25 August 2014

A Lesson In Bicycle Economics

As the academic term begins in colleges all over this country (and world), thousands of students will purchase Professor N. Gregory ( Mankiw's Principles of Economics.

Those students will, I believe, learn more about economics  by shopping for the book than by actually reading it or attending their Econ 101 classes:  The most recent edition of Professor Mankiw's book goes for nearly $300. 

I'll put that in perspective:  The price of that book is nearly the same as my tuition for each of the first six semesters (out of eight) of my undergraduate schooling.

I mention this because of another lesson in economics I got, rather unexpectedly, a few days ago.  And it didn't come from Professor Mankiw or anyone else who served as a Presidential advisor.  Rather, it came from an authority I trust far more:  a bike mechanic I trust with any repairs or other work for which I don't have the tools, time or patience.

I'm talking about Hal Ruzal of Bicycle Habitat. He was re-tensioning the rear wheel on Tosca (my fixed-gear Mercian), which he built for me seven years ago.  That I rode it for so many miles--and, in fact, for a thousand or two on my DeBernardi before I transferred it to Tosca--is a testament to his skills.  

We chatted about one thing and another and somehow we got onto the topic of past jobs or our youth, or something related.  Anyway, he mentioned that during his senior year in high school, he had a job that involved drawing maps for an insurance broker.  In two weeks of working that job, he said, he'd saved up enough money for the bike he was lusting after:  a Frejus Competition.

As I mentioned in another post, that bike practically defined "Italian racing bike" for many of us who first got into cycling during the early days of the '70's Bike Boom.  I never owned one myself, but I admired it if for no other reason that it was one of the prettiest bikes available at that time.  And while accounts of its ride qualities vary--and the workmanship, while not bad, is not as nice as that of similar bikes I'd encounter later.

At the time Hal bought his, it retailed for around $375. The frame was constructed of Reynolds 531 double-butted tubes, rather than the Columbus SL or SP most Italian builders were using.  The frame was adorned with then-top-of-the-line Campagnolo Record components, including the Nuovo Record rear derailleur.   (Super Record was a couple of years in the future).  And, from what I've heard, Tom Avenia--whose New York City shop was, for decades, the main retailer of Frejus as well as other Italian marques and Campagnolo components--would replace the stock saddle (a Unicanitor, I believe) with a Brooks for an additional five dollars.

Hal, not given to hyperbole, put his job and purchase in perspective:  "Today, a kid could work all summer and not have enough for a 105 bike!"  Shimano's 105 components are good stuff--I've used some myself--but they are not top-of-the-line, as Campy Record was.  And, even though 105 derailleurs and brakes (or even cheaper ones) work better than anything produced at the time Hal bought his Frejus, nothing made today has the kind rugged construction or workmanship of those old Campy components.

Hal's lesson in economics followed one I heard recently in a lecture:  For the minimum wage to have the purchasing power it had in 1968, when it was $1.60 an hour, it would have to be $10.90.  Of course, even that doesn't get you much of anything--in terms of housing, food or clothing, let alone bikes--in places like New York (where I live), San Francisco or Boston. But what kind of lodging (or bike) can you get at the current minimum wage of $7.25?

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