The Bicycle as ‘Soulcraft’

Bike? Check. Beautiful evening? Check. Happy Rider? O yes...
The Bicycle - the ultimate Soulcraft?

A recent-ish blog post by Chris ‘Pondero’ Johnson (whose blog I urge you to visit) has really grabbed my attention. The post in question recommends Matthew B. Crawford’s book “Shop Class as Soulcraft” – an inquiry into the value of manual work. I took the time to root out and read the original essay, upon which the book is based, and it’s an enlightening read, academic and humorous in turns, which discusses the way in which ‘craft’ – i.e. skilled manual work, has been systematically undermined and decimated by process-driven production-line reorganisation of labour. Crawford also asserts that so-called ‘white-collar’ work appears to have suffered a similar fate. The essay is an eloquent call to arms, which has made me (working in the distinctly non-tactile world of web publishing) refocus, perhaps pretentiously, on the virtual ‘craft’ in my occupation. Crawford’s essay, published in 2006 should be of interest to anyone, irrespective of their occupation. The following excerpt from ‘Shop Class as Soulcraft’ perhaps exemplifies its main argument as good as most:

“The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on. Boasting is what a boy does, who has no real effect in the world. But craftsmanship must reckon with the infallible judgment of reality, where one’s failures or shortcomings cannot be interpreted away.”

More specific to this blog however, one could argue that Crawford’s notion of skilled manual work as ‘soulcraft’ is analogous with the act of cycling. Chris’ posting of the link on his largely cycling-based blog implies this connection, however I’d like to develop the idea of ‘Bicycle as Soulcraft.’

The act of riding a bicycle is, to forge Crawford’s phrase anew, a veritable symphony of ‘manual competence’. The synchronous acts of balance, steering, forward propulsion, braking and gear changing takes a high level of manual competence, gained in praxis, to master. Yet a child can acquire the basics of this tour-de-force of multi-tasking in an afternoon. And once, learned, as the saying goes, it is never forgotten. Just like the practice of a skilled craft, the act of piloting a bicycle from A to B is an involving, tactile and multi-faceted experience. The cyclist, once unconscious competence in reached, performs countless mathematical and spatial calculations, judging speed, distance, gradient, terrain and environmental conditions. More than any other form of transport, riding a bicycle smoothly and confidently through city traffic is a craft amongst vehicular modes. And like any well crafted item, there’s a pride to be gained from getting it right. The act of cycling involves an intimate connection between bike, rider and environment.

There is also a parallel to be drawn between craft and the whole bicycle ownership experience. It is possible, even with advances in cycle technology, for an average mechanic with a modest toolkit, to completely disassemble and reassemble a bicycle and therefore to tend to its continued maintenance. Furthermore, due to the broad universality and large degree of compatibility of parts, a rider can, with some mechanical competence, upgrade and renovate his or her bike and, with care and prudent choice, make it last a lifetime, in the ‘Caesar’s Axe’ sense at least. The same used to be true with automobiles and motorcycles. However, those latter modes have grown in complexity to such an extent that the average motorist or motorcyclist no longer has the self-sufficiency of travel that cyclists can still enjoy. Just as the craftsman has true end-to-end ownership of his workpiece, so the cyclist can travel from place to place autonomously, proud in the knowledge that they can deal with practically any mechanical problem along the way.

These tenets hold even more truth for the owner of the simple, classic bicycle; a bicycle which champions durability and adaptability over the high-tech or the cutting edge. Features like steel frames, braze ons, clearance for mudguards, non-integrated shifters – are the features of the ultimate soulcraft. But let’s not be too prescriptive here. Any bike can give you back that feeling of competence, independence and tactile connection that other more passive activities and forms of transport deny us.


2 thoughts on “The Bicycle as ‘Soulcraft’

  1. Exactly. Man, I wish I would have said what you did in my post. Actually, no I don’t. I’m glad you said it. You did a better job than I would have done. In other words, I couldn’t agree more.

  2. The Velo Hobo

    Too true. I go through my daily life using technology I’m clueless about. If anything goes even slightly sideways I’m on the phone to a mechanic or IT guy. Sometimes I feel very disconnected from the inner-working of the world. Add to that, I spend a good portion of my workday seeking funding from the government by completing complex forms of which I am clueless about.

    As a younger man, I was a telephone lineman. At the end of the day I could look back down a long picket row of telephone poles and see what I had accomplished. I often miss the sense of pride and self-efficacy at having a tangible product to show for a hard days work. I still get some of that emotional boost at the top of a long climb. I can look back down the mountain at the winding road and say to myself, “that is what I accomplished”. I just don’t get that same feeling summiting a major climb in my Toyota Corolla.

    Wonderful post, Jack

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