Anyone who's watched Top Gear or The Grand Tour will be familiar with this adage. It is one spread through much of the motoring press. There is something about the Italian brand, something special.
Part of that charm is that, in many ways, the cars aren't objectively that good. They are all flawed in at least one fundamental way, and it's rarely the same thing between models. They have a history of unreliability, poor build quality, and perplexing design and construction choices. But there is something about them, something that is hard to put down on paper, far less a graph or performance metric. I should know, I owned an Alfa.
If we're being candid, I owned the wrong one—the 156 Sportswagon. Essentially, it was a re-sculpted Fiat, an underpowered, front-wheel drive mess of a vehicle. I bought it from a good friend who had maintained it obsessively for around £1,500. While it, miraculously, never let go on me, never broke down in the three years I had it, there were definitely some issues. The air conditioning had a mind of its own, the plastic fascia around the gear stick was not attached to the car itself, the boot was small and difficult to fit things into, it drank fuel (the trip computer would proudly announce 40mpg, while my fuel receipts were saying half that). Biggest of all was the suspension which had the lifespan of a mayfly; in three years it needed two major repair jobs, the second being terminal. In the end, I couldn't afford to stump up the £1,500 to rebuild the suspension again and keep the car on the road. I part-exchanged it out for a princely £250.
Yet none of that matters. The far-too-small 1.8L petrol engine sang at 5,000rpm, and I will never forget dropping the clutch as I queued through the tunnels of Monaco and let it reverberate off the walls. The steering was featherlight and, front wheel drive or not, you could slip it through the apexes on a mountain road. With the lightest of touches on the road down from Molini, I could rail every corner without ever feeling like I had to work the car. Somehow it was cool, too. I could park it alongside a colleague's BMW that cost many multiples as much, and my old, cheap Alfa was the car people would ask about.
Since then I have bought a pair of VWs. On any objective scale, they are better cars; faster, more powerful, more economical, more practical, more reliable. They have never let me down, they have done everything I have asked of them and more, but still, somehow, I miss the Alfa. I miss that delicacy of touch through the corners, the whine of the engine... It was a glorious, magnificent and an utterly stupid vehicle to own.
I want the same from my bicycles. A high-end bike is not a sensible purchase; there are thousands of more useful and productive things you could do with that money, so why should we accept bikes that have no sense of joy to them? And by joy, I mean being fatally flawed in some way...
More than anything else, what I want from my bikes is personality, a feeling that the bike is alive out on the trail. As bikes get better, it is getting harder and harder to find. This is something that slips through the fingers of objective reviewing—I know that I have failed to explain this in reviews a few times. For example, the Yeti SB75. That review got fairly well hammered in the comment section by people looking for a clear-cut summary of that bike, but it didn't work like that. It was, in many ways, a stupid bike; heavy, expensive, and under-specced for hard riding. It didn't make sense dropping into any of the preconceived boxes that we as reviewers try to peg bikes into, but it always put a smile on my face. The mix of stiffness and short travel made for a flyweight bulldozer. Hell, I very nearly even bought one after I reviewed it (if it weren't for the impending SB5 at the time and lack of bottle cage, I almost certainly would have).
When I think of all my bikes and the ones I have truly loved, they were all flawed in some fundamental way. Whether they weighed more than the moon, had a rear shock that refused to sit at anywhere other than 50% sag, or were a Commencal Supreme 160—all the weight and inconvenience of a DH bike without the travel to back it up. They were all wrong on some level, but I wouldn't have it any other way. The bikes I barely think about are the ones that just worked, where everything was well-thought out and planned. Sure, they were good enough to ride, but I can't form a bond with them. They were never more than two wheels and a handlebar to me.
As for the bad bikes? Well, there's no hope for them. What I am reaching for here is brilliant bikes, fine-handling trail masterpieces. Bikes that make you feel alive each and every time you throw a leg over them, where the designers were so focused on getting the things that really matter right that they forgot to cross some of the Ts and dot the Is.
If I were to tell you about my current bike, I'd tell you that the suspension kinematic is wrong—it is far too linear and the shock crashes into the end of the travel with worrying regularity. From stock, the geometry was a little off and it needed a small offset in the shock to lower the bottom bracket and sit the rider nicely behind the fork. Recently, the rear axle cap fell out on the trail, so every time I removed the rear wheel the derailleur hanger fell off. Yet none of those things matter; if anything they make me love the bike more because perfect is boring. When it comes down to it, the only thing that matters is that the bike is nothing less than sublime out on the trail. It feels like it fits like a glove, that I can put the bike wherever I want on the trail, take any line I can imagine. I'm an awkward, clumsy man, but on that bike, I can skip through the rocks and roots and feel graceful, if only for a moment.
So that is why I want to start the campaign for worse bicycles. Better is fine for racers and engineers, but I want personality. I like my VWs—they're great—but I rely on them for work, for shopping, for getting my wife to work each day. My bicycle is my escape, and for that, I would choose the hopeless, wonderful Alfa every single time.