Fads and technological change steal your money by design — a Marxian bicycle parable

© 2019 Peter Free


03 May 2019



Y'all know this already


But this humble bicycle parable struck me in its perceptible obviousness.


What follows is predominantly aimed at cyclists. I recognize that much of what I address will not make sense to people unfamiliar with how bikes work.



It all began with my bike from Hell


A 2013 Trek Cobia 29er is the core of this story. The below links to other people's reviews of some of its short-lived parts mirror mine:



Avid Elixir 1 brakes


SRAM X5 shifters


SRAM X5 rear derailleur


Truvativ Power Spline bottom bracket and SRAM S800 crankset



In retrospect, I should have known better


Trek mismatched a SRAM 3 speed front shifter with a Shimano 3 ring front derailleur.


Given that the two manufacturers use different cable pull ratios, it was impossible to adjust the Shimano derailleur so that only one shifter push would work for all three chain rings. Instead, you had to pick the one-click possibility for either the lowest or highest ring. Getting to the one that you didn't favor this way always required two pushes.


Had the crankset been only a double, the SRAM-Shimano combination would have worked. But it wasn't, and Trek obviously didn't care.



Shortly after buying the bike — and before its warranty ran out


We had to PCS to Germany. The Cobia went into storage for three years.



Once out of storage


I rode the Cobia for two years in very mild conditions. I put up with its remarkably early signs of wear. Continually missed shifts, squeal-spongy brakes, constantly loosening crankset and grindy bottom bracket.


When the bottom bracket and crankset began creaking loudly enough for (even partially deaf) me to hear, I decided that "enough already" had arrived.


Enter the second part of the corporatists' plot


My original plan was to replace the only the bottom bracket and crankset. SRAM, however, had decided that Technology's gods demanded that it come up with a one-style-fits-all bottom bracket. Their new DUB was not backwards compatible with SRAM's previous cranksets.


SRAM simultaneously also led the industry change from 2 and 3 ring cranksets to just one. As a result of that fad, mountain bikes now come with giant lowest cogs and monstrous cassette ranges.


"Everybody" says that this "advance" is just great. It allegedly eliminates problematic front chainring shifting.


However, along with YouTube's SickBiker and Park Tool's Calvin Jones, I am not convinced that the new "one by" crankset solution fits everyone's needs. Without a double or triple crankset, you basically throw out your lowest and highest gears.


As Jones points out (at 06:10 in the video), most of the mountain bikers converting to a single front ring rationalize the change in simplicity's name. They say that they don't want the mental challenge of figuring out which front chain ring (on a double or triple) they should be using. From a curmudgeon's perspective, that's an admission that they're lazy, dumb or constantly oxygen-deprived.


Nevertheless, the whole industry has followed suit and the older component styles are largely disappearing. Forced and unnecessary change is upon us.


I could not find new SRAM substitutes for the S800 triple that I was planning to throw out. Nor could I find reasonably priced new (old stock) of SRAM's previously desirable X0 (higher end) 10 speed shifters and derailleurs.


Although the X5 crap is still occasionally available, why would I re-buy what never did work properly?



A switch to new (old stock-old style) Shimano XT began


And that turned out to be both expensive and mildly irritating on its own merits.


First, I had to order the Shimano components from Germany. Not one retailer on this side of the water had even the partial group that I needed in stock.


Then, there was Americans' characteristic online reluctance to be precise and helpful at the same time. I noticed this because Shimano has recently been through three recent generations of shifters and derailleurs. Some of shifter-brake sets are not compatible with each other. And in that regard, only Germany's Bike-Discount.de went to the trouble of posting compatibility specifications with its listings.



Once I received the new parts


The usual annoyances regarding setting things up kicked in.


First, Shimano does not include adjustment instructions in its boxes. Instead, the XT components came with 5 language sets of useless (paper-wasting) warnings. Not a word or diagram about how to begin the adjustment process.


