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Ten top tips for longevity

On a bike that’s used every day for commuting a certain amount of wear and tear is inevitable, but there’s a lot you can do to slow down the process – and most of these tips will not only save on maintenance costs, they’ll make the bike more efficient and pleasurable to ride too.

1. Keep your tyres inflated

Riding on soft tyres will cause the sidewalls to crack and split, and also makes punctures more likely. All inner tubes are slightly porous and go flat over time, so check your tyre pressures every week, and expect to pump them up at least monthly. Having a good full-size track pump at home or work really helps!

2. Wipe and lube the chain regularly

Every week or two, check to see if the chain seems dry or dirty. If so, lean the bike against a wall and give the chain a wipe with a rag whilst backpedalling, and then apply chain oil sparingly. Then once the oil has had a chance to soak down into all the cracks in the chain, give it a wipe again with a clean bit of rag to remove any surface oil. This way the chain will always be lubricated, but never too dirty or oily. Little and often is the key.

3. Lube your cables

On almost all modern bikes, there are slots in the cable guides on the frame to allow the cables to be removed for cleaning and oiling without having to fully disconnect them or use any tools at all. I suggest you pop the gear and brake cables out every few months and lube them with a little normal chain oil. This not only stops them rusting, it also prevents the plastic liners from getting worn out, and makes the brakes and gears feel nice and slick to use!

4. Lube your mechs

Even easier than lubing the cables – simply put a drip of oil on each pivot of the front and rear derailleurs (mechs). What we’re aiming for is to lube every moving part of both mechs, so if in doubt just watch what moves when you change gear and then oil it. Change gear a few times afterwards to allow the oil to soak in, then wipe down the mech with a rag to clean off any excess oil. This will prevent the mechs from corroding, and will slow the rate of wear right down.

5. Check and adjust your brakes

Brake blocks wear out with use. They are cheap to replace, so no problems there. But if, as they wear, they come into contact with the tyres, very quickly a hole will be worn into the tyre sidewall, meaning that the tyre and probably the tube will have to be replaced. And if the brake blocks completely wear out, or pick up some gravel or debris, they can wear out the rim requiring a whole new wheel. So if you have normal rim brakes and they start making a funny noise, check it immediately (a squeak or squeal doesn’t matter, but a scraping or grinding noise definitely does!)

6. Fit mudguards

How does this effect the longevity of the bike? As well as protecting you from mud and water, mudguards will prevent the chain, gears and brakes from getting so dirty too. Less grit and water means less wear and corrosion, which the chain will definitely appreciate in the long term.

7. Get your hubs and headset serviced

Every year or two on more expensive bikes it makes sense to have your bike’s main bearing systems disassembled and re-greased instead of having to replace them when they rust or dry out, potentially at a cost of a couple of hundred pounds. Just give us a call if you’d like to book your bike in for a bearings service.

8. Don’t store your bike outside

Even the most expensive bikes have a steel chain and bearings which will rust if exposed to rain or moisture. Keeping your bike indoors if at all possible is ideal; if not then a shed or bike store is sufficient, or get a good quality bike cover as a bare minimum.

9. Don’t stomp on the pedals

Getting into a high gear and standing up on the pedals is not only a good way to wear our your knees, it also wears your chain much more quickly too. Much better to get used to shifting into a lower gear and then spinning the pedals faster but with less force. This is biomechanically more efficient, and is also kinder on the bike’s gear system too.

10. Change into a larger rear sprocket

As above, it’s better to spin the pedals fast than stomp on them slowly. To achieve this you could change into the smallest chainring on the front. But this would mean a higher chain tension, and could easily lead to over-use of the smaller sprockets on the rear. A much better way of achieving exactly the same gear ratio is to change into a larger sprocket on the rear. This means lower chain tension, less wear on the chain and teeth, and more efficient power transfer.

What is the best frame material for your bike?

