Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Is the bike industry sustainable? Can it be?

Every day at my job, I have to sort through new and used bike parts and decide what's worth keeping in stock and what's not. If it's a used part, it's easy; the stuff that's worth keeping we put back in the bin, perhaps updating the price if we think the last person to sort through the box underpriced an item, or cleaning a part more to justify the price they put on it. We don't always pay money for the used parts we sort and save. Sometimes they come in as trades, sometimes they're pulled from a bike with a dead frame.

If it's a new part, it's a bit harder. We always pay money for the new stuff, and sometimes we make mistakes. We order something thinking it will serve a specific purpose, or because it's what a customer insists they want; and the part comes and suddenly it's not what anyone expects or wants. Sometimes we can send it back, but not without more expense at our end (it costs money to ship things back and forth). Most of the time, we keep it, knowing that the cost of correcting our mistake is more than the cost of keeping the now-unwanted part. Thankfully, through a combination of care and luck we manage to avoid making too many such mistakes. For a small business like an independent bike shop, those mistakes can add up quickly.

But sometimes the shops don't make the mistakes, the manufacturers do. They bet on what they think will be a great idea, they manufacture it in the hundreds of thousands, and hope to God it sells. And most of the time, it sells well enough. But sometimes the idea isn't so great, or the public has a hard time understanding it, or the public just flat decides that they don't need it, even if it is so great. When that happens, you see the Next Big Thing end up on ebay and craigslist very quickly. (Remember Samson's clipless pedals? Mavic's foray into electronic shifting? The first year that Shimano's "Coaster" came out? Initial sales of these items were not promising, and many of these things wound up in the want ads months after being released on the market. Shimano is still struggling to gain market share with folks who aren't quite sure about Coaster, and not only on the public side of the retail counter.)

The big thing these days, if you've been paying attention, is carbon fiber. For the last several years, more and more bicycle parts are being made from the stuff. It's "space age" material, light as a feather compared to the same components made of any kind of metal, and it looks cool with all that fancy lattice-work weaving going on there (see derailleur, above). I went to my first trade show this year, Interbike, and nearly got lost in a sea of carbon fiber: forks, derailleurs, shift levers, stems, even rims are now made of the stuff. 

If you look more closely, you'll notice that most of those really cool-looking carbon-fiber bits are being installed on bikes meant for racing or for what's often called "sport" riding (where you look like a racer but don't pedal your bike quite as fast as the pros do). I think racing's cool, by the way; some of my best friends race, and do it quite well on the amateur level. But what bothers me is how temporary all of it is.

Think about it: bikes that are made mostly of carbon-fiber work well for a time, and then they begin to wear out. When they wear out, those parts cannot be serviced and made to work good as new again, or even close to new. Those parts are removed from the bike and replaced with brand-new parts. The bike runs like clockwork again and the rider is happy. But -- and this is the question I kept asking folks at the trade show -- what happens to the old parts?

The answers ranged from shrugging (lots of shrugging, actually) to shaking of the head to "I don't really know". Only one person out of the dozens I asked told me his company sends factory seconds (the stuff not quite ready for prime-time, so it doesn't leave the factory) to another site to be dismantled so the metal hinges and pivot pieces can be retrieved for recycling. But the carbon-fiber itself is apparently quite difficult and costly to recycle, so no one's doing it on an industrial level, at least not among the folks I spoke to at Interbike. No one was willing to come out and say that the stuff was going to a dump, but no one would flat-out deny it, either.

Add this little tidbit of reality to the scenes from big races like Le Tour, with its caravan of dozens and dozens of "official" motor vehicles following the racers all over France, and the thousands of cables, housing pieces, nuts and bolts and handlebar tape and tires that get removed from these bikes every night and replaced before the next day's stage, and you've got a sport that is among the most wasteful I've ever seen. 

If that was where it stopped perhaps I wouldn't worry so much. But the problem with this reality is that racing drives innovation among bicycle and component makers. Without innovation, sales slump and profits go down. So to promote innovation, you have to promote racing. The issue with that is that the big sell in typical bike shops now is that you need a new bike every couple of years or so (because, well, the pros get a new bike every time they sneeze or the sponsors change, right?). If you ride in lycra -- and for heaven's sake you ought to, you know -- it has to be the lightest, most space-age stuff money can buy (which means it falls apart after a season and has to be replaced). And if you want to ride the lightest bike possible -- because, well, that's what you ought to want, seriously -- then , well, that bike is simply going to have to be replaced every few years because -- and here's the ugly little secret, as far as I'm concerned -- 

it's not supposed to last that long.

