The Scientist’s Guide to Manual Transmission Snobbery

If you’re a snitch of any sort, I need you to stop reading this right now. I’m sorry, but what follows is strictly for the people who never ran to the teacher when they were children. So if you have snitch-like tendencies, just hit the “back” button on your browser and read another one of the great features we are running today. Thanks in advance. 

Alright. Are all the snitches gone? Good—because I need to express a real problem I’m having with my boss, Larry Webster. It has to do with mountain bikes. I consider myself to be a cyclist of some mild accomplishment: I can clear the 40-foot jumps at AngelFire, and I can ride a 26-inch “DJ” above the coping on a full-sized halfpipe. Show me a double-black-diamond course and I’ll give it a shot. I’ve been riding and racing bikes at a half-decent level for 35 years now. 

Larry has no such resume. I don’t think he can hold a wheelie past the second pedal. Certainly you won’t see him doing a 10-foot gap-drop any time soon. But when we went mountain biking this past summer, he absolutely murdered me every time. Part of it has to do with all the aftermarket metal in my body, but it’s largely (pun intended) a case of me outweighing him by 56 pounds despite being about the same height. 

Larry comes by his fitness through hard work and self-discipline. He runs in the evenings while I play guitar, and he picks at a salad while I chomp a steak. So when he drops me around a cross-country course, there’s nothing unfair or unusual about it. And yet it rankles. I don’t like the fact that I’m out there nose-manualing over obstacles and deftly flicking the bars as I bunnyhop logs and whatnot, only to have Larry just pedal away from me in this completely non-UCI-World-Cup-approved fashion. I have it in my head that my mastery of the bicycle should count for more than Larry’s fitness on the bicycle.

The stopwatch doesn’t see it that way, of course. Stopwatches are brute-force instruments. They have no awareness of style or flow. The stopwatch doesn’t see me tail-tapping a jump. It only notices that Larry has time to write a chapter of his memoirs before I catch up. 

In the final analysis, however, I can’t complain too much, because mastery, in any form, has a joy of its own. As I explained in Never Stop Driving, the book that Larry and I (among others) wrote last year, there’s a hard-wired evolutionary basis to enjoying a competent performance of any physical task. The cavemen who could deftly leap between rocks or place an arrow right on the bulls-eye tended to outlive the ones who couldn’t. So we are designed to enjoy doing something well, even beautifully, because it increases our chances of survival. Simple as that.

On a mountain bike, most acts of mastery are related to strength and balance. It takes a fair amount of strength to clear every jump on Snowshoe’s “Skyline” Trail, and it takes a bit of balance to land every jump in a manner that increases your speed and conserves your energy. This is true for skateboarding, parkour, and a variety of other so-called extreme sports. It’s also true of many older disciplines, from gymnastics to Greco-Roman wrestling. 

Can it be true of driving? I think so, if you expand the definition of “balance” a bit. A first-rate racing driver has a very sensitive inner ear, one that alerts him to a change in traction before his eyes or ears confirm it. He (or she) has a light touch on the steering and brakes, which allows him to receive information from those control devices even as he issues commands through them. These skills aren’t fully acquired in a day or a month; I’ve won a few races and set a few track records over the past 15 years, but I know that I have a near-infinite amount yet to learn. 

The competent driver also possesses a second kind of mastery: the knowledge of what to do and when to do it. Think of Michael Schumacher in the middle of a race, driving on the absolute limit of the tires yet also conserving as much fuel as possible, even as he adjusts the brake bias, sets the differential for each turn, and selects ECU maps. Meanwhile, he’s constantly evaluating his own race strategy and the strategy of his competition. There were plenty of drivers who had as much physical mastery as Michael, but none of them brought the same amount of mental mastery to the table. 

Thankfully for my limited mastery, my World-Challenge-spec Honda Accord isn’t nearly as complex as an F1 car. But it has switchable ABS for different weather conditions. It has adjustable brakes so I can haul it down from 150 mph safely in a straight line, then use the bias to turn it sharply in a hairpin. For certain race series, it can have adjustable ECU maps so I can choose between power and economy on the fly. Last but not least, it has a very fussy six-speed manual transmission with straight-cut gears and a highly-specialized multiple-pack racing clutch. 