“The best frame material really depends on what you’re going to use the bike for, and what you want to prioritise” says Jake Voelcker, designer of Bristol Bicycles’ frames and forks. “Is it low weight? Or is it strength and durability? Or is it the appearance of the bike?”

Is steel real?

“A lot of people talk about steel frames being comfortable. They say there’s an inherent springiness or suspension in a steel frame, and that aluminium frames are too harsh or too rigid.”

Perhaps controversially, Jake disagrees: “That’s completely not true” he says. “It’s a bit of a myth that’s built up around the whole ‘steel is real’ and ‘steel is better’ and ‘steel bikes are much more comfortable’ thing, but it’s not true and I’ll show you exactly why.”

For a frame to be comfortable or to have any degree of suspension, it has to be able to flex in a vertical direction, and the only way that a frame can actually do this is if it’s broken.

“That sounds surprising, but because the front and the rear triangles of the bike frame are completely triangulated, there’s no way that they can flex. There’s no way that they can absorb a vertical bump from the road unless the frame is actually broken.”

Jake goes on to explain that the supposed comfort of a steel frame is actually entirely in the fork. Because the fork is only attached at the top, it’s effectively a long lever and so there’s a lot of flex possible (in both the fork and the steerer tube).

“That gives a high degree of vertical flex exactly where you want it for suspension” says Jake.

“So a steel frame isn’t any more comfortable. What you want from the frame is stiffness and strength to be able to carry luggage and to resist pedalling forces particularly when you’re accelerating or going uphill.”

Why do Bristol Bicycles use aluminium frames?

The advantages of an aluminium frame are twofold. The first is that aluminium is a much lighter material. The second advantage of an aluminium frame is that when it’s correctly designed it’s a lot stiffer than a steel frame.

Are there any disadvantages?

“I’ve heard people say that for a expedition bike or for a touring bike there’s going to be used for a round-the-world trip they would always choose steel because at least if the worst comes to the worst, steel can be repaired” says Jake.

“Aluminium, because it needs expensive industrial heat-treating after it’s been welded, basically can’t be repaired if it ever breaks.”

The problem is that a steel bike frame of any quality is going to be very thin walled tubing and a pretty specialised alloy of steel which is very difficult to weld.

“Anybody who’s used to working on farmyard equipment (or welding car chassis, or that sort of place where you would take the bike to be repaired if you were stuck in the middle of nowhere) isn’t going to have any more luck welding steel than they are welding aluminium because the type of steel that quality bike frames are made from needs very skilled, pretty low temperature brazing rather than agricultural welding technologies.”

Conclusion

For Bristol Bicycles we’ve gone for the best of both worlds. On the one hand we use an aluminium frame which is both lighter and stiffer, but on the other hand we use a steel fork which gives a nice degree of built-in suspension through its inherent flexibility.

How much does it cost to cycle?

Customers sometimes express surprise that their everyday commuting bike needs two new wheels or a whole new drivetrain after only a couple of years of regular use – often at a cost approaching the current value of the bike. We normally explain that it should be viewed as a running cost, and point out that it’s pretty cheap compared to the cost of e.g. bus fares or owning a car. But what is the total running cost of a bike spread over several years? Are some bikes cheaper to own than others in the long term?

Comparison

An average urban commuter who lives say 3 miles from their workplace, and mostly travels to work by bike as well as using it semi-regularly on the weekends, might clock up 1,500 to 2,000 cycling miles a year. The most common type of bike for this kind of use in the UK is a hybrid. Assuming a new mid-range model with mudguards and luggage rack, puncture-resistant tyres, and the addition of aftermarket LED lights, then:

Hybrid bikeInitial purchase£515
TOTAL(including purchase cost) £1,305
year 1annual service + brake blocks £70
year 2annual service + brake blocks; chain & cassette £110
year 3annual service + brake blocks; all cables; tyres £130
year 4annual service + brake blocks; chain, cassette & crankset; new wheels £240
year 5annual service + brake blocks £70
year 6annual service + brake blocks; all cables; chain & cassette; tyres£170

Dutch bike

The trend amongst hybrids (as well as most other types of bikes) over the last couple of decades has been towards lower weight and better performance, but to the detriment of longevity. Put simply, high-power brakes wear down the lightweight but soft aluminium wheel rims over a few thousand miles; and slick, easy-changing, 9-, 10- and 11-speed gear systems wear out even faster.

