Monday, April 19, 2010

abortion and circumcision

I have written at great length about circumcision in the past, so I don't want to go on too long here. I just want to make one point.

I have read, from other opponents of routine circumcision, analogies between the pro-choice position on abortion and the anti-routine circumcision stance. This is a natural enough connection for me, as I fall into both camps, but I am very leery of this kind of equivalency. Political situations are always individual and idiosyncratic, and so political discussions of various issues always have to unfold according to their own internal logic. Analogizing issues like circumcision and abortion too closely invites distortion of each, and people have (understandably) various sensitivities about political "turf." So I would caution anyone against making this kind of comparison too easily or in any kind of comprehensive way. However, there is one set of shared principles that I think are worth looking at in these issues, a facet of each discussion where the political and moral reasoning seem close to identical, to me.

You occasionally will hear from opponents of abortion who wonder what the big deal is about carrying a baby to term. They can't imagine why doing so is seen as such an imposition on the woman. (Lest I be accused of engaging a weak man, this is of course not the only or primary argument anti-abortion advocates use.) Now, to me, such reasoning is entirely unconvincing. I can imagine all kinds of ways that carrying a pregnancy to term is difficult for women, and have read many first-hand accounts from women on just how difficult pregnancy can be. Likewise, I can imagine many ways in which having a baby can be socially or economically crippling to a woman, even if she plans on giving the baby up for adoption.

But the truth is, it doesn't matter what is apparent to me, or convincing to me, or what I can read or understand or imagine. It doesn't matter. What matters is that I respect the right of women to make that choice for themselves and their bodies. I can't inhabit the life of another person, particularly someone of another sex, and so I can't meaningfully understand her choices. I don't have to, to support her right to choose. I only have to recognize that some of the most elementary human rights are the rights to be sovereign other ones own body. Me, personally, I'm compelled by arguments about how hard having a baby or supporting a baby can be. Doesn't matter whether I am or not.

This is where the one similarity to circumcision comes in, and it's important. Often times, in this debate, you encounter people who take it as self-evidently absurd (and, often, funny) that anyone could be emotionally invested in the presence or absence of foreskin. You get these dueling sets of evidence, about STDs and penile cancer, and about pleasure reduction, etc. To me, trying to convince people empirically that the foreskin is important is exactly the wrong way to go about having the argument. Because just as with a pregnant woman and her choice, it is absolutely immaterial that anyone else be able to understand why a man might feel one particular way about his foreskin. It really doesn't matter if anyone on the Internet can be convinced about his feelings. It only matters that we recognize that it is his body.

This is complicated, of course, by the fact that circumcision, unlike abortion, almost always happens to infants who are incapable of choosing or understanding the choice. (Which is interesting.) Unlike some who are opposed to routine circumcision, I can't go so far as to advocate taking the decision away from the parents; parents have to be responsible for the medical decisions of their children, and circumcision remains a medical procedure. But I do strongly urge parents to really think about it, and to give strong weight to the fact that the infant is a human being with a human being's ownership of his own body. Many people seem to circumcise their infant boys out of a vague sense that it's just what's done, not out of religious conviction or appeal to the (seemingly negligible) health benefits for those in the developed world. That seems to me to be a terrible imposition on the right of the child to control his own body, without much justification at all.

And, remember-- the procedure will always be available to him. If he gets to be an age where he notices and cares about the fact that he is uncircumcised, he can always have the procedure performed. If he does, it will be his choice.

35 comments:

  1. "This is complicated, of course, by the fact that circumcision, unlike abortion, almost always happens to infants who are incapable of choosing or understanding the choice."

    This is, of course, self-evidently false.

    "And, remember-- the procedure will always be available to him."

    Suicide also remains a viable option for the child, if one were to choose not to murder him in vitro.

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  2. The wrinkle in the "It'll always be available to him" argument is that if you do grow up and wish you were circumcised, it's a procedure you wish had been done when you were a baby.

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  3. This is, of course, self-evidently false.

    Oh self-evidence, is there anything you can't do? It's so not self-evident, in fact, that I can't even imagine what you are objecting to, or what your argument is.

    Suicide also remains a viable option for the child, if one were to choose not to murder him in vitro.

