence the attention to form as well as function of everything from the frame to the wheels to the cranks to the bars and to the saddle.

Bob Roll calls the Tour de France the “race of the common people” but also notes that we understand that “no person will ever go faster, more beautifully on a bicycle than in the Tour de France.” So, as amateur roadies ourselves, we look to the professional peloton for our inspiration, so that we perhaps might in some small way go as beautifully on a bike as they. But there is a danger in this approach. For the professional rider, their bike is a tool. It is the primary tool of their profession. In that way, it also has a specific function – to go as fast as possible.

As amateurs, we also value speed. But speed is not important for our livelihood (unless we are working our way up the ranks). For us, the bicycle is a tool of liberation, of self-realization and discovery, of camaraderie. And because we think that the bicycle is a beautiful thing, we often value form more highly than function. Going as fast as is technologically possible is not always our highest priority.

Function

This attention to form is what often sets roadies apart from other bicycling disciplines. The triathlete, for example, places a priority on function. A triathlon bike (or a TT bike) is not a beautiful machine. There is nothing elegant about aero bars, curved seat tubes, deep-dish or tri-spoke wheels, or the various accoutrements that flourish on tri bikes – large drink bottles with straws, and behind-the-seat portage trees that with CO2 canisters attached resemble ‘devices’ from a Frank Zappa song. There is no form, only function.

On your own bike, the value you place on form versus function can be ascertained from a quick scan over its composition (or by taking the test at the end of this post). The ideal form of the racing bicycle is one that has been stripped back to its essentials, with priority given to simplicity and tried-and-true design and components that speak to us of their rich origins more than their utilitarianism. It is all about traditional materials and classic design, as opposed to drag coefficients and weight differences measured in grams. Traditionalists with this view like their accessories to be absolutely minimized and remain deeply suspicious of carbon, despite appreciating its properties. But a bicycle also has a job to do, and must be equipped to do so – it must also be functional. So there must be compromise.

This search for form is why there are debates that rage over the proper number and use of bottle cages, for example. If one is interested in form, the ideal number of cages is either zero or possibly one. A single, small bottle is the classic racing bike accessory. But sometimes more than one bottle is necessary (very long rides, hot days), so what to do? And how to carry tools and other required items?

The purest will argue that for the vast majority of rides, an absolute minimum of extras are required, particularly if you ride in mostly urban settings where food and drink are never far away (and an excellent excuse for a coffee shop stop). Tools can be easily minimized: a spare tube (the chances of getting a flat are around 5%, one might surmise, so the chances of two are just 0.25% – leave the other spare tube at home and take a few contact patches instead), levers if you need them, and a means of inflation; a multi-tool is simply a substitute for poor bike maintenance (although your author carries a very small one anyway). With three jersey pockets, all these things should go in there. If you are already carrying other items (phone, money, keys, a small novel, notebook, hip flask), consider a second bottle cage on your bike with a container – always fashioned from two old bidons – to hold them, or a minimally-sized bag or roll-up under your saddle. A so-called Bento Box, or a large saddle bag, are surely signs that function is being valued over form.

If you have eschewed power meters and cadence monitors and GPS computers from your bike, then you are also valuing form over function. For you, these tools have little to offer in value and simply clutter the clean lines of your bike. Of what importance is one’s power, speed or distance anyway (they’re never enough)? These devices simply produce numbers to be tabulated and crunched and analyzed but tell us little about our riding experience and give little succor to our mediocrity.

Electronic shifting

The development of electronic shifting is the epitome of function over form. The bicycle’s origins are from the mechanical era; it operates by a series of cables, chains, sprockets, cogs, pulley and levers. Engineers endlessly tinker and refine these moving parts but the whole operation of the machine remains a mechanical one. And it all works remarkably well. Such is the bicycle.