That's right. It only makes sense. For a bike and all its parts and accessories to be very, very light in weight (meaning that you're supposed to be able to go faster, because, well, the pros can, after all), that stuff has to be built with thinner walls, tight tolerances, ceramic bearings (they weigh less than steel ones) and tires made with silk or some space-age (there we go again) micro-fiber in the belt. For all of this lightness, something has to give and that something is durability. What's criminal to my thinking is that bike riders spend so much money on stuff that wears out so fast, and stuff that can't be refurbished or fixed up to run again at that. The more stuff wears out, the more stuff shops can sell, the more stuff companies can make, and all the right people are rolling in dough. That's the way it works. Now, racing is not about planned obsolescence, it's about winning -- but the obsolescence is a side effect of all that time spent on getting lighter and faster. So it happens anyway. And lots of people who love bicycles are starting to grow tired of it.

Thankfully, we are seeing a move back towards things that are built to last. Steel bikes are coming back. All-metal components aren't, not yet, not any that are of decent quality anyway; but you can find old ones in decent condition on ebay and in slightly lesser condition in the bargain bins at a shop that carries used parts. People are beginning to ride for transportation again, just like they did the last time gas was expensive in the 1970's. Racks and baskets and bags are making a comeback as more folks discover (again) that bikes are useful vehicles and not just sporting equipment. I only hope that the bike industry wakes up and pays attention, and starts not only making but really promoting the kinds of things that will really last again. Let's make durability and thrift cool again. Let's teach people how to do the simple stuff at home so we who work in shops have more time for the big jobs, and to refurbish more old bikes and get them out on the road again. I want the bike magazines to focus on real-world bikes, new and used, and just forget about the trickle-down from racing for awhile. Let's leave off the bikes that are here today, broke tomorrow and off to a landfill next week. I'm tired of that stuff, and grateful my shop doesn't sell a lot of it. I want the bike manufacturing industry to really wake up and start making affordable, durable, decent-quality bikes for the rest of us, for the majority of us, for the folks who don't race or even fantasize about it, who just want to ride our bike to get from one place to another and enjoy the ride -- today, tomorrow and for years to come. 


Jerome said...

Great post! I couldn't agree more. I also wished I had a LBS like your shop, that operates with the right mind set. You're doing great work!

When I first got into cycling, I was always waiting for the next issue of bicycling to come out. Now, I don't think I've bought one for about 5 months. Same old crap, different brand. While they have the odd utility bike, it does't justify putting up with all the latest and greatest carbon parts reviews just to get 1 paragraph on a new Raliegh steel bike that's coming out.


Box Dog Bikes Andy said...

Wonderful post. The bike industry as a whole is very short sighted in its product development. As a mechanic and bike shop owner its very frustrating to encounter components that are designed to break after a few years and can not be refurbished.

I wonder if the scale of the industry relates to how long the products it makes are intended to last. So for example, the bearings and ratcheting mechanisms on Shimano (or worse Falcon) freewheel will crap out after a year or two of regular use or a couple of bad winter storms. You can try to regrease them with Phil Tenacious down the back side, but there is no real grease port. Compare them to the longevity (and sadly the cost) of a White Industries freewheel. Do larger companies have an incentive to manufacture products that fail more frequently or have an overall shorter lifespan in order to drive up sales?

Beyond the values of a particular company, I think that the focus on racing limits the breadth of cycling components. If bicycling were an integral part of America's transportation systems more people would look for reliable bicycle transportation to which the industry would respond over the long term with lower cost higher value components.

Thank you for questioning the ethos of the industry. As noted in Jerome's comment too often the bicycle media is just a mouthpiece for thoughtless industry advertisements.

bikelovejones said...

Thanks. I work in a pretty special shop, where we sell new bikes but maintain our historic ties to a time when we sold only used; and we still devote some of our time and energy to refurbishing and selling quality used bikes.

It may be a good sign that these nicer used bikes are harder to find. Here in Portland, I'm no longer alone on my daily commutes -- now I'm surrounded by dozens of other folks on bikes. That can only be a good thing. Happy riding --Beth

Khalid said...

