In Search of Authenticity

Last week I realized that riding my bikes, the ones I have with my name on the down tube, just doesn’t feel the same. I think it’s because of an underlying fear that in all likelihood, no matter how the Serotta trademark is used, or its story told, it is leveraging a past authenticity to validate current and future business by people who don’t understand the true meaning of the word.

Authenticity.

I was disappointed to find that Merriam-Webster’s on-line dictionary didn’t even recognize the word, rather spilling out four versions of the word authentic.  Authenticity was referenced down the list in 5th position.

Curiously, the four definitions for authentic seemed to have been scrutinized by marketing executives who were given the opportunity to provide ample justification for lack of originality of something that was once created with a heart and soul.  An authentic replica seems to me an oxymoron.

Wikipedia provided gratification:

Authenticity is a technical term used in psychology as well as existentialist philosophy and aesthetics. In existentialism, authenticity is the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character, despite external pressures; the conscious self is seen as coming to terms with being in a material world and with encountering external forces, pressures and influences which are very different from, and other than, itself. A lack of authenticity is considered in existentialism to be bad faith.

Now we’re talking!

A couple nights ago I was watching an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown series, a great attempt IMHO of delivering interesting, honest material that’s both entertaining and thought provoking.  It is authentic, original programming and unrelated to the story lines, it just makes me feel hopeful that integrity is still alive.

But the Mad-Ave version surrounds us everywhere without relief, from politics to an endless array of consumer goods and most of us act like the ignorant morons, willing lemmings the purveyors wish us to be, moved by 10 to 20 second sound bytes.

That same evening, there was a commercial that began with a pair of hands finishing off some nice authentic-looking hiking boots, cut to a group of hipsters rising pre-dawn, getting decked out in a full array of brand new never-seen-a-trail outfits and climbing into their new Jeep.  Yeah. This rugged, sexy-from-the-pages-of-GQ co-ed gang was on its way to being tough and rugged like their boots.  With Starbucks in hand they drove to the edge of a majestic place and walked about 10 feet before watching the sun come up.  Though the company’s web site has the A word sprinkled everywhere, my guess is there’s nobody left at HQ who knows what the boots were originally made for.

Many moons ago my high-school hiking buddy and I were headed up to the Adirondack Mountains for a short week of knocking off as many of the High Peaks as we could manage.  Paul, who was far more seasoned than I at these feats, convinced me I needed some real boots instead of the half-rotted sneakers that I was wearing. So we stopped along the way at a small supply store Paul knew about where he assured me I’d find exactly what was needed.

Barely marked, the store was on the side of the road in a tiny Adirondack hamlet.  Inside it smelled of high quality, well cared for leather and Woodman’s insect repellent.  The latter, in its original form (late 60’s) could have simply been called a repellant.  The deeply funky odor, had to have been developed by a determined hermit.

It was the sort of place you had to know about. The proprietress was a genuine older mountain-woman.  She eyed me up and down with a semi sneer.  I’m sure that if Paul, who was known as a regular, was not with me, she would have flipped her ‘Open’ sign to ‘Closed’ and sent me on my way with nothing so much as breadcrumbs.  Here was a place that you needed to earn the right to wear mountain gear.

The Wise One selected the pair of boots that would be right for me. Made by New Englanders who understood what the spare-no-detail boots were made for, those boots kept my feet warm and dry for many years of slogging in the mud, slush and rock-strewn trails. They were boots that could only have been made by a company whose clear sense of purpose was to make the best boots for people who actually put them to the test.

That boot company is gone, having morphed into a much larger and more complex global brand. I’m not saying that anything today’s company puts its name on isn’t any good.  By most accounts it has done rather well for itself. But using what was an authentic brand heritage to sell a vast array of made-anywhere and everywhere products to hit a variety of price-points decays the underlying authenticity. True authenticity is fragile.  Most companies lose it on the path to success or just as often while simply trying to survive as a business by over-leveraging the brand’s soul.

But I think there’s hope for the future. Healthy skepticism is on the rise. The growing popularity of ‘local’ movements, from food to bicycles, is driven by people wanting to connect with something or someone real, meaning that what’s behind the product is something that can be seen or experienced directly.

In search of authenticity.

Soon I’ll be launching a second blog site, BestofCycling.com.  It will be a non-commercial site where I share stories and review products and activities that represent the best of what the cycling world has to offer… and where true authenticity can be found.

Please write me with your suggestions or, if you are a builder of bikes, parts or accessories and would like to introduce me to your product and your story, I’d be honored to hear from you too.  Or, just send me your stuff!  Contact me through this blog and I’ll get back to you promptly with details.

