A Bike as Reliable as a Car

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A technological challenge or a cultural one?

In the very early days of motoring, cars were slow, impractical, unreliable, and were only used by enthusiasts.  It was normal in the first years of last century for an automobile to break down every few hundred miles; to have no roof or any real protection from the elements; to have no integrated lighting or security or luggage capacity. Fast-forward a century, and cars are extraordinarily reliable, remarkably practical, and consequently in most developed countries are all too popular. Why not bicycles also?


The bicycle has been around longer than the car, yet today even the very latest bikes have problems with reliability and practicality that would be considered serious flaws in any car. Brakes which need adjusting after only a few hundred miles lest they become unsafe to use. Wheel rims which wear out after a few thousand miles and pose a real safety hazard. Chains and drivetrains which constantly run in the rain and dirt. Exposed moving parts and sharp edges. Gears which need frequent readjustment and which are completely worn out and need replacement after only a couple of years of normal use. This would not be acceptable on a car, so why on a bike? With the use of hub brakes, a full chaincase to enclose the drivetrain, and a modern wide-range hub gear such as the Shimano Alfine 11-speed or the Rohloff Speedhub the problems would be solved, so the issue is not really a technological one.


Lighting is another problem. Car drivers would not put up with plasticky external lights which had to be purchased separately and clipped onto the car at night. Nor would it be acceptable to have to replace the batteries every few months, or remove the lights and carry them with you to prevent them getting stolen every time you parked the car. So why do cyclists accept this? I have written elsewhere about feasibility of properly integrated cycle lighting: again the problem is not technically insurmountable.


The issue seems to be one of demand. There is not yet a large enough market for ultra-reliable bikes to bring their price right down, and they would be prohibitively expensive to produce on a small scale. Currently the UK cycle market is still driven by perceived desires for high speed, low weight, flashy looks and technological wizardry, when in fact these factors are largely irrelevant to all but a very few professional-level athletes. For everyone else, there is surely a need for reliable bicycles, but the demand is a latent one: people do not realise that conventional bikes will be unreliable and unsatisfactory in the long term until a few years after they have bought one, by which time it is too late to undo the purchase. Only with time, experience and the wider take-up of cycling amongst non-enthusiasts will reliability and longevity creep up the list of priorities when purchasing a new bike.


It is also part of a larger cultural shift. Cyclists must start to have more confidence in themselves, for example by taking seriously the purchase and maintenance of a bike, using lighting and security measures properly, and respecting the rules of the road - exactly the same changes affected by drivers many decades ago. Cyclists will then gradually begin to earn the respect of not only drivers and pedestrians, but wider society as a whole, and the bicycle will begin to become a reliable and practical means of transport for the masses again.

Michael Gregory
Tuesday 14 June 2011

Derby (UK)

I agree entirely with your comments. I commute year-round and tire of spending time in a cold garage scraping old oil and crap off my chain and sprockets, in the knowledge that the new oil I put on will be in the same state a week later.
Degreaser, chain oil, swarfega, ... READ MORE


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