So are there any real alternatives?

Some are tempted to buy the cheapest bike they can find, pointing out that if it will wear out anyway, then why pay more? The example budget bike below is a bottom-of-the-range mountain-bike-style model bought from a mail order website or department store for under £200. There are no lights, mudguards or luggage rack so these are added to the purchase price.

Budget bikeInitial purchase£300
TOTAL(including purchase cost) £1,305
year 1annual service + brake blocks £90
year 2annual service + brake blocks, chain & cassette; tyres£150
year 3annual service + brake blocks; wheels; bottom bracket; pedals
£180
year 4annual service + brake blocks; chain, cassette & crankset; all cables; rear mech£215
year 5annual service + brake blocks; headset; tyres£150
year 6annual service + brake blocks; chain & cassette; wheels; shifters£220

budget bike

 

Another option is a Dutch bike of the type not commonly seen in the UK, but they are available from a few retailers. The one in the example below is assumed to have 7-speed hub gears and hub brakes, and a fully enclosed chain, so the wear-and-tear to these should be minimal. It has mudguards, luggage rack, puncture-resistant tyres, and integrated dynamo lighting included in the price.

Dutch bikeInitial purchase£750
TOTAL(including purchase cost) £1,295
year 1basic service, no parts required£35
year 2annual service, gear hub rebuild & lube, no parts required£90
year 3annual service + all cables; tyres£140
year 4annual service + chain & sprocket, gear hub rebuild & lube£115
year 5basic service, no parts required£35
year 6annual service + all cables; tyres£130

Dutch bike

 

For comparison, a typical new mid-range road bike would cost at least £650 to get components of a similar quality to the mid-range hybrid above. Again assuming the addition of lights, mudguards and luggage rack (assuming they can even be fitted, which is not always true on road bikes):

Road bikeInitial purchase£750
TOTAL(including purchase cost) £1,850
year 1annual service + brake blocks£70
year 2annual service + brake blocks; chain & cassette; tyres£170
year 3annual service + brake blocks; all cables; chain, cassette & crankset£210
year 4annual service + brake blocks; chain & cassette; new wheels; tyres£280
year 5annual service + brake blocks; chain & cassette£110
year 6annual service + brake blocks; all cables; chain, cassette & crankset; tyres£260

Road bike

 

Conclusions

Over the 6 year period the first three bikes have an almost identical cost of ownership. Perhaps cost is not, therefore, a significant factor in deciding what type of bike to purchase, if the choice is between these three at any rate. Much more important is the question of what style of bike you want and need.

  • If you require lots of gears and good brakes for hilly terrain and you want a relatively lightweight bike, the £515 hybrid is a good option. It will need more replacement components over the years, but you may consider this a price well worth paying.

  • If you prefer a very upright riding position, can live with a smaller range of gears and a heavyweight bike, and minimal maintenance is a priority, the Dutch bike is better. At £700 it’s more expensive to purchase, but repays the difference over a few years of ownership.

  • If, on the other hand, you want a heavy bike which is unpleasant and inefficient to ride, has lots of annoying maintenance issues, but still costs no less to own and run, then the budget bike is the one for you!

  • The road bike works out more expensive overall, because despite costing more than the hybrid or the budget bike to purchase, it cost no less to service and maintain. Road bikes can also have additional problems for commuting such as a lack of tyre clearance for fitting mudguards, and the difficulty of fitting a pannier rack.

Do you always get what you pay for?

