25 April, 2023

Overcomplicating the Most Efficient Transportation Machine

velo orange a man working on a mtb amongst all sorts of mountain bikes right to repair

I started wrenching on bikes from an early age. From changing flats on my original Mongoose 20" bike to overhauling loose-ball headsets and bottom brackets on my dad's old Cannondale, wheels-up on the basement floor. Those times taught me basic but fundamental skills that landed me a job as a mechanic in high school, got me through almost a decade of working on bikes, and ended up with me here at VO. While most of those times and much of my early mechanic years were filled with changing flats, basic 7spd derailleur adjustments, and regreasing simple older tech, times are oh-so different now, and so are the bikes.
My dad's copy of Todd Downs' 2005 encyclopedia of bicycle repair- the foundation of my wrenching as a yoot 

Even back then, as 11spd was beginning to make the rounds on production road and MTB bikes, the unattainably high end Dura Ace and SRAM Red gear that seemed so intricate and flawless then, now looks and feels no different than any other gear of its time when on a bike in the repair stand - especially looking through the scope of what's available on the market today. Much of which, folks are having a harder and harder time even approaching as a home mechanic.
SRAM Red 11spd rear derailleur. The best of the best at the time, while still taking design cues from far cheaper and simpler gear

Bikes, from the early stages of mass production through to the 1990s, had been largely the same. Rigid frame, pressed-in headset on a straight tubes, one-piece or three-piece cranks, and rim brakes. Nit pick and identify the outliers all you like, but that describes most of the bikes during that time. However, with the trickle-down effect of materials engineering into cycling in the late 2000's, things began to change - and get more exclusive. Suspension forks became normalized on off road bikes, cartridge bearings found their way into everything from headsets to jockey wheels, carbon became the gold standard for racing bikes, and model-year innovation became the standard. 

I'm not one to groan about progress, though. Aside from the anecdote of "chasing the past," (e.g. riding a rigid hardtail mountain bike or pulling out your old downtube shifter bike) to gain some fleeting taste of the "good ol' days" of bikes, you'd be hard pressed to convince me that new bikes coming out today from almost any manufacturer aren't some of the best bikes made yet. Disc brakes, quality frames, excellent suspension design and kinematics, and tubeless tires offered in virtually every size imaginable. If you think about it, there are more options for folks looking to buy a proper bike today than ever before.
 This is on your bicycle.

But with that innovation comes an increase in the level of technical know-how required to even attempt to maintain modern bikes. Shimano has a virtual school devoted to teaching mechanics how to work on their products. SRAM has something quite similar. Want to bleed your hydraulic brakes? You'll need to buy a proprietary kit and oil, and you better not screw it up or it'll be a mess. The same goes for suspension forks and frames. I've owned probably 5 full-suspension bikes, none of which I, personally, serviced the shock or fork on. I'm fortunate to have a shop nearby that specializes in suspension service, another area of bicycle servicing that has become specialized in the last 15 years.

Bikes of the 1950's to 2000's could once be stripped down with nothing but a tri-tool and a 15mm box wrench, assuming you hadn't lost your 10mm. Aside from a very short list of special tools (which you could pick up at any bike shop) like a crank puller, bb lockring wrench and puller, and a cassette tool, there really was nothing to it. As I started my time as a mechanic affordable two-piece cranks flooded the market, and with them came every bottom bracket standard under the sun. 142 Thru-axle spacing was quickly followed by Boost 148, and subsequently Super Boost and thus an arms race of new, bike specific tools and components began.

I type this all out not as a protest (though I come from a fortunate position of well over a decade of technical experience), but rather as an illustration of how complicated things got, so quickly. If you bought a road or mountain bike in 1985, you had a considerable number of options in terms of models, but you could take any bike home and maintain it properly yourself with a minimal number of special tools or specialized technical knowledge. Heck, that rings true even for bikes as new as the early 2010's.
My first 'real' mountain bike- a 2008 Vassago Bandersnatch, with SRAM X9 and BB7M brakes

Today, however, if you wanted to purchase a mid-grade road bike off a shop floor, you'd be likely ending up with something that uses a press-fit bottom bracket, internal routing that goes into a void, tubeless tires, hydraulic disc brakes, and maybe even electronic shifting that needs an app and special software for diagnosis and updating.

Heaven forbid you want to service your bottom bracket in a year or two. You'll need the proper tapered punch, an oversized bearing press, a torque wrench and bravery to take that on without fear you'd crack your carbon or destroy your aluminum alloy shell. It gets worse when you consider mountain bikes of today. We haven't even touched on e-bikes! There's just too much special knowledge and risk tolerance required for the average at-home mechanic.
An example of my most recent rig, a Norco Revolver FS 120. Quite removed from what now seem like "humble beginnings"
That being said, many shops offer lifetime free basic services and tune ups with the purchase of a new bicycle. They did at my shop at least, and it feels like this is the direction the whole industry is moving: "pay a premium up front, we'll cover you for most stuff." In tandem, the manufacturers are designing bikes that are less and less consumer-maintenance friendly, knowing that the customer is likely going to roll it into the shop 9 times out of 10 before attempting to fix it first. This makes the product more expensive, and leaves those of us who like to fix our own stuff hanging out to dry, in a way. 

