Light enough to kill you

November 30, 2014 § 37 Comments

I’ve always been a late adopter when it comes to trick bike stuff. Part of that, say, 99%, is out of sheer cheapness. Nothing makes me sadder than spending money on a bicycle part. Except one thing, which is the other 1% that explains my resistance to change — the only thing I hate worse than spending money on bicycle things is having a bicycle thing break while I’m using it.

The importance of things not breaking on a bicycle is generally important, but with some components it is very, very important. Bikes have multiple back-up safety systems. When one wheel goes, you generally still have another. If the right brake fails, the left one is usually still working. There are multiple bolts to keep your handlebars in place. Two derailleurs. Thirty-two spokes per wheel. Etc.

But there are a couple of components whose failure can be catastrophic. One is the chain, and the other is the pedal. When your chain snaps, better hope you’re not out of the saddle. Same for your pedal. If it decides to go, and you’re sprinting or climbing out of the saddle, something bad is going to happen.

One of my current cases involves a pedal failure. The rider was out of the saddle and the spindle sheared off. It was a new pedal, and he suffered pretty severe injuries. We’re still waiting for the metallurgist’s report, but I will be very surprised if the pedal wasn’t defective. New, high-end racing pedals aren’t supposed to snap off when you press down hard them. The more I’ve looked at this pedal and its design, the more impressed I’ve been with what a flimsy piece of equipment it is. There truly is no “there” there.

Ever since the second generation of Look clipless pedals came out, I’ve exclusively used their pedals. Look isn’t the pedal company referred to above, by the way. Their pedals have traditionally been, well, bullet-proof. I used one pedal set for more than ten years. The pedals were fairly heavy and had a lot of metal in them.

Two or three years ago I upgraded to the top-of-the-line Look racing pedal, which had just come out. This was a major violation of my “don’t buy trick” rule. The pedals were super light and had a broad platform. I loved them.

Then one day about six months ago I was coming up to a stop light. I twisted my foot and the entire pedal body came off the spindle. Thinking the pedal had broken, I got off and examined it. It wasn’t broken. The pedal body screws onto the spindle by virtue of tiny, shallow, plastic threads in the end of the body. It is flimsy beyond any description.

I mentioned it to a friend, who said that in the heat of battle during the BWR, she’d tried to dismount going up a dirt wall and her Look pedal had gone flying off into a field. It too had simply come unscrewed.

I’d not thought much about the problem with my Looks until contemplating the design of the pedal that had sheared off at the spindle that’s probably going to result in litigation. What kind of design is it that would put such a crucial component subject to so much stress at the mercy of a few thin plastic threads? Were the extra couple of ounces worth it? What if the plastic screw-on edge had cracked, and the pedal body shattered when you got out of the saddle? Did anyone at Look know? Or care? How many people with Look pedals examine the pedal body assembly for cracks every time they ride? Or ever?

Then I thought about all the other trick bike items that magically appear on shelves every year, components tested in the field on pro teams where the “big” guys weigh 170, the “average” guys weigh 150, and the “small” guys weigh 130 — about the size of a rather large dog. And the “testing” of these products may only involve one season, where the component is maintained by a Pro Tour bike mechanic.

Shattered handlebars, carbon wheelsets that melt when real world big people descend on them, chains that are too weak, crankarms that bust off, and seatposts that break under the rider’s weight or the shocks of the road are only a few of the under-designed trick bike parts that I’ve seen break, and sometimes the consequences have been catastrophic. As the UCI prepares to further loosen weight requirements, look for new designs that are truly disposable, frames and components made — if you’re lucky — to survive a single race season, or maybe even just a single race.

Throw into the mix the thousands of idiots who’ve recently entered the sport and who have no idea what they’re buying, no experience with component failure, and no one to tap them on the shoulder and say, “Hey, pal, until you get the late night tubs of ice cream under control, better steer clear of the 12-pound full carbon rig.” They think they’re buying something snazzy that will help them get fit; I think they’re buying something that’s not designed with them in mind.

After almost 30 years as a devoted Look customer I did some research and bought a heavier pedal, one with more metal in it, and one made by a company that seemed willing to compromise a little bit of weight for a lot more durability in a component where failure shouldn’t be an option. Because in the end, no amount of money from a lawsuit is going to compensate you for a catastrophic injury from which you never fully recover.

And if you save a few bucks in the process, which I did, well, winning.



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§ 37 Responses to Light enough to kill you

  • Don W. says:

    Funny you should write this today. My snazzy rear hub, same brand as yours, failed yesterday. Four spokes on the non-drive side pulled free. Do an inspection and listen for new creaks.

    • fsethd says:

      I saw the FB photo. Exact same failure; flange just tore away. And that’s hardly trick, lightweight componentry.

  • Wilfred says:

    Assuming ‘more metal’ is synonymous with durability can get you in as much trouble as a poorly designed or tested light weight part. It’s about quality, not the scale. Good light weight stuff can out last and out perform heavier components and frequently does in my experience.

    • fsethd says:

      This is true; weight alone doesn’t guarantee good design or good manufacturing.

      However, a well made, slightly heavier bike part from Shimano, for example, is often cheaper and more durable than the latest and greatest carbon offering — even within their own product lines.

  • sibex9591 says:

    Interesting. I am unaware of a chain snapping unless you ARE out of the saddle AND in the most vulnerable power portion of the stroke. At least that is when mine failed :). How I did not fall down is still a mystery to me.

    I had a crank arm shear at the pedal interface. That time I did go down but at least I wasn’t going fast.

    I bought some wheels “That Nelson Vails rode”. If they can survive that monster beating, they can handle my 215 pounds. Wroooong. All they had to do was re-enforce the eyelets in the rim and all would have been fine.

