Today, everything in cycling is about weight. It wasn’t always so. Not long ago, a shift in thinking overtook the bicycle industry: heavy bicycles suddenly became undesirable. The idea behind eschewing heavy bikes was that everyone wanted to, or should, ride faster.
As soon as this concept hit the stage, manufacturers started competing for the title of who could make the lightest frames and components. Much time and effort went into re-engineering every part of a bicycle to see if a gram of weight could be shaved off here or there. It became a race to see how light components could be made without instantly disintegrating.
Why, all of a sudden, did this become a trend? Maybe the rise in popularity of bicycle racing jump-started it. National bicycling heroes, like Lance Armstrong, captured the American imagination. He, and other bike racers, were lean, mean, efficient pedaling machines looking for the most aerodynamic bike or position — and any edge they could gain over the competition. Or maybe it was just a way of modernizing bicycling by moving towards sleeker new age bikes.
This was all well and good for riders who wanted to be known as the fastest on the planet. But why it trickled down to consumer bicycles is an enigma. There were trade-offs for this weight mania. In particular, some frames and most components became far less durable.
A decade ago, chains were made so sturdily that you could use them for ten years without any significant chain stretch. The plates were solid and strong. Neither foul weather nor aggressive riding made them unusable.
Now, chains only last for a few thousand miles (at best). The higher the number of speeds, the more fragile the chains become, and the more quickly they wear out. Unfortunately, this fragility spans the entire drivetrain.
As the chain wears, so do the chainrings and cassette. With inexpensive components, it may be necessary to replace the cassette with every one or two chain replacements. And, the chainrings may not last much longer. If the drivetrain wear is severe enough, all three components must be changed at the same time.
High-end components last a bit longer, but they pale in comparison to older components, which could last for many years and tens of thousands of miles of riding.
I have to admit that I was surprised to learn about this phenomenon when I bought my most recent bike. I had been primarily riding one of my road racing bikes, which had a Campagnolo Chorus gruppo from the 1990s. Fifteen years after installation, these components worked almost as if they were new. Nothing had been replaced from wear. Nothing looked worn out.
Components from the ‘90s, or earlier, could last almost as long as the frame, if well cared for. But then came the weight craze. And with it came an inordinate amount of waste.
I wondered, as I replaced a cassette and chain within a year of having installed them, what was happening with all of the parts we now dispose of on a regular basis. I posed this question to a mechanic at a local bike shop. He just shrugged and said “everything’s disposable these days.”
Apparently, now that we all “need” super light bikes, it’s become necessary to jam pack the landfills with used components. Whether we like it or not, we are forced to act as if we were racers who must put speed above all else.
Most cyclists do not ride in the Tour de France or race their bikes at all. Still, if they own newer bikes, and ride them frequently, they will have to discard many components over the life of the bike.
Why didn’t the bicycle industry consider the wastefulness and effect on our environment that this weight priority change would bring? And, why didn’t they give consumers a choice?
What would be wrong with offering ultra lightweight components to weight weenies and racers and more durable components to everyone else? Nothing.
This picture represents much of what’s wrong with consumerism. Companies follow the latest trend, without consideration of consequences, in an attempt to attain the largest market share.
Most bicycle manufacturers won’t assume the risk of going against the tide. They’re worried about competing in the marketplace. They’re worried about profits. They’re worried about their brand’s image. But, they’re not worried about the cost to the consumer of constantly replacing parts. And, they’re not worried about the effect disposable bicycle components have on our planet.
To combat this problem, a concerted effort should be made to recycle worn out bicycle parts. A large-scale program should be organized through local bike shops or bicycle organizations to make recycling facilities readily available to cyclists. The success of such an endeavor assumes the availability of advertising outlets to make cyclists aware of this option.
As noble as recycling efforts are, they would be little more than a short-term fix. Such efforts wouldn’t entirely solve the problem of component waste because of the difficulty of gaining compliance. Recycling just wouldn’t be practical for the average cyclist — particularly one who performs his or her own maintenance and repairs. Also, recycling wouldn’t get to the source of the problem: lack of component durability.
A better solution is needed. Perhaps, after a decade of weight reduction decadence, the bicycle industry could step back and reconsider how consumers use bicycles.
Many people ride bikes because they’re more environmentally friendly than cars — that is until you consider how many parts you’ll have to throw away over the life of the bike. Other people ride bikes because they’re more economical than either cars or public transportation — that is until you consider the added cost of frequently replacing your drivetrain components if you ride many miles.
What’s needed is a return to bicycles built to last for many years. This should hold true for both frames and components. There’s no valid reason why newer bicycle technologies can’t be implemented in a way that allows for better wear resistance and a longer lifespan. What was formerly achieved by using weight — heavyweight, durable bicycles — could be achieved through new technologies.
Consumers, especially those who care about our environment, should reflect upon the value of bicycle durability. After all, fewer discarded parts in the landfill also means less money out of a cyclist’s pocket.