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Well, my bike has been to Gear West again and is back. On Tuesday morning, the bolts attaching the right arm pad to the aero bars sheared off while riding on my stationary trainer. I was glad not to have been racing in Kona when my bike shed yet another part.

This was the second time that arm pad attachment system had failed. On my very first ride with my new bike, the threaded holes attaching that arm pad ovalized and the arm pad drooped toward the ground. Gear West replaced that part. On Tuesday morning, the bolts going into that same part failed. Not comforting given my reliance upon the bike to carry me 112 miles during Ironman Hawaii only ten days later.

People I have told about my bike problems have reacted pretty strongly. “So you mean to tell me that on your old bike, your handlebar broke and your frame broke? Then, in the first 470 miles on your new bike, your aerobar armpad has broken twice? I don’t understand why bikes aren’t more durable.” I’ve thought about that on my many trips to and from Gear West. (I’ve had plenty of time.) Here is what I have decided.

A virtually 100% reliable bike would not be hard to build. Unfortunately, no 100% reliable bike is well-suited for triathlon. Explanation: Durability and reliability depend upon strength. Strength is always on offer so long as weight is no object. If you are willing to build a very heavy bike, it may substantially never break. Of course, that is silly. A bike needs to be both light and strong. New materials like carbon fiber are very light and very strong – within reasonable limits. But it’s more complicated.

Strength often implies stiffness. In many cases, stiffness is good. For instance, think about the rear triangle of the bike, the tubes that hold the back wheel to the seat tube. If those tubes were not stiff, the frame would flex with each pedal stroke. A lot of your energy would dissipate simply flexing the frame back and forth. That energy would not work to move the bike down the road. It would be a good but slow workout. Think of watching that bike from behind waddling down the road. So strong and stiff are good if they keep the bike from flexing back and forth.

Strong and stiff are not so great, though, when it comes to flexing vertically. The very same area of the bike, the rear triangle, that we want not to flex back and forth needs to flex up and down – at least a little – to absorb road shock. If we build the bike too strong, it won’t flex to absorb bumps. A really stiff bike can wear you out by driving your saddle into your soft parts. That may be OK when you ride to the corner and back; not so much for 112 miles.

A bike also needs adjustability. By that I mean that a bike needs to accommodate a certain range of human height, weight and proportions like arm and leg lengths relative to your torso. Some bikes are meant for people with relatively long legs. Others work better for people with shorter legs and longer torsos. Younger, more flexible riders ride bikes with aero bars that are well below the height of the saddle. These bikes offer an optimized aerodynamic position and feature arm pads that are narrow, bringing in the rider’s shoulders to create the smallest frontal area to the wind. 54-year olds do not ride these aero optimized bikes.

In my case, hardware that adjusted the aero bars to a comfortable, age-appropriate height and width created leverage on the fixture holding those arm pads. The leverage applied force beyond that which the engineers intended. Put otherwise, I needed my aerobars built up high, almost to the height of my seat. I also needed the aerobar pads set out wide so that I can breathe. (Breathing is not so much a nice as a necessary for me. I don’t finish 112 miles all in one breath.) In making my bike comfortable for a 112-mile ride, we managed to give even my scrawny upper body the leverage required to shear steel bolts. Kind of a rush if I think of it that way, breaking steel parts with my elbows and all.

While my aero position is not optimal like that of younger riders, it is OK for a person of my age and flexibility. If I am uncomfortable, though, and need to rise up out of the aero position, I lose aerodynamics in a dramatic way. A comfortable, age-appropriate aero position that I can hold for a large majority of the race beats an optimized, younger person aero position that I can’t comfortably hold for nearly as long. The more time I can spend in the aero bars, the more efficiently I can ride. Neither rolling resistance of my tires nor mechanical resistance of the parts like the hubs, chain, pedals or bottom bracket are all that significant sources of drag. The wind is the key factor at play slowing a bicyclist down. Staying aero is everything in staying efficient.

If I am confusing you a bit here with terminology and concepts, you are getting the point. Bikes need to trade off weight, strength, shock absorbency, adjustability and aerodynamics. And I haven’t mentioned price yet, either. Even spending generously on my bike, I did not come close to the top of the line. (For the record, Margy, my new bike is a 2011 model on close out with a second to top of the line component group and third to the top of the line frame. Bargain!)

Gear West has been great in fixing me up with a bike at a time of year when I deeply regret having to fuss with my bike at all. I really wanted my bike to be 100% set by now. I wanted the bike to be something that I didn’t think about at all except as necessary to inflate the tires and ride. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. As I have been forced to think about my bike and all of its deficiencies, I have also come to consider my bike in light of all I ask of it. Like so many things in our lives, I had not really focused on all of the trade offs required to provide a product that would meet so many requirements. And bikes are really simple. Think about a cell phone and all of the many compromises regarding weight, battery life, overall size, screen dimensions, keyboard operation, camera lens, etc.

More generally, thinking about my bike has made me appreciate how nothing within our perceptible world lasts forever. I had thought that my old bike would last my lifetime and it didn’t. I wore it out and I have had no choice but to move on without it.

Likewise, I have come to appreciate how nothing is perfect. Even a new bike breaks. It was foolish of me to expect even a simple device like a bike to have no problems or compromises – or to think of the bike as simple at all.

Plato theorized that we live our lives amongst “projections,” things that reflect perfect forms that exist in another realm. In that other realm, a perfect chair exists which chairs in our world imperfectly reflect as projections of that perfect chair. We recognize a chair as something that has the elements of its perfect form. But the chair in our worldly realm is not perfect, only a projection of that perfect chair.

Plato had it easy, though. He arrived on the scene well before triathlon bikes. He did not suffer by getting a lot of money tied up in carbon fiber and titanium, then have his hopes dashed by understanding that he only got to ride an imperfect projection of a bike in this impermanent, earthly realm. Even Plato could not have been philosophical about that.


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