How long is the life cycle of a bicycle?

It’s kind of like the old ‘how long is a piece of string’ debate as the answer is dependant on so many factors – what kind of bike, how often it’s ridden, what your riding style is, etc etc. Nevertheless, it’s an important question that needs answering.

Late last year, we came across the tragic story of Richard Stanton. One morning in January 2015 while Mr Stanton was out riding with a friend, his alloy steering tube ‘unexpectedly and catastrophically failed,’ causing him to fall from his bike. He died in Canberra Hospital three days later due to the head, neck and facial injuries he suffered. While his Trek 2000 bike was over seven years old, the coroner found that Mr Stanton’s riding style had no bearing on the accident, and he was known for his meticulous maintenance of the bike. The failure was due to a fatigue fracture in the aluminium steering tube that could not have been picked up by either Mr Stanton nor the technicians that had serviced his bike a couple of months earlier.

So where does this leave us, and what are the variables for this sort of thing? Most parts and components are replaceable, and thus the life of your bike can be extended with diligent maintenance. That said, it all comes down to the frame and fork.

Lightweight carbon bikes are the choice of many, but they’re also the least repairable and the least obvious to spot when there’s a problem. For this reason, comprehensive internal scans are key, especially when buying a second-hand carbon bike. This process involves using a penetrating dye that is UV fluorescent in order to show up all the cracks, something that can’t be done by the naked eye. Getting your bike tested after a stack is also crucial for this reason.

Steel/alloy bike frames and forks are more durable and will show dents and bends more obviously, but the best advice is again to make sure you get a full, comprehensive bike health check as regularly as you need to, depending on how often you ride, and replace parts as needed. Along with carbon, steel, alloy and combined material parts are also susceptible to material fatigue as shown in Mr Stanton’s case and require scanning.

So what’s the solution here? Well it’s a little more complicated than that. Different materials have different fatigue properties and will behave differently through their usable lifetime. In the case of Richard Stanton, the bonded section between his carbon fork and aluminium steerer is what gave way. Other factors to be considered are the manufacturing process, the owners style of riding and the storage of the bike.

Manufacturer’s of the frames and forks try to cater for years of usage but every factor cannot be considered. Questionably, many brands still offer lifetime frame and fork warranties that usually cover only the original buyer. Perhaps instead the solution would be for brands to provide free scans of frames and forks over the years of a bike’s life, and tag the parts once inspected.

Following on from Mr Stanton’s death, Standards Australia are reviewing their bicycle standards. That said, there are many factors to be considered and without an industry supported initiative provoked by buyer demand, not much is going to change. For the near future, catastrophic failure remains a real threat on older bikes and we haven’t even scratched the surface on mountain bikes. Prevention is the best cure therefore regular replacement of bikes and/or components will likely protect riders from material fatigue.

Now we put the question out there to the interweb – what do you think is the solution?