Until then, here’s hoping to see you on the road,

Ben

13 thoughts on “In Search of Authenticity

  1. Great points. By the way, way back in the early 90s, I worked in a Michigan bike shop that sold Serottas. Always wanted to get one for myself, but never managed to. Those steel bikes, and then the titanium models, always struck me as having that elusive quality of authenticity, too.One of the best rides on the market at the time (and probably even true today). I still see people riding them from time to time. And every time I do, I remember what it was like to sell those bikes.

  2. Ciao Ben,
    I grew up in San Luis Obispo, where in a tiny shop, smaller than my mom’s closet, they made fresh fruit smoothies. It was called Juice Club. Each one was a work of art, in a time in the US where people weren’t drinking smoothies. I could taste each rasberry, banana, and fresh squeezed orange. Now this company is called Jamba Juice, having franchised themselves, found next to any Starbucks throughout many of the US states. The other day I tried one of their smoothies, and it tasted like fruit cardboard, diluted down so far, it wasn’t even possible to differentiate the flavor I had chosen from the flavor my friend was sipping on.

    To be or not to be..a franchise. Thank you for your words and passion regarding “authenticity”.

    I am proud to be partnered with a handmade bike builder in Florence Italy. Renzo Formigli and I make up the sum total of the management of Formigli. Antonio paints our frames. A small shop in Florence makes our proprietary tubes. 3 Italians work with Renzo to build our tube to tube carbon frames. Alberto, Renzo’s uncle makes our steel frames, and Renzo brazes them. A jeweler in Florence gold plates or chromes our steel frame’s lugs. We produce less frames in a year than most large frame manufacturers produce in a day.

    We opened distribution of Renzo’s handmade custom frames to the world, outside of Italy 4 years ago. Renzo knows each of his frames by name, each one being that unique, just as a midwife knows each of the babies she has delivered. We have no vision to franchise, no vision to end with his product produced en mass in Asia. Renzo’s attention to the absolute highest quality of material, frame design, fit and finish cannot be duplicated, he is finite, and we are proud of being finite.

    The story of how I met Renzo 4 years ago, is so wacky it was seemly invented by a movie writer. It includes a trip when I was headed to India, but instead landed in Florence Italy… on my first day- stopped by a young Italian on a motorcycle, who pulled up in the middle of the street to speak to me, and who drove me 30 minutes outside of Florence to a shop where I eventually met Renzo. When I took the frame Renzo had made me back to California, so many jaws dropped at its beauty, quality, and the fact it was custom carbon, I contacted Renzo to ask him if he was interested in forming an international distribution company. We decided to form our partnership, to give this opportunity to the cyclists around the world, to meet Renzo through me, and order a hand made custom road frame.

    If you would like to speak to us regarding the new blog you are setting up on authentic brands, non commercial artisans, and truly one of a kind products, we are happy and would be honored to speak to you.

    Best,
    Kensington Forster and Renzo Formigli

  3. Thanks Ben. Your story reminds me of Rich Gangl and his pursuit of the perfect bicycle frame. He, and many more frame builders, are the soul of bicycling. Without them we would all be riding corporate, sameness.
    Dean Crandall

  4. Great thread. I have always enjoyed viewing your craft and was sad to hear about the fall out And see the mountain bike frame go by the way side. I do look forawd to the new site and hope to see an up and up from you… Possible frame work in the future? I would love to buy local.

  5. I had a Davis Phinney model in pearl white with yellow decals with black pinstripes and a Mavic/ Dura ace mixed groupset. I ordered it when I got back from my first Carpenter Phinney Bike Camp in 1991. It was one of the most beautiful and perfect bikes I’ve ever owned.
    It was a major inspiration for my getting into frame building which I did for 8 years making about 24 frames. I currently own about 19 bikes and that Serotta is on that I would trade a few for.
    I had it for 6 months before it was stolen.
    That bike is how I will always remember the brand.
    Perfect.

  6. Ben,

    I just finished a 10th season of doing passion fueled cycling tours in Europe (Jemison Cycling Tours) which I started after my Professional cycling career.

    I came across this quote a few weeks ago and really liked it:
    “It’s the artists responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation”

    Thanks for sharing your insights and writing about what is ‘authentic’.

    Regards,

    Marty Jemison

    PS How do I contact you directly?

