One of the very well used sayings that was quoted when I was a kid was ‘it’s the best thing since sliced bread!’, and it was always in reference to a new innovation or product. The first automatically sliced commercial bread loaves were produced on July 6, 1928, in Chillicothe, Missouri, USA, and using a machine invented by Otto Rohwedder, who was an Iowa-born, Missouri-based jeweler. Inventing the machine wasn’t easy and it took Otto just over a decade to get the machine operational. Of course, the bread slicer wasn’t greeted with open arms by the bread trade, which is one of looooooong tradition and going back thousands of years when the first humans started ‘home baking’. Anyway, the bread slicer did more than just slice bread, it actually changed the product from a shape, taste and texture perspective. Ingredients and recipes ensured that the sliced loaf lasted longer than a fresh uncut loaf, and crucially, it could be frozen and slices removed from the freezer ‘on demand’. The slicing machine needed a loaf that was the same size and dimensions so that things could then be scaled up for really big production, wrapping and efficiency. It also made the bread loaf cheaper for the consumer, and easier for the toaster manufacturers to make their products to a uniform shape as well. Sadly, sliced bread never wins any prizes in bread tasting competitions, and whilst it has does have a place on the food shelf, if you really like good bread, you just don’t buy it. Ever.
So, now we’ve got the history of bread slicing out of the way, when was the last time you rode a bike and said to someone, something like; ‘those new disc brakes are the best things since sliced bread’, or, ‘my new Bluetooth, electronic gears are the best thing since sliced bread’, assuming you remember to keep the batteries charged. Is the mountain bike 29” wheel really that better than the original, last century 26” wheel? Or is the 27.5” better than both, and even better than sliced bread?
The issue is around basic human nature to modify, improve and eventually, make and sell something. This brings me to sustainability in the cycling world. Cycling is marketed as the most sustainable form of transport, except that the industry keeps inventing and making stuff all of the time and we keep buying it. In reality, work out the cost per mile/kilometre, which includes not just the bike(s), but all of the clothing, bike oils, energy bars, magazines etc etc, and you’ll most probably find that your big 4-wheel drive vehicle or electric car is cheaper to run. OK, so I may be exaggerating a bit, but I did exclude all of the distance that we drive our bikes around in the car or van, just to get a nice ride in somewhere.
The other thing about sustainability in cycling is the move from steel frames to aluminium to carbon. It is very easy to re-cycle steel and aluminium frames and components, but carbon fibre isn’t easy at all. Repairing steel and aluminium is easier than carbon as well. It’s well known that there is a massive carbon fibre frame dump due to reject frames and components appearing in Asia. Some say that it’s also dumped in the oceans. It’s very expensive to re-cycle carbon fibre, although carbon fibre bikes have been hailed as ‘the best thing since sliced bread’.
Here’s a question; is it more sustainable to buy, restore and ride vintage bikes? These are the bikes that are well down the list now in terms of performance, comfort etc and being deemed nowadays as much, much worse than sliced bread. Restoring old bikes is fun, rewarding, creative and you can ride the thing at the end. You could even say that your restored bike is sustainably better than buying a new one. However, if you’ve sourced and bought specific parts for your project from several countries around world, the shipping, packaging and everything else cost is probably not very sustainable. What if my vintage bike is a carbon fibre or carbon-aluminium mix frame? Is it more sustainable to use this type of frame instead of a steel or aluminium bike, because they’re more easily recycled, so it is fine to trash them first? Do I have more fun on my new eMTB than I do on my 20 year old, more sustainable mountain bike? The answer is no, because both are fun, but in different ways, so not really comparable. It’s just a case of riding the right horse on the right course. I also didn’t even think about sustainability when I shelled out a load of the hard-earned-cash for my ebike.
Here’s another question to ponder; did the bread slicer change bread forever? The answer is clearly no, but it is a great example of human nature always wanting to improve something and make it. This is why we see new model line-ups in the cycling industry every year, and why we want to buy upgraded parts and all of the stuff on the big cycling shopping list. So when will it stop? Once the bread slicer had dictated the rectangular loaf, nothing else evolved apart from some recipe management and constant branding and price point comparisons. Since the bicycle was invented, basic bike architecture hasn’t challenged the one-wheel-behind-the-other concept. It’s just the detail stuff that changes, just like the sliced bread recipes.
I guess that if we want to be sustainable in our cycling world, we need to re-think a few things and get back to the basic cycling concept, a bit like bread before slicing, because some will always claim that home baked or Boulanger baked bread is always better, which I have to agree with.
Amazingly, a singer-songwriter called Josie Proto, has just released a single called ‘Sliced bread’. I’ll leave it to you to sample and see if you think the song is actually ‘better than sliced bread’.
And finally, I recently went on a course that was hailed as ‘better than sliced bread’ and was devoted to positive thinking. It was shit.
All photos by the Author