Excellent post - you address a very important issue that gets lost in the hype of the latest and greatest component that you MUST have, of course.

There is one more point I'd like to add. Part of this is problem lies in the logics of consumerism and capitalism. Companies want to grow, and to do that they must sell more stuff. To sell more stuff they must either find more people to sell to, or they must convince people that they need the latest innovation. A lot of bike parts come off of bicycles long before they no longer work. How many riders (particularly bicycle racers) are tooling around on eight year old Campy Record components? They would certainly last for eight years, but they get replaced before that for reasons I can't say I totally understand. We buy things we don't need, and corporations depend on that to continue growing. That's how capitalism works. No one is going to invest in a company that doesn't grow. So marketing agencies are hired to make us believe that we need the newest, the latest. Not very sustainable...

For more on these ideas, read "No Logo" by Naomi Klein.

tacomee said...

It's all true-- racing style bicycles are being made to last about 3 years (or less).

The good thing is that even the lower end parts, the ones built of all metal, work really. really well.

Shimano Tiagra and Deore parts are cheap and very good. Run those and be happy.

Helen said...

Wow - this really opened my eyes. You wrote a good piece. Perhaps YOU'LL be the one to make change the fastest by sending query's to magazines to actually cover the topic. You've got the info and the prose: now go out and sell it, please!

2whls3spds said...

Excellent! In some countries in the EU any non edible product has to be proven to be recyclable to a certain point before they will approve it's sale. From what I gather the regulations on apply to certain classes of products. I buy for durability and servicablity not bling or advertising. I have Sturmey Archer hubs that are older than I am that are still in regular use. I am not much help for a consumer driven society, I guess. ;-)


Anonymous said...

Nicely written! I see through the sea of carbon more today than ever before. My last road bike was carbon/aluminum and I sold the frameset and picked up a 10 year old steel frame that had never been ridden. Just finished building it up and I cant wait until I can ride it. Keep fighting the good fight!

Bill Gibson said...

I have no doubt regular bikes will become sustainable unless everyone is hit by the stupid rays. Or, unless time runs out. At least we aren't hit by the stupid rays, right? -). Metals are easily recyclable, given enough energy. Carbon; well at least is burns or is compostable. 5 or even 3 speed derailleurs are simple and can last virtually forever, if they are friction-shifted, and they will get you there. Yes, my 1-speed gets me there (no hills around here). So, as long we can keep the iron age going we'll have good bikes. Now, how do you make a hand-made tire without perishable, tropical rubber????

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your insight! In fact, we discussed this very topic today.

The interesting part is that Renaissance Bicycles falls somewhere in a new niche ... we are reviving old neglected steel frames with high quality new parts.

On the one-hand, we are glorifying the heritage craftsmen of the past. On the other hand, we are like the 'consumer' LBS with the latest and greatest tech.

Here is a link to what we are all about:

In our own defense, we do a fair bit of restoration and preservation of vintage bikes ... some times they are just too perfect in all of their patina-ed glory.

Anonymous said...

very interesting point of view, but I dont think this is only happening with bicycle industry.
Same thing happens with motorcycle parts, same with automoviles, same with sport shoes and so on..
And sorry but an aluminium bicycle is far more comfortable than a steel one

Rick--Bicycle Fixation said...

My most-ridden (and most comfortable!) bike is a 42-year-old Bottecchia professional. I realized today that it was made around the time I started bike commuting to junior high school! The parts on it (what parts there are--it's a fixie) are less than five years old, except for the brake and seat. Everything is chosen to last. The bike, with fenders and lights, weighs 19 pounds, so I'm not suffering.

I've ridden centuries on it, and plenty of 70-milers, and plenty of shopping, dining, and visiting rides.

I doubt many new bikes could compare--especially after 42 years of use. (I bought it well-used.)

brian said...


Thank you for your thoughts. It is nice to hear someone who pretty much nailed one of the major problems with the bike industry.

Though the large bike conglomerates are starting to provide at least lip service to the concept of providing practical, low maintenance, long-term use transportation, they really do not seem to know how.

I think this is at least partially the problem of the component manufacturers. They continue to tpush the envelope with technology for technology's sake, and dropping the older proven stuff. Unfortunately, the tooling costs to start re-producing the old stuf, or to make new-old stuff is very prohibative.

I wish I could see where thisis going.