14 December 2018

This Isn't Why They Bought Their Volvos

Why don't I want to spend five figures (even if I could afford to) on a carbon fiber bike?

I'll give you the same answer that many other longtime bicycle enthusiasts would give:  It's plastic!

All right, I know it's not as simple as that.  Carbon fiber tubing consists of carbon strands molded together with resin, i.e., plastic.  As such, it's stronger than plastic alone, though I still have to wonder just how much use--or abuse--a CF frame can take.

Also, I came into cycling when it was touted as environmentally conscious and friendly.  Making carbon fiber is certainly neither:  Like all plastics, it's made from fossil fuels.  And, if crashed or otherwise broken, it will sit in landfills longer than a trashed steel or even aluminum frame will.

To be fair, though, CF is an advancement over regular plastic.  That (at least to my knowledge) no one has tried to make a plastic bike in at least three decades is testament to that fact.

My becoming a dedicated cyclist more or less coincided with the '70's North American Bike Boom.  That is when large numbers of Americans discovered bikes with derailleurs.  Even the cheapest and heaviest of them were lighter than the balloon-tired bombers or even the three-speed "English racers" most people had grown up with.  

Those ten-speeds not only showed Americans that there were lighter bikes than the ones they rode when they were kids; they also gave people (some, anyway) that bikes could be lighter.  Also, I think that racers of that time started to obsess about weight in ways their predecessors didn't because they felt that they couldn't refine (at least for the purposes of cycling) their bodies much further than they already had.  

This was also at a time before "scientific" training became the norm:  At that time, most racers were still following regimens that their grandfathers followed.  As an example, on the morning he set the new hour record in 1972, Eddy Mercx's consisted of ham, cheese and toast.  No racer would consume such a pre-ride meal today.  Nor would he or she smoke: a practice that was common among earlier generations of riders because it was said to expand the lungs.

So, in the early-to-mid-1970s, the general cycling public and elite racers shared a passion that at times bordered on fanaticism about light weight.  That is when "drillium" became popular, and Huret produced its "Jubilee" derailleur, which is likely still the lightest production derailleur ever made.

That fanaticism is one factor that led to attempts to make all-plastic bicycles.  Another factor was, I'm sure, cost.  But lightness and durability would be the selling points of a plastic bicycle.  At least, that's how people who designed them sold their idea to investors.

I recall one such attempt.  I never actually saw one of the bicycles, but I saw the ads in Bicycling! and Popular Science magazines.  Everything--with the exception of the chain, hubs and spokes--on bikes made by "The Original Plastic Bike Inc." was said to be made of injection-molded Lexan.  Not many of them were produced, and no one knows whether anyone bought any of them.

A few people bought a later attempt at a plastic bicycle--but not nearly as many as such bikes were produced.  Those bikes were sold, unassembled, in boxes, with tools and instructions for assembly.  Still, some of the people who bought those bikes never got them running, either because they got frustrated or because some of the necessary parts weren't included.

If those bikes sound like home furnishings from a well-known chain, there's a good reason:  Those bikes were sold by Ikea in the early 1980s, when the chain was still all but unknown outside of Northern Europe.  In one of its most egregious failures, the company was stuck with thousands of bikes that didn't sell.  Worse yet, a high percentage of the ones that did sell were returned because parts (or even frames) broke and replacement parts weren't available:  almost nothing on metal bikes was compatible with the Itera, as the plastic bike was called.

Itera bicycle, circa 1981

In another irony, another iconic Swedish firm was involved with the Itera.  Volvo wasn't looking to become a bike manufacturer.  But it was interested in making mini-cars, and was looking for ways to make parts smaller and lighter.  Designers and engineers at the company came to the conclusion that their best hope was with plastic.  So, somebody at Volvo decided that it would be best to make other products out of plastics to test their durability.  One of those products was the bicycle that became the Itera.

Itera racing model.  An Ofmega "Maglia Rosa" rear derailleur would be just perfect on this bike, don't you think?

In yet another twist to this story, most of the unsold Iteras that piled up in Ikea warehouses went to the Caribbean, where rust is a problem.   That makes for a further irony, in that Volvo is known in the region less for its cars than its boats and marine engines.

But perhaps the most ironic part of this whole story is that Volvo was, to a large degree, responsible for one of the most brittle and fragile bikes ever made.  Nearly everyone I've met who has owned or even just driven a Volvo car or truck touts its durability and reliability.  Probably none of them ever bought or rode an Itera.  I wonder, though, whether they ever managed to assemble anything they bought in Ikea.

But, if they're curious, they can check out eBay:  Believe it or not, I just saw an Itera listed!


  1. Carbon fiber pollution in the far east has been found to be horrendous. There are so many waste offcuts left over which are unusable and which are often carelessly and dangerously dumped into the environment, not even placed into waste dumps.

    For curiosity I did buy an aluminium framed bike with carbon fork at a swop meet. I never feel totally confident about that fork and check it more than any cycle component I have ever owned. I would never have paid good money to buy such a thing and have learned that bottom brackets test even the bike shop when they need replacement. Most plastic components seem to be the first to fail, clearly cheap and easy to make complicated shapes but for a machine which spends so much time out in the sun those components will mostly age rapidly whilst the steel parts remain and can be endlessly recycled.

  2. Justine, your site keeps being noted as insecure!

  3. Coline--I wonder why. Do you, or any other reader, know what I can do to make it secure?

  4. I think that you might have to check your site settings since it is still using the less secure "https" heading, I thought blogger had just updated everyone but seems not...