In search of the American bicycle


Fotopedia image by by JOE MARINARO
Fotopedia image by by JOE MARINARO

Earlier this year I decided I was going to make good on a long-time plan and buy a road bike. I mostly ride on pavement these days; a few years back, I more or less permanently swapped out the knobbies on my mountain bike for slick tires. After riding that way over a few thousand miles of asphalt, I started to wonder why I was riding a mountain bike at all. My friends on road bikes climbed hills with vastly less effort than I did and they turned corners with way more grace than my steed could muster. Besides, the things that my mountain bike’s geometry was built to accomplish, such as staying stable as the rider slowly encounters rocky terrain, pretty much never come up on the road. And so, I started shopping.

Going in, I only had one major criterion: I wanted to buy a bike made as close to where I live as possible. I didn’t think that would be hard. After all, my mountain bike, built by the company Specialized in 1996, proudly bears a stamp advertising its U.S. origins. And, when I bought it, most of Specialized’s competitors also built their bikes in this country. Maybe you can guess where this is going: in the 15-odd years since I bought my current bike, the major brands have all moved their manufacturing overseas.

Learning just how hard it has become to buy an American bicycle was one of those moments in which my innocence wandered a little deeper into the forest and got even more lost than it was before. I went to high school during the time that ecological concerns were really moving into public awareness; it was, for instance, our student council that pushed the school to start a recycling program. Over the intervening years, humanity has learned still more about the ways in which our choices can either harm or nurture the earth. In particular, we have seen the evidence mount that international shipping comes at a cost to creation.

My desire to buy an American bike isn’t just based on ecological concerns, however. We also know that an item made close to where it is sold is more likely to be made by workers who are treated fairly; it’s more difficult to abuse your employees when there’s a risk that your customers will witness that abuse. To choose an example from the computer sector, it’s hard to imagine that the conditions at Apple’s iPad factory would be anything short of a scandal if iPads were made down the street from Spokane’s Apple store. (Note that, even as Apple boasts that their supply chain will soon be a model for the industry, no one is actually reporting that working conditions at the iPad factory have improved.)

Putting the questions of ecological and economic justice together — and throwing in the old fashioned ethic that says it’s a good idea to help create jobs where you live — I guess I had reached the naïve conclusion that manufacturers would be moving their operations to the U.S., not away from it. It’s disappointing to be mistaken.

There is a little good news. Phoning around to Spokane’s bike shops, I have learned that a handful of small manufacturers have kept their operations in the U.S. Here’s the catch, however: economies of scale insists that these manufacturers’ bikes are appreciably more expensive than their larger competitors. Thus, I am faced with the temptation to forget my principles and save several hundred dollars.

The theologian Karl Rahner once observed that, in today’s world, buying a piece of fruit has become a moral decision. It turns out that buying a bicycle is not so different. When I was a child, the bicycle stood as the symbol of carefree fun. Today, the bicycle demands an answer to that old and much less carefree question: So, are you going to put your money where your mouth is?

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About Martin Elfert

The Rev. Martin Elfert is an immigrant to the Christian faith. After the birth of his first child, he began to wonder about the ways in which God was at work in his life and in the world. In response to this wondering, he joined Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he and his new son were baptized at the Easter Vigil in 2005 and where the community encouraged him to seek ordination. Martin served on the staff of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Spokane, Wash. from 2011-2015. He is now the rector of Grace Memorial Episcopal Church in Portland, Oreg.

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  1. I love this post Martin, and I just have to chime in about my awesome bike. I have a single speed/fixed Draft (http://www.sebikes.com/2012_draft.php). They’re made in the U.S., Ohio I think, and I see they sell them in Spokane! http://www.sebikes.com/findadealer.php I love, love, love this bike, but, um…some of the Spokane hills don’t love me back. And I haven’t had the guts to turn it into a fixie yet…

  2. I need to get a road bike too, my mountain bike doesn’t cut it for going distances on the centennial trail.

  3. Jonathan on Facebook said, “Well done Martin – I think the only thing missing is the perspective of a local builder who might be able to talk about the difficulties of a small niche manufacturing business such as a bicycle brings. Not to mention that most parts for bikes are still sourced from overseas. Maybe I’ll see about writing a little piece that adds up the cost of a bike fully made in the US…if possible…”

  4. That would be awesome! I’d be happy to post a guest follow-up

  5. I’m quite fond of my 1965 Columbia, Super 3 with the added Bling Bling:

    Columbia is the first U.S. bicycle company, founded in 1877 (http://www.vintagecolumbiabikes.com)

    I always get comments when riding it…it’s only for crusing around, but I enjoy it….especially my Dino bell.

  6. Travis on Facebook said, “Hi Martin–interesting piece, and as a bike rider and possible buyer of bike, I’ve been thinking about it all day. Do you buy locally and pay a lot more, supporting local jobs, economy, etc, or do you pay less for something far away? I think it depends, mainly on how rich you are. If you can’t afford it, you can’t–and you buy the cheaper import. If however it’s a question of whether you buy the local bike or that second flat screen tv for the kitchen, well, you forego the flatscreen, you rich so-and-so, and do your part for the local economy (and by “you” I don’t mean you, Martin). I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that if humans are going to survive on this planet, our purchasing choices must become moral choices.”

  7. Moral choices are often in the eye of the beholder. If you do international work and see the projects, jobs and impact of our purchasing power on poor economies, you get some additional challenges to the whole debate. Coffee growing is a major example of how our consumption is providing massive good economic opportunity in some regions. I visited coffee growers in Thailand last year who have moved from growing opium to coffee due to the market. That’s a good change, a moral impact. Being able to choose is the privilege of the rich, most have no choice to be scrupulous.

  8. That’s a vital point, Eric. As a member of the middle class, one of the many ways that I am privileged is that I can choose to pay more – by shopping at a farmers’ marker, by supporting a mom and pop business, by buying a local bike – without visiting hardship on my family. We do well to be on guard both against binary thinking (e.g., local is always good, foreign is always bad) and against sanctimony disguised as virtue. There are few things more pathetic and more self-congratulatory, for instance, than a wealthy person tut-tutting a poor person for shopping at a box store. (I feel a whole follow up article coming on!)

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