Electronic shifting was designed by Shimano not to overcome an inherent limitation in mechanical shifting but because they could. It exists at the far end of the functionality scale, extending that scale because there was never a shifting ‘issue’ to resolve to begin with. It might seem curious, therefore, that the readers of Cycling News rated it as the “best new product” (although choosing from a select list). The excellent review by Jered Gruber of the new Ultegra Di2 gets it right; small flaws in mechanical shifting are now only brought into relief by the remarkable efficiency of electronic shifting.

But why can’t electronic shifting be both form and function? Indeed, if electronic shifting is the Bicycle 2.0 then we can likely expect some elegant products, the new Campagnolo brake hoods giving an iPhone-esque thrill of impeccable design perhaps. If you are of this view, you may be in the thrall of progress itself with an Enlightenment faith in science and technology to make life (in this case, cycling) a never-ending series of advancements and improvements. There will be no end point to the stiffness, lightness, and smoothness that can be achieved in the cycling world. And by simply being better, these products have a natural beauty all to themselves. As visitors to the 1939 World Fair in New York were advised: “We will welcome the new, test it thoroughly, and accept it joyously, in truly scientific fashion.”

On philosophy

The philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote that philosophy occupied the space between religion and science. If form versus function were a religious question, we would simply resolve the debate by recourse to a higher authority. In this case, our bikes would be restricted to anything that Eddy Merckx rode (or perhaps built – an interesting doctrinal issue); or there might be a competing faith: anything built by Tullio Campagnolo and his successors.

If it were a science, we would need to be objective, in which case the debate would never be resolved. For in the form versus function discussion, our only recourse is to the subjective, to our own hard-and-fast opinions and points of view, where we vociferously argue the relative merits of the carbon versus the forged crank, 10 speed versus 11 speed, aluminum versus carbon rims (and exactly how deep they should be). We would surrender, as philosopher David Hume suggested, not to reason (and science) but to our passions. And despite our passions, we might be stuck in a kind of relativism that early Greek philosophers like Protagoras argued: if there is no objective reality, just things that we individually perceive, and perceive differently, then all of us are always right.

So where does that leave us? With our treasured bicycles, but differing over just exactly where we strike the balance between form and function (and exactly what those terms mean). Still, as committed but decidedly amateur riders, in looking for guidance we might take inspiration from the recently-deceased Brazilian soccer legend Socrates (yes, named after the philosopher of the same name), who said, in describing the game: “Beauty comes first. Victory is secondary. What matters is joy.” As such, we can pay homage to the rich heritage of cycling with our attention to the form of the bicycle, the intrinsic qualities and simplicity of the machine that make it a splendid and indeed joyous thing. It is in this way that we define ourselves as roadies.

The de Vlaeminck test

The above picture, taken from Pez Cycling News, shows the Belgian racer Roger de Vlaeminck (RdV) adjusting his rear wheel. Before technology allowed frame builders greater precision, rear dropouts required adjuster screws to centre the wheel, a good example of how technology has benefited the bicycle – we now give perfectly aligned dropouts barely a second thought.

RdV was one of the true classics legends, his number of wins putting him in third place in the all time stakes behind Eddy Merckx and Rick van Looy. He was known for his aerodynamic riding position and impeccable bike handling skills, riding the regional cobbles “as if he were on asphalt”, according to Italian directeur sportif Franco Cribiori. As well, his training schedule was legendary. He won his first Paris-Roubaix in 1972 having ridden 1,000 kilometres in four days as part of his preparation. It was this sort of attention to his legs that gave him the record for the number of Paris-Roubaix wins that still stands today. He also cut quite the dashing figure in the 1970s, a kind of Belgian James Bond, circa Live And Let Die.

As such, RdV has been chosen by your author to lend his moniker to the form versus function test presented below. Take the test, add up your points, and see what your score means. And there’s a bonus question, too!

1. It’s all about the bike! What sort of frame do you ride? carbon aero (-5); carbon, aluminum (Al), or titanium (0); steel (+5); steel, and built before 1990 (+10).