    I can't argue with your logic.

    The wrinkle in the "It'll always be available to him" argument is that if you do grow up and wish you were circumcised, it's a procedure you wish had been done when you were a baby.

    Perhaps, but if I'm understanding your reasoning for why, you might say the same thing about getting a tattoo. Yet most parents, I think, would be unlikely to tattoo their child, even though that, too, is a permanently body-altering procedure.

    I've never met anyone who got a circumcision as an adult who wasn't coerced into doing so as a condition of being able to marry the person he loved, so it's difficult for me to understand the motivations of such a man. I have sympathy for someone who wants to surgically alter their body, but it's the case that surgical alteration requires healing and recuperation.

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  4. No, agreed -- the wrinkle is not all that wrinkly. Honestly (I don't know a less silly-sounding way to say this, but I am being serious), I just really like my circumcised penis and I'm glad my parents did it, because I can imagine wanting it done and at the same time not wanting to ask a doctor to cut something off my grown-up private parts.

    Obviously, this is not a logically compelling argument. Who knows if Hypothetical Me in a parallel universe doesn't love his uncut dick just as much?

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  5. Yeah. I mean, I try really, really hard to avoid the "state of nature" arguments that a lot of anti-circumcision zealots throw around; I think that they're not particularly compelling in the first place and much more complicated than the people arguing them seem to realize.

    At the same time, part of the anti-circumcision argument is inevitably going to revolve around the fact that, without surgical intervention, you're going to be uncircumcised, rather than the alternative. Letting people choose whether or not they want to be circumcised when they are intellectually and socially capable of making that choice is very likely going to result in many less circumcised men, for exactly the reason you articulate: people are comfortable with what they've already got. To me, that's just another argument against routine circumcision, but it's complicated.

    One thing that we have to be adamant about, I think, is not allowing people on either side to feel weird or deficient for being as they are, circumcised or not. We should take care, and I try to, not to embrace the idea of the impurity or deficiency of the other side-- another tendency, unfortunately, of some of the more zealous of those oppose to circumcision. This is another example of the beauty of allowing people to feel the way they choose about their own bodies: if you think that anyone, circumcised or not circumcised, is the sole authority on the state of their own body, you'll be less likely to make anyone feel inferior about the condition of that body.

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  6. "Oh self-evidence, is there anything you can't do? It's so not self-evident, in fact, that I can't even imagine what you are objecting to, or what your argument is."

    I suspect that has more to do with your lack of imagination than anything else.

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  7. The fact remains: I don't know what you're saying, and I won't, until you decide to tell me.

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  8. What I'm saying is that abortion is exactly the same as circumcision in the sense you say it isn't. Unless your contention is that the aborted child happens to be capable of choosing or understanding the choice, which I sort of expect it isn't.

    Obviously you disagree in some semantic sense, because you don't believe a child counts as a child until it's born (this is what I like to call the liberal defense of slavery, because there's nothing as fun as systematically denying humanity to a class of people for your own selfish reasons), but surely your imagination is capable of comprehending the argument. And in which case the whole thing breaks down, as these things always do, when we all start screaming definitions and first principles at each other.

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  9. I have a hard time seeing that my conduct here represents "screaming" by any definition whatsoever. Yes, I support abortion rights; yes, I do so because I think that the beginning of human life is at birth. No, we are unlikely to agree on that subject.

    As for my comprehension of your point, in the excerpt you quoted, I am analogizing the mother who is capable of making the choice to have an abortion to the infant who is incapable of making the choice to have a circumcision. You are free to insist on the rights of the fetus, but the fetus lay outside of my comparison.

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  10. I'm not accusing you of screaming; I'm simply pointing out that, at the base, it's all we'll get to here. You believe one thing; I believe another; those two things are not reconcilable and not subject to empirical study.

    As for your analogy, of course, it's just as easy to claim that you are comparing the mother who is capable of choosing whether her child is allowed to live to the mother who is capable of choosing whether her child gets circumcised. Where we disagree is, I think, that you believe abortion is a thing that happens only to a mother, while circumcision is a thing that happens only to a child. I find that a pretty untenable distinction.

