The bicycle is arguably one of humankind’s most useful inventions. It is by far the cheapest means of transportation under most circumstances and does not pollute the air with large amounts of fine dust or loud noise. Most bikes used to last for many years with only little maintenance and rock-solid parts. But what about modern bicycles? Are they still as sustainable and hold up to all of these promises?
There have been quite a few things that have fascinated me throughout my life, but bicycles always had a special place in my heart. Not only have I been mountain-biking since I was about 12 years old, but my trusty bike was also my primary way of getting around town during my teenage years – and made me a bit less dependent on my parents. My first MTB has been overhauled several times and is still in use – including the original ~25-year-old shifters and derailleurs. I also worked as a bicycle mechanic and salesman for almost 2 years, so I assume to understand a thing about the bike industry and the tech or two – though I must admit that I’m not an expert by any means.
But what taught me by far the most about bicycles was a trip from Germany to Sweden in 2013 on a cheap MTB. I cycled daily for almost six weeks, sleeping in a tent during most nights and sometimes in a hostel. Some people may laugh at this because they might have traveled much farther than that, but these roughly 2,000 km were enough to teach me about what really matters on a good bike – because of what my own bike was lacking. I broke a tire (probably a material defect), the bike’s kickstand, and many spokes because my rear wheel was seemingly not designed to carry a 70 kg rider plus 25 kg of baggage over every kind of terrain. And my seat post also did not make it to the end of that trip (pro-tip: get a 2-bolt version before you start), to name just a few of the technical issues I had to deal with. I still got that bike, and I’m currently working on building its successor with my frame builder of trust, because that old MTB is starting to fall apart and my style of riding has also changed quite a bit in the meantime. To be clear: building a custom bike is a lot of work and absolutely not necessary to enjoy your rides, but it allows you to pick and mix your favorite components and can offer you features you won’t find on a stock bike. During my research, I learned a lot about frame design, ergonomics, components, and what really matters for building a great bike on top of my own experience. That lead me to choose almost completely different parts than I had initially in mind, because my next bike is supposed to last me a long time and not to follow the latest (technological) trends in cycling.
Since I had been in the bike industry myself for a short time around 2006/2007, a lot has changed about how bikes are marketed and built. Back then, I saw a lot of bikes that had already been 20 - 30 years old and people stopped by, because their tires or brake pads needed replacements or the Bowden cables had corroded over time – things that one would expect and that are mostly inevitable. On newer bikes, we had other defects. Worn-out bottom brackets and other ball bearings, cracked tires after just a few months, worn-out sprockets and chains. While some components have made bikes more reliable and comfortable – notably the widespread adoption of the dynamo hub – unfortunately this ain’t the case for many other modern components.
Aluminum frames are still a common thing and are very cheap to manufacture, but not only are they hardly repairable but also don’t offer real benefits over high-quality steel frames. Unlike what marketing departments are promising, they are not much lighter than steel, because they need more material to counteract the material’s tendency of developing fatigue under continued stress. They don’t rust, but will still corrode when in contact with salt and are often less flexible and thus not as comfortable to ride. But marketing has convinced most people that aluminum frames are better than steel, so steel frames are barely found on contemporary off-the-shelf bikes, because aluminum is what people are expecting. For higher-end bikes, there’s also carbon fiber, but that is basically a sustainability nightmare, because it cannot be recycled and is more fragile than metal frames, but — on the other hand – can offer great ride quality and be much lighter than anything else.
To make your stiff aluminum frame more comfortable, help is on the way in the form of a suspension fork, which finally voids the weight savings of your shiny aluminum frame. Don’t get me wrong, a suspension fork makes perfect sense for a mountain bike, that is meant to be ridden on rough terrain and can improve traction – and thus safety – a lot. Cheap suspension forks don’t perform very well and use heavy steel springs, so more expensive bikes often use air suspension, which performs great – and the seals need regular service that most people cannot do at home and that’s only possible as long as replacement parts are available. Great! Does this sound more sustainable than the old bike from your grandfather’s garage? Probably not. Does it ride better? Probably, but not by such a great margin that would justify its wasteful construction.
Simple mechanical rim brakes have been replaced by hydraulic disc brakes. Some manufacturers use (mostly) non-toxic hydraulic oil, but many others use corrosive and toxic brake fluid (the same used for car brakes), that needs to be replaced every few years (again, these make sense on mountain bikes because hydraulic disc brakes work better with very wide tires). Chains have become narrower to work with an ever-increasing number of sprockets, currently up to 13(!), which causes them to wear out much faster than those found on older bicycles. The added benefits of these developments are very minor for most casual riders and commuting, but make bikes more fragile and costly to maintain. High-end bikes even use electronic shifting systems, which perform great but add electronics and batteries to a formerly purely mechanical device. And as these don’t last forever, these bicycles now also contribute to the ever-increasing pile of electronic waste.
It is even a different story for electric bicycles, which naturally always feature batteries and electronic components on top of all the mechanical stuff. They are of course more sustainable where they can replace cars, but not where they replace mechanical bicycles for recreational use. Like many other industries, bike manufacturers also lean towards increased complexity. Not because it adds real benefits for the users of bicycles, but mostly because it serves the requirements of the market and marketing. Bicycle components have never been as standardized as they could (and should) be, but now we got proprietary electronics on top of that.
So before you buy your next bicycle, think twice. Does it need to have all the bells and whistles that promise to elevate your ride to a whole new level? Or maybe you should grab that old steel bike from your parents’ garage and give it an overhaul with new parts. If you are not the kind of person that feels comfortable with a wrench in your hand, look for local self-help workshops. But if you need a new one, search for the brands that still build durable, sustainable bikes. Just look who still uses steel frames and that the bikes aren’t too cheap. These are often good indicators that a manufacturer is committed to building a bike that lasts you long, does not cost a ton in service fees every year, and will give you long, enjoyable and supple rides for many years to come.