Inept dorks, in-group border patrols, and paths to greatness
What's up with kooks, freds, toys and RONALDS ??
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Years ago I used a beat-up old aluminum-frame hardtail mountain bike to get around NYC as much as I could. I loved pedaling over the East River; heading out to taco spots in the Rockaways and Corona; cruising aimlessly around Red Hook and Greenpoint on summer nights… Experiencing the sort of buzzy joy you can only feel while moving through the city at ~15 m.p.h. on two wheels, ideally with a bunch of friends around you doing the same…
It wasn’t until I moved to Oakland that I got into cycling in a more serious way, because the riding here is so plentiful & gorgeous. I bought an actual road bike, copped “proper” kit, joined group rides…
… AND LEARNED ABOUT THE FASCINATING CONCEPT OF “FREDS”!!
A “fred,” in cycling terminology, contains elements of a “noob,” “tryhard,” and “bozo,” i.e. it’s a term of derision that can refer to a rider climbing a paved hillside on a mountain bike wearing sneakers with a dorky helmet-mounted rear-view mirror, AND it can refer to someone with a spotless $15,000 custom Pegoretti frame wearing slick head-to-toe Pas Normal Studios kit who never goes more than ~2 miles to the coffee shop on Saturdays.
There’s a semi-serious list of arcane cycling rules catalogued online by a group called the Velominati (“#37: The arms of the eyewear shall always be placed over the helmet straps. No exceptions”) and in the strictest sense, any rule you break adds to your overall Fred Quotient. These rules, and the exclusionary line they draw between insiders and outsiders, prompt an eternal debate between cyclists: “sh*tting on other riders who are just having fun is wack” vs. “rich d*uches on expensive bikes whose technical capacities are way beyond their fitness levels deserve scorn” vs. “gatekeeping in all forms is rank snobbery” vs. “not knowing how to actually ride creates a safety hazard for you and others,” etc., etc.
Similar terms pop up, unsurprisingly, in other quasi-cultish communities with hardcore devotees. In surfing and skating, the equivalent to the Fred is the “Kook.” In graffiti, it’s a “Toy.” In skiing it’s a “Jerry.” In climbing it’s a “Gumby.” In hockey it’s a “Bender.” In the crowds at Phish concerts, apparently, it’s a “Chomper” ??
In jawnz enthusiasm there’s no term directly equivalent to Fred, so the other day we did a trademark “Blackbird Brainstorm” and decided that a great name for the bumbling & swagless jawnz rocker is:
… what better name for a clown who bricks the d*mn fit head-to-toe every single day and who nobody wants to sit next to when they post up on a bench outside restaurants except for babies who don’t know any better … !!
I got to thinking about the concept of “Freds” as it relates to clothes a short while ago, when some friends of the Spyplane took to Twitter to mock a dude for his bad TikTok fits, and then an exponential pile-on developed that felt out of proportion with the “original infraction.” (I won’t link, but just imagine a hot, earnest-seeming guy with good hair getting a bad fit just right enough that it fell into a vexing uncanny valley of swag-adjacent swaglessness — a perfect storm for attracting mockery & disdain.)
But here’s the thing: the excesses of that pile-on didn’t sit right with me, and YET I nonetheless love the concept of calling a Fred a Fred… It’s not that I embrace all its uses, but I’m genuinely glad the term (and Toy and Kook and Gumby etc., etc.) exists, because I not only find these words funny, I also find them useful and, in a roundabout way, I think they illuminate something cool and beautiful about prowess & obsession at its extremes!!
This is an imperfect parallel, but a skater calling a wack fellow rider a “Kook” — or a Mach 3+ jawnz enthusiast calling a Mach-negative-7 jawnz rocker “a Ronald” — is kind of like a good novelist calling a bad novelist a “hack.” The Fred / Ronald / hack in this scenario is committing an aesthetic crime against a beloved art form whose devotees see it as their duty to defend against interlopers and lames…
If it strikes you as ridiculous to liken clothes-rocking to an art form, fair enough, but it’s the kind of ridiculousness we f**k with at Blackbird Spyplane. Ultimately, caring about anything extremely passionately can seem ridiculous, but if you ask me that’s much doper than not caring passionately about anything!! Congratulations my un-ridiculous friend — not everyone can be a SWAG SAMURAI who holds him-/herself to the higher standard of a SACRED JAWN-ROCKING CODE 😉.
