I break things. This is not an exaggeration. I seem to specialize in destruction.
As a kid in the 1980s, our standard issue bike was a 10-speed road bike. I shattered so many on curbs and through rough riding that my mother despaired of ever finding me a bike that would survive longer than a year. In consequence, she became an agent in one of the historic changes in modern American bicycling.
In 1981, the Specialized Stumpjumper was introduced in California as the first mass-produced mountain bike in the world. A couple years later it made its way to the East Coast, my mom's attention, and eventually -- to my excitement -- my Connecticut garage. Although our local bike shop knew to steer my mom towards this landmark bike as soon as it arrived, mainstream bicycle manufacturers doubted there was a market for this burly bicycle, with its 14 kilogram clunky appearance (early mountain bikes were called "clunkers" in California), huge, knobby balloon-tired wheels and overbuilt frame. However, the first 125 bikes built sold in only six days on the West Coast, showing there was a market in the bicycling world for this new beast. Unlike most buyers, my mother didn't choose it out of her interest in the newly evolving sport of mountain biking or because she was a bike aficionado craving the latest innovation.
She bought it because I break things.
The Stumpjumper was a huge success for me; it proved unbreakable. In fact, I eventually graduated to their Rockhopper -- a more evolved Stumpjumper -- and exclusively rode specialized bikes growing up, well past my college years. This set a standard in my gear purchasing: I wanted my stuff to be indestructible.
Others have embraced a different fad, namely lightweight and ultralight outdoor equipment. This magazine has frequently run columns extolling the virtues of lightweight gear. A prevailing principle in wilderness medicine is that, given equal performance, a lightweight tool is preferable to a heavier alternative. I do respect this, but I think in our austere environments, durability plays an equally important role.
I'm a relatively strong hiker, climber and biker capable of carrying some extra weight. But did I mention my fatal flaw: that I break things? Consequently, I accept heavier weight for increased durability when I shop. My friend Chris van Tilburg has written outstanding equipment reviews in our "Great Gear for Work and Play" column, which evaluate durability and functionality in the context of privileging lighter weight as an ideal characteristic. But where Chris looks for a butterfly, I look for a tank.*
This column, posting at least quarterly, will use a different standard, one more functional for the indelicate, gear-devouring gorillas among us. Given acceptable functionality and regardless of weight, how unbreakable is the gear?
Many equipment manufacturers advertise the durability of their gear. This column will challenge such assertions, push gear to their functionality limits and report those limits back to you. Some will pass and survive the gauntlet; others will shatter, drown or die, going into the dustbin at the back at the garage along with my 10-speed bikes. Only a few will prove "Unbreakable."
Hang on and tune in for the postings. This will be fun! And I'll get to pursue my specialty: breaking things.
*I shared this essay with Dr. Van Tilburg before publication. After a nice analysis that the best gear is a balance between durability and weight, he gently pointed out, "You can mitigate less durability with better technique," with which I wholly agree. However, as James Bond says of his role in the British Secret Service, “I'm a blunt instrument.” When technique is key to durability, I need ready and frequent access to my credit card. For those of us not gifted -- apparently ever -- with superior technique, this column may help even the playing field with some unbreakable products.
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