Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Polykleitos and bicycles

The ancient Greek sculptor Polykleitos constructed an ideal figure referred to as the Kanon, which was meant to exemplify his theories of the ideal human body. In so doing, Polykleitos did not simply create a particular sculpture... but created sculpture itself... as the Kanon became the basis for the art of sculpture moving forward.

I was thinking of this in relation to bicycles. Is there a Kanon of the bicycle? I'm not sure that there is a specific bike in existence that would be the ideal bike, but there certainly are theories of ideal bike proportions. You hear these things all the time... chain stay length, fork rake, seat tube angle, etc. etc.... and usually these things are discussed as if there is an ideal frame in the mind that everything refers to. Usually the 56cm frame is the basis for such things.

The 56cm frame is the frame size for a certain sized human being. Probably someone who is 5'8" to 5'10" tall, or there about. So if the ideal frame dimensions are based on 56cm, then this means the ideal rider is 5'8" to 5'10".  Bike frames are scaled up and down for smaller and larger riders, but the truth is, that very small and very large frames are simply not correct.

Like all rationalized, canonical ideals, they are based on presumptions about what is ideal. In the case of
Polykleitos, the ideal would be defined in terms of numerical relations between different parts of the body, and their relation to the whole.  These numerical relations would have derived from (I assume) Pythagorean numerology, and the general love that the Greeks had for number and relations.  Of course, there are many different systems of numerical relation, so the use of one over the other has to be argued for somehow. In the end, the selection of something as the basis for idealization will be disputed and rejected by those who choose different standards.

This seems to be the case in bike frame design. For instance, I reject the canon of the ideal bike, because I am 12 inches taller than the ideal rider. I reject the notion that their is even such a thing as an ideal rider. There certainly is the "average rider" height, but that is not the same as the ideal. And although we might presume that "the average" is all that anyone is really talking about, I think that in practice the average has taken up the role of the ideal.

Rationalizing an ideal is a convenience. It allows one to not deal with any existent that does not fall within it's parameters. In this sense it excludes much of reality, in favor of a selective subset of reality that conforms to... well... conforms to the basis from which the subset was derived. It is self-referential. And again, the basis of that self-referential subset is always open to debate... particularly from those who are not within the parameters of the subset.

In the case of cycling, this is me... so tall that my bike is wrongly dimensioned in many ways. My cranks are too short... bottom bracket too low... stem too high... wheels too small... handlebars too narrow.... knee to pedal ratio all wrong, front end too far forward, and so on and so on. The canon of the 56cm bike gives rise to the entire cycling industry... to the production of bikes... to the sizing of all components and frame geometries...  and when the performance of a tall rider suffers, it is a self fulfilling prophecy. It's easy enough to say that the 5'8" rider is ideal, because they perform well on average. But part of their performance edge is the fact that they have bikes constructed to their bodies... whereas the very tall or very short do not.

So clearly, rationalized ideal canons can serve as self fulfilling prophecies of exclusion.

In the case of the human figure, one can argue for canons of proportion, because in the end one can refer to observable characteristics of human beings... and can arrive at an "average" body.  But at what point in the thought process does "average" become "ideal"?  The shift from observation to idealization occurs when we look for the average... because the average is a numerical abstraction. If the length of a body is "on average" equal to 7 heads, then we have an abstract head size. We are no longer dealing with specific reality.

Once we have an "average" head, it natural to presume that there must be something in the nature of humanity that produces such an average. Such an average proportion plays into the construction of human identity... of what it means to be human. This then becomes the ideal. Depending on how one constructs and uses such abstractions, one could be Aristotelean about it... or Platonic. But when one constructs a SPECIFIC instance of the ideal, one is definitely Platonic, because it is an attempt to show the form of the ideal.

The Aristotelean argument against Plato's forms is that for them to exist, they must be something particular, and thus they cannot be ideal. An Aristotielean would never construct a canonical object. Only a Platonist would do so... only a Platonist roots the ideal in an object, rather than having it simply exist as an abstraction.

In the case of the bike industry, they are Platonic. They have a Platonic ideal of the bike. If they were Aristotelean about it, they would understand the bike in terms of "any rider"... they would not exclude tall riders or short riders. They would formulate the nature of the bike in terms of it's fitness for the purpose to which any person puts it. But they don't do this.

The whole bike industry is Platonic.. and it doesn't exude understanding... what it produces is an endless stream of Platonic ideals derived from rationalized standards that are usually not explained. If you dig behind the assumptions... you will find the same presumptions about rider size and the canonical bike. And probably if you found the average height of all the people in the bike industry, in bike shops, and in the bike media... it would be 5'8" to 5'10".

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