Robot’s Useless Reviews – Cassettes

In the great music media debate, you will find legions of vinyl enthusiasts. They like that warm hum (and all the pops and crackles too!). Some like CDs. They sound so clean, like human hands never touched any of the instruments, like every vestige of a 3D environment has been stripped away leaving nothing but pure, mediocre music. Very, very few advocate for cassette tapes, with their hiss and periodic need to be respooled after committing some sort of plastic suicide, ribbons and ribbons of the stuff spewing out and tying itself in knots to be carefully unpicked and rewound into its crappy plastic body.

I’ve had cassettes on my mind for two reasons. First, I completed my first gravel event in a few years on Sunday, the Mix Tape Gravel Race, a charming blend of fast, flat roads, dirt tracks through cranberry bogs, and twisty mountain bike trails. The mix tape is charming metaphor for a race like this in that the organizers have put a bunch of cool stuff together in one package for others to enjoy, and like a classic mix tape of the Analog Era, it takes hours to complete.

This is what you want your cassette to look like, shiny and clean. This is the Shimano 105 12-spd cassette you’ve been dreaming of…learn more at

The other reason I was thinking on cassettes is that prior to racing my bicycle, I cleaned it. Some people train to race. Some people race to train. I race to clean my bike, much like you clean your house before having people over, so they think you have your s&%# together in a way you certainly don’t. Did I really need to pay an entry fee and do a bunch of “training” to force myself to clean my drivetrain.


So there I sat, in the mouth of the open garage, with a rag, a brush, some degreaser, a screwdriver, and not the foggiest idea when I’d last performed these ablutions. Like a classic cassette, mine had begun to hiss and crackle with accretions of dirt-impregnated grease. Shame on me.

I did that trick where you hold a flathead screwdriver against the jockey wheels and chainring to shave off the filth in coiling ribbons. That’s fun. Then I ran a brush through the cassette, discovering bits of twig and leaf and gouts of dirt that had been living there, rent free, for many months. Eventually the whole business went from black and off-black, back to silver and silver-black, which is as good as it’s ever gonna get again.

Until I replace it, much like we all replaced our cassette tape collections with CDs, which we eventually gave to Goodwill or the Salvation Army or that weird friend who still collects CDs.

It struck me during this cleansing process that the modern bike cassette is a miracle of precision machining, perfectly designed and calibrated to drive your bike forward in concert with a clean and well-lubricated chain. It is also a very efficient collector of dirt, detritus and other gifts from the forest floor.

This is a bike part that has not changed fundamentally (although it has become wider, narrower and much more expensive) since the 1930s. It’s hard to imagine a gearless bike, but where is our compact disc in this tortured metaphor. How do we find our way forward, quite literally, without all this mess? I’m no fan of the CD (yeah, I’m one of those nauseating vinyl guys), but there must be a better way.

Some of you are now smiling, smugly, to yourselves. “What about the internally-geared hub, dumbass?” you think out loud. Yes. Yes. Of course, you’re right. But to me the IGH is actually a step backward, rather like the 8-track tape. Oh, it’s cleaner and sounds better than a cassette, but it’s also big and dumb and less portable than it ought to be.

For those wondering, the ride was really good. My legs held together for 60 miles, which was a pleasant surprise, and the scenery and friends made for a grand day on the bike. When we got back, despite being just about as tired as I’ve been in 2023, I pulled my bike off the rack, dragged the hose out of the garage, and hosed my filthy machine down at high pressure. A clean cassette, after all, is a happy cassette.

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Join the conversation
  1. Jeff vdD says

    I’m a huge Mix Tape fan …there’s not a better event on the New England ride calendar. The mix of terrain is great (although a bit less asphalt wouldn’t be a horrible thing), the tech is fun, the climbing is minimal (40’/mi), and the after party is chill.

    1. Emlyn Lewis says

      Jeff, it’s a great event. I also think a bit less pavement would help. I think they’re trying to use three big parcels of woods, and it’s tough to link them without that much road in between, but I’d suggest using just two, but using more of the trails within each. But that’s a quibble. It’s a great event.

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