The road bike could equally have been a similarly priced mountain bike, and the calculations and potential problems would remain the same. Interestingly, it could also have been a £750 hybrid bike: evidence that a higher purchase price does not necessarily mean lower running costs. Whereas if you spend too little and buy a budget bike your running costs will be higher, conversely if you spend too much and buy a £650 hybrid bike instead of a £400 one your running costs will also be higher. This is partly because the components are more expensive (assuming you replace like-for-like components as they wear out and don’t want to “downgrade” the bike with each service), but it’s also because some components (e.g. wheel rims, aluminium chainrings, 9- or 10-speed drivetrain) will wear our more frequently thanks to being optimised for low weight, performance, or simply marketing hype rather than long life.

(All of the above assumes that you are in the position of having to buy a new bike. However, if you’re fortunate enough to already own a thirty or forty year old racer or tourer in working condition, I suggest you hang onto it for as long as possible! Provided you’re content to have only 10 or 12 non-indexed gears and less powerful brakes, you can avoid most of the durability problems associated with modern components. However, such bikes are becoming increasingly rare, especially in good condition, and new sprockets and chains of comparable durability are simply unobtainable, so when they do finally wear out you’ll be in the same position as the owner of a modern bike. There are also very good reasons why bikes of this type went out of fashion: not everyone gets on with friction shift gears and drop handlebars, and having a narrow range of gears can be a real drawback to many cyclists, especially in a hilly city like Bristol. Perhaps worst of all, the braking power afforded by chromed steel wheel rims is woeful in wet weather, to the point of being dangerous in modern traffic.)

Use beyond 6 years

After the 6-year period, the differences in running costs become more pronounced. The budget bike will probably be very broken and, as if it hasn’t had enough money thrown at it already, its repair will certainly not be financially viable for much longer.

The hybrid bike may now need components such as derailleurs, bottom bracket, new wheels again etc. but assuming it’s maintained in this fashion there’s no reason why it couldn’t go on for another few years, costing an average of a little over £100 per year or not much more to maintain. There are plenty of 15 or 20 year old hybrid bikes still on the road today.

After 6 years the Dutch bike is barely middle aged. It too may need a new bottom bracket, headset or wheel bearing rebuild but these are all very worthwhile on a good quality bike of this value. Unless crash-damaged or abused it ordinarily should never need new wheel rims, brakes or gear hub, and rarely a new sprocket or chain. It’s not unusual to see hub-geared, hub-braked bikes of this type still in use after 20, 30 or even 40 years. And they hold their value well, so if it does ever need to be sold it should easily fetch £200 or more.

For higher mileage users the trends are accelerated: if you commute 10 or 20 miles a day all year round, the Dutch bike will repay its higher purchase cost after only 3 years or so, and will work out comparatively cheaper and cheaper thereafter. However, arguably a high-mileage commuter is more likely to want a fast hybrid or road bike for greater efficiency and speed over the longer distance. It would cost more to maintain, but some may well consider this worthwhile.

Whichever of the bikes above we choose, the lifetime cost is much cheaper than owning and running a car or using public transport for the same period. Depending on what monetary value you place on your time, it may even be cheaper than walking!

 

Notes

Each bike was assumed to have had an annual £60 service. On top of this, additional parts and labour charges were differentially added for components which typically wear out on each type of bike. If you do your own bike maintenance the £60 cost can of course be omitted, in which case the higher maintenance bikes work out comparatively cheaper – although arguably you should place some value on your time spent doing so.

The hybrid bike was assumed to be a mid-range sensible, solid, reliable model with V-brakes, 24-speed derailleur gears, mudguards and luggage rack included, but no unnecessary extras such as suspension or disc brakes. The Bristol Bicycles sold by Jake’s Bikes are exactly this kind of bike. They have good quality puncture-resistant tyres as standard, but no lights, so aftermarket LED lights are added to the price. Other examples are the Ridgeback Anteron, Kona Dew, Claud Butler Urban 400 and Dawes Discovery 301. The advantage of this kind of bike is that it’s relatively light at 14kg (31lb), but still has a wide range of gears (approx a 450% range) and powerful brakes. The disadvantage is that the gears will wear out more quickly than on a Dutch bike, the chain is exposed to rain and dirt, and eventually the wheel rims will wear out from braking.

