Throw-Away Bike Culture?


Only ten or fifteen years ago, cycling was very much a minority sport in the UK. Nowadays, after the success of the GB Olympic Team, Chris Boardman, Graeme Obree, Chris Hoy & Victoria Pendleton on the track, then Mark Cavendish & Bradley Wiggins ‘winning stuff’ at the Tour de France, the British sports fan now has an understanding of what our sport entails, it’s etched into their consciousness. This has led to the popularisation of cycling as a hobby, which coincided with a general rise in interest in ‘sporting achievement’ & fitness throughout the population, like running a marathon, completing a triathlon, or taking part in a sportive. The sport of cycling is now grease-packed full of middle-aged men with disposable income, some who have moved from participation to competition. We still don’t have the big base of competitive junior riders, although youth competition is flourishing mostly in racing, there still seems to be no increase in the number of kids ‘playing’ on bikes.

Side Effects

Along with all this success, the cycling market is now targeting the area with that large disposable income, crudely referred to in some press articles as MAMILs (Middle Aged Men In Lycra). This has perhaps led to the reduction in other areas of the bike industry, where the ‘throw-away culture’ doesn’t fit. Frame building, repair & painting, wheel building & repair, and your local bike shop, which I’ve covered before.

Wheel building in your local area has been dramatically affected by the rise of factory built wheels, which has reduced the hand-built market significantly. Most local bike shops now have displays with factory built wheels, with the wheel jig hidden away in the back shop. Wheels have become a throw-away item, we used to buy nice hubs & keep them running for years, replacing the rim when that one wore out. The huge developments that have been made in component technology have also had an effect on this, by the time your rim has worn out a new groupset advance has been introduced. In my cycling time we’ve gone from racing on 6 speed blocks (down tube friction levers, you had to ‘find’ your gear), to 11 speed cassettes & press button gearing. All these changes make a difference to the hubs spacing & dimensions, one is called ‘dish’, simply put, the space that’s required to fit these extra gears requires an ever steeper ‘dish’ on the gear side spokes. It could be argued that the standard spoked wheel these days is weaker than the standard wheel of the lesser gear times, just down to the ‘dish’ factor.
Fixing wheels used to be a simple matter, now it’s more complicated, fewer people are able to provide the service & the spokes are different, some factory wheels require special spokes, other ‘direct pull’ spokes need to be threaded at both ends & be a very particular length. Some shops can provide these items, some can cut & re-thread spokes, but when your factory wheel breaks, you’ll probably buy another one & the old one will go in the bin. Wheels have become a throw-away item.

Frames are now in much the same way ‘throw-away’ , although the craftsmen who formerly built you a made to measure steel frame were much harder to find locally than wheelbuilders. I’ve also gone into this subject previously too in some detail in You’ve Been Framed & Strong, Light, Cheap, pick two. Frame repairs are also seldom requested these days, aluminium & carbon frames are much harder to fix than steel frames. Steel usually consists of a standard tubeset, the repairer knows exactly the thickness of what you’re working with before they start, which makes it much easier to alter, plus you were normally working with solder rather than welds. This makes aluminium frames something most people will avoid working with, you could end up finding a very thin wall thickness & blow a hole in it while attempting a weld. Carbon isn’t really something you want to work in your local bike shop either. This makes both carbon & alumium ideal for the industry to adopt as a throw-away item, if it breaks you just buy another, a big difference to the very recent past.

Frame respraying was also incredibly common, but now quite rare. When you look into the cost of resprays it becomes all too obvious why, we can now buy an off the peg frame for the same price. So if your paintwork is in a mess, it’s more likely you’ll buy a new frame than send it away for a new paint job.


I’m certainly not a traditionalist, I also have a healthy disregard for nostalgia that holds us back, what I’m not a fan of is the current ‘throw-away culture’. We’re losing vital cycling services due to the markets focus on one demographic, our small local businesses suffer & can’t compete with the economy of scale of big-business buying power. They’ve managed to switch the market in things like wheels to ‘factory’, from ‘hand-built’, which has forced the cyclist to purchase the same products as everybody else, we now look the same & ride identical or very similar kit, is this a good thing, does it actually remove choice without us realising, have we become commercial slaves? The UCI have even got on this bandwagon by ‘approving’ with their infamous sticker system factory built wheels for competition use. Everything is turned against small business due to market demand, the custom wheel built in your local shop, the hand-built frame constructed by a craftsman, even the old local fella who used to fix & sew up your punctured tubs, it’s all disappearing.

So why not buy your next pair of wheels from your experienced local bike shop? Chat about the number of spokes a rider like you requires, what you’re using it for, how you ride. Choose your hubs, choose a rim & take advice on what spoking pattern is best for you. I’m quite sure it will give you a better understanding & appreciation of what’s involved, along with the security that these wheels can be fixed locally in a very short period of time. Maybe these are the ones that get the most abuse, winter or training wheels, which nowadays may be the wise option for a hand-built wheelset. Choosing a set of wheels from scratch helps you analyse exactly what you are as a cyclist. It may show you’re a ‘bling’ merchant, you may need many more or less spokes than a rider of similar weight (a lesson to change you’re riding habits perhaps). Remember that factory wheels are built for everybody, which means they are designed for the larger gentleman, if you’re not that rotund individual, maybe you can benefit from something else?

Some manufacturers don’t operate in this manner, recently I’ve had experience with Hope products, where they carry all spares, even for each component in their lights. In my opinion this may work out cheaper in the end, a relatively expensive product but one which can be repaired & seems good quality. The same goes for my extensive cycle computer graveyard in a box in the bike-cave, which required no more gravestones once I purchased a Garmin unit, which works & was repaired once by Garmin in a matter of days.

The Gist Of It

Take the experts advice. But remember that all ‘advice’ is a form of nostalgia, based on what worked well & what failed for the person or business dishing out that advice, then it’s passed onto & applied to yourself. I’d much rather trust the person providing that advice if I saw them on a regular basis & they had a better idea of what I need, rather than advice from marketers in a corporate boardroom deciding what you’re riding next year. This kind of informed & personal advice is good nostalgia, don’t throw it away.

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