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  11. Really, the whole issue does not turn on bodily rights, but on health benefits. If chopping off a newborn child's left pinky-finger was shown to definitively prevent malaria, then we'd all be advocating the procedure (at least, in malaria-affected areas). Children, especially very young children, do not have any recognized bodily rights, and we all accept that parents can do drastic things to their child's body if there is a generally recognized consensus that doing so will prevent more future harm.

    So, the whole issue clearly hinges on the empirical, contingent facts about circumcision and health, not on deontic considerations of rights and integrity.

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  12. So, the whole issue clearly hinges on the empirical, contingent facts about circumcision and health, not on deontic considerations of rights and integrity.

    First of all, says you; I'm afraid that the fact that you think something is the case does not meet my own evidetiary standards. Funny how that works!

    Second of all, if this is the case, then in developed countries, circumcision should be absolutely unheard of, as the epidemiological benefits to circumcision that there is some evidence exist in sub-Saharan Africa are unrelated to the conditions in the developed world, as I have written about at great length.

    Third, the ethical and practical considerations of this issue are of course vastly more complicated than you are asserting here. The appendix performs no other function other than to give people appendicitis, yet we don't provide routine appendectomies at infancy-- despite the fact, by the way, that the risk of complications in appendectomy are comparable to those in circumcision. Somehow, the empirical medical facts of appendicitis are insufficient grounds there.

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  13. Slight aside: Regarding the appendix, there is a school of thought that the appendix is a reservoir for beneficial bacteria that would otherwise be flushed from the human body during more primitive times due to constant diarrhea and such.

    Re: circumcision. At least let's get it together regarding the procedure itself. Having a veritable layperson do it (I think the term is bris?) is just wrong. It's a medical procedure. And for heaven's sake get the right equipment. I found out late in life that they didn't have the right size equipment when I was circumsized at birth, but they went ahead anyways with what they had and that explained the painful tightness of the skin (to the point I felt it might rupture) during arousal.

    And scar tissue is just not sexy.

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  14. Bravo Freddie. As a pro-choice liberal man, I have also compared the circumcision issue to abortion re: having autonomy over one's own body. It has amazed me to hear the cavalier support for circumcision from some liberal prochoice women, as if it's never occurred to them that the autonomy we believe applies to women also applies to men.

    The appendix comparison, too, came to my mind. We would never think of doing that to an infant, even though unlike circumcision it does not mutilate a body part he will use throughout his life.

    Call me an "anti-circumcision zealot", but I am very upset about having been circumcised against my will as an infant.

    Josh, the obvious "wrinkle" I'm more concerned about is that, if an infant is circumcised and grows up wishing he wasn't circumcised, there's not a damn thing he can do.

    Nick, children *do* have bodily rights. If you think parents have complete control over what they do to their children, tell that to the DSS. As the years go on, and more people are writing and speaking out against circumcision, I hope consensus will accept as natural the child's right to preserve his genitals from unnecessary mutilation, just as we no longer think it acceptable to punish kids by hanging them by their wrists or locking them in sheds overnight.

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  15. I second Ryan Bonneville's objection. Abortion always happens to human organisms "who are incapable of choosing or understanding the choice," among others. I suppose you are entitled to believe - how could you not be? - that human life begins at birth, but your definition of human life must be passing strange, whether you have bothered to formulate it or not. To get birth as the beginning, when it marks no bright line in development or capacities, you have to define human life explicitly with reference to non-containment or non-attachment to another human's body. This should indicate to you that your idea of bodily integrity and self-possession is not just something you recognize as belonging to human beings, but it's actually your criterion for being a human in the first place. I have no illusions that I will persuade you from your overall position, but I submit that anybody should find it odd, given the fact that as a biological organism, as a mammal, it is entirely normal and necessary to spend part of one's history without such non-containment or non-attachment. Nor does birth mark the moment of self-possession in any fuller sense, as in the capacity to direct one's body towards one's purposes, or anything like that. So as a criterion for humanity in the relevant sense, I submit that this seems to be rather too neatly tailored to allow for abortions, and only abortions - the criterion is not something grounded in more fundamental claims about what it is to be human.

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  16. While agreeing with your wariness of the notion of the "natural", Freddie, I can not help that each of these topics are more than controversial enough; without you blending them.

