On Reflectors and Pie Plates

A new bike is an odd thing in some ways, an amalgam of a company’s best engineering, concessions to industry standards, the aesthetic style of the season, and then some reflectors and pie plate, i.e., a spoke protector. Do companies think we need or even want crappy plastic reflectors? And, what’s with spoke protectors? Why are they included even on high-end bikes?

Well friends, I can sum it up in a single word: Lawyers.

I’ll come back to that in a bit. Let’s talk about the spoke protector itself, not why it’s there. It’s meant to prevent the chain from shifting past the last cog on the cassette and dumping it between the spokes and the cog. Done right, a rider will come to a skidding halt. Done wrong, the rider is in a heap on the ground. 

Spoke protectors are included because, if a shop is in a hurry and does not check the adjustment of the derailleur set screws, it may be possible to over-shift the chain. As an aside, the derailleur set screws, for anyone who doesn’t know what they do, are the two screws that generally appear at the back of the rear derailleur and set how far inboard or outboard the derailleur can move, hence the “set” of set screws. They limit the derailleur’s range of movement.

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At the shops I worked in, our practice was to remove the cassette (or often freewheel back then) and remove the spoke protector. It created a kind of extra layer of procedure to make sure we checked those derailleur set screws. We also took it as a point of pride to put bikes on the showroom floor that lacked spoke protectors. While it wasn’t proof that the set screws or indexing were properly adjusted, it demonstrated that we were paying attention and taking time to attend to small details during assembly. 

Spoke protectors are mostly nonsense, but I’ll say this in their defense: On cheaper drivetrains, because the materials are softer and don’t work as precisely, over-shifting can still happen, even if it isn’t likely, and the spoke protector might prevent a crash. 

Now let’s return to the why—Lawyers. Now, I don’t want to say I hate lawyers, but I will say I hate the way so much of the law is adjudicated here in the US. Thanks to lawyers, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) requires that all bikes that come out of the shipping carton as a complete bicycle must be equipped with reflectors and spoke protectors (the CPSC actually refers to these as “derailleur protectors” which is a complete misnomer; that plastic pie plate provides no protection whatsoever to the derailleur). The CPSC also requires that bike companies include an owner’s manual. 

Having worked on an owner’s manual, I can say there is no more useless document in all of cycling. Owners’ manuals are 100% CYA. I defy anyone to find any truly usable information in one. Just for ha-has I asked if I could include information on indexed shifting systems and how to use a barrel adjuster in the manuals I worked on. The reply may have included laughter, too. 

My problem with spoke protectors, reflectors and owner’s manuals is that they are all so poorly made that they end up being a massive waste. That’s a lot of paper and plastic to throw away each day. While I’m not one to complain about government overreach generally, I can say the CPSC requirements are a terrific example of the government trying to fix an industry it knows nothing about. Like the lines of paint that mark our bike lanes, reflectors and spoke protectors are just bits of plastic that hint at safety, without providing much at all.

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  1. khal spencer says

    A seven speed? Wow, where did you dig that out, Padraig?

    Some have stated, and I agree, that the all-reflector CPSC standard actually gets bicyclists killed by promoting the false notion that if you have those reflectors, you are good to go at night without having to open the wallet for lighting. Which is far from true. For example, in an intersection, esp. on a wide road, where a cyclist is going straight through and an oncoming motorist is making a left turn across the front of the cyclist, chances are the oncoming motorist’s headlights will only shine on the front reflector once the car is turning, i.e., shortly before impact.

    I think I save owner’s manuals as tchotchke, along with spoke protectors. I can’t think of when I’ve used one. Usually one has to get online to find information, such as the torque specs on a T47 BB.

    1. Padraig says

      In the annals of strange but true, my gut says the single most popular drivetrain being sold right now is 7-speed, thanks to all the e-bikes entering people’s garages.

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