According to Shimano's unhelpful caveats, proper setup is bike shop business. (I miss my Campagnolo road component days and Campagnolo's traditional adherence to providing proper instructions with its bike parts.)


And, as it turned out, the new Shimano XT front shifter did not want to talk to its older Deore front derailleur cousin. I eventually had to reverse online recommended adjustment methods and start backwards. This meant using wood shims to physically jam the derailleur — against spring tension — to its outermost (big chain ring) position and tighten the shifter cable there.


It had also been a while since I've used a Shimano chain. These come with the company's arguably silly master pin — which looks pretty much like every other pin on a mildly lubricated chain — rather than the easily visible and disconnectable master link that everyone else on the planet sensibly has gone to.


More unhappily surprising were the XT brakes. Both required bleeding right out of the box.


Can't even get that right, Shimano?





The gravity only bleed process, which many YouTubers recommend as being sufficient for Shimano hydraulics, didn't work reliably for me. No matter how rigorous I was in executing it.


After a few trials using gravity by itself, I reverted to the dual (syringe push and gravity) method that Shimano — in instructions that ironically came with a non-Shimano bleed kit — and Performance Bicycle recommend.


Incidentally, Performance's video regarding Shimano bleeds is by the best of the many that I've seen.



Do the new components work, Pete?


Sure. But the 10 speed XT shifter inelegantly takes way-way more pressure to activate than the SRAM X5 that it replaces. Sometimes so much so, that I think the shifter is jammed. As racer Clint Gibbs observes — in this video — SRAM is much more pleasantly positive and precise in its feel than its Shimano rival.


On the bright side, the XT combination now hits all ten SRAM cassette cogs. Something that the SRAM X5 combo never did reliably. No matter how precisely I, or the shop, adjusted it. And now, the front crankset jumps from one ring to another with just one click. That's quite nice.


The XT brakes are also much less spongy than the Avid Elixir 1s ever were. They also appear to lock up better. On the other hand, the XTs lack the Avids' noticeably superior modulation.



Was all this change worth it?


Probably not. If penny-pinching Trek had not done such a miserable job selecting what they must have known were trashy SRAM components, none of this would have been necessary after so little use.


In comparison, I have a Germany-bought 2015 Orbea MX 10 that was much cheaper than the Trek. It came with Deore components that are still going strong. Even after enduring way more kilometers of challenging weather and dirt conditions than the Cobia has ever dreamed of seeing.


Orbea, for those who do not know, is a Spanish manufacturer. The MX 10 came in the manufacturer's box. Surprisingly, not one adjustment to the bike was necessary.


Orbea's care and component selection, even for such a comparatively inexpensive bike, made Trek (in my long history of buying from that company) look sloppy.


Curious about the apparent difference in manufacturing attitude, I found a statement about Orbea's labor and environmental values hidden away, here. Maybe what they say there is not just blather.



The moral? — Manufacturing fads — planned obsolescence — and unnecessary unidirectional technological change — do suck money out of your life


It's intentional, of course. And not (taken to the extreme that it is these days) good for planet or soul.


If you are not persuaded, listen to car and truck mechanic, Scotty Kilmer, as he talks about short-lived plastic parts that manufacturers now insert into critical parts of automobiles.


This is intentionally designed obsolescence. If you don't buy a new car, when the unnecessarily inserted plastic crap breaks — you'll pay a lot for repair because these new designs are deliberately obtuse to begin with. It's a no-win situation for customers.


This why I called my bike story a Marxian parable. Why, "capitalists" argue, give consumers the choice to keep their old, but still workable, things running — when we can force them to buy expensive new stuff that isn't really any better?


If you don't see a long term problem with such a cavalier way of wasting resources and most consumers' limited wealth, you are (at least arguably) a profiteer, stupid, inobservant or in denial.


And indicatively, if you are a member of that enormous planet-wrecking latter group, you call people who are not, "socialists". Propaganda is part of institutionalized Greed's short-sightedness.