    I see your point, of course, but besides as Sully-bait (although it's worked as that, & I imagine there'll be a "response" post to this call too) I don't find this post entirely helpful towards any desirable end. More likely if this comparison was replicated elsewhere you'd see anti-circumcision stances start to become conflated with the pro-choice one.

    Not that there's anything incorrect about being pro-choice, but this becoming part of the culture war framework is the last thing we need. I can see it now:

    Silly liberals & their love of all things European strikes once again! American traditions, undermined by the left! Good heavens, I can't think of much worse...

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  17. I'm afraid I have to write as my curiosity and interest strikes me, James, or not write at all. Just don't have much of a mind for intellectual strategy.

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  18. As perhaps the only female in this discussion, let me ask you guys this:

    Is circumcision illegal?? Is anyone trying to make it illegal??
    If it were illegal, how many deaths would be reported??

    This whole discussion pisses me off since it's really no comparison. Apples and broccoli, as far as I'm concerned. Not even apples and oranges.

    The same when Male Circumcision is compared to Female Mutilation. There is no such thing as Female Circumcision.
    Since there's only guys here (except for anonymous), imagine not having just having the foreskin cut off, no imagine having the entire 'head' cut off.

    THAT'S WHAT HAPPENS TO FEMALE 'CIRCUMCISION'! Oh, and plus, the women get 'sown shut'.

    Just for a second you guys, just for a SECOND imagine the head of your penis being cut off.

    Is that 'circumcision' or is that plain mutilation and torture?

    Circumcision is predominantly performed by adults upon infants. Is it right? Nope, not in my opinion.

    Abortion is a choice for a woman, what she wants for her body and possibly for the rest of her life.
    A woman may not be ready to be a mother (don't bring up adoption, please. Just look at all those kids needing and wanting to be adopted. No takers. Pro-life my ass)

    For the vast majority of the Pro-Lifers I read somewhere (and I have to agree), Life starts at conception and stops at birth.
    Grrhhhggrrhh = I get so so mad at this BS.

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  19. "You occasionally will hear from opponents of abortion who wonder what the big deal is about carrying a baby to term."

    Will you? I am an occasional Catholic, but born into a staunch pro-life family. And I mean staunch. I have heard aboout this issue for as long as I can remember. And I do not recall ever hearing anyone oppose abortion on the grounds that bearing and/or rearing a child is no big deal.

    I am not doubting that you have heard it. But seriously, is this an argument that you often hear? From whom?

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  20. Sam - I don't know who said that.
    They need to know though, that throughout the world child-birth is the number one or two killer for women.
    But I guess some men just don't care.
    That's the only conclusion I can come to.
    Control and power.
    Without women, men don't exist.
    Women so control that men feel the need to pass laws to demean and lower women's power.
    Especially in the so-called 'Third World' women control 75% of the economy but less than 3% of Government.
    Men like to live off of women I guess. They do, yet they resent it, so they will oppress them.

    Disgusting. It's the same in every religion too - Christian, Islam, Judaism.
    Not the 'smaller' religions - they appreciate and respect women.

    Just not the major religions. We're just finding out about the Catholics - how much more abuse it there in the Islam and Jewish communities. Both VERY male oriented!!

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  21. This is what I expected to happen...

    CRICKETS

    Male only conversation, unable to hear reality.

    Did you know that one guy, running for election in SC, is suggesting that women's voting rights be rescinded????

    Stand up for that, instead of a blurb that's less than a booger.

    But oh no, life life LIFE!!!
    Well, there's bigger creatures living in your booger than in a woman's womb at times.
    You flick away the booger, you're bout to kill the woman.
    Grow up.

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  22. FGM can INDEED be compared to male circumcision. When the female version from removes the clitoral hood they are THE EXACT SAME THING, except that hers is illegal.

    75% of the most severely mutilated women (infibulation) report orgasms during sex. Most FGMs are less severe than the average male circumcision. 94% of the world's people live under anti-FGM laws (though rarely enforced), even though research proves FGM cuts AIDS risk.

