The Torqued Wrench: Perspective and 80 percent

Learning lessons about caution, lying in a snowfield

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Editor’s Note: The Torqued Wrench is a look inside the mind of tech writer Caley Fretz. Every other week he’ll tackle the rumors, trends, innovations, and underpinnings of the tech world — or something else entirely. You can submit questions to Be sure to check out Caley’s previous columns.

VENICE, Italy (VN) — The story floats from laptop to laptop like a cottonwood puff, gliding through pressrooms and across evening dinner tables, unstoppable, buffeted by gusts of hazy recollection brought on by a few too many glasses of wine. Wisps of white-lie gossip and hearsay surrounding a seed of truth, keeping it afloat within a profession that has an understandable knack and appreciation for good storytelling, and a joyful willingness to roast its own.

But what profession doesn’t, really?

An editor went down, they say. Fifteen stitches and an ambulance. No, 28 stitches and a helicopter. Something about his spleen, I seem to recall. Or his kidneys. He missed the switchback, over the guardrail; he blew up a front tire, face first on the tarmac; his bar snapped; his pedal broke, and then his collarbone. Whatever it was, he left his comfort zone, on a strange bike. He toed the line and fell to the wrong side, when he should have been well back from the line the whole time. He forgot the 80 percent rule, and will now forever be known as That Guy. That Guy Who Crashed At The Product Launch.

Grown out of necessity, the 80 percent rule, a suggestion to keep oneself under control when at any sort of press event, and has been popularized amongst English-language tech writers to the point where a ride on a new product rarely heads out without at least one mention, someone piping up in warning. It is, in the end, a suppression of ego in an effort to protect ego, an impressively forward-looking statute designed to keep one’s self in tact, and a reminder to look upon cycling as the profoundly inconsequential activity it truly is. Notch it back a bit now to prevent humiliation later. Get dropped even, because it’s better than crashing.

Sounds easy, and obvious. But have you ever done a group ride? Our competitive nature is a difficult beast to wrangle.

With years of muscle memory, we tend to descend and corner and brake close to our limit, confident in our equipment and ourselves. It’s part of the fun, straddling that edge, seeing if we can go just a bit faster without consequences. Though we prefer not to think about it, any small mishap would tip us over and down — an unknown road surface, a tighter than expected corner, a car in the wrong place.

Cyclists do not tend to be highly risk-averse, even more so when riding with others. To participate in a sport where high speeds are the goal, where training grounds are shared with massive motor vehicles, one has to accept some level of danger. We do what we can to minimize it, most of the time, or to simply rationalize away the perils faced every time we step out the door. But the risks remain. In fact, they often add to the experience.

So we accept the variables, and take the odds. But add in higher-than-usual rates of equipment failure, which are common when testing brand new gear, and the updated odds don’t look so good. The line we normally ride on, balanced precariously at the edge of safety, is no longer safe at all. Best pull it back by 20 percent, and leave yourself a bit of breathing room.

Easier said that done, sometimes. I’ve thrown 80 percent out the window. Giddy on high mountain air, I missed an alpine switchback aboard a yet-to-be released mountain bike last summer, flying into a field of unmelted snow. The soft surface put a stop to my bike’s forward momentum immediately, but not mine. Over the bars and onto my back I went, into the wet slush. As I looked skywards the silhouette of a colleague loomed, laughing and pointing as he and others rode the chairlift over my head. Oh good, an audience, I thought. I guess I’m That Guy today.

You should have heard the stories that night.

But it’s an important lesson, the 80 percent rule. Rather than a line that should never be crossed, it’s a reminder to approach sport with perspective. We are not solving world hunger, stopping war or producing anything but endorphins. We are riding our bikes, generating great swaths of enjoyment, but it’s all personal. The 80 percent rule is a reminder to leave a little breathing room when the stakes aren’t high, when the prize is a few post-ride (possibly virtual) kudos, a new PR or one-upping a buddy. Put cycling into a wider perspective and it’s easy to save that 20 percent for tomorrow. Or use it today, just remember the result is all on you.

Writer’s note: The theme of this week’s column was the idea of personal friend and professional adversary James Huang of, who has never been That Guy. Merci for the suggestion, James.

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