It's easy sometimes to underestimate the brilliance of George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. This might be because Clinton spent nearly a decade wearing a giant diaper and belting out songs that included lyrics such as:
I am Sir Nose D’Voidoffunk
I can’t swim
I never could swim
I never will swim
Oh, put me down!
Let go my leg! (Ha-ah, ha-ah, ha-ah!)
I told ya…will you shut up!…
I told ya I can’t swim! Ha hOwww no!
The term Psychoalphadiscobetabioaquadooloop! also plays a prominent and recurring role in this particular tune.
In other words, it's understandable if the genius behind Clinton and his pioneering funk outfit was occasionally overshadowed by the spectacle of a grown man in a giant nappy sharing the stage with a 50-foot tall space ship, a 60-foot tall denim hat, much nakedness, debilitating LSD usage and a platinum limousine.
Any musician worth their salt, however, will tell you that George Clinton and the mix I just described above changed modern music forever. You may not be a fan of Clinton and his blend of acid-tripping, science-fiction, P-Funk music, but if you listen to music produced after 1971, you've heard something that has Clinton's aural fingerprints all over it.
INNOVATION IS SIMPLY BORROWING FROM THE BEST
How the hell did Clinton come up with something so groundbreaking? He started with what he knew and then he borrowed heavily from sources you wouldn't think likely.
I was reminded of this the other day as I was listening to Clinton being interviewed by Jesse Thorn on his Bullseye podcast. When thorn asked Clinton what he was initially aiming for as a musician, Clinton described it as a combination of Motown, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Rolling Stones.
Which is both awesome and kind of odd. I mean, it's not as if you can clearly hear the gentle strains of "Blowin' In the Wind" rooted within the foundation of songs like "Aqua Boogie" or "Maggot Brain", but at some level, it's certainly there in the mix, right alongside "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "Paint it Black".
Innovation is quirky like that. The inventions that change the world—the songs, devices, foods and literature that break new ground—are invariably a mash up of things that you don't think have any business hanging out together.
I am reminded of this every time I eat a bowl of Thai curry and wonder to myself, "Who in their damn mind thought it was a good idea to mix fermented fish paste with coconuts, peanuts, limes, basil, garlic and chicken?"
Have you ever smelled fish sauce on its own? It smells like foot. Or, more precisely, a combination of foot and old jock strap. I always marvel at this potentially-nauseating mixing of ingredients…and then I lick the plate clean. Every time. Thank the culinary gods that somewhere along the line, a very brave cook in Thailand way back when got funky and just mixed things up.
THE CURSE OF THE 700X21 TIRE
Which brings me, logically enough, to the subject of bikes. Yes, I know…I need to work on my segues here, but bear with me for a second. I was riding one of the latest generations of "gravel grinding" bikes and it occurred to me that this bike was the P-Funk, Thai curry of the cycling world. And I mean that as the greatest of compliments.
You might roll your eyes at the term "gravel grinder" and, yeah, sometimes it seems like the bike industry's greatest strength is its ability to fabricate new niches and reasons for you to part ways with your money, but this is one trend that has its merits.
For decades, road bikes were engineered around on the theory that the average 50-year old dentist from Topeka would be best served riding a bike ideally suited for a 21-year old, 150-pound racer from Antwerp. This makes no sense at all and yet, for the better part of a century, road bikes were equipped with incredibly narrow tires, a cockpit that placed aging accountants in an aero "superman style" riding position, gear ratios that conspired to tear knees apart, and brakes that didn't stop you, but rather thwarted your forward momentum at key points in the ride.
All of these things kind of worked, I guess, if you were an incredibly hard and fit sponsored pro racing in a grand tour, followed by a car with a spare bike on top, a wizard-like mechanic at the ready and a "team doctor" in the passenger seat with a syringe full of veterinary-grade "medicine" designed to take the pain away.
But for the average guy riding a bike anywhere else in the world…"conventional" road bikes were equal parts awesome speed machines and horrible instruments of torture. Don't get me wrong: I've loved my fair share of "classic" road bikes, but there are moments when it becomes clear that they aren't really the most logical instrument for road riding. You know, moments when the road is anything but smooth, the hills loom tall or you lack anything other than peak fitness. Like, well, most of the time, really.
So there I was the other day, riding this new road bike and truly enjoying every moment of it. As with many speedy skinny tired bikes before it, it sported a relatively tight wheelbase and steepish geometry, but it also had a slightly more upright position, a wide range gear cluster, forgiving 700×30 tires and excellent hydraulic disc brakes.
In other words, I was riding a road bike that was light and fast, yet it didn't make my lower back feel like it had been tenderized with a baseball bat, I could climb any mountain on it on any day of the year and should the road become anything other than smooth as a baby's butt, I had the tires and brakes necessary to actually ride out the rough stuff.
It was simply awesome. And it made me wonder why it's taken so damn long for road bike designers to get brave and borrow from the best technologies that mountain biking had to offer.
ROAD BIKES OWE MOUNTAIN BIKES…BIG TIME
Make no mistake—road bikes are getting better because they are finally borrowing from mountain bikes. And I applaud it. The real question is why didn't this happen earlier? Why has road bike design been stuck in amber for so many years?
I know, I know, people will disagree with me. They'll point to aero wheels and carbon frames, but come on, mountain bike innovation has been making much larger leaps for decades now. Some of those technological leaps, admittedly, make more sense on the dirt, but some certainly benefit anyone riding on two wheels. Disc brakes are the obvious poster child here.
My ride consisted of about 40 miles of rain-drenched riding along a lonely highway and about five miles of muddy, fire road riding. At every point in the ride I was amazed to squeeze the road lever and find the bike decelerating quickly—not locking up or becoming uncontrollable in the least—but rather, slowing down precisely when and where I wanted it to. I've spent 30 years riding "the best" side-pull brakes money could buy and all of them were simply mediocre by comparison.
BE BOLD. BORROW.
I'd argue that mountain biking has proven a more innovative field than road cycling because the engineers who designed mountain bikes quickly (by the early `90s, really) realized that the future didn't lie in refining the rigid fork, double-diamond frame and cantilever brake. The future required borrowing and tweaking technology from the motorcycle and off-road racing worlds.
Four-bar linkages, compression damping, disc brakes…these things all existed elsewhere and were simply adapted and grafted onto mountain bikes. You might call that theft, but I'd call it innovation, and it is what will make your next bike worlds better than the one it replaces.
Get funky with it.