The Dutch bike in this example has 7-speed hub gears and hub brakes, a fully enclosed chain, and mudguards and luggage rack as standard. It too has puncture-resistant tyres, but unlike the hybrid it has integrated dynamo lighting included in the price. The Azor Jersey, Batavus Cambridge or Gazelle Primeur are examples of such a bike, all of which are available in the UK. The advantage of this kind of bike is that its gears, brakes and chain are all enclosed so are clean and low-maintenance. The disadvantages are that it’s significantly heavier at 18kg (40lb), has fewer gears (approx a 225% range), and somewhat less powerful brakes.

The budget bike was a bottom-of-the-range mountain-bike-style model from a mail order website or department store. It has basic 18-speed derailleur gears and no extras such as suspension or disc brakes. There are no lights, mudguards or luggage rack so these are added to the purchase price. The Falcon Storm, Dawes XC18, Integra Matrix or Claud Butler Trailridge 1.1 are examples of just such a bike. The tyres are cheap knobbly ones, so in the calculations above it is assumed that these are worn out after less than a couple of thousand miles and replaced with better puncture-resistant ones. The wheels are the cheaper single-walled, freewheel type so that they too are damaged more easily and need to be replaced every few thousand miles. Headset, bottom bracket, shifters and derailleur are also assumed to break and need replacement during the lifetime of the bike. In addition to the low purchase price, the advantage of a bike like this is that it has a pretty wide range of gears (approx 400%) despite their basic construction, and it is potentially less at risk of being stolen than the others. The disadvantages are that it’s heavy at around 18kg (40lb), unpleasant to ride thanks to the knobbly tyres, cheap saddle, plasticky brakes and gears etc., and maintenance will probably become a nuisance thanks to the low quality components.

The road bike was a mid-range model of the sort typically used for winter training or commuting rather than serious sport or competition. It has 18 derailleur gears, and no lights, mudguards or luggage rack so the cost of buying these separately has been added to the above calculations. Examples of road bikes in this price bracket are the Claud Butler Torino SR2, Dawes Giro 500, Giant Defy 3 or Specialized Allez Double. The main advantage of a road bike is that it’s fast and efficient and light, at perhaps 12kg (27lb). It has an intermediate range of gears (maybe 350%), at somewhat higher ratios than on a hybrid, so will be fast but not quite so easy uphill. The disadvantages can be that it’s less comfortable to ride on city roads thanks to the drop handlebars and hard, narrow tyres; and it may be necessary to fit compromised mudguards or pannier rack because of frame clearance issues and lack of frame eyelets.

Any other purchases and costs (e.g. pannier bags, helmet, repair after minor damage etc.) were assumed to be the same for all bikes, and so excluded from the calculations above.

Disc Brakes or Rim Brakes?

This is a question we often get asked, and there are several considerations to take into account before making a decision.

V-brakes

The advantages of rim brakes (whether V-brakes or calipers) are:

  • Simplicity
  • Lower overall weight
  • Lower purchase price compared to discs

The disadvantages are:

  • Lower power in wet weather
  • The need for fairly frequent brake pad replacement
  • Over time rim brakes will wear out your wheel rims
  • There is also the danger with rim brakes that a worn or misaligned brake block can come into contact with the tyre, quickly wearing a hole in the sidewall.

disc brakes

The advantages of disc brakes are:

  • Higher power
  • Reliability in all weathers,
  • Low running costs (usually) thanks to long-lasting pads and the fact that they don’t wear out your wheels.

