This article was written by John Duggan and originally appeared in Cascade Courier in March 2008.
Bicycle components fail for many reasons including, but not limited to: 1) Poor maintenance (chain breaks because it was never lubed); 2) Impact/crashes (driving into your garage with bicycle on your roof rack; getting doored); 3) Design defects (hollow cranks that are too hollow); and 4) Manufacturing defects (improper frame welding).
For some chilling reading, go to the Consumer Product Safety Commission website (www.cpsc.gov) and type in “bicycle” or the name of any major bicycle manufacturer or bicycle component manufacturer. You could spend many hours reading about hundreds of recalled bicycles and bicycle components. Try searching for the name of the manufacturer of your mountain bike fork and see what comes up. You may be shocked by what you learn.
Although I am using fictitious names in this article, these are real like examples. “ABC Corporation” voluntarily recalls 220,000 front suspension forks because compression rods can break, causing rider to lose control, fall and suffer serious injury. “XYZ Corporation” voluntarily recalls 17,500 BMX and mountain bike forks because the steerer tube can fail causing loss of control and injury.
Over the years I have handled many bike defect cases, including claims for defective forks, pedals, seat posts and frames. In addition, I have personally witnessed crashes involving defective handlebars, forks, and wheels. It happens when you least expect it and it is never a pretty sight.
Mountain bike forks are a fertile source of defects. After spending two full days deposing the R&D personnel from a major fork manufacturer, I learned the specific reasons why the particular fork failed and also that there was grossly inadequate product testing. The manufacturer was in such a rush to get the latest, greatest and lightest fork on the market that it was doing minimal product testing and essentially using the consumer as a guinea pig. Any reported failures and defects were then used to redesign the newest version due out nine to twelve months later.
From a legal standpoint, the Washington Products Liability Act (RCW 7.72) provides that product manufacturers can be held liable for defectively designed or defectively manufactured products. Product liability claims are generally hard cases to pursue and will almost always require forensic/metallurgic testing and expert opinions. The manufacturer will almost always argue misuse and/or improper product maintenance.
If you suspect that a component is defective, immediately stop riding your bike and consult with your local shop. If a component fails while riding, you should locate, preserve and photograph all component pieces immediately. In a recent case, my metallurgist used a stereo microscope capable of 160x magnification and scanning electron microscope capable of 200,000x magnification to identify and confirm that the pedal axle failed due to fatigue fractures caused by a design deficiency.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
1. Regularly clean and inspect your bike. Use a flashlight to visually inspect the frame, forks, cranks, hubs, rims, etc. In addition to using your eyes, use your fingers to feel for surface defects that may not be visually apparent.
2. Have your bicycle regularly serviced by a reputable shop. Shops generally receive recall notices from manufacturers and the CPSC. In addition, good mechanics know what to look for. While installing a new cable on my mountain bike, the mechanic took out his flashlight and visually inspected my rear triangle. He knew where the stress points were and he identified several cracks before it failed.
3. Periodically check the CPSC website to see if there are any recalls involving your bicycle or components.
4. Replace worn and overused parts before they fail.
Remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!