Columns / Discourse / February 7, 2018

Bike Nice: Why do bikes require so much maintenance?

Bikes are easy and affordable to repair and maintain — what’s not to love? But why do bikes take so much repair and maintenance, especially when compared to cars?

Cars and bikes are both factory-made of steel, aluminum, plastic and rubber. I can’t recall the last time I messed with my car’s tires, wheels, brakes, gears or body parts. Not so with my bike. Seems like I have to touch and tweak something every week.

Car brakes are stable fluid-based systems, but bike brakes use cables that are always stretching and rubber brake shoes that are always wearing out. Every few months of bike usage, you’ll have to take up the slack — even though the forces applied are much lower than in car brakes.

Unlike bike brakes, car brakes are also mostly weather proof. Interestingly, the one car brake that is cable operated — the parking brake — has the same shortcoming as bike brakes. The Carparts website advises: “The biggest problem [with cable systems, such as the parking brake] is that cables tend to get corroded and eventually seize up, causing the brake to become inoperative.”

Ah, yes, corrosion . . . causing stuff to become inoperative. Rust never sleeps. And bike brake systems are out in the open, always getting splashed, always rusting.

I’d like to see more stainless steel on bikes. but corrosion resistance has a cost. Stainless steel has a lower strength-to-weight ratio, which is technically a disadvantage on a low-power machine, such as a bike.

Bike gear systems are also cable-actuated, suffering the same weather and stretching problems as their brake counterparts. Derailleur gear changers are laughably fragile. Closed gear systems — the old faithful three speed hub is a good example — are heavier and more expensive per gear. The new, super-expensive electronic bike gear systems eliminate the cables, but still have the spindly gear-changing mechanism.

Bike bearings — same problem. Car bearings are tightly sealed, almost maintenance free. Bike bearings need work every few seasons. You can’t take your bike to a car wash, because the pressure will shoot water into the bearings and ruin them immediately.

Bikes rack up far fewer miles than cars. Oddly enough, as pointed out by the BellPerformance website in a discussion of trailer wheels, low mileage is a problem because it allows moisture to collect inside bearings. Low-mileage bike bearings require more maintenance than high-mileage car bearings.

Car wheels are sturdy and simple. Bike wheels are fragile and complex and need constant adjustment. And unlike car tires, bike tires are small, thin, low volume, high pressure. That means they leak more. Your pump becomes your friend!

I bike almost every day and I’ve had a flat maybe once a year. But in the family car, where miles driven are measured in the thousands, not hundreds, we have a flat about once every other decade. Car tires cost more than bike tires, but last way longer.

Don’t get me started on the drive train. Bike chains are filthy, constantly corroding and threatening to ruin my trouser leg. Chains are also the lightest way to transfer power from feet to wheel, which is why bikes use them.

Bike accessories — fenders, racks, etc — are constantly shaking loose. Cars have thousands more parts, but they seem to hang together so much better. The car’s suspension system reduces vibration throughout the structure.

Someone, please shed some light on this: why does every bike light brag about how easy it is to remove? When is the last time you had to take off your car lights, to keep them from being “easily removed” by a thief while you went shopping? I may have to invent a bike light that’s easy to install but hard to remove. Patent applied for.

Speaking of business ideas, how about a subscription-based bike salon where you ride in once a week or once a month, drink coffee or whatever, while your bike gets the once-over. There’s no need for that in the car business because cars almost never need minor adjustments. Cars just keep going.

All of these bike shortcomings have the same cause — one that I discussed in the previous “bike status” column. By exploiting fossil fuel, cars have power to burn. Every car component and system is bigger, heavier, better sealed, smoother running, lower maintenance. And hugely more expensive.

Your bike is powered by you. Everything is lighter and cheaper, but also higher maintenance. The bike combines efficiency, economy and exercise — a human powered machine that could even change your life. For real. I’ll stop complaining now and celebrate the bike.

Peter Bailley

Tags:  bike nice bike safety maintenance

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1 Comment

Mar 30, 2019

Exactly my thoughts. Price does not matter with regards to maintenance. Expensive bikes or cheap bikes, they both need constant adjustment. Not to mention other minor work like seat post readjustment, stem clamp bolts, handlebar tapes, headsets, bottom bracket…. The list goes on. And my Honda Civic works everytime with just our change.

Over the years I have gotten good at doing most of these things at home. But it takes a lot of time out of my schedule. Here in NYC most bike shops have detailing service. It’s very expensive seeing it takes hours to get all parts done.
At the end if the day, like you said, it’s worth ii

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