From an environmental perspective, making things obsolete or too difficult or expensive to fix, means that people will buy new things - which means more waste and emissions. 

I think shops are going to be more essential than ever with the industry moving towards higher-end, direct-to-consumer business. It's just that their business model is being forced through a change, and they'll need to be mindful of that fact.

What are your thoughts? Do you work only on bikes of a certain vintage or are you able/willing to maintain all your bikes regardless of their complexity? 


Andy said...

I do all my own work (so far,) but none of my bikes is especially complicated. No carbon, no suspension, no electronics other than generator lighting.

I did just buy a Trek District 4, though, which has a belt drive, an Alfine 8-speed hub, internally routed cables, and fully hydraulic brakes. So far the only learning experience has been removing and replacing the rear wheel, in my garage, just to make sure I could do it if needed. I have less than 700 miles on it, though.

That bike, by the way, is eagerly awaiting the availability of your utility bar. It looks like a really clean way to have some front storage, and I'd also like a little more rise on what is my bike for slower, easier riding.

Anonymous said...

I live 60 miles from a bike shop, and 150 miles from a good one. I have to do my own servicing most of the time, so the bike fleet is all aluminum and steel with threaded bbs, barely any hydraulics, and a lot of 8-speed setups because it’s easier to get chains and harvest parts from local cast offs.

Anonymous said...

There is no ethical consumption under capitalism.

Kim Isaacson said...

I don't mind new innovations being introduced by the bike industry, largely derived from professional racing machines. But not at the expense of eliminating production of existing technology that is simple, affordable and user-serviceable. The vast majority of bike riders do not and will never race. We just want to enjoy being on a bike for pleasure, for transportation, for exploration. I worry that most of the bike manufacturing industry doesn't see things the same way. Thanks to VO for providing products and support for the non-racing majority.

Anonymous said...

I've always enjoyed doing all my own maintenance. Carbon frames, full suspension and even forks and shock absorbers. Something I found appealing about bikes in the early 2000s was how you could swap parts with relative ease as the interface standards were widely upheld. I enjoy the performance of modern bikes, but it's really disappointing to me how the manufacturers have become protectionist and tribal with regard to standards, effectively forcing you to buy more and more as the compatibility issues dictate full system upgrades. A lot of the 'performance benefits' are questionable. Endlessly adding cassette sprockets and electronic shifting. Seems they're getting pretty desperate to squeeze developments out of derailleur gears. The latest SRAM set is so expensive is it really that much better than a 10/11 speed cable set? Not justifiable if you ask me. Kinda gone off topic and started ranting, but you get the idea. These days I just enjoy riding the bikes I've got. No plans to upgrade my rim braked 10 speed road bike or 2018 orange MTB.

Anonymous said...

There is no ethical consumption under capitalism. -- and i agree.

and the bike business is becoming monopolistic...

woe to us all.

there are and will be, into the foreseable future, good mechanical bikes that are affordable and fixable. youll just have to be saavy enough to buy them...

dr2chase said...

I've been utility-biking-only since about 2006, and prefer my pars interchangeable.

That said, there have been a few innovations that I think are worth the upgrade.

Indexed shifting, that is good, especially for the fancier IGHs.

I think through-axles are a good thing, especially for the front wheel with disk brakes that otherwise threaten to eject a loose front wheel.

Disk brakes are good-mostly, except that on one of my bikes I swapped to Sturmey-Archer Drum and that is also good, durable, and easy to service. The rotor ran into too many things and got slightly bent, a chirping rotor sucks.

Hydraulic is pretty good; it doesn't get water in the cable that freezes to ice in the winter.

I'm undecided about threadless forks. Those seem like something invented by someone who had never sat upright on a bicycle.

I don't see much use in the modern bottom-bracket "innovation", square-taper works fine for me. I wish that elliptical bottom-bracket shells were more common, that solves a problemm.

Since I use IGH, I don't have much use for the increasing specialization in freewheels and derailers and chains.

Belt drive looks fine in theory, but I've seen one split on the road (not my bike) so in practice I am skeptical. An IGH with a greasy chain inside a full chain case seems like a nice idea to me, and we had those once upon a time.

Tubeless tires seems like a PITA for on-the-road repair.

No need for carbon fiber, would not want to worry about hurting my bike by scratching it. Titanium would be nice, though.