Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Retrogrouch: Etymology, Definition, Reference

I've seen the word "retrogrouch" resurface occasionally over the years, and out of curiosity, I recently Googled it and found more than 26,000 references. I am surprised and pleased at the apparent longevity and utility of the word. It's listed in the Urban Dictionary, and I will consider it a major accomplishment if it ever makes it into the "real" dictionary.

Those who use the word are often asked: "Where did it come from and what does it really mean?"

I believe I am the first person to use the word, in an editorial titled "Techies Unite!" in the May (not positive about the month but will verify when I can) 1990 edition of Bicycling Magazine.

To put this in perspective, the editorial was in a department called "Off the Back" that was reserved for humor and tongue-in-cheek types of pieces.

At the time the editorial was published, there was a fair amount of debate and controversy about the move toward complex "black box" gear shifting mechanisms, carbon fiber frames, and other developments taking bikes away from being relatively simple devices anyone could work on, to complex machines requiring specialized tools and knowledge.

Those who resisted the march of technology, I contended, were "retrogrouches" who were holding us back. The word just popped in to my head as I thought about how to label the techno-skeptics.

Turned out that retrogrouches were proud of their insistence on time-tested quality, and components they could actually work on. Enthusiasts in other sports could relate to the spirit of the word, and it spread into motorcycling, sailing, and beyond.

Some 18 years later, at this writing, I would say we were both right, the retrogrouches and me.

We all know where technology has taken the bicycle, with $20,000 bikes with carbon fiber frames and 10-speed clusters used by pro racers (and electronic shifting on the way from Shimano).

Yet, there is also a strong ultra-simplicity movement afoot, and there's no denying the appeal of the new generation of "hop on and go" city bikes, especially in an era of high-priced gasoline.

Well, those are just a few thoughts on "retrogrouch," and long may you run, awkward word, until you find your way into the dictionary.

Here's a proposed definition that I'm sure can be improved, so feel free to comment:

1. One who is skeptical of technological developments until their usefulness and reliability have been proven.
2. One who insists on minimalist equipment that may be user-serviced.
3. Sagacious but irritable expert.
4. A person who prefers natural and/or organic materials over metals and synthetics.

Here are some excerpts from the original "Techies Unite!" I won't bother printing the whole thing, because it's a bit long-winded. Writing has changed over the years and has become more compact, as well.

May, 1990 Bicycling Magazine
Off the Back
Techies Unite!

By Fred Zahradnik

"...No, the real threat to our quest for the lightest, quickest, and trickest gear is coming from within our own ranks. That's right -- many technical enthusiasts, including some influential people who design, build and sell cycling equipment, are forming a budding "retrogrouch" movement.
Their motto has 2 parts: "The old design was better than the junk on the market today," and "Complaining about today's junk makes us sound smart."
Recent targets of retrogrouch wrath include push-lever mountain bike shifters, oversize headsets, carbon fiber frames, and just about anything else that clicks, isn't made of steel or wool, and lacks leather straps...."

"...It's easy for experienced riders to forget how difficult it is for beginners to shift a friction system. Gear fear has intimidated many people right out of the sport. By contrast, push-and-click systems let them/ride out of the showroom with confidence. Smooth shifting under power, a recent innovation, is something even the most advanced rider can appreciate.

What's worse is that even as retrogrouches lament the trend toward "black box" bike components, they lust after cars/that stop quicker and safer with ABS computer braking. They don't think twice about improving their productivity with personal computers and fax machines.

Dealers have been especially vocal about revamped products being introduced while they still have the old versions in the showroom. Many also dislike having to stock more than one headset size or learn to service new components. What the progressive dealers realize, however, is that evolving technology is their reason for existence and the source of their future success. Their knowledge and service advantage over mass merchandisers will widen as bikes become more advanced...."

"...It's useful to put all this in perspective. In 1884, high-wheel riders ridiculed J.K. Starley's safety bicycle, which had equal-sized wheels and a gear chain drive. In 1888, John B. Dunlop was called foolish for inventing an air-filled tire. In the early 1900s, fixed-gear enthusiasts derided the derailleur. The lesson? Simplicity is a virtue, but not at the expense of performance.

Sorry retrogrouches. I enjoy the classics, but my dream bike has a lot of parts that I may not be able to service, such as electronically controlled shifting, a fully enclosed maintenance-free drivetrain, built-in hydraulic lines and brakes, a computer console that tells me 101 facts, and composite wheels that never need truing...."

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