Some years back, a friend of mine sent out a little survey to his bike shop buddies. He wanted to know how many shops engaged in sustainable practices that would conserve resources, such as patching tubes for customers (instead of always replacing them); rotating tires to prolong useable life; and cleaning and reusing old freewheels instead of automatically replacing or upgrading drive train systems. I never learned the results of his survey but it got me thinking about what we do, both as shop mechanics and for our own personal bikes.
Here's a partial list of the things I do for my bikes and for the bikes of family and friends:
1. Rotate tires; when the rear begins to show tread wear, swap with the front, which will probably still have more tread left. I get almost twice as much time out of a set of tires this way before I have to replace them.
2. Patch tubes! Bike shops sell patch kits, levers and tire boots; and yet most shops will replace a tube for a customer rather than patch it; the argument is that patched tubes are harder to warranty. The stronger argument is that there are only two factories in the whole world that make bicycle inner tubes, and sometimes supply in certain sizes gets spotty. Why NOT patch the hole instead? It's relatively easy and saves tubes. The rear inner tube on my Rivvy has at least ten patches in it. The previous inner tube had a dozen. (Note: for longevity of repair, stick with the old-fashioned glue-on patches, NOT the glueless patches that are designed for a one-time, short-term repair.)
2a. Tires can be made to last a little longer by cleaning the sidewalls (wipe off the mud and grit, then apply Armor-All or other rubber preservative) and checking carefully to remove glass bits and thorns after a ride. Letting those tiny bits stay in the tire only pushes them deeper into the tire next time, and ultimately you can get a flat. I do this once a week during the winter, when my tires are more likely to pick stuff up; and once a month in the summer. Also -- consider making some thorn-catchers and installing them at the ends of your fenders so the tire rubs very gently beneath them, causing stuff to fly off after one rotation and not stick into the tire. I am making a pair of thorn-catchers from leather-thong shoelaces, but you can sometimes find metal-and-rubber versions at shops that sell used or vintage parts.
Also -- don't be afraid to patch a tire from the inside if there is a small hole in an otherwise good tire! Sweetie's front tire has a small but visible hole in it, caused by a shard of glass. It's a Conti Top Touring model with most of the tread still intact, and I decided to fill the hole instead of trashing a now-irreplaceable tire. When I patched the tube at roadside, I also applied a regular tube patch to the inside of the tire where the hole was. When we got home, I filled the hole from the outside with a small dollop of rubber cement. The tube and tire are still going strong three years later.
3. Pannier or saddlebag got a hole in it? Rain jacket? Patch the hole. Don't just toss it and buy a new bag. My Burley rain jacket has two patches, sightly off-color lot and sloppily seam-sealed but functional, and I've kept that jacket going for almost a decade. With comparable jackets selling for 150 bucks today, there is no reason to run out and buy new for a simple hole or tear. Even seams with tired thread can be re-sewn. I'm the purchaser for a bike shop that sells new bags and rain wear, but I still believe in repairing before replacing, and my wardrobe shows it.
4. Freewheels have more life in them than you think, especially if they were designed for pure friction shifting (shift-by-feel) systems. Clean the freewheel thoroughly in solvent with a stiff brush. (Park makes an excellent and cheap gear brush for this purpose.) Let dry (or if you have an air hose, spry the bearings our from the backside). Re-apply lube by dripping oil into the bearings from the backside of the freewheel; or if you have a fancy freewheel lube tool you can use a light grease like Phil's. Apply lube until the solvent visibly flows out the front side of the bearings. Reinstall on the wheel, with a new or slightly-used chain. Again this is for friction-only shifting systems, where any minor chain-skip is cured after a couple of rides and won't affect shifting because you have to find the gear manually anyway. I have pulled seemingly dead freewheels from the metal recycling at work, resurrected them and now have a stash of enough freewheels to probably see me out.
Note: Freehubs (for newer cassette systems) can be resurrected in a similar way, though the ridges along which the cassette cogs are installed can wear and cause sloppier shifts.
4a. Consider making your bike's shifting pure friction. This will make it last longer and remove compatibility issues. Many indexed shifters on road bikes have a friction option. Use it to make your drive-train parts last longer. Friction shifting also teaches you to anticipate your shifts and to shift more gently, meaning you won't mash the gears while trying to shift down after you've begun to climb a hill. A bonus: you may find that you shift a little less often, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
5. If you use "universal" brake and gear cables (with heads at both ends), measure cable length carefully and cut to the length you need so you can save the other half of the cable for another repair. Citybikes has a comparmentalized bin of such leftover cables and we use them all the time for repairs. We also keep a bucket of new, pre-cut cable housing lengths, many from brake lever kits that include cables and housing, and I find myself using these pieces regularly.
As parts grow more expensive and the cost of production and overseas shipping goes up, many parts we now take for granted could someday become harder to source. If you work on your bikes at home begin now to save a small container of odds and ends -- cables, housing, freewheels, inner tubes in the sizes your bike uses. (Store tires and inner tubes in a cool, dry place to preserve rubber life.) And finally, consider owning bikes whose parts are standardized (like friction shifting systems that use freewheels or cassettes) and therefore easier to hoard and replace. Also, buying a bike very cheaply at a yard sale just for select reusable parts (tires, tubes, pedals, shifters) may well be worth the money. The rest can be given away or recycled. I used a bunch of dead bike wheels to rebuild a section of fencing behind my house last summer and they worked just fine for that.
Look for opportunities to reuse and repurpose! Let your creativity flow!