Thursday, January 25, 2018

on value (real and perceived)

The latest round of donor bikes for my refugee resettlement project includes some older mountain bikes that, while not top-drawer, were still quite fine in their day.

When I get a nicer bike as a donation, I have two and a half choices:
1. I tune up the bike as it is, slap some stickers on the logos, add the accessories and send it out;
2. Remove the most desirable/high-end parts, swap in perfectly functional cheaper parts, finish the tune up, et al, and send it along;
3. Strip the bike down completely.

Option #1 is the easiest and most direct. It's what I do to 98% of all the bikes I get.
But most of those bikes are very basic, entry-level, department store bikes that, once tuned, will be perfectly okay as daily transportation.

Option # 2 is a little more involved. It's much more of a judgment call as to which parts need to come off. The decision-making process is determined by two things:
First, I cannot afford to pay totally out-of-pocket for the accessories I think ought to go with each bike (rackm fenders, lights, decent lock, etc). Selling off the higher-end parts separately helps to fund the cost of the accessories.
Second, most of the bikes are being handed off to families who will end up living in low-rent housing and in less-safe neighborhoods, where bikes get stolen every hour or two. Bike thieves have gotten much more savvy about what vintage parts are worth, and act accordingly. So if I can remove some of the bling before the bike goes out, it may stay in the recipient's hands longer.
That's why I cover up logos with stickers and take off the super-fancy bits that occasionally come with a donated bike.

Case in point: Right now, I have a mountain bike in the workstand that's a little over twenty years old. It wasn't high-end to begin with, and it's pretty worn. And I probably won't swap anything else in unless it's to replace a non-functioning part. But because it's a vintage mountain bike I will go ahead and cover up all the logos with hard-to-remove stickers and reflective tape.

(The bike, with logos obscured and cheaper crankset swapped in. The better crankset was sold on Craigslist and paid for some used fenders, replacement inner tubes and a rear rack.)

Why go to all this trouble?

Why not just fix up the bike as it is, leave the cosmetics alone, and send it out into the world?
Why buy into the hype about "value"?

Well, I didn't invent this system. Even if I wanted to pretend it doesn't affect me, and you, and every person in a modernized country that rides a bike, it mostly does on some level. Because, try as we might to pretend that a bike is a bike is a bike, whether the downtube says Magna or Nishiki or Rivendell, what it says on the downtube actually matters out there in the world. That's why carbon-fiber racing bikes end up under guys who are wearing filthy, tattered clothes and who are wobbling back and forth on the bike because they're way too short for it. That's why thirty-year-old mountain bike parts that show signs of rust and dirt from use end up on eBay priced at twice what they sold for new. And that is why, although I don't really have to, I outfit every bike with as good a lock as I can afford for it.

Because value is a weird thing when it comes to bikes.
In a developing country, a bike that works perfectly is incredibly valuable.
Because in a remote place with no running water or reliable electricity, getting somewhere on foot takes forever and getting there on a bike could literally save someone's life.
But in the United States, a new department store bike can be had for a hundred bucks. A used department store bike can be had for twenty-five.
If you ride under the bridges in downtown Portland and along the East Bank, you'll find any number of bicycle "chop shops" where bikes are dismantled and parts are sold back and forth by homeless men (often the same ones who stole the bikes). Look more closely, if you can get that close without arousing suspicion, and you might notice that quite a few of those bikes and parts are fairly high-end.
Because here in the US, "value" makes some of us silly, or stupid, or mean.

And as long as I'm trying to do this on my own, as a hobby, as my own personal mitzvah project, I have to buy into the whole, overblown concept of "value" so I can help fund these bikes for people who really, really need them. I stopped beating myself up about this disconnect awhile ago. Because the idea that I'm giving someone a free bike so they can go out and get a job working for someone else and helping the capitalist wheel spin around and around would make me crazy if I let it.
So I simply tell myself that, on some level, perhaps giving bikes away for free to those who need them most -- regardless of perceived "value" -- is my little way of swatting back at unchecked capitalism. And I leave it at that.

So if you're reading this and live in the Portland area, I can always use more U-locks (with working keys, please, no combo locks), rear racks and lights. If you've got any to spare -- or if you work in a shop and they'd like to help out with a donation -- please hit me up.

Happy riding.

1 comment:

Dawid Botha said...

What a lovely and insightful story! What you say is also often true here in South Africa! We get container loads of discarded once fairly good mountain bikes from European attics and basements. Often they need new or working part to replace worn shifters, cables, tyres, tubes, bottom brackets, saddles and grips.
Apart from a refurbished bike being stolen, the worst that happened to me was when a bike I could sell for R2000 and which a boss bought for a worker for
R1 000, landed in the pawn shop! Yes the guy quit his job at the bakery.he needed the bike to be at work early as nonpublic transport was available. Some of the discarded steel city bikes make beautiful custom roadsters with leather saddles and whitewall tyres!

We have heard of Portland's good infrastructure for bikes. Contact me if you wish.