Overcomplicating the Most Efficient Transportation Machine

25 comments by Connor Mangan
velo orange a man working on a mtb amongst all sorts of mountain bikes right to repair
I started wrenching on bikes from an early age. From changing flats on my original Mongoose 20" bike to overhauling loose-ball headsets and bottom brackets on my dad's old Cannondale, wheels-up on the basement floor. Those times taught me basic but fundamental skills that landed me a job as a mechanic in high school, got me through almost a decade of working on bikes, and ended up with me here at VO. While most of those times and much of my early mechanic years were filled with changing flats, basic 7spd derailleur adjustments, and regreasing simple older tech, times are oh-so different now, and so are the bikes.
My dad's copy of Todd Downs' 2005 encyclopedia of bicycle repair- the foundation of my wrenching as a yoot 
Even back then, as 11spd was beginning to make the rounds on production road and MTB bikes, the unattainably high end Dura Ace and SRAM Red gear that seemed so intricate and flawless then, now looks and feels no different than any other gear of its time when on a bike in the repair stand - especially looking through the scope of what's available on the market today. Much of which, folks are having a harder and harder time even approaching as a home mechanic.
SRAM Red 11spd rear derailleur. The best of the best at the time, while still taking design cues from far cheaper and simpler gear
Bikes, from the early stages of mass production through to the 1990s, had been largely the same. Rigid frame, pressed-in headset on a straight tubes, one-piece or three-piece cranks, and rim brakes. Nit pick and identify the outliers all you like, but that describes most of the bikes during that time. However, with the trickle-down effect of materials engineering into cycling in the late 2000's, things began to change - and get more exclusive. Suspension forks became normalized on off road bikes, cartridge bearings found their way into everything from headsets to jockey wheels, carbon became the gold standard for racing bikes, and model-year innovation became the standard. 
I'm not one to groan about progress, though. Aside from the anecdote of "chasing the past," (e.g. riding a rigid hardtail mountain bike or pulling out your old downtube shifter bike) to gain some fleeting taste of the "good ol' days" of bikes, you'd be hard pressed to convince me that new bikes coming out today from almost any manufacturer aren't some of the best bikes made yet. Disc brakes, quality frames, excellent suspension design and kinematics, and tubeless tires offered in virtually every size imaginable. If you think about it, there are more options for folks looking to buy a proper bike today than ever before.
But with that innovation comes an increase in the level of technical know-how required to even attempt to maintain modern bikes. Shimano has a virtual school devoted to teaching mechanics how to work on their products. SRAM has something quite similar. Want to bleed your hydraulic brakes? You'll need to buy a proprietary kit and oil, and you better not screw it up or it'll be a mess. The same goes for suspension forks and frames. I've owned probably 5 full-suspension bikes, none of which I, personally, serviced the shock or fork on. I'm fortunate to have a shop nearby that specializes in suspension service, another area of bicycle servicing that has become specialized in the last 15 years.
 This is on your bicycle.
Bikes of the 1950's to 2000's could once be stripped down with nothing but a tri-tool and a 15mm box wrench, assuming you hadn't lost your 10mm. Aside from a very short list of special tools (which you could pick up at any bike shop) like a crank puller, bb lockring wrench and puller, and a cassette tool, there really was nothing to it. As I started my time as a mechanic affordable two-piece cranks flooded the market, and with them came every bottom bracket standard under the sun. 142 Thru-axle spacing was quickly followed by Boost 148, and subsequently Super Boost and thus an arms race of new, bike specific tools and components began.
I type this all out not as a protest (though I come from a fortunate position of well over a decade of technical experience), but rather as an illustration of how complicated things got, so quickly. If you bought a road or mountain bike in 1985, you had a considerable number of options in terms of models, but you could take any bike home and maintain it properly yourself with a minimal number of special tools or specialized technical knowledge. Heck, that rings true even for bikes as new as the early 2010's.
My first 'real' mountain bike- a 2008 Vassago Bandersnatch, with SRAM X9 and BB7M brakes
Today, however, if you wanted to purchase a mid-grade road bike off a shop floor, you'd be likely ending up with something that uses a press-fit bottom bracket, internal routing that goes into a void, tubeless tires, hydraulic disc brakes, and maybe even electronic shifting that needs an app and special software for diagnosis and updating.
Heaven forbid you want to service your bottom bracket in a year or two. You'll need the proper tapered punch, an oversized bearing press, a torque wrench and bravery to take that on without fear you'd crack your carbon or destroy your aluminum alloy shell. It gets worse when you consider mountain bikes of today. We haven't even touched on e-bikes! There's just too much special knowledge and risk tolerance required for the average at-home mechanic.
An example of my most recent rig, a Norco Revolver FS 120. Quite removed from what now seem like "humble beginnings"
That being said, many shops offer lifetime free basic services and tune ups with the purchase of a new bicycle. They did at my shop at least, and it feels like this is the direction the whole industry is moving: "pay a premium up front, we'll cover you for most stuff." In tandem, the manufacturers are designing bikes that are less and less consumer-maintenance friendly, knowing that the customer is likely going to roll it into the shop 9 times out of 10 before attempting to fix it first. This makes the product more expensive, and leaves those of us who like to fix our own stuff hanging out to dry, in a way. 
From an environmental perspective, making things obsolete or too difficult or expensive to fix, means that people will buy new things - which means more waste and emissions. 
I think shops are going to be more essential than ever with the industry moving towards higher-end, direct-to-consumer business. It's just that their business model is being forced through a change, and they'll need to be mindful of that fact.
What are your thoughts? Do you work only on bikes of a certain vintage or are you able/willing to maintain all your bikes regardless of their complexity? 


