Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Cheap parts from China vs. expensive parts from somewhere else. Go ahead, judge me.

In retrofitting the Peugeot, I’ve had to make some decisions about where to source replacement parts.

Some parts, like the Suntour thumb shifters and freewheel, were easy enough to source locally on the used market or from my existing stash, at minimal cost. Some pars, like the handlebar and the Brooks saddle, were sourced at discounted prices on eBay or Facebook Marketplace. 

Still others pose a bit of an ethical and/or environmental quandary.

I’m re-gearing the bike to a lower/easier range of gears for the hilly landscape of Eastside Portland. I started with swapping in a larger freewheel, but that wasn’t going to be enough. Photo below shows the drivetrain after I swapped in the bigger freewheel, a Suntour 14-30.

Look at the size of the middle and big rings there, 42 and 52. (Does any casual cyclist push a 52 anymore?)

My plan is to swap in a 38 for the middle ring, and replace the 52 outer ring with a chain guard of roughly 42t, similar to what I have on the All Rounder. This will give me a more comfortable gear range to ride around town and give my creaky knees a break.

The challenge comes when trying to source an alloy chainguard ring. I basically have two choices:

One is the Rivendell chainguard, which is made in Taiwan, I think. It retails for $46. Very shiny and comes with an attractive, weight-saving cutout design. I sprang for one of these on my All-Rounder and it’s perfect in every way.

Then, I found a much simpler alloy chainguard through Aliexpress, which is an electronic retail storefront for the juggernaut Chinese wholesale clearinghouse Alibaba. The chainguard is not nearly as pretty, but it’s alloy and will get the job done just as handily. It retails for $21, $17 for the ring and $4 postage from their US-based warehouse.

The quandary in this case, since Alibaba is shipping from a US warehouse, is ethical: do I want to buy the Rivendell part and support a small business her in the US, or do I want to be economical and buy the Chinese-made part, which supports a factory halfway around the world with questionable workers rights and environmental practices?

If I were Rivendell’s typical customer, a middle-aged guy with a fair amount of disposable income, I’d easily and happily opt for the Rivendell part. And I did, four years ago when I bought the only chainguard I could find online (from RBW).

Given a less-costly option this time around, I chose the Chinese part. 


Because I’m NOT Rivendell’s typical customer.

I’m a middle-aged, under-employed woman who has limited pocket change and wants to ride.
So while it would be nice to support a small US business, when your prices are kind of high and your budget isn’t, you go for the bargain in order to complete the job and get back on your bike.

I used to worry a lot more about this sort of thing when I worked full-time and could afford the most costly ethical choice. and there are a lot of different responses to this. But the fact is that the Rivendellian aesthetic has been with us for thirty years (more, if you count GP’s time at Bridgestone), and there are many thousands of riders who love the aesthetic but can’t afford it. This is why Carradice has inspired Zimbale, Brooks has inspired Cardiff and Nitto has launched a thousand copies vis-a-vis Wald, Sunlite and Soma. 

Manufacturers and sellers have been getting us to ape the rich since the beginning of the Industrial Age, at least. Rivendell’s aesthetic simply pushed the envelope farther forward. 
(It did a lot worse than that when GP got on the 650b wagon, which I think sold many more tires in that size than Jan Heine and his elite speed-freak club. But I digress.)

So I’m one of the proles who like some of the good ideas from GP but can’t pay for the first edition.

And while I could make consumer choices with the rest of the world in mind, my individual choices, sadly, won’t roll back climate change or improve the workers’ lot in China. Only huge, industrial-scale choices can do that. I wish it was otherwise, but not even writing to my Congressional Representatives will increase the heft of my influence. Fifty years of tilting at the windmill that is the US Congress has taught me that.

Sue me. At least I do my own labor.

Happy riding.

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