    • fsethd says:

      Saw a guy’s chain snap at Poor College Kids RR two years ago, seated and accelerating. And even then he went down hard.

  • DangerStu says:

    I spent a couple of years testing wheels for a major bicycle manufacturer, In that spokes broke, carbon cracked etc, Usually at the point furthest from home, in there defense they always gave me new ones and kept upgrading me through there range. Eventually though I decided that I was going to buy some thing better so I dropped a perfectly good bicycles worth of $’s on a set of 303`s these were great for 2 months then the spokes kept coming loose, the shop I bought them from were constantly retentioning them and they went back to Zipp three times who said nothing was wrong and in effect it was normal for the spokes to loosen after 2 or 3 rides, it was the worst customer service I’ve ever had. In the end I had the rear wheel built up 2 cross both sides on a different hub and it has been bullet proof ever since. Interestingly Zipp have now changed how they lace there wheels. Sorry for the rant

    • fsethd says:

      I’m on a set of Mavic Open Pro wheels, 32-spoke, aluminum box rims. The Chris King hub recently cracked, but the wheel stayed together until I got home.

      • Winemaker says:

        WM-This technogeek shit scares me. The most telling stat listed in this post and its comments is that, well, it is not even 9 AM, and 23 people have commented. Back when a full pro rig was $1400, a very famous racer once said, “After $600. it’s all the rider.”
        But this whole tech thing continues..odd, very odd.

        • fsethd says:

          Nowadays, after $600, it’s time to buy your second wheel.

          I’ve noticed that the same people beat me no matter what they ride. Hmmmmm …

    • channel_zero says:

      Throw into the mix the thousands of idiots who’ve recently entered the sport and who have no idea what they’re buying

      The industry churns out thousands of customers annually who were sold high end equipment to “go faster.” When they discover it’s just as difficult as before, the romance ends in bitterness.

      I’m not sure why people buy carbon stuff as the failure is catastrophic and the incremental weight savings, if there is one, is meaningless.

  • Tamar T. says:

    My BH was custom built by Nir Tal at Bike-Improve. He makes his own “Nir” wheels. Mine have Chris King hubs, Sapim spokes, aluminum rims, 1500 grams the set, bomb proof. They are the same one Arik (Moto-Dude) is on and he hasn’t broken them either. They cost about the same as the Eastons they replaced but have been much more durable.

  • Les.B. says:

    My bike was only a few months old when I was notified by the shop that there was a recall on the Deda carbon stem because they were cracking. After I returned mine I was told that it in fact was cracked. Lucky it didn’t quit while on a Deer Creek descent.
    The stem, another system with no backup, and try to survive a stem breaking.
    I eventually got a Zipp carbon, which was noticeably beefier than the Deda.

  • A-Trav says:

    Laugh all you want, but this Clydesdale started using stainless and Ti EggBeaters years ago, and now they’re on all my bikes. Bulletproof. Dirt simple. Never broken one, though I did spin the retainer nut off once. That was my fault for not using the new NyLoc nuts provided in the rebuild kit- which costs $15. (Not affiliated. Just a satisfied user. Your mileage may vary.)

  • 900aero says:

    I tend to use brands that I trust more so than the ones that are cheaper , lighter or more easily available. Component failure on a bicycle has a high chance of not ending well as you’ve noted. However, I still think you need to be careful and consult experienced folks (shop mechanics) when making new purchases of significance. Particularly if they relate to load-bearing or control. And like you, I have been using Look pedals for years. I used to work on their ski bindings in my ski tech days and trusted them so figure the bike parts are of similar provenance.

    I will add that compared to surfing (where pro-quality boards are coveted despite the fact that they’re mostly built to last 3 months) cycling is pretty reasonable. Many companies even include weight limits against some of their range – although its often in the fine print – to dissuade larger gentlemen from false aspirations.

    The only products i can think of where weight is indicative of quality are bread and amplifiers.

    • fsethd says:

      No substitute for doing your homework …

    • channel_zero says:

      and consult experienced folks (shop mechanics) when making new purchases of significance.

      This is a pet peeve of mine. The only way shops know anything is if they have lots of product going out the door, and then coming back. And then the service people have to talk to the floor people and the floor people have to be honest, which doesn’t always happen.

      With bike equipment, it’s just like tech purchases, “Go ahead, you first.” Wait 12 months for the worst bugs to be discussed online then make a decision.

      • Winemaker says:

        Exactly…I still ride the bike I was ‘issued in 1987 (Cheaper than you, Seth)…Steel, Columbus, Campy SR, Mavic SST’s, 32 hole, I have used five or six clusters (remember those?) and a chain every two years. Nothing breaks, ever… and I am now forty pounds over the 170 I raced at.
        But the shop dudes always tell me to get the new stuff, “it won’t break…” blah blah blah. As always, Buyer Beware.

  • Cliff Schultz says:

    I recognize that heavier doesn’t always mean more durable, as illustrated by the “heavy” Race Face stem that broke, fortunately while I was climbing, but I have found that the product line just below the “race line” generally doesn’t have weight or short life disclaimers and performs very close to as well as the top of the line. i.e. Chorus vs. Record, XT vs. XTR.
    And as you’ve said before, when I feel like a weight weenie I can easily knock 453.59 grams off my bike by foregoing 2nd servings for a week.

  • Rob says:

    Don’t be a weight weenie when it comes to pedals. Titanium spindles will let you down.

    • fsethd says:

      I remember when titanium was first used on racing bikes in the early 80’s, they were also used for pedal spindles, and they failed miserably. Shaving a few grams off a 23-lb. bike, dogdamnit.

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