The disadvantages can include:

  • Higher initial purchase cost
  • Susceptibility to contamination by oil or dirt
  • Many disc brakes are harder for the average user to repair if anything does go wrong

The conclusions we’ve come to at Bristol Bicycles are these:

Cheap disc brakes are awful, so for any bike with a purchase price below £500 or £600 we’d recommend a model with V-brakes or calipers instead. A £400 bike will be supplied with either cheap and nasty disc brakes, or good quality V-brakes or callipers – and I know which I’d prefer!

For an average-distance commute on a ‘normal’ bike, rim brakes are probably best. If you’re not doing a huge mileage the brakes probably won’t wear out your rims for several years, and although you will need new brake blocks more often than with disc brakes, these aren’t expensive. Rim brakes are also easier to adjust and maintain than discs for the average user.

For a high-mileage commuting bike, disc brakes make good sense. They should be cheaper to maintain in the long run, thanks mainly to not wearing out your wheels rims. The potential disadvantages are contaminated brake pads and the possibility of costly repairs if the brakes are ever damaged (especially for hydraulic models), but generally reasonable quality disc brakes should be ‘fit-and-forget’ apart from changing the pads every few thousand miles, and eventually replacing the disc rotors if they wear thin.

Disc Brakes on Touring Bikes

Disc brakes are also becoming an increasingly popular option for cycle touring. The greater power, all-weather performance, and lack of wheel rim wear are very beneficial on a high-mileage, heavily-laden touring bike. The major disadvantage can be serviceability in the field. On an expedition to remote locations, the simplicity and ease of maintenance of rim brakes can literally be a life-saver. Leaking hydraulic fluid or worn out brake discs with no spares available would be a serious problem in some parts of the world.

For a touring bike used in Europe, North America, and more developed areas of the rest of the world, disc brakes are usually a really good option. For a round-the-world trip which includes travel through some pretty remote and undeveloped areas, rim brakes are probably a more sensible and less risky choice.

Who are Bristol Bicycles?

Bristol Bicycles design and hand-build bikes aimed squarely at the commuting market. These are the the VW Golf of bikes: not pretending to be a racing bike; not trying to be a mountain bike. These are good, practical, reliable bikes pure and simple.

“I’ve always been a cyclist and I enjoyed messing about on BMXs when I was a kid” says founder Jake Voelcker. “Then I got into mountain biking a bit later as a teenager. I was repairing bikes for friends and I ended up with so many bikes in my bedroom and my shed and my attic that I either had to get rid of them, or find a small workshop.”

Having rented a workshop, very quickly the business grew and within the first year Jake had taken on an employee. That was ten years ago this month, when Bristol Bicycles started off as Jake’s Bikes, a workshop offering servicing and repairs and selling reconditioned used bikes.

“The business has grown every year since, and around five years ago we were having to turn away more people than we could serve with second-hand bikes so we decided to look into selling new bikes as well. We couldn’t find anything on the market that was the right mix of quality and not a ridiculously high price. That’s why we launched Bristol Bicycles: our own brand of bikes which we build here in the UK.”

By taking inspiration from Dutch and German bikes that are very practical and have a comfortable, upright riding position, Jake realised that Bristol Bicycles could offer something similar but lighter, and with more gears to suit hillier British terrain.

“And what is very exciting is the the new electric bikes that we’ve just launched”, Jake continues. “They can reach a much broader range of people – for example people who haven’t quite got the fitness to cycle a normal bike, or people who used to cycle but find it a bit more difficult now, especially the uphills. Electric bikes just completely solve those problems.”

Asked about the future of the business and what he looks forward to most, Jake said “We are hoping to expand the business to reach more people and make a difference in other cites. We’ve got big plans for either licensing or franchising in the future.”

“For me the real standout moments come when someone who wasn’t previously a cyclist or someone who maybe had an injury and thinks they can’t cycle any more actually then has a go on a Bristol Bicycle or maybe an electric bike and thinks ‘I can do this!’. I’m very grateful to be part of empowering that change in their life, it’s very humbling.”

See the Bristol Bicycles range and design your own bike online

 

A video version of this interview is available on our Youtube channel

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