Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Why Bikes Break Down

One the chief mysteries of owning a bike is why the damn thing breaks down so much. At first, it was flattering--I broke the chains, shattered the drivetrains, ground the brakepads to powder. Then it dawned on me that the same stuff happened to everyone else with the same frequency. The rain falls on the just and the unjust, as the Good Book says, or "shit happens," as the crusties say, an answer satisfying only to drug addled zombies and mystics trying to attain the unfeeling state, familiar to wearers of Performance brand "Century" cycling shorts, now with marble-stuffed "shammies."

I had a pair of Century shorts for about three years, wearing them down to a translucent sheen, so they resembled Jazzersize lycra, and eventually getting rid of them when the "shammy" frayed and the padding was revealed to be a vacuum-packed Eggo. Rugg, a Perfhead, and the only rider in the world sponsored by the notoriously cheap company, tells me the comfort and antibacterial qualities of the Ultra are ensured by the Happy Meal-shammied insert. Rugg gets custom "Unhappy Meal" inserts for his shorts, of course.

Perhaps the simplicity of the Perf brand explains its longevity. I used to blame complexity for things breaking down, as this highly sophisticated relational visual interface suggestions:

But I don't think this is true anymore. Things break down when their design incentives lean toward a tradeoff between durability and some other variable. Just think about relationships: the kind that thrill you the most in the visceral sense are also the kind that destroy you.

Our bikes are far less complicated than cars, but bikes breaks down far more often. Designers traded off durability for weight.

There's another factor in the mix here, and I'm not sure what to call it except evolved chaos. The durability of the U.S. power grid recently came into question: what if terrorists took out a transistor in North Dakota and set off a catastrophic chain reaction, plunging the rest of the nation into darkness? After a lot of thought and turning off and on of breakers, experts concluded that the grid is such a crazy, inexplicably organized system that bringing it down would "take an incredible amount of information."

That's because it was organized as regions haphazardly developed grids, based on local initiatives and government programs, which were chaotic. Its very UNintelligent design makes it inefficient, yeah, but also durable. It also makes it organic, in that its design is the product of evolution.

I was in Bali for past ten days, where chaos is the only word to describe the flow of thousands of cars and mopeds without the "interference" of traffic signals or lanes. Traffic copes with the random stopped truck, pile of dirt, random threat, by flowing. In other words, it's less vulnerable to disruption than American traffic is. Part of this is because most traffic is on two wheels. But part of it is also because traffic flow in Bali

Complex things that evolve are less predictably vulnerable than things designed for pure efficiency. Part of the beauty of the bicycle is its vulnerability, which is a product of its pure effiency. There are no backup systems, no appendices or spleens of the bike. No "we can cut that out"s. Everything is essential, simple.

So, it's simplicity, not complexity, that makes our bikes such vulnerability little waifs.

1 comment:

DJ Bike Police said...

I've had my share of bibs, but my Performace Ultra bibs seem to have outlasted and out performed them all. A nice simple black that matches everything. I'm with Rugg on this one.