My “Gear Creep” Experience with Gravel Cycling

By Jim Spengler, MTI Contributor

I’ve always derived deep satisfaction in hard physical pursuits outdoors. At 33, I found myself wanting another outlet beyond running, hiking, and the occasional mountain trip out west. However, living in my area of Virginia presents a quandary. It does not really lend itself to river sports or mountain sports. But, in abundance are miles of gravel roads through hilly pastures and woods. Gravel cycling, I decided, was the obvious choice. Yet, there was not an easy on-ramp from one hobby to another. I had not owned anything cycling related since high school. Starting from zero made me a prime mark for the cycling gear industry. 

My original purchase goals were simple. Cycling was purely for relaxation. It should not become a time suck and it should be something I can enjoy for decades. The bike I chose supported that aim. It was simple, all-steel construction and a jack-of-all trades. It could be “built-out”  at later dates to support things such as bikepacking or racing. Nevertheless, my gear creep experience began early. Gear creep is analogous to the economic phenomenon of lifestyle creep. Lifestyle creep describes the tendency to spend more money as your income grows. As a result, it becomes a barrier towards long-term wealth. At the root of lifestyle creep is comparison to others and not knowing what is enough. Gear creep has similar roots. Purchases to support the outdoor pursuit of choice add-up. As the length of time in a chosen hobby increases, so too do gear purchases. Items that were once unnecessary, through a combination of peer influence and marketing, become must-haves. Gear creep also has the potential to eat into long-term wealth. In my case, gear creep undermined my enjoyment of gravel cycling. 

The first purchase was a top-selling bike rack to transport the new bike home from the shop. The recommendation came from a full-time cyclist friend, so it seemed like a sound buy. After mounting the rack and bike to the top of my car, I immediately hated the set-up. It felt flashy and was too complicated for me. Facing a two-hour drive back home, I crammed the whole set-up into the back of my car, resolving to stay true to the original intent of simplicity.

But, after my first few rides, I fell prey to comparison. There was no shortage of other riders sharing the roads every weekend. My humble set-up clashed with the cycling industry “standard.” Old lifting shoes, flat petals, and a Camelback were a distinct outlier to sleekly clothed, clipless pedaling counterparts. The phenomenon of comparison is well illustrated in behavioral economics. In “The Psychology of Money,” author Morgan Housel describes “the man in the car paradox.”  For example, when we see a man in a nice, luxury car, we rarely think, “Wow that guy is cool!” Instead, we picture ourselves in the car without a single thought for the driver. This is the foundation of formal marketing, on social media and manufacturer websites. And as in the example, it can be informal, on trails, roads, and parking lots.

Not only did the other bikes and riders stand out from me, their performance outstrapped me by a large margin. As I strained up a tough climb one morning, close to fifty cyclists pedaled their way past under much less effort. This was a vexing experience. I believed my relatively high level of fitness off the bike would carry over to some degree. At the very least, I thought it would prevent me from getting smoked up a hill by hobbyists. I decided the bike and its components must be the difference-maker to some extent. Countless biking and outdoor sites convincingly tell what “x” number of goods, gear, and accessories a beginner needs. And being new, I did not have a sense for what would be “enough.” Within one month, I had a different set of handlebars, padded shorts, clip-in pedals and shoes to match, mountable storage bags, and cleaning/repair items. I was fully committed to what gravel cyclists should look like. It felt necessary to meet the standard put forth by retailers, trade websites and reviewers. After all, is it not prudent to follow the advice of industry experts? Even so, I did perceive being more streamlined and efficient on the bike. 

Newfound efficiency came at a cost. I reasoned it would be money wasted to not spend multiple hours on the bike each week. The internal accountant needed to balance the cost benefit ratio. To justify my acquisitions, I had to meet certain metrics. With the assistance of a GPS watch, numbers such as distance, time, and speed, became the focus. Data could be compared to other riders completing similar distances. Competitive drive took over and a minor side-hobby steadily consumed more and more time. However at a base level, seeking performance never truly increased my enjoyment of the sport. Weekly rides became a source of angst rather than contentment. The performance based goals were a slog with no end in sight. I had no desire to be a competitive sprinter or endurance rider doing formal races. It was far from the original intent of variety and being outside more. Obliviousness to effective marketing and “the crowd” had pushed me in that direction. 

Ultimately, I determined that I did not see myself in any of the popular gear review websites or outdoor blogs. Similarly, I did not envision myself in the spandex clad, RPM tracking counterparts on the roads. That forced a return to the start, simplicity. Now, my bike gets mounted to the back of my car with a budget rack. I returned to used lifting shoes and flat pedals. If anything needs to get carried along, it goes in a ten liter daypack rather than a variety of mounted bags. The GPS watch gets left at the car. No part of my choices will get featured in a magazine or sold at an outdoor expo. With less at stake subjectively, I am more content to let a few weeks slip by without a ride.  

These choices solidified my approach of an outlier – content with less. The choices also exemplified a mindset shift from my twenties to my thirties. I have found that the things I need to enjoy myself outdoors are becoming fewer and fewer. This mindset is distinct from an outdoor industry awash with new gear reviews and the yearly next best item. Further, I am no longer as concerned with winning or setting myself apart through athletic achievement/performance. No doubt, I will continue to train and push hard in some aspects. Performance, gear purchases, and comparisons all were obstacles to enjoying the present moment. Even still, I am forced to watch as people sprint past with thousands of more dollars worth of cycling paraphernalia. However, now it is no longer a “man in the car” moment. Instead, it serves as a humble reminder: there will always be someone more athletic, more wealthy, with more free time than me.  

Jim is a career firefighter for a department in the DC metropolitan area. Jim completed a M.S. in Exercise Science in 2013. 

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