Tuesday 29 September 2015

Bike maintenance - Why are we so cheap?

I'm in the middle of having three of my four bikes serviced. While the road bike is pretty much okay right now, I've tweaked the brakes a bit, tinkered with the gears, it'll do for months to come (until Summer), the other three need some tlc.

My beast of burden, a Giant Expression I've had for years failed me on Friday, the bottom bracket unexpectedly snapped. So I resigned myself to the need for a new chain and gears while looking over it as was walking to a bike shop, and a couple of the cables could do with replacing. This reminded me that my old toy (a steel framed BSA sport 'racer' as you'd have called it back in its era) could do with new pedals, a new tyre, and a general servicing wouldn't do it harm. I rode it in to a specialist in old bikes like that, it'll cost me a few quid but not much. And finally my fast commuter bike, a Marin, is going back home to Ben Haywards bikes for a servicing. Its running pretty well (although its got a puncture), so why not keep it that way?

Yes, I could do all this myself to save money. Like I could mature all of my own cheese and make sweaters out of sheep. But I'm not going to, I've other things to keep me busy. And these guys are professionals, they're better at this than me. 

The total cost of all this? I should think it'll be just the wrong side of £200 when I add it all up. For 3 bikes, and it'll be way more than I've spent maintaining them for a couple of years. Which necessitated a fairly typical phone conversation with a bike mechanic regarding the work-horse bike the other day...

"So about the gears, you know you'll probably want to do those as well as the chain?"
"Yes, thats fine, I was anticipating that."
"And the two cables you pointed out..."
"Yes, thats why I mentioned them."
"And you'll want a new bottom bracket for the one that broke, and then there's the servicing, it comes to more than £100, do you want to do that?"
"Yes, the bike is otherwise solid..."
"cos you could get a second hand bike for like, I dunno, £150..."
"And then I'd have to spend more money getting that the way I want, and I'd have to shop for a new bike - and this was a £350 bike when it was new years and years ago, I'll pay the money and fix the bike."
"Are you really sure?"
"Yes, fix my bike please."

Now I understand that cost is an important factor in the life-cycle of any hardware. But bikes aren't cars, they're not endless money-pits as they age. I've been asking around on Twitter and its not unusual for car owners there to admit to spending £300 to £1000 per year just maintaining their cars, before even worrying about tax, insurance etc. So while spending a third the value of my bike when it was new on getting it back into almost-new condition might sound steep, lets keep this in perspective. Its an absurdly small amount of money to spend on keeping myself mobile.

When we consider the bicycle, mostly its just metal tubes, bolts and gearing held together with bolts and cables, with wheels and a saddle. Yes, things wear out - the tyres, tubes, saddle, chain and gears can all be replaced intermittently - and they really do account for much of the cost of bike maintenance. So you can very easily spend a high proportion of the value of a bike just in keeping it going - that isn't an indication that you're throwing good money after bad (like it might be if you're spending a grand a year maintaining your car!), its a reminder of the absurd, hilarioulsy pleasing simplicity of cycling.

Yet bike mechanics in the UK seem constantly braced for criticism of the work costs more than tuppence. We're a car-culture, and the all-pervasive moton attitude to money seems to scale down into cycling in a monstrous way. That bike mechanics seem so apologetic when spending even the minimum sums needed to get our bikes into the state we want them to be in, when that's even a small amount of money, I do wonder what kind of criticism and complaint leaves them in that state of nervousness.

So, my plea to cyclists and to bike repair shops - get real with regard to the costs. Yeah, if a bike needs gears replacing and a new chain, it'll cost you, but its better than a new bike. Paying out a third of the cost of your car on maintenance would seem excessive - but that doesn't mean paying a few notes out to fix a bike is. And you know what? All seven of our bikes in our house combined, that still a lower cost to keep going than a car would be.

Relax. Spend the money. Enjoy your ride.


  1. I noticed this about bike businesses when I was first buying a bike (and blogged about it here). Most other businesses encourage you to spend as much money with them as possible, and I was - and remain - baffled that it was so hard to get them to take my money.

  2. I have this sort of argument with my wife when I get my commuter bike serviced.

    About every 18 months I get a full service from my LBS - generally a new drivetrain (I tend to wear them into the ground), wheels trued, new brake pads, check for new cables, check bottom bracket and crank play, etc, etc, etc - and she will still be "You spent *what*???".

    But its my commuter bike - my primary mode of getting to and from work. I don't have the time or the knowledge to do it myself (and would still have to buy parts) so I am quite happy to pay a professional to do it for me. I see it the same as I would pay to have my (or my wife's car) serviced by a professional.

    1. Well, I can add to this comment with a real-world example, as my LBS just called me to quote for this service. Bear in mind, the only thing done to the bike in the last eighteen months was a couple of brake pad changes.

      It now needs two new wheels, new chainrings'n'cassette, new chain, and new rear brake pads, and all of that set up and tuned. The front wheel is the bike's original - a bit over 4 years old at c.5000 miles per year - and the back one is about two years old. The brake pads are about ten minutes old, but, well, y'know...

      Anyway, all of that - parts and labour - comes to just shy of £275.

      They tried to talk me out of the drivetrain, said it *might* last a bit longer maybe, except I'd already noticed that the gears were slipping in high gears, and I'd had my doubts about it for a while anyway, so I've bitten the bullet.

      Is it a lot of money? Yes. Could I do all that work myself? No. Do I want to walk away from the bike and condemn myself to a life commuting in to the office by car or on the bus? Bl**dy hell, no!

    2. And its still cheaper than buying a new bike! ;-)

  3. Really interesting post, from both sides of the counter as so to speak. There still seems to be a lack of education (my own view) of what people's expectations are when it comes to bicycles, the idea of commuting under your own steam, and the right tools for the job.

  4. Gears and chains are really easy to get on and off. Same for bottom brackets. Literally everything screws on and off. What I really mean is... HOW CAN YOU LET OTHER PEOPLE TOUCH YOUR BEAUTIFUL BIKE???

    1. In my case, because I don't want to accidentally screw up my beautiful bike. She's a workhorse, and my primary mode of transportation, and I don't want her off the road for any longer than I have to.

    2. My bike is my primary mode of transportation too. At least it was until I pick up a motorcycle this week. You sort of make a good point, my bike has been off road while I've had to get specific tools for custom parts. However reading this thread all your bikes would be more reliable if you changed chains more regularly. It sounds like a lot of wrecked cassettes and chainrings are because both customer and shop are afraid to change them out quarterly or half yearly depending on mileage. My bike absolutely burns through chains because it lacks mudguards and I can't find decent ones to fit. If I didn't change them regularly I'd have to change everything in the drivetrain.

    3. I can see you point. I do my own brakes, but have *a fear of breaking something* when it gets more complicated than that. Tell you what - I'll promise to check my chain more diligently, and next time to try breaking and fitting a new one when the time comes (and before it takes my whole drivetrain with it...).