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Tuesday, February 17, 2015
Wear and Tear on Your Bicycle: Expectations and Experiences
Yesterday afternoon I decided to do some maintenance on my folding bike's mud-encrusted drivetrain. Although when I say "decided" what I really mean is shamed into it ("Look at the state of that thing - It's a wonder your gears don't seize up!"). Some cyclists are, shall we say, a bit more fastidious than I am when it comes to bicycle maintenance. But on this occasion even I conceded that my everyday transport bike deserved a good wash. After all, it had been over a year since the last time! And so the next several hours were spent cleaning the bike - starting with extracting packed dirt and grit out of all the nooks and crannies in its maze-like system of pulleys, and (since, let's be honest, one tends to get carried away with these things) ending with polishing the hubs, spokes and chain links till I could see my crazed reflection in their surfaces.
It was then it occurred to me that instead of cleaning the chain, I should probably be replacing it by now. But, oddly enough, it is coming up on my 3rd year Brommiversary, and I have yet to wear the chain out - or any other part for that matter. That's right: After 3 years of owning this bicycle and using it as my main utility bike in all-weather conditions, I am still riding on the original tires, tubes, chain, brake pads, et cetera. And, while I am certainly not complaining about the milage I've managed to squeeze out of this machine without spending a penny on its upkeep, I do recognise that my experience is unusual ...which reminds me of a topic that's come up in the comments of several recent posts: What to expect when it comes to wear and tear on your bicycle.
To be sure, the topic is widely covered in cycling literature. There are helpful websites and magazine articles that will tell you roughly how often you ought to replace your chain, cassette, and other parts. Your local bike shop will provide some figures as well if you ask them. But such advice tends to be based either on typical use case scenarios, or on the advice-giver's own. In reality riders can find that their own experiences differ wildly from commonly accepted estimates. And so, despite the abundance of advice, impassioned debates ensue over whether a chain must be replaced every 1,000 miles or can in fact last over 10,000 miles, and similarly exciting questions.
Unfortunately, you will not find answers to these questions here. In fact, what I'd like to suggest is that there is no answer. At least no simple, generic answer that will be of use to everyone. The only way to know how much wear and tear to expect out of your bike, is for you to ride that bike and see what happens. Because in real life there is no such thing as an average, or prototypical use case scenario. There are just too many factors that can influence the rate of wear and tear on our bicycles.
To start with the obvious, quality of components matters. It is a simple concept to grasp, but we still forget - especially when we're trying to save money at time of purchase. But the fact remains that cheap parts wear out sooner than well-made parts. Delicate parts wear out sooner than durable parts. This must be considered when estimating a component's lifespan.
Equally important are the conditions we ride in. Cycling on pothole-ridden roads jiggles and stresses parts. Prolonged exposure to salted roads and salty air has corrosive effects. Inclement weather puts more wear on parts than fair weather. Rough terrain puts more wear on parts than smooth pavement. Over the years I've noticed that I wear out chains and brake pads on all-terrain roadbikes at a much quicker rate than on paved roadbikes. This is because grit and sand get into the drivetrain and the brakes where, even in the course of a single long ride, they can do quite a bit of damage - especially in the rain.
Perhaps less obvious but no less important is how we ride. How often and in what manner do we use the brakes? Do we constantly change gears? Do we pedal under load? Do we stand out of the saddle? Do we cross-chain? Do we hop curbs? Do we skid? Do we pedal-strike when cornering? Do we crash often, or let our bikes fall over carelessly? There are different ways to use equipment, with some riders being naturally rougher or more heavy-handed than others. We may not even notice which way we are, but it certainly plays a role in component longevity.
Related to this are individual factors such as rider weight and strength. A heavier, more powerful rider will put more stress and wear on their bicycle's parts. Some interesting anecdotal evidence pertaining to this can be gleaned from couples who cycle together long distances, putting in similar miles on similar equipment in identical weather conditions. Typically, the heavier and stronger of the two will wear through components - in particular tires, wheels, chains and cassettes - at a faster rate.
There are myriads of other factors to consider - from whether (and how) the bike carries loads, to how well the machine is maintained and where it is stored. But the truth is, when all is said and done there still remains the wild card factor. There are riders who couldn't wear out a chain or a set of tires if you sent them on a race around the world. And there are riders who are prone to snapping crank arms, handlebars and seat posts with alarming regularity - despite a slight physique and a seemingly light touch! It would seem that all sorts of unique individual characteristics - from a cyclist's position and pedaling style, to their aura, pheromonal signature and general je ne sais quois - can have unexpected and puzzling effects on component wear.
So, whatever your experience with wear and tear on a bike has been, it is probably normal. Even if it differs from that of your friends' experiences and the experiences you read about on various blogs and forums. So far I have been pretty lucky with how little wear and tear I've had to deal with on my main utility bike and roadbike. To ensure the trend continues, I will try to improve on my bike maintenance habits. And perhaps I will get a shiny new chain for my folding bike after all - after 3 years of service, she deserves it!