Quality – Lessons from an old Raleigh bicycle

January 18, 2012

I am now in the final stages of completing the restoration of a really old Raleigh bicycle – it’s been more difficult than I had originally anticipated. For starters, none of the tools exist any longer and I’ve had to improvise on a mucho grande scale. In some cases, even fashioning my own tools and making sure that modern materials are suitably matched to blend into the whole restoration – despite the setbacks, I have to say, this has been one of my most satisfying evening projects – partly due to the constant need to touch base with many bicycle cognoscenti’s to seek their advice and the need for me to unlearn many of the things that I have been scripted about engineering.

Not only have I learnt a lot from just speaking to people in the internet. But I’ve also gained a new appreciation of craftsmanship – that’s to say learning more about the philosophy of how things were ONCE built.

It doesn’t take very long to figure out why old things are made to last – they were all built with quality in mind first and foremost; there is no skimping or shortcutting just the honest application of technology to the challenge of creating a great bicycle. Over time, I came to understand that the goal of these craftmen’s who once built these bicycles were set on the deepest level – they weren’t interested in flash in the pan sales or were out to make a killing. The game was much more studied and measured and it was about the art of practice makes perfect . And practice was about trying to do something over and over again, failing and failing, and then finally succeeding somewhere down the future. Practice was about showing up and building bicycles day after day and getting more confidence rather than chasing short term faster, fasterer and fasterest – and if by chance any improvements came, it always did so by way of tiny increments, and then discovering that by the end of the year you had become a better craftsman.

That to me sums up the whole idea of the pursuit of excellence. It isn’t about getting a self improvement book or making sure you attend every enrichment course or for that matter working everynight at the office till everyone has gone home.

IT IS ABOUT THINKING REALLY HARD ABOUT YOUR WORK AND TRYING TO FIND MEANING IN IT. IN THE WAY A MAN YEARNS TO FIND GOD. AND WHY NOT? JESUS, ALLAH, YAHWEH, BUDDHA AND MICKEY MOUSE COULD JUST AS WELL SIT AS COMFORTABLY IN THE SPROCKETS OF A BICYCLE GEAR AS HE DOES IN SOME CAVE, OR ON THE PETALS OF A LOTUS FLOWER.

These days, it’s hard, if not impossible to distill the whole attitude that gives rise to real quality and excellence – it’s hard, because the lifespan of appliances is an issue that really gets under my skin. Thirty years ago you’d buy an appliance and it would last you forever. Twenty years ago you’d buy an appliance and it would last maybe ten years. Now I see often see stuff that only last weeks and months before they fall apart or keel over and die, when you most need them? Unbeknown to many of us, our insatiable appetite for endless choices and variety along with our terminal ambivalence to quality just motivates manufacturers these days to cut corners endlessly. The result is burgeoning landfills, wasted materials, increased hazardous waste – worst of all, we all end up buying more than we really need – that’s because these days, there is no incentive to build quality stuff any longer – the natural common sense assumption these days is, if it’s cheap, it’s probably nasty. If you really want quality, you’ve got to pay for it – that wasn’t the case in the olden days. Take the case of the bicycle I am working on – they weren’t manufactured by a faceless production line of technicians drilling one successive hole after another into steel tubing, as much as one lone craftsman who took great pride in seeing the product from blueprint to finished product – these people knew a lot about quality and they took great pride in their job. They weren’t just making bicycles – they really believed in the idea of churning out machines that could change the world.

These days with the advent of fast, fasterer and fasterest, It’s as though everything is just given a sprinkling of style – stylized eau de cologne in stylized bottles, stylized stationary and stylized phones and stylized coffee. Stylized cupboards filled with stylized clothes in stylized bedrooms in stylized homes with stylized playmates dressed in stylized please fuck me lingerie. Plastic stylized toys for stylized children, who all go to stylized churches on Sunday in stylized cars with their stylish parents in tow to hear their stylized pastors speak sporting stylized Korean haircuts. One has to be really marinating or drowning in style not to get sick of it. It’s the style for style sake that really gets to me whenever I work on my old bicycle.

No real quality doesn’t need to cost more, neither is it rare like diamonds – it just needs someone to roll up their sleeves and kneel down and look at it very carefully to discover it – it’s really as simple as that.

Darkness 2012

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