Counting Butterflies

Written by Gautam Raja

I used to be a moderator of a now-defunct Indian bicycling forum called Bikeszone. BZ, as it was called, was the epicenter of the burgeoning recreational cycling movement in India. People gathered online to plan rides, share knowledge, ask for advice, and fight. The “war thread” on road bikes versus mountain bikes for Indian roads forever changed us.

It was there that I encountered the Counter of Butterflies, or the anti-cyclist cyclist. There have been many versions of them on the forum and in my life afterwards, but the most notorious was the guy who would hijack every technical, training, or race discussion with comments on how stupid it was to be looking at numbers, obsessing about pedals or computers or power meters, and that cycling should be about just getting out there, with regular clothes and equipment, and “counting butterflies”.

The other common version of the anti-cyclist cyclist was the “Go Green” guy, the most clueless of whom would ride a bicycle on the weekend and brag about how they were “saving the planet”. While Go Green guys would occasionally jump on threads and point fingers at people who drive cars to ride their bikes (either to the trail head or the start of the regular team ride), on the whole, they spouted their inanities and smugness in their own little corners of BZ.

Neither of them is wrong. We shouldn’t forget the core reason why we ride instead of going to the gym or driving a car, and why we set up great stereos instead of streaming on laptops from YouTube. It is a worthy thing to derive enjoyment without thinking too much about the equipment. As for Go Green guy, when his message is stripped of hubris, it’s on the right track. If not planets, bicycles can at least help save cities or neighborhoods—they have advantages bigger than themselves.

Here’s my problem with Butterfly Counter. Because his agenda was essentially anti-agenda, he felt free to push it in everyone’s faces at every chance he got. When a thread on a forum is clearly titled “Which road pedals?” or “Which $2,000 DAC?” it’s rude, arrogant, and utterly self-absorbed to jump on there and tear people down because you don’t believe in clipless pedals or digital music. (If you’re not a cyclist, you should know that by a historical and etymological quirk, a “clipless” pedal is one that you actually clip into using cleats on the bottoms of your shoes.)

The other thing Butterfly Counter and Go Green guy always missed was that the most focused road cyclists on BZ were also the most likely to own several bikes, and ride in many avatars. One dedicated road racer owned a cheap commuter bike that he rode to work every day—in “normal” clothes and shoes. He didn’t own a car. The landmark for the house of another strong road cyclist was the SUV nearly buried under dust and leaves—he had carefully chosen where to live so as to not depend too much on the car (and obviously that worked better than expected). Two other racers regularly went on bicycle tours in the off-season—again with “normal” clothing—riding through beautiful countryside in France or Greece or Italy, counting baguettes, butterflies, and baths (Roman baths). Alliterate or die. I remember how I was once at the start of a time trail, where some cyclists had shown up wearing tennis shoes, and were riding mountain bikes with knobbly tires. The roadies encased in skinsuits and doing Suffer Yoga over aerodynamic bicycles, non-patronizingly welcomed and encouraged them, knowing that just showing up at a race start line (or any start line) was a win.

Similarly, I’ve been in houses where the vinyl collection threatens to fall and entomb you, and the turntable looks like the concert desk of Author and Punisher (sadly, not my observation—I stole it from a recent guest at a recent musical evening), and yet, the analog fiend to whom it all belongs is cheerfully recommending a digital streamer he loves, knowing that his questioner would not be interested in starting from scratch with vinyl. Or the house where the main system is a small Gaudi-esque city, but you’re proudly led to the garage where the dusty workspace system cost $300 but was assembled with care and pride, and sounds great.

The truly obsessed recognize that there are as many types of cycling or audiophilia as there are cyclists or audiophiles. They realize that context is everything. Their equipment is highly personalized, and set up not just for their physical and aesthetic requirements, but also for the very particular way they use it. For all that technology obsessed cyclists or audiophiles are talked about as being terrible prescriptive snobs, I rarely hear them pushing their agendas on the unwilling.

Consider in contrast the number of rides I’ve been on with anti-cyclist cyclists who tell me that I don’t “need” cycling shorts, and sneer at my cycling shoes and special pedals. Cut to the living room of every audiophile ever, where they’re regularly asked “Does all this really make a difference?” in a snide sort of way.

And so, we are at the receiving end of behavior that we’re accused of doling out. They’re judging us, but we’re not judging them. They are, in effect, more focused on equipment than we are!

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