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.