← Back to blog

Premature obsolescence in the cycling industry

23 November 2022

The term 'premature obsolescence' describes the phenomenon that products cease to be used at a point in their lifetime which arrives too soon. This can occur for many reasons including planned obsolescence (where the part is intentionally designed to last a short period before failure), technological obsolescence (a new product supersedes an old one even though the old one is in good working order), style obsolescence (the product is soon considered unfashionable through marketing), and indirect obsolescence (spare parts and repairs are too difficult to find or expensive).

Unfortunately, in the cycling industry as in many other industries, the consequences of premature obsolescence can impact both the consumer directly via the perceived or actual need to replace their bike (financial) or the environment with frames and components ending up in landfill well-ahead of their ‘safe life’.

Many cyclists would be frustratingly familiar with technological and style obsolescence within the industry. It feels like the goalposts are constantly shifting, with the number of front and rear gears on the latest models changing every couple of years, bicycle frames constantly being “refined”, the size and spacings of bottom brackets, wheel hubs and even wheel sizes constantly shifting. It is all too common to purchase a shiny new bicycle only for it to feel somewhat out-of-date just a few months later. Of course, much of this is marketing hype around performance improvements ranging from weight reduction to simplifying the setup, but I’m sure my 2x10 gearing still covers anything I will ever do on a bicycle.

When it comes to carbon fibre bicycle frames and components, here at Cycle Inspect, we are concerned primarily with indirect obsolescence i.e., that parts are replaced simply because inspecting and/or repairing carbon fibre is too difficult and expensive. Many cyclists tend to only hold onto carbon fibre bicycles for just a couple of years before moving them on or simply discarding them, particularly if the bicycle has been involved in a few incidents and has acquired some visual imperfections. A decision is often made to “play it safe” and upgrade the bicycle due to a perceived level of uncertainty, although this of course passes on the risk to the secondary consumer who will have no knowledge of the bicycle’s history and may find out the hard way. Whether it is for these reasons or when a consumer wants to upgrade to newer technology or something more fashionable, they should be able to move their existing bicycles onto secondary owners with confidence that the bicycle is of sound structural integrity and presents no inflated risk to the secondary owner.

Carbon fibre is an excellent material for high-performance bicycles. It offers a superior strength-to-weight ratio to most metals and can be moulded into many different shapes to produce light, strong, and aerodynamic structures. However, an important aspect of the carbon structure is that it can contain damage and/or defects which are not visible on the surface. For example, when impact is applied to the carbon (as seen in the below image) it may seem, to the untrained eye, in-tact on the surface and yet the force of the impact has transferred through the carbon layers causing fibre breakages and delamination which cannot be seen externally to the structure.

Unfortunately, unlike some other materials, if a bicycle continues to be ridden with underlying risk factors, it could experience a catastrophic failure, essentially shattering and posing extreme risk as the rider may be thrown into the ground at speed.

Currently, it is extremely difficult as a consumer or even a mechanic to be certain of the structural integrity of carbon fibre components. If a bicycle is crashed, it is typically inspected visually (sometimes only by the consumer) and then continues to be used if there are no signs of major visual damage. Unfortunately, as described above, visual inspections and even the widely used “tap test” or “coin test” are of negligible use when assessing the structural integrity of carbon fibre, where damage is often transferred to internal/non-visible layers. To achieve a reasonable level of certainty, non-destructive testing methods are required which are only performed by a few experts and requires expensive and time-consuming processes to strip and ship a bike across the country. Unsurprisingly, the cost and time for this inspection and further for a potential repair often outweighs that of simply replacing the part and tossing the old one into landfill.

Unfortunately, when carbon fibre bicycles are deemed to have become too risky or too expensive to inspect and potentially repair, they are discarded and typically end up in landfill due to the complexity and cost of recycling. Carbon fibre can be repaired very effectively so long as the damage site has been correctly identified, but DIY repairs are not recommended and there are currently relatively few reputable repairers with appropriate tools and technical skills to analyse (and repair) carbon damage (e.g., Luescher Teknik, Carbon Bike Doctor, and Carbon Steed).

At Cycle Inspect, we are bringing standardised training and tools to local trusted bicycle mechanics and their customers, including accreditation and standardisation of inspections, risk assessments, and reporting. We are also taking a data-driven approach to ensure that inspections are as accurate and informative as possible, drawing insights from each inspection to inform the next in an iterative process. This helps to inform decision-making and improve certainty and confidence in carbon fibre bicycles, ultimately reducing risk of catastrophic failures while limiting some of the premature obsolescence in the cycling industry. This means lower lifetime costs for consumers, greater confidence in the used bicycle market, increased safety, and less carbon fibre ending up in landfill.




Stay informed

Sign up to our mailing list to hear all of our latest news, offers and announcements.

What best describes you?