The most enduring cycling product
In a throwaway society there are some things that last the test of time. In the complicated, tech-heavy world of cycling there are product trends that come and go. There’s innovation and exotica but one sole just keeps on pedalling…
The Back Page (RIDE #67)
– By Rob Arnold
It started with one of those thoughts that come on the cusp of sleep. I’m not sure why but I’m guessing it was because of the glut of products that are featured in this issue. There’s bicycle exotica throughout this magazine and much of it is new technology that is so innovative you can’t possibly conjure it even being considered back in The Day. Okay, we’re accustomed to electronic shifting but when you see a wireless iteration of that theme, the mind boggles. Imagine what Tullio would think if he could see what has become of shifting gears…!
Things evolve, products are developed, and concepts become reality at such a rate these days that it got me thinking about the longevity of cycling equipment. Rarely does a season pass when some improvement or another isn’t added to what was once considered a ground-breaking product. And if amendments alone aren’t enough, the industry conjures the need for something entirely new.
The latest trend is disc brakes for road bikes. And every major manufacturer is jumping on board and building bikes that can accept what Shimano is touting as the future of stopping. One insider recently confessed, “No, it’s not necessary but it’s new – different… and that makes people spend.” Okay. If that’s how it is, that’s how it is. But innovation should be about making good better – not just change for the sake of change.
If we love a product enough, we’ll be customers for life even if that item doesn’t last as long as would be ideal. When it works, we buy it, use it and – when the time comes – we replace it. In this era of mobile technology, a replacement generally means an upgrade. It’s obvious. Imagine if you had the same mobile phone you had five years ago! Oh, the humiliation. It would make you a social outcast, a luddite… and your Instagram photos would absolutely need a filter to highlight how old-school and hip you are. At least you could claim that the original iPhone is so retro, it’s cool again… but on the whole there’d be derision.
I’ve shown photos of bikes with down tube shifters to some riders and they ask me what “those things” are for. Oh man, how things have changed in 25 years.
STI, what a concept! Shimano Total Integration. It was introduced at the end of the 1980s and it was a revolution. Get this: you can shift and brake with the same lever! What!? Yep, we’d be told, it’s the future. And it was true.
These days you have to go a long way down the range before getting a lever without ‘total integration’. Hell, these days, there are complaints if a battery runs out after 10,000km and 20 quazillion shifts. “Yeah, had to big-dog it all the way home… oh man, that sucks.”
Before long, we’ll be looking at bikes and laughing: “Check it out, he’s got cables…” There’s an old-school guy in every bunch, right? But even Sean Kelly retired after a season without toe-straps. Yep, even stubborn old hard nuts will eventually crack if the product revolution insists on it.
Which brings me to the point of this piece: longevity. Okay, I confess that the product on my mind doesn’t tend to last terribly long. It has, in fact, a rotten and short lifespan. But the core product, the element that made this item famous, remains the same now as what it was upon inception. And that makes it, in my humble appraisal, the most enduring cycling product of all time.
You can see the picture, so by now there should be no surprise but a recent Facebook chat with a mate I went to school with (all those years ago – yep, before STI) offered confirmation that it’s not only me who thinks about The Most Enduring Product the way I do… but I had to start it off by asking him to guess.
“I’m going to do a story that you’d appreciate,” I told him. “The most enduring cycling product of all time… guess what it is.”
“Hmmm,” he replied, “the most enduring, eh?”
“It’s a challenge but you’ll eventually respond knowingly,” I told him, because I knew of his background and I’d seen the enormous, stinking pile of his teenage collection way back when. So I prompted him with another clue: “It’s not actually a cycling-specific product, but it’s the most enduring and it has introduced millions to the art of pedalling…”
He pondered the question and the dots on the FB message lingered for a while so I knew he was typing (and likely deleting) his thoughts. But he needed more clarity on the topic: “Since pedal-powered vehicles were invented?”
“Yes,” I replied. “One brand. One product. It’s simple really and you’ll laugh when I tell you.”
“Okay, hit me.”
He was hundreds of kilometres away but I swear I could hear him cheering. And, almost instantly, he messaged me back: “Brilliant! You are so right! Back when the Van Doren family used to make them in California! I even made Dad take me to the factory in LA when we went there when I was 13…” and his immediate recount of fond memories flooded onto my screen. “Back then – no fax, no internet – I had to send a tracing of my foot, with instructions for what I wanted. Three pairs cost me $90 back in 1983… with postage. I still wear them today. Yes, they are the most enduring. I love the fact that I have been wearing them forever.” We chimed on for another hour of nostalgia, recounting our history with the brand, the sole that became part of many a rider’s cycling soul. And it was agreed: there was enough certainty in our two appraisals that we could share it with a wider readership.
Okay, some who are reading this magazine didn’t live the BMX revolution like Toby Dames and I did. Some don’t understand how the sole of a pair of Vans was The Perfect Grip for a pair of Shimano DX pedals (arguably the second-best cycling product ever). Some may not realise that the skateboard shoe would change the art of pedalling long before Look ever considered going clipless. Some will never appreciate the difficulty that was once involved with the acquisition of what is now a mainstream item in Australia. Hell, some may have never even owned a pair of checkered high-top Vans… or Pacman Vans, or the classic black (that duly fades to grey within a matter of weeks).
Some readers may never understand the influence that Vans have had on the cycling man (and woman). But those who have lived cycling since the 1980s and been part of numerous evolutionary cycles will appreciate the idea of how enduring one item can be.
You can’t click it in. The shoe doesn’t last long before coming apart at the seams. It’s not a particularly comfortable item to wear. They have terrible arch support and would likely make the podiatry community cringe… but they are as much a part of me as the wheels they helped push around.
Vans man, Vans.
Riders ready? Pedals set? Watch the lights! Go man, go! Onward to a lifetime of cycling.
(Please join the commentary thread on our Facebook page and let us know any other product suggestions and/or, of course, stories about how Vans have been a part of your cycling life.)