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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    What part actually defines the bike for itself? (variation on the ship of theseus: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_of_Theseus ) – njzk2 Apr 7 '17 at 18:52
up vote 26 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

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.

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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    Carbon can be repaired- its just more difficult/expensive, and since Carbon has only been used in bike frames in the past 10 years- expertise in this area is only just starting to catch up. Example carbon repair service: carboncyclerepairs.co.uk/index.html – AliGibbs Apr 7 '17 at 11:42

Considering the bicycle as the frame the life is limited only by unrepairable/uneconomical damage to the frame.

I had a seat tube damaged beyond economic repair by my daughter's boyfriend. Disposed of both the bicycle and the boy.

Otherwise wheels, cassettes, brakes, chains can all be relatively economically replaced providing infinite life. An 11 speed vs a 9 speed is not an end of life criteria to me.

  • Welcome to SE Bicycles - thank you for your first contribution. Consider having a browse through our tour and I look forward to your next answer/question. – Criggie Apr 18 '17 at 20:33

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.)

  • Agreed. Damage and Neglect kill a bike far more often than simply riding. – Criggie Dec 31 '16 at 21:35
  • Not "forever" if you're super-duper pedantic. In hundreds of thousand kilometers, the front fork bearing races will eventually wear out. The bottom bracket cartridge races or threads will also eventually wear out. Not that they can't be rethreaded or tightened, but is metal on metal wear. The universe may suffer from heat-death first. – RoboKaren Apr 5 '17 at 19:13
  • But surely you just replace the fork, replace the bottom bracket? I am already on my 4th bottom bracket on my bike (20,000km so far). – AliGibbs Apr 7 '17 at 11:43

It might be better to ask how many miles does a bike last rather than how many years. I'd guess that a bike should perform well (if it's reasonably maintained) for 5,000 miles. At this point the cables are shot, the mechanical components have worn, bearings, etc. You could certainly replace all these parts and keep it going, but there is more to the question than that. The other aspect to the question is how long will it take for the bike technology at the high-end of the spectrum become affordable to the price point that's comfortable to you. I suspect that a regularly ridden bike gets at least 1,000 miles per year (probably more). It also seems to me that in five years, the features on the "nice" bikes are standard on the entry level and big box bikes. In fact, I think that bikes get "cheaper" by $100 a year. So if you bought a bike this year for $600, next year the $500 bike will have the same features and components. (Inflation distorts this a bit.) So again, let's assume you bought a bike for $600 this year. You would have loved to have had the model that sells at $1,200 but that was too expensive for you. Five years from now you will think about replacing your bike and are willing to spend $700. You'll find the bikes at this level are pretty equal to the bikes that you wanted this year that cost $1,200. You'll look at that bike and say to yourself, "Wow! What an awesome bike for just $700!" And then you'll decide that your current bike NEEDS to be replaced. So the answer to your question is "five years."

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    That seems rather pessimistic. My Specialized Carve (MTB) is at 4600 miles and other than replacing the chain, cassette, chainring and brake pads (all parts that are expected to be replaced regularly, and not expensive), it's all original and working like new. Bearings are pristine, cables are just fine. I switch between 2 sets of tires and even those are still OK. – Nik Mar 5 '15 at 16:28
  • I disagree - you forget the time and effort that goes into finding the Right Fit. – Criggie Dec 31 '16 at 21:35

I have a Trek Madone 4.5 carbon that is 4.5 years old and has over 27,000 miles on it (would have more but work gets in the way!!). Other than regular maintenance, change out cassette (at 24,000) and change out the rims (broke the real axle twice on original rims) and have had no problems since. Have a couple scrapes on frame but I hope not to replace it anytime soon!

  • That's great to hear! I have Domane 4.3 and have 25,000 miles to go to catch up to you! – Ben Apr 18 '17 at 16:26

How long is a piece of string?

Honestly, the life of a bike can vary dependant on whether your bike is regularly serviced, if you're going to actually replace parts like chain, cassette, chainrings, bearings, brake pads, brake cables, gear cables, bottom brackets, headset bearings, etc.

If you don't do ANYTHING to it, and ride it daily, you'd be lucky to get about a year and a half out of my personal experience. If you constantly service it and you don't torture it, you could have it outlive you. It's down to the owner's effort in keeping the bike running. I know people who have four chains that they interchange after each ride and people who use multiple wheelsets.

I had a 10 gear racing bicycle for 20 years, bought in 1981, and used until 2001. Over the years I had replaced the front cog, chain, rear cog and derailleur at least once, and removed the front gear changer (for gears 6 to 10). And of course tyres, inner tubes (with Woods valves), mudguards, wheels, brake blocks, saddle and panniers (which got caught in the rear wheel). This was general riding, not sports.

My current bike is a Raleigh Pioneer 120 hybrid 5 gear which I bought in 2001. Again, I've replaced tyres, rear cog, brake blocks, saddle. I had the chain, rear cog, and gear changer replaced at a bike shop last year (for around £60 the lot) because it was worn out. I ride most days on local journeys and to work. But not bad for almost daily use over the last 16 years. So with maintenance, a few adjustments, and personal interest, a bike can last for years.

I've been riding bicycles since 1969. The total costs of replacement bits can be more than the original cost of the bike, but over the years it is not a great deal because the costs are spread out. An older 1970's or older bike would be more difficult to maintain especially if it uses a Sturmey Archer gear or a 'dynohub' (with lights that use filament light bulbs) or is a 1970's Chopper. Wheels with modern gear hubs and dynamo hubs (connected to LED lights) should fit an older frame, but it's whether it's compatible with an original gear changer and lights which may then need replacing for compatibility. And Woods valves? They haven't been made since the mid 1980s probably due to mountain bikes coming in at that time with Shraeder valves, but Presta valves of course will fit.

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    Woods valves are still being made. In the Netherlands, for example, they remain in widespread use on city/utility bikes. Even in Norway, where I live and most new bikes are delivered with Schrader or Presta valves, replacement Woods valves are still commonly included in patch kits. – fagerbua Aug 11 '17 at 7:07
  • Japanese and Chinese work bikes have an excessive number of woods/dunlop valves. No idea why they still exist in bulk there. – Criggie Aug 12 '17 at 7:51

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