When I’m on my game and shifting the car correctly—in other words, when I combine the physical mastery of operating this supremely annoying light-switch clutch and the mental mastery of selecting the gears at the right time—we can win a lot of races. When I’m not at my best, the consequences could include a failure to finish, a blown engine, or a trip to the hospital. 

I race against cars with dual-clutch automated transmissions and sequential, clutchless manual boxes. Every once in awhile I get to race against someone with a bona fide planetary-gear, hydraulic-torque-converter box as well. All of these cars are just as fast as mine. Often they are faster. But the degree of required mastery is lower. The stopwatch doesn’t have any opinion about this; it just sees that my competition isn’t taking as long to shift. 

If I bought a car with a dual-clutch or sequential box, I would absolutely go faster. I just wouldn’t enjoy myself as much. If I earned a living as a race driver, I’d make the switch. Since I’m only racing for my own amusement, I’ll keep doing what I’m doing.

As some of my readers may recall, I happen to own two ninth-generation six-speed V-6 Accord coupes. I drive the other one on the street. There’s no stopwatch on the street, so there’s no speed penalty for having a clutch pedal. On the other hand, it can be less than fulfilling to sit in rush-hour traffic and do the three-pedal-shuffle a half-hour at a time. I understand why someone would buy an automatic for commuting duties. In fact, after a few years of riding a 1975 Honda CB550 to work, I understand why Honda now makes motorcycles with dual-clutch automated gearboxes. Operating the cable clutch on a ragged-out 40-year-old bike in traffic is like having one of those hand exercisers in your office—except you can’t quit just because you’re tired of squeezing it. 

Truth be told, I don’t mind the hassle of driving a stick-shift in traffic all that much. Certainly not enough to make a different choice. I continue to enjoy the minor but highly satisfying mastery of manual operation. I like heel-and-toeing to a stop. I like being in the right gear as I exit a rural corner or freeway ramp. The caveman in the back of my brain is charmed by this. 

There are more levels to this mastery thing. The 1990 VW Fox I drove in my youth had just 81 horsepower, about 10 of which seemed to go away when the A/C was on. You simply couldn’t make a pass on a country road in top gear with the compressor churning; the 50–70 time was measured in decades, not seconds. So I became very practiced at switching off the A/C and dropping from fourth gear to third in a single fluid motion. At the time I liked to complain about this, but in truth I enjoyed that tiny bit of meaningless mastery. When I sold the Fox, right before its seventh birthday, the lettering had worn off the A/C button. Funny, in retrospect. 

I suppose the most satisfying machine to operate would be something like a World War II fighter plane, or maybe an SR-71 Blackbird. Something where you need perfect “touch” on the controls, but you also need to manipulate dozens of controls in precise fashion on a frequent basis. No doubt that’s part of the charm associated with pre-war and brass-era automobiles. It takes a certain amount of mastery just to roll down the street. The Model T squashed that joy with its farmer-friendly operation—but compared to something like a Honda CR-V, driving a Model T is like threading a needle while doing a backflip. 

If I spent this winter running and eating right, I might give Larry more of a run for his money this upcoming summer. Instead, I’ve been at the skatepark working on various jump tricks. This is what’s known as planning to fail, I suppose. I’ll tell my boss that I’ve been honoring my inner caveman, that prehistoric human who delights in a deft physical feat performed in late middle age. Under no circumstances will we discuss another feature of the earliest humans—namely, that they often earned their meals not through feats of mastery but by simply running prey animals like deer into the ground. Evolution optimized us for that, as well, by incentivizing endurance exercise with the so-called “runner’s high.” Disclosing this to Larry would seriously undermine my argument for the inherent superiority of style over fitness—but I’m not going to say anything, and I know I can rely on you not to snitch me out, right?

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