2. Wheels? Deep dish carbon (-5); medium profile Al or carbon (0); 32h box section (+5); tubular tyres, self glued (+5).

3. Frame accessories? bottle holder behind the seat (-10); 2 bottle cages and seat bag (-5); 2 bottle cages (0); 1 bottle cage (+5).

4. Gruppo? electronic (-10); 11 speed (-5); 10 speed (0); 9 speed or less (+5); downtube shifters (+10, but you should really get an upgrade); Campagnolo anything (+5).

5. Hardware? aerobars (-5); full carbon bars, stem, post, cranks (0); anything aluminum or steel (+5); quill stem (+10).

6. Anything else? power meter or GPS (-5); wireless computer (0); original Avocet or nothing at all (+5); gear ratio chart taped to your stem (+10).

7. Add 5 points if you know the number of times that RdV won Paris-Roubaix.*

How did you score? If your result was a negative number, you are a rider who gives priority on your bike to function over form and you like to sport the latest and greatest (and maybe also believe that technology has its own appealing form). The larger that negative number, there’s a good chance you’re an aspiring pro or a triathlete.

If your score was an even zero, you have found a balance between form and function. You embrace new technology but like to nod your head to the traditional, believing that you can have too much of the latest gear on your bike. Be like Roger and go immediately for a 200+ kilometre training ride.

If your score was a positive number, you are a traditionalist who thinks that the natural form of the bike is to pay homage to the old school. The 1970s or the 1980s was your favourite race era and you might still be rocking a traditional steel frame. If you still have downtube shifters, the test was serious about it being time for an upgrade. Really.

* To save you having to check elsewhere, dear reader, RdV won Paris-Roubaix four times. He also did the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix double in 1977. He had a host of other victories, including 22 Giro stages, mostly in the early part of the season. Holding on to that great form for the whole year always seemed to be a challenge – just one stage victory at the Tour de France, for example – although he did win the Giro di Lombardia twice.

12 thoughts on “On form versus function

  1. +10. Always a traditionalist. 2 steel steeds and an aluminum. The steel are dressed with Campy and the alu with SRAM. I like the clean cockpit..

    Great read my friend! Stay Hard!

  2. -25 on my Pinarello
    -5 on my Firefly

    I guess I am into the “jiggy-fly” science of the ride…Excellent piece of writing!

  3. A CAAD10-4 with a SRAM group and tubulars, set up for criterium racing, scores a 30 on the form vs. function spectrum (with the Mr. Paris-Roubaix bonus), weighted for form over function?

    Second, depending on how you score the 10speed downtube campagnolo shifters on the lugged-steel René Herse, it is more function over form than the aluminum racing bike?

    Hmmm.

    Thank you for the fun quiz!

    Best Regards,

    Will

    William M. deRosset
    Fort Collins, CO

  4. Oh, one of my bicycles is 11 speed while the other one is 9 speed. I gave me -5 point, maybe it should be -5+5=0. And another +5 for campagnolo, my score is +20, then…

  5. I scored +60. Olmo – ~’74, steel. Campy, super /nuovo record mix, with cinelli bars/stem, clincher Mavic 32 h, but pair of Campy 28 tubulars also, Regina 7, new Campy brake levers with hidden wires…..etc…etc….upgrade – I put the Brooks onto the winter bike because it’s warmer. I tried a carbon bike upgrade, but my kid stole it for racing.

  6. -5, had to have the seat bag…

    Campus living requires an odd tube-to-glass ratio I can’t ignore.

    Just found your blog, I’m hooked! Great writing!

    CP

  7. “These devices simply produce numbers to be tabulated and crunched and analyzed but tell us little about our riding experience and give little succor to our mediocrity.”

    Too true. Two true.

    I’ve been riding with a clean bar and stem for seven years now. Picked up a discontinued Garmin Edge to motivate me to train for the coming ‘cross season. It’s nifty but it’s evil.

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