Sunday, January 27, 2013

Broken In Versus Broken Down

I went through a brief "Cult of Campy" phase as a teen... it was the 90s, I was a young and impressionable, whatever. And the line we Campy-nuts liked in those days was, "Campy breaks in, Shimano just breaks" (the counterargument -- and I wish I could source this quote -- was "your Campy drivetrain will shift just as badly in 20 years as it does today.") That "break vs. break in" argument was (and still is) an unfair criticism of Shimano, probably used to justify the insanely stiff out-of-the-box shifting of early Campy indexing (rock climbers could have used first-generation Ergopower to strengthen their grip), but the idea stuck in my head that good things should keep getting better the more you use them.

What got me chin-scratching about this is the saggy messenger bag you see above. I'd just unloaded it after using it as my carry-on during a recent vacation, and it came to rest just as shown... flat-bottomed, gaping, flap open, ready to load. In short, perfect for its intended purpose. It didn't start that way, though. As a new bag, the liner material was too stiff, the outer shell too slick. The flat center panel on the bottom was too narrow and the side panels hadn't yet worked in enough to slouch down and assist it, so the bag would topple over backwards at the slightest provocation. Only after years of commutes, bashing around, trips through the washing machine (not recommended, but I'm lazy), and general abuse did it reach equilibrium.

Lest you think this is some kind of Grant Petersen beeswaxing-poetic moment about the annoying neologism "beausage" (which -- if you're so inclined and don't mind downloading a pdf -- you can read more about on page 18 of Rivendell Reader #42 helpfully archived online by Cyclofiend), it most certainly is not. Do I like the look of my bag kinda beat up? Sure, I guess. But what I'm talking about is an object that actually WORKS better because it has been used, not something that just makes the Antiques Roadshow guys swoon with its patina (the perfectly good, already existing word that beausage is trying to replace). A good example is tires... Bicycle Quarterly testing showed that a worn (let's say "broken-in" tire) outperformed a new tire of the same make and model. Or leather saddles -- I don't ride them, but their proponents will tell you that they don't really come into their own until they've been used enough to mold to the rider.

Okay, one more example, then I promise to stop gazing at my navel: Anodized aluminum rims. Lots of rims today use machined braking surfaces, scraping off the anodized layer at the factory to provide good braking when new. On rims that haven't been pre-scraped, however, your brake pads have to do that work, wearing down the anodizing while you ride. Once that layer is removed by braking, the rim looks absolutely awful, but the braking performance is infinitely better. Of course, when you're a shop mechanic, try explaining that to an angry parent who demands to know why his kid's rims look "all worn out" after just a few weeks of use. 

Unfortunately, I don't know many other things in modern cycling can pull off the "better with age" trick. Shoes, maybe? Gloves? Or -- wishful thinking -- riders?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

better with age? Other than me , I'd have to nominate the Brooks Pro. Generally stiffer than the B.17, and much longer to get suitably "softened" (i.e. drop the Rockwell hardness number from 60 down to 40). It's worth it!

Steve in Peoria
(still have a Pro I started riding in 1976).