Wheels and components, an Editorial (more of a rant)

The annoying thing about modern machines, to which bicycles are no exception, is that they rely on every single component, as well as the faultless assembly of them, to function. If you rewind fifty years, you would have probably struggled to find a single bicycle on the road that didn’t have some form of temporary repair or missing part, yet still rolling along from A to B. As you have probably found out yourself, you just need one  sheared bolt, one worn bearing, one slightly misaligned mech hanger or crucially one missing spoke to make the all assembly which is your bicycle completely useless. You must have therefore grasped the importance of parts that do not fail or are relatively straightforward to fix when they do.

rant

Mavic R-Sys: the fragile retainer ring failed, resulting in a sheared preload cap and an expensive repair. Spare parts needed to be ordered from France as they do not exist in the UK.

Manufacturers, backed by the distribution and retail network, love to control our life and aim to sell us more and more dysfunctional components that cannot be repaired, but can be protected by a free warranty for twelve months or by a premium extended cover plan. In practice they want you to buy a bicycle as you would buy a financial product. It all sounds very appealing if you are the sort of person who has an insurance to cover the bonus accumulated on your insurance. I am not one of them and every time I had to make a warranty claim for a faulty item, it turned out to be a rather frustrating and time consuming experience: the latest was a cracked fork steerer which could not be replaced by Madison UK, in the absence of a… well, a fork… a multi-million pound business distributing the mighty of Shimano among other brands could not find any fork in their warehouse that fitted a frame that THEY make and featured in the current catalogue. They offered a voucher instead, which bought me some tyres and a nice hammer, while I had to source a different fork elsewhere at a loss. I could have fought harder and for longer, as some do, but without a bicycle in the meantime.

Most factory assembled wheels follow the same logic: a warranty covers you in case of failure of a product that use proprietary parts and can only be repaired by expert hands in a service centre or authorised workshop. You have probably also experienced how skilled labour is becoming scarce and expensive to buy. A decent bicycle workshop is hard to find and these days normally charges an hourly rate in line with that of a car garage. On the other hand, many high street chain shops typically employ workshop staff with little experience who can do more damage than good and are best avoided.

Luckily, travelling at the same speed of innovation, there is also a return to hand built wheels, which use off the shelf components, easy and generally cheaper to source and fit even by enthusiasts and mechanics with basic skills. If the assembly is over engineered, it can tolerate being handled by ham fisted home mechanics too. Even there, you will find various attempts to speed up the building process by automation, leading to more competitive retail prices and generally a less reliable product for the end user, but sold with the peace of mind of a warranty by a big retailer. Despite these attempts to take advantage of the good reputation of hand built wheels and undermine artisan built wheels with cheaper “copies”, the bespoke industry is flourishing against all odds, but it remains fairly unique in the market of bicycle components. Groupsets are in the hands of three major players who have formed some sort of cartel, imposing innovation which is solely race oriented and not very practical. Just like supermarkets have decided that we want cheap milk and are squeezing the dairy industry into bankruptcy, Srashimagnolo have decided that we want more sprockets and electric buttons instead of mechanical ones. Guess what? I never worried about the price of milk and never desired more sprockets or soft touch electric buttons. The transition towards safer brakes is disappointingly slow: only now we are seeing primitive forms of disc brakes on road bikes. Potentially life saving devices have not even been considered, let alone developed. Safety is always low on the manufacturers’ agenda, sadly. A considerable number of times I found myself on the pavement, it was down to locking the front wheel in poor grip conditions, I wonder if that could have been avoided if Shimano had spent less money on Di2 and developed an ABS system instead. Micro-sized temperature sensors to be fitted in the rims and pressure gauges for tyres do exist, but no manufacturer seems interested in bringing them to the market. They strongly believe smooth, electric shifting is higher on consumers’wish list.

In summary, I see a growing minority of dissatisfied customers, who no longer believe in the promise of ever increasing speed by means of innovation and seek more sensible cycling components, but find very little on offer. Custom made frames and wheels are pretty much the only markets where you can shop for what you need, but cannot offer the technological advances that large R&D based firms should provide, but fail to do. The vast majority of other components are endless reincarnations of the same design, with deteriorating quality, offered at ever more competitive prices or alleged wonders of R&D of no use offered at a staggering cost.

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4 thoughts on “Wheels and components, an Editorial (more of a rant)

  1. Totally agree. I have built quite a few of my own wheels over the years, and I guess have come to take for granted that I can replace a spoke in a few minutes, or true a wobble in hardly any time. Last year, maybe in a moment of weakness, I bought a pair of Campagnolo Zondas. By all account, a dependable solid wheel that is fine for racing crits and road. They are fine to ride, but, after not many rides, one of the spokes in the front has rotated, so not ‘aero’ any more. The wheel is still true, but what do I do? Loosen it and straighten the spoke? What if I can’t get the factory tension back on the spoke with my tools? What if the spoke or nipple breaks when I mess with it? Hmm, maybe should have built my own 20/24 spoke set with some DT440 rims!

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