The Chainlink

If You Love Your Bike, Make It Future Proof

By Brett Ratner

The advancement of technology is nothing new to the bicycle industry, but over the last couple years or so, we've seen some monumental changes in the bikes we ride.

For a bit of context, bikes have been steadily improving year after year. However, if you wanted to, you could bolt up most modern components and wheels to a 40-year-old frame...and vice versa. In other words, the technology has certainly been refined over the years, but hasn't been outright redesigned.

Nixon was in office when this bike was made. Yet, most moderns components will install and work on it. That's starting to change, however. (Photo by Grayson Smith)

Much of that is changing in a big way.

Road, cyclocross, and mountain bikes are rolling off the factory floor with 11-speed cassettes, hydraulic disc brakes, 12mm through axles, tapered head tubes, over-sized bottom bracket standards, 142mm wide dropouts, electronic shifting with internally routed wiring, wireless electronic shifting...the list goes on and on.

The future is now. This is a newly-released adventure/touring/gravel/commuting frame from Niner. Tapered head tube, disc brake mounts, front and rear through axles. It is awesome. But as component companies continue to make stuff for bikes like this, they will gradually stop making stuff for bikes you already have.

As an urban/commuter/touring/recreational cyclist, you might think that these advancements (primarily developed for racing, and technical off-road riding) don't affect you, but I think they actually do.

What I mean is that these technologies are rapidly working their way into the utility bikes marketed to people (like us) who ride to work and run errands by bike.

And at the same time, the components that have faithfully served us for years are systematically being discontinued and otherwise phased out. And as consumable parts and replacements for those components eventually cease to be available, any attempt to upgrade to modern components will require you to (at best) replace your rear wheel, and (at worst) scrap your frame and fork too.

In other words, with each passing year, we're losing our ability to replace or upgrade parts on the older bikes we ride. And at some point, we're all going to need to replace our bikes entirely. 

As shiny and new as this bike looked in 2008, it's a dinosaur by 2016 standards. Shimano no longer makes replacement chainrings, cranks, derailleurs, shifters for this groupset, or rims for this wheelset. SIDE NOTE: A local "bike fit expert" was to blame for the hot mess going on around the saddle and bars. It's since been rectified. (Photo by Grayson Smith)

That same bike today (with newer frame, fork and wheels, obviously). The location of a compatible Ultegra crank allowed me to squeeze a another couple of seasons out of the groupset. But pretty soon, everything will need to be upgraded to 11-speed, which will also necessitate a new rear wheel. And since pull ratios are different with the new brake levers, it will also need new brakes.

For the record, I'm no retro-grouch. I'm a BIG fan of all this tech, particularly on mountain bikes.

But for the bike I depend on every day, I'm quite happy with my proven, old school cantilever rim brakes, quick release skewers, and 3x9-speed drivetrain operated by trusty friction shifters.

And sure, the new stuff would arguably serve me just as well (if not even better). But I already own this bike, it's stone cold reliable, plus it has some sentimental value. And besides, it would easily be my "go-to" in the event of a zombie apocalypse.

So in an effort to make my "daily rider" last, I decided to try to make it "future proof." What's that? I guess that's just a fancy way of saying I searched, located and purchased enough discontinued replacement parts to squeeze at least another 3-5 years out of my commuter bike.

The project only required a minimal amount of scrounging in local bikes shops and on the Internet. Better yet, the whole batch cost a very reasonable $550...and that included a lot of "good to have if I break something" items I never expect to actually need.

Three year's worth of consumable parts (stuff that I know will wear out) turned out to be an amazingly cheap $125. And because everything I wanted was obsolete/discontinued, shops and online retailers were happy to unload their old stock at discounts.

So, if you also have a bike you love and want to keep riding, here is the who/what/where/when/how/why of making it "future proof."

Q: Who should strongly consider future proofing their bike?

A: Anyone who currently owns a bike with rim brakes, a 9-speed or older drivetrain (referring to the number of cogs on the rear cassette), and an English or Italian-threaded bottom bracket.

NOTE: People with high-end 10-speed drivetrains (e.g. Dura Ace, Ultegra, Red, Force, Record) might also want to start stocking up on parts unless they plan to upgrade to 11-speed...or are content eventually replacing worn parts with lower-end components.

Q: Ok, I've got a bike that I wanna keep. What specifically are you saying I should do?

A: Stock up on, at minimum, chainrings, cassettes, chains, and bottom brackets. If you can also find deals on "new old stock" replacement parts, grab some spare shifters, brakes, derailleurs, and any other parts that might hypothetically break. If you really want to hedge your bets, grab a spare crankset. For owners of touring bikes and older mountain bikes, it couldn't hurt to grab a few 26" rims or spare wheels. 

Q: Where should I search for this stuff?

A: Definitely start with your local bike shop. If they have any of these old parts lying around, they will be thrilled to unload them on you. If your LBS doesn't have what you need...TO THE GOOGLER!

Q: When should I start future proofing my bike?

A: Once you decide it's a bike you want to keep a long time, the sooner the better. Every season that passes means fewer discontinued parts available to choose from.

Q: How should I future proof my bike?

A: Step one is to educate yourself about what exactly is bolted to your bike. Step two is to figure out what "new old stock" replacement parts are still available for it, and if not, what components from other groupsets might work. In addition to saving your bike, it will be a fun exercise and you'll learn a lot.

Q: Why did you even write this dumb article?