    Regarding a male growing up to wish he had been cut in infancy, he should know that he would have gotten a lousy cut job. Infancy is the worst time to do cosmetic surgery since you can't know how the organ or the skin tube would grow, and you can't even know the state of the genitals (puffed up from handling or shriveled from the cold room?) to make guesses about what you're dealing with. Any small error is magnified as the victim grows, and of course he has to heal under the care of laypeople, while sitting in a fouled diaper, unable to communicate about what hurts or what may not feel just right about the healing. This leads to common hideous cosmetic and functional outcomes you can see by Googling "circumcision damage" including hair growing up to the scar line, excessive tightness (even to the point of causing curvature), bulgy painful truncated vein, skin bridges, adhesions, skin tags, pits and gouges to the glans, malopposition of the raphe, numb zones, assymetry, and on and on, none of which are listed on the parental consent form. The ones that ARE listed for parents can be bad too, including potentially deadly infection or blood loss and obvious surgical errors. Infant circumcision is as stupid as infant collagen injections to the lips. How dare someone speculate about what somebody else wants to see in the mirror 2 decades from now and then try to execute that in infancy?

    Foreskin feels REALLY good. It's HIS body and morally it's HIS decision.

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  23. Well the thing is, Freddie, your formula is actually a very good one:

    1) Avoid "Natural" (No one likes a hippie)
    2) Avoid "Ban it, Ban it now!" (makes you sound shrill, derails the conversation from ethics to legality, stages the fight on your shakiest ground)
    3) Avoid "Damaged/mutilated/etc" (No one likes hearing their dicks defective)
    4) Emphasise "Choice" (Best argument to the front, using one of the magic words of contemporary discourse)

    So you actually have a pretty effective framework for the "intacticist" movement, right there.

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  24. To be clear, Annette, I want to avoid easy comparisons between the abortion issue and the circumcision issue because of exactly some of the issues you describe. That's why I have pointed out that I'm against those comparisons, as a general rule. I just wanted to demonstrate one way in which I think it is a relevant comparison.

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  25. Just like the Death Penalty, abortion and circumcision are sacrifices.

    When a man commits rape and murder, his life may be sacrificed as punishment for his crime of selfish ignorance, taking away the right to life from another.

    When a man impregnates a women who doesn't want to be pregnant, the unborn child's life may be sacrificed as punishment for parental ignorance.

    When humans commit false masculine creationism they can be tricked into the ritual sacrifice of their sons and daughters prepuce as punishment for their ignorance.

    Like it or not, the parts of the human prepuce evolved to enhance sexual pleasure. Without the inorance, humans can be properly raised to enjoy a lifetime of pleasure with all the parts we were given.

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  26. Their is no proof of when a soul inhabits a baby, so forcing a woman to carry a child is strictly religious dogma. We issue "Birth" certificates, not "Conception" certificates. But circumcision is a different matter. Then, the baby is actually born, and a circumcision is a procedure done to a an actual, self identified human being, not potential human that is still really just another anatomical internal organ of a woman. I did not have a choice when I was circumsized, but I'm glad my parents had it done. I would have wanted one now, but would have been terrified of the surgery.

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  27. The trouble with the abortion debate, and hence comparing it with circumcision, is that pregnancy is a process, not a state, and what we call "abortion" is a very different thing at the beginning of pregnancy and at the end. (So an expression like "murder him in utero" [sic, Ryan B, "in vitro" means in glassware] begs the question that you are near the end, not the beginning.)

    Be that as it may, the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, signed by George W. Bush in 2002, ensures that every infant born alive is considered a person under federal law.

    @Josh: there are no good studies, but informal polls suggest that the proportion of unhappy cut men is much greater than the proportion of unhappy intact men - which is as you'd expect. The only reason for wanting to have part of your genitals cut off if they're funtioning normally is to be like others. In countries where circumcision is unusual, they'd think you were mad for wanting to do so.

    @Nick: "If chopping off a newborn child's left pinky-finger was shown to definitively prevent malaria, then we'd all be advocating the procedure (at least, in malaria-affected areas)."
    Not quite. You'd still need to do a full risk-benefit analysis. Circumcision doesn't "definitively prevent" anything, if you mean 100% prevention, except those few rare ailments confined to the foreskin, and the claims that it confers useful protection against anything else are exaggerated or bogus.