You can be more or less of a d*ckhead about patrolling the borders of an in-group, and we are proponents of “being less of a d*ckhead.” But the fact remains that you can’t have meaningful communities, no matter how friendly & welcoming they are, without some degree of exclusion and borders, and without something resembling rites of indoctrination, however unspoken or informal. (Blackbird SpyFriend Kelefa Sanneh explored this “gatekeeping” dynamic last year in his great book about the history of musical tribalism.) These are the forces that make a community “a community,” as opposed to “a group that is freely interchangeable with everybody else” !!
What’s more, the spectre of the Ronald / Fred / Kook / Toy etc. can be a haunting one that spurs you to keep checking yrself, and to keep striving for excellence, for fear that otherwise YOU will risk becoming a Ronald yourself: A little fear of “the Ronald within” can keep you from growing lazy and washed.
When I was creaking around NYC on my aluminum hardtail, wearing t-shirts and jeans, was I a Fred? It’s a question of context. By the textbook definition I absolutely was, but for all practical purposes I’d argue I wasn’t — as long as I was just chilling with friends, exploring the boroughs, rolling out to taco spots, etc. However, if I pulled up to a group road ride with a bunch of serious cyclists and tried my best to draft off their wheels all day, they would be squarely within their rights to look at my a** sidelong and diagnose me as a total MF fred.
And moreover I think I would “deserve” this diagnosis and personally appreciate the heads up that I was perpetrating tomfoolery! Say I went into an NYC gas-oven pizzeria or a sushi spot for the first time and, not knowing any better, started cutting up the s**t with a knife and fork. Would the ppl who run the spot be “gatekeeping” if they said “You are on some bozo s**t right now, doggy, we don’t do that here, get yr act together” ? Of course not — when you approach any “unfamiliar culture” with its own social conventions and mores, you should do so humbly & respectfully. Acting like a bumbling tourist / blithe Fred / blundering Ronald is disrespectful… !!
And yes, any doctrine and dogma can become a suffocating impediment to creativity — but what I’m expressing here is my desire to be aware of what and how I’m signifying to ppl whose judgment I respect. That way, if I “break the rules,” it’s because I consciously decided to break them, rather than an unwitting mistake.
From the in-group POV, the most blessed and magnanimous way to regard Ronalds, obviously, is as visitors and novices. You mark their untrained fumbles while simultaneously pointing out to them that the path to proficient & artful jawnz rocking (like the path to artfulness in any pursuit) requires time, effort, diligence, respect, love and care. This connects to what we’ve called C.O.A.C.H.E.S. Mindset.
Good coaches, obviously, have patience. But I see the impulse to call someone a Fred / Kook / Toy / Ronald in that light: As a particularly blunt way of drawing a sharp line between craft and sloppiness, hard work and laziness, skill and ineptitude, panache and gracelessness…
And, in the best case, as a “tough love” technique for inviting the Ronald to step up their d*mn game & strive for greater levels of greatness … & consciousness !!
SPYPLANE: OUT ☮️
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I think you’re on the right track here - I don’t think you can be a fred unless you’re trying. If you’re cruising around on an old mountain bike in shorts and sneakers with a grin on your face you’re outside the Fred/not Fred binary.
Similarly with architecture (my profession) - it sort of misses the point to critique a design that isn’t trying to achieve anything except basic cost effective shelter - you can only really get to work on something that’s trying and coming up short.
Fascinating, because in Boston cycling culture, I've always known a "Fred" to be a cyclist of a certain age who is so experienced and practical with cycling (especially commuter cycling) that they leave all fashion aside--when you're young, they seem like your nerdiest uncle--but they are the old heads who know the most, and who will teach you everything you could hope to know about vintage gear. It's a bit like birdwatchers (sorry, "birders.") Too into the craft to care if they look wildly dorky to others. Maybe couldn't put together an ensemble, but never newcomers.