A: Because a few of my bikes are between five and eight years old, have a lot of miles and worn parts on them, and I've been finding it increasingly challenging to keep them on the road without just scrapping everything and starting fresh by plunking down lots of cash on new components...or even a new bike altogether. I don't want this to happen to you.

While the touring bike components shown in the photos are still readily available, the search for parts for my road bike has been a little more frustrating.

I made the unfortunate decision to purchase a 3x10 Shimano Dura Ace road triple groupset back in 2008. The decision made sense at the time (I wanted a fast road bike I could also go bike camping on). Regardless, the components have performed flawlessly for more than 15,000 miles and two different frames, and still shift as buttery smooth as the day I bought them.

The problem is that road triples have gone the way of the dodo bird, and here in 2016, it is almost impossible to find replacement parts. Fortunately, I've managed to locate some key pieces to limp it along another season, but if something important breaks or wears out at this point, my choices will be to replace the entire groupset, or replace individual items with lower-end parts.

If I could do it all over again, I would have bought a double setup (parts are much more plentiful), and stocked up on a few key replacement parts, such as chain rings.

Anyway, here is an overview of parts I think you need to keep your "future proof" bike on the road. I hope it helps!

Chainrings, traditionally, have come in standard sizes and were easy to replace. But a lot of modern cranksets, like Shimano Dura Ace and Ultegra, feature proprietary bolt patterns and chainring designs. So when a component manufacturer stops supporting their older groupsets with replacement parts, you're out of luck. These Shimano Deore chainrings look to feature standard bolt patterns, but they were available and cheap, so I stocked up. 

"Consumable" parts include things that wear out and require periodic replacement. Fortunately, component manufacturers have seemed pretty good about supporting 9-speed mountain bike groups with replacement chains, chain connecting pins, cassettes, and bottom brackets. And with all the rim brakes out there, we don't have to fear a shortage of brake pads. Still, having a supply on hand ain't a bad thing.

This was a bit of a splurge, but now I can rest easy if I somehow break a derailleur, shifter, or crank arm. A year or two ago, a stick flew up and snapped my rear derailleur in two, so the possibility is real. 

The bike industry seems to be working hard to eliminate 26" wheels, so they might not be around forever. But I've got 17,000 miles, five winters and counting on a set of 26" Alex Adventurers, and have no desire to ride something else. So when I spotted a pair of these (now discontinued) rims, I grabbed them.  

My newly "future proofed" bike, ready for many more years of dependable service.

About the author:

Brett Ratner (brett@thechainlink.org) has been a professional journalist for more than 25 years. He has contributed to dozens of publications, including The Chicago TribuneThe Nashville TennesseanThe Nashville SceneGuitar Player, and Musician. Brett began commuting by bike in 2005. Shortly thereafter, his interest in cycling expanded to century rides, bike camping and trail riding. The competition bug bit in 2012 and nowadays he also races cyclocross, track, mountain bikes, criteriums and gravel for The Bonebell.

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Comment by Yolo Perdiem on April 1, 2016 at 10:29am

I did this very same thing (hoarding potential replacement parts) but each time, I would get tired of the frame before any impossible-to-find components.  But of course, I've yet to spend enough money on any frameset to be passionate about specifically.

Comment by Yolo Perdiem on April 1, 2016 at 10:27am

CJ: I'm no hot mess expert but the seat looks too far back to me, and the drop bars are rotated at an impossible angle.  It would be very hard in that configuration to brake from either the hoods, and nearly impossible to brake from the drop position.

Comment by Nancy L. Fagin on March 11, 2016 at 9:54am

Love reading your well-written articles.  I have yet to do a long, camping trip or a long, long road trip, just daily hauls back and forth, back and forth on my 1989 (?) Chicago-built Schwinn Traveler with the uglinest paint job ever conceived.  I have had new handle bars, a new cassette, new chain(s), new/replacement brakes (learnt the difference between long and short stem), etc.  to the point where I could have bought a spanking brand new bike...but the bike fits, I don't mind that the trailer hitch has worn away the paint and polished the metal.  

Every once in a while I see a bike locked up on someone's property, just sitting through the winter and think about leaving a note, "I'll buy your bike for $5.00" - just to see if I can learn how to built and replace parts.  You never know, that bike just may have the part I'll need ten years from now.

My husband rides a rebult/reconstructed Motobecane Record ca. 1975.  The original folded under him when he hit a pothole - I hit it too with the Schwinn - The replacement frame came from Canada - all the great people we met putting a "new" bike together - painters and mechanics.

Nancy L. Fagin

Comment by Ross on March 10, 2016 at 5:04pm
My main commuters are a 1986 schwinn voyageur and a 1993 Specialized stumpjumper, and I have no problem replacing stuff on either bike at my LBS or online. Companies like Velo Orange stock stuff like this and it's easy to scrounge (or get rid of) weird old sizes on eBay. I don't see the problem, and I'm definitely not buying $500 worth of replacement parts that haven't broken yet.
Comment by Mike Jenkins on March 10, 2016 at 2:30pm

What items did you wish to source and were unable to find? It seems like a non-issue to me, but I don't buy state of the art technology.

Comment by CJ on March 10, 2016 at 2:12pm

I dont have a bike less than 25 years old and I've never had a problem getting replacement parts.  

Comment by mweerd on March 10, 2016 at 11:50am

what's the  the hot mess going on around the saddle and bars

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