Saturday, July 5, 2008

Bikes and Obsolescence, Planned and Otherwise

About 25 years ago, my brother Willie made the observation, "Bicycles are, relatively speaking, immune to planned obsolescence. They don't wear out very fast and are indefinitely maintaintable."

It's undeniable that bicycle technology has changed a lot in the past 20, or even 10 years: Many modern carbon-fiber frames have integrated headsets, bottom brackets, and even seatposts. It's a far cry from the day where there were only three standards: English, French or Italian threading on bottom brackets and headset diameters. Everything else was interchangeable and standard sized.

But even today, with the proliferation of sizes and configurations (some of it reasonable, much of it not), it's possible to buy, outfit and maintain a standards-based bike that can indefinitely be maintained. Bicycle technology (and its market availabilty) is very interesting: it's as if (using a car analogy as I have before and doubtlessly will again) cars equipped with model-T flathead 4's and modern variable-valve-timing internal-combustion engines were available side-by-side at the same dealership.

Personally, I'm leery of the fancy integrated frame/headset/bottom bracket/seatpost tech. If you're a true racer and need that last 1/10 of 1% edge, it's better I suppose to get it with carbon fiber and ceramic bearings than EPO (sorry, just had to slip that in for the Tour de France fans :) But as a consumer, fancy nth-degree technology ties you down. You're stuck with one manufacturer's idea of what will work for you, and the limited availability of same.

This is one area where (again, unless you're a racer) buying a cheaper bike will actually buy you additional value in the form of maintainability. While it's possible to spend $3000 or even $10000 on a rarified bike, it's also possible to buy a lot of bike in the $500 to $1000 range. I would even say that "planned obsolescence" benefits the low-to-medium end buyer, because of "trickle-down" quality in components. The difference between a $300 and a, say, $1000 bike is quite significant. But the difference between a $1000 and a $5000 bike in today's market is difficult to discern for all but the everyday racers.

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