  • Sid Aluminium

    Looking for a way to get off the obsolescence merry-go-round?

    Sturmey-Archer AW. In production since 1936 & you can still buy them. Shifted by Sturmey (indexed) shifters built since 1920. Internal parts available; uses off-the-shelf (non-proprietary) lubricants.

  • Ed S.

    Are there really,” …more options for folks looking to buy a proper bike today…” for the new bike owner? If a bike purchaser desires a technology-laced bike, then yes, there are many options. If a buyer wants a bike with a steel frame, rim brakes, square taper bbs/cranks, 130/135 hubs, etc., the choices from a mainstream bicycle company are nearly non-existent.

    The problem to me is, how does the new technology enhance my ride? If one considers a road bike, are disc brakes, press-fit bbs, and thru-axles really needed by the vast majority of riders? How much do these 3 components really add to the ride? Maybe a mountain bike rider needs these components for the most extreme conditions. Otherwise, I somehow survived riding a 1987 Specialized Stumpjumper with a quill stem, 26in tires, canti brakes, etc., for nearly 25 years until I switched to riding a road bike.

    Is the bicycle industry forcing much of this technology on the new bike owner? I would say yes because many new buyers go to a local bike shop for their first bicycle. Will that customer see square taper cranks, rim brakes, quick release axles, etc.? No.

    I will continue to opt-out of using disc brakes, tubeless tires (go to Jan Heine’s website and read the 24 steps for installing a tubeless tire, why would anyone do this?), press-fit bbs, electronic shifting, thru axles, etc. Much of this new tech is accelerating the end of the traditional bicycle component market. As an example, some companies are ending their production of rims for bicycles that use rim brakes. Many more examples could be cited. Hopefully, I have a sufficient stock of products to ride my bikes until my riding days have ended.

    It is just sad to see what is happening to one of the great joys of my life, the bicycle…

  • Douglas M

    Re: https://velo-orange.com/blogs/favoritewriteups/the-right-to-repair?comment=126659428527&page=1#comments
    Edit, in regard to my writing of Apr 26, 2023 in this article, as above:
    Oops, my mistake!
    I wrote, 126mm 36h QR freehubs with cartridge bearings, BUT, I meant freewheel hubs, not freehubs.
    Anyway, throughout this article there was support for now-vintage bikes, great to see that, thank you!

  • Tony H

    I respect the pace and manner that y’all have adopted certain modern norms. Having been an active part of our wing of alternative bike culture for well over a decade now, VO is far and above my go-to place to get things for my bikes. I sometimes am bummed that certain products have been lost to the ether, but I can also appreciate that there probably isn’t a market for such things anymore. We transportation cyclists are a dying breed.

    The ability to maintain and repair my bikes is paramount, and as you point out that is one thing increasingly impossible. I’ve even been slowly converting cartridge bearing parts to cup and cone for this very reason. It’s not that cartridge bearings aren’t great, they are! But I don’t have the tools to replace them in my hubs or pedals and bringing things into the LBS has often become more hassle than its worth, because in my experience new mechanics aren’t even familiar with the parts I use. I hope you continue to make parts available for my kind of bikes.

  • Jim Majewski

    I started biking and working in shops in the early 70’s. I agree completely with the comments about complexity but what about parts availability? I have a set of Grand Cru brakes which are only a few years old. A cable anchor got stripped. A very good LBS tried to get a replacement part (or sub-assembly) but was unable to do so. Am I supposed to scrap a $175 set of brakes for lack of a $5 part? Fortunately the shop was able to find a part in their “scrap pile” and make the repair (Thank you Art Doyle!).

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