  7. Ben,
    A good online resource if you want to excavate the meaning of words can be found at ‘Online Etymology Dictionary’ (etymoline.com). Here is the ‘history’ of the word ‘Authentic’: it enters the English language in the, “mid-14th century where it means, ‘authoritative,’ from Old French ‘autentique’ as in ‘canonical,’ and borrowed directly from medieval Latin ‘authenticus,’ from Greek ‘authentikos’ as in ‘original’, ‘genuine’, ‘principal,’ from ‘authentes’ as in ‘one acting on one’s own authority,’ from ‘autos’ as in ‘self’… Traditionally (since the 18th century) ‘authentic’ implies that the contents of the thing in question correspond to the facts and are not fictitious; it also implies that the reputed author is the real one; though this distinction is not etymological and is not always now recognized.”

    The last line seems pertinent to your name as applied to bicycle frames of which you are no longer the ‘author’… yet, alas, as the entry suggests, ‘real authors’ (or frame builders) may, as the result of their successes, no longer be as valued as their ‘brands’; indeed, at what point does a name brand become so over-valued that it can trump the ‘facts’ as it were; including the ‘fact’ even of their inventors?

    The word ‘authenticity’ implies ‘authority’– as in the ‘canon’ (ie., the Bible, Homer, and Shakespeare). It implies being true to certain ‘principles’ as well as to the ‘self’. It also represents itself as being true to the facts. Thus, I would argue that ‘authenticity’ is never just a matter of being true to the ‘self’, but, rather, historically it combines integrity in response to the ‘real’, the time-tested, and the self. The ‘self’, to be a true self, cannot merely bow to group-think or even its own biases when doing so means turning false to the past (time-tested) or to the real, since these are the only objective standards by which any self can be measured.

    Thanks, yet again, for a timely and trenchant defense of principles in the cycling domain…
    Cheers,
    Karl

  8. Well put Ben. I am a cyclist, and an amateur custom frame builder. I met one of your sales reps in Fresno, CA in the early 90’s, and learned that my own personal custom road bike was almost exactly the same geometry as your Colorado model at the time. I am currently the Fresno Cycling Club – Historian, a Lifetime Member, and the club’s longest continuous member. I am putting together (referring to myself as the Editor, rather than an Author) a book about the history of the club’s longest continuous endurance challenge cycling event, the Climb to Kaiser, which was held for the 37th time on the last weekend of June this year. The book is now slightly over 500 pages, and still not finished. I have hopes that it will be done before next year’s event at the end of June 2014, but not having ever written a book, I really don’t know when it will be in print. This event might be of interest to you as it covers 155 miles, with just under 15,000 ft. of climbing, in a single day, and Kaiser Pass, Sierra Nat’l. Forest, Calif., the ride’s turn-around point (and the reason for the challenge) is at about 9,200 ft. in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, ENE of the Fresno/Clovis, CA area.

    I hope to see more of your new blog.

    Regards,
    “Bicycle Mark” Perkins

  9. Ben,

    Authenticity = Serotta. For may 30th birthday (a good 21 years ago) my wife gathered friends and family to buy me one of your frames. After waiting the requisite time, it arrived and became a treasured part of my cycling life; the last years of racing, riding with friends, and ultimately a crumpled mess (drunk driver). Authenticity isn’t a commodity, like a bike, but a true feeling that the real and honest creation has meaning beyond its use.

    Lars

  10. Good evening Ben,

    I really enjoined the read, as I share your passion for, well… passion.

    I’d love to chat with you regarding your new site and my brand Velo Zephyr. I’m the former owner of Boulder Indoor Cycling (now defunct), the indoor velodrome and mountain biking park in Boulder, Colorado. While I have a 9-5 now, I spend countless hours in my garage crafting handmade carbon fiber bicycles and components. To me, it doesn’t matter how many hours I loose in my extracurricular (extraprofessional?) work, as long as I end up with a product of unmatched quality.

    I’m looking forward to hearing from you,
    Steven Herzfeld
    Velo Zephyr

  11. Well said Ben. I find myself constantly going back to my Ottrot as the bike against which all other bikes are measured. For all the new technology and engineering that has become more of a marketing ploy than useful increments of performance, my Serotta bike still gives me the most pleasure when I take it for a ride. It is the refuge that I always go back to after using and ultimately dismissing the myriad bikes that come across my path as a bicycle retailer. Don’t get me wrong-there are lots of great things being made but my authentic Serotta is still my favorite.

    Brendan

  12. Ben – Thanks for the nice reflection on authenticity and how it’s increasingly hard to find.
    One observation: why is authenticity so often served up with the sneer you received from the lady at the supply store? Why is it a good thing that you “have to know someone” in order to discover the real deal?
    I’ll take the all-are-welcome attitude of the Heds you outline in the more recent post. True authenticity shouldn’t involve restricting access to the curious, atmo. You never operated that way.

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