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This may not be a particularly practical question, but I wonder how often do you find yourself looking for a new (or another) bike? There are, of course, two main aspects of it:

  1. Mechanical decay. If you drive a car, you know to lube it every 3000 miles, rotate tires every 7500 miles, flush the fluids every 30000 miles. If you are reasonably serious about riding a bike, you'd place yourself at wherever you are comfortable in terms of maintenance from being unable to adjust your saddle height to re-assembling your own spokes and hubs, but you'd do some maintenance, anyway. Most components would have reasonably well-defined span they will serve, and would probably start falling apart after this many miles, even with reasonable maintenance and repair. What would the range in time and/or miles be for commuter bikes? road bikes? mountain bikes? Or are the modern bikes of say $1000 and upwards basically perpetual, unless you ride one heads-on into a concrete wall?
  2. Needs change: you outgrow your bike, your riding pattern changes, you switch from group rides to triathlon, you move to a new area, you hand down your bike to your younger sibling, etc.

I have a gut feeling that the latter is far more likely to happen than having the bike used up to its full mechanical resource. Any opinions?

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I would think that the answer differs for different folks - serious riders likely upgrade way before mechanical failure just because they want the latest tech. For more casual riders I think it is likely that they neglect maint. to the degree that the cost of a shiny new bike becomes not too different from the cost of fixing up the old (not shiny) bike - and lets face it, we all like shiny things. –  KennyPeanuts Aug 11 '11 at 18:11
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I get a new bike when my old one gets stolen. –  fbo Aug 11 '11 at 19:05
    
Right. I've forgotten about that as an important reason. –  StasK Aug 11 '11 at 19:06
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This seems to be two questions in one: (1) When does it make sense to buy a new bike, as opposed to fixing the onder one, and (2) When does it make sense to buy a new bike, rather than adapt the existing one. Please consider making this question more specific and targeted to a particular situation. –  Neil Fein Aug 11 '11 at 19:30
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+1 for humour value! –  ʍǝɥʇɐɯ Aug 11 '11 at 19:37
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4 Answers 4

up vote 12 down vote accepted

Let's try to steer this into some kind of sensible question with the perspective as seen from a typical bicycle shop workshop and what is on the road.

In a bike workshop you can find yourself working on bikes that can be up to fifty years old with a large quantity of them being more than ten years old. Some of these bikes have not been out of the garden shed for the last five years and have suddenly came into use because the owner's son or daughter has started riding. Therefore this question very much depends on how often the bike gets an airing, how it is stored and how much it gets maintained.

For the person using their bike every day for commuting, the lifetime of the bike is an economic question. After five years or so, even with brake block changes, new cables, maybe the odd new set of sprockets, new tyres, replacement chains and plenty of t-l-c, the bike will suffer all-over wear that costs almost as much as a new bike to put right. Wheel rims will wear through, saddles will get torn, bits of 'Shimano plastic' will go missing and the whole drive-train will get worn.

Fixing these problems will typically necessitate another round of consumables, e.g. chain, cables, brake blocks and tyres. All of these are more expensive as spares that you have to put time into fixing or pay a shop to fix. Meanwhile, at OEM prices, pre-fitted to a new bike, a better deal can be found. The existing bike has 'depreciated' to become a liability much like how an old car does.

If you look at the cars people drive you will notice that there are not too many 'Ford Cortina' models on the road. (UK) There are not too many 'Ford Sierra' models on the road either. Yet, there was a time when every other car was one of these models. There are one or two of these left and you do see them once in a blue moon, so clearly it was possible to service them and keep them on the roads forever. However, that did not happen for 99.9% of these once popular Ford cars.

Now have a look for what people actually ride. There is a reasonable selection of twenty year old models on the roads used by people on the commute or taking the dog for a walk. However, depending on where you live, the majority of bikes are recent, i.e. less than ten years old. Half of those are very new, less than three years old. Most of these 'daily riders' are well on their way to being used up as a 'mechanical resource'.

As for your point 2), in the UK many bikes get abandoned by their riders when they take up driving. Before people get to that age they do go through a series of bikes that they grow out of. Competitive riders are different again, typically they have a fleet of bicycles and a ludicrous amount of spare parts left over from upgrades.

To summarise, a bike will have a lifetime of approximately five everyday-riding years before it gets shot to pieces. This lifetime can be extended indefinitely through new components and diligent maintenance (or instantly shortened in the case of a crash). In reality people can ride bikes long after the bike is past its best, they can also put the bike into storage for long periods of time and they can also get into the sport (to purchase many bikes that don't necessarily get worn out).

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Even though the question was vague, the answer offers a very reasonable prospective on what I was interested in. (My hybrid commuter is nearing this five years mark, and it is kinda clear that many parts are not aligning well anymore.) –  StasK Aug 11 '11 at 20:25
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+1, nice answer to an unclear question. –  Neil Fein Aug 11 '11 at 23:23
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Well maintained, there is no reason a bike can't essentially last forever. We have perfectly rideable bikes from the dawn of cycling; High-wheelers and such that are still in excellent mechanical shape. Most everything on a bike can be replaced save for the frame; even parts that are so obsolescent as to be unobtainable can be reproduced if you want to spend enough money; bikes are not overly complex machines. I am currently riding a vintage 1972 Cilo/Swiss roadster. Brakes and shifters and such are all original, Shimano 600 and Wienemann. The Wheels have been replaced, the bottom bracket rebuilt, etc. However the frame is in excellent shape and there's no reason the bike shouldn't last another 50 years... I won't...

In most cases, with cheaper bikes that receive little maintenance, it simply becomes financially unfeasible to repair them.

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A racing bike will usually meet its fate in a crash. Most other bikes just die of neglect-- something wears out, user loses interest, things rust and/or get horribly out of fashion.

If you're talking about how to keep a bike running for a VERY long time, that is possible if it is maintained meticulously (or not ridden). All parts can be easily replaced on almost all types of bikes. If not, then with some work contemporary parts can be retrofitted. The best resource in the world for this stuff is the late Sheldon Brown's comprehensive website.

After the replaceable stuff, it basically comes down to the frame.

Steel or titanium are going to be the most durable and they're repairable by someone with the right tools (for brazing lugs or tig welding). Rust will nail you on steel frames if the frame is exposed to harsh weather without a thorough clean-up afterwards. If you start getting rust it has to be dealt with or else it will get worse.

Aluminum is less durable and more susceptible to fatigue cracks through years of use, tubing is thinner and more easily buckles (once something buckles, most people won't want to ride it).

Carbon frames just aren't repairable AFAIK and they're usually crashed terminally in a race anyway. I don't see many carbon bikes from 15+ years ago. This could change in the future, but I doubt it.

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So long as the frame isn't exposed to the elements or damaged/abused, it will last forever. But other components -- chains, bearings, sprockets, brake components -- wear out eventually. Virtually all components in a newer bike can be replaced for a more or less "reasonable" price, but bike manufacturers like to change paradigms every 15 years or so, and finding spare parts for a bike that is 2-3 paradigms removed from the current is often challenging at best.

So at some point it becomes too expensive/impractical to maintain a bike that is regularly used (unless you have access to other old bikes to scavenge). (Bikes with light use don't really wear out, other than the tires need replacing every 10 years or so.)

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