    "we all accept that parents can do drastic things to their child's body if there is a generally recognized consensus that doing so will prevent more future harm."
    You are presumably referring to correcting abnomalities. But we don't accept that there is any other normal, healthy, functional, non-renewable part of a child's body that parents may cut off at their whim. Why the anomaly? And the nearest corresponding part of a girl's body has special legal protection. Why the double standard? More than 70% of the world's men are intact (and most of the other 30% were circumcised for religious or cultural reasons), suggesting that future harm is far from inevitable.

    @Freddie: I agree with you that "Nature" does not always "know best", but the foreskin could and would have evolved away if it was harmful (unlike the appendix, which is genetically linked to the rest of the intestine), and if such a uniquely mobile, richly innervated organ, situated where it is, does not have an erogenous function, what was God/evolution thinking of?

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  28. Freddie, you had me until the end. Then you weaseled out. Your statement, "It only matters that we recognize that it is his body" is inconsistent with your statement, "I can't go so far as to advocate taking the decision away from the parents."

    You rely on the fact that circumcision is a medical procedure. Duh. So is surgically removing any other healthy body part, but we do not allow parents to decide to remove anything except the foreskin. Parents do not enjoy carte blanche for any medical procedure for their children. Limits are placed on parents, except for male infant circumcision.

    If you truly believe his body, his choice, then parental choice is not an option.

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  29. Did you seriously just write an entire post that indirectly equated the right to choose with circumcision?

    Seriously?

    I think you did. Want to equate sexism and racism next?

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  30. @Anonymous: "Did you seriously just write an entire post that indirectly equated the right to choose with circumcision?
    Seriously?
    I think you did. Want to equate sexism and racism next?"

    To draw a parallel is not to "equate". We draw parallels (make analogies) all the time, it's one of the hallmarks of human thinking. The trick is to make the right comparisons and not to make the wrong ones. Of course racism has parallels with sexism (think about denial of the vote, think about sexual stereotyping). And of course they are not exactly the same. Uppity women were never, so far as I know, lynched, but I'm open to correction on that.

    I don't think the parallel between abortion and circumcision is close enough to spend a lot of energy on (see my previous post). And already this blog has drawn feminist fire. But I still like the slogan "His body, his choice."

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  31. It's very bad practice, in fact a sexist practice in this case, to equate an issue that is very personal to womens' reproductive rights with something that is male.

    It makes someone else's suffering about men. Like most things do, such as worrying about Crying Rape instead of the incredibly high number of actual rapes.

    It is an inappropriate parallel. The issue is worth discussing without using such a poorly considered one.

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  32. This is a really interesting comparison. I mean, obviously, the many caveats in your introduction are important- a direct comparison between abortion and circumcision probably gets really offensive and absurd really quickly. But!

    I have often struggled, in conversations with men, to impress upon them how important it is that they understand that they can't understand how women feel about reproductive health, because they will never face being pregnant. I explain, for example, my frustration that a bunch of old white guys are pretty much deciding things about my body, and men often don't understand why that's a big deal to me.

    It never occurred to me that circumcision is a fairly good parallel to this particular facet of the issue. (Perhaps because I don't often think about it, since I don't have the relevant genitalia- which is probably the same reason many men don't think much about abortion.)

    tl;dr : this is an interesting thought. thank you for bringing it to my attention.

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  33. Hey, I'm sorry-- I was trying hard not to make that comparison in a gross or simplistic way. I was trying instead to draw a very specific and limited comparison. I understand that it probably seems just like I was trying to take a feminist issue and make it into yet another male concern, but that genuinely wasn't my intent.

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  34. Some women have been circumcised as children and they would understand both sides of the issue and some men have not only been circumcised but also had children aborted without their consent.Also I saw this and wanted to share

    http://www.foregen.org/projects/

    A major biomedical institute in the United States has agreed with foregen to perform a trial on human foreskin regeneration, with technology and materials that have already been FDA-approved and over which protective patents exist, and by a committed team of expert practising US surgeons, urologists and cosmetic surgeons. The trial will involve the participation of a trial group of 10-25 volunteer healthy adult participants resident in the United States, and will take place late in 2010.

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