Apparently I inspired a popular article. I truly had wanted to put out a more thought provoking piece than I did under the title "Peak Cycling." So I sort of threw down the gauntlet unintentionally for others and subsequently myself.
I'm going to go out on a wild limb though, and frame my thoughts in the context of cycling in a post-carbon, post-apocalyptic landscape. My purpose is not to be the Jeremiah to the still hypothetical post-carbon apocalypse, but to provoke some Transition-themed thinking. So please, bear with me.
Assuming some catastrophic event, and much more likely the transition into the post-carbon age will be gradual and not abrupt, but assuming there is a sudden cataclysm which forces all of us to enact Attack Plan-R, then ready supplies of bicycles and parts will, like all other "Made in China" goods, will become scarce, and Gary Oldman may try to kill you for them.
What does this really mean for the diehard cyclist? Will you have to give up your bike after doomsday?
For the current non-cyclist the implications are obvious: moto-fascists will become cycling advocates in the twinkling of an eye. Unless they happened to be recreational equestrians before the apocalypse.
I imagine the guys at your LBS will be stocked up well on tires and tubes. But what about the rest of us?
While its true rubber can be made from the gummy resin of certain trees, in North America those trees don't grow in the suburban microclimate. There really is no proven substitute. So hoarding and killing for tires and tubes would be the new norm.
Then shelf life becomes the pressing question. If you can defend your stash of rubber goods from roving hoards of scavengers they may last a few years. I recently did 30 seconds of unscientific research on google and concluded that bike tires, if unused and stored in a sealed container in a dark place, may last ten years.
So in that first decade after things settle down into a respectable level of PA chaos, ride lots!
Lubricants are easier to substitute. There are natural oils and fluids the could make your bike ride quiet and smooth.Try to avoid animal fats, as they draw flies which in turn produce maggots.
Metal parts may be difficult procure or fashion in a Mad-Maxian world, bit there would be plenty of long lasting substitutes laying around, no, the crux would be the items made directly from petroleum or through energy intensive processes. I don't necessarily like the bamboo solution. Those bikes are uber-expensive now, and while it can be argued that bamboo can grow in many places, I just don't think the type that would be suitable for bicycle frame construction would be as readily available as the dust settles from the collapse of modern civilization.
There are many practical obstacles to constructing new bicycles by hand in a world that has a paucity of cheap and easy energy. So take care of those steel frames. I would avoid carbon fiber like the plague though.
We could find relatively easy substitutes for bar tape, cable housings and even brake and shifter cables. I worry about my plastic shifters and all those zip ties that hold my bike together.
With a decline in oil supplies humanity would also likely face a scarcity of new bicycles and replacement parts for our existing two wheeled machines.
So my challenge to all the out of work mechanical and chemical engineers out there is to work out how our children and grandchildren can craft functional, quality bicycles without petroleum (or at least less than is typically used) and the energy intensive manufacturing processes we rely on today.
Are bicycles energy intensive to construct today? Most definitely. As are most of the goods we use and abuse on a daily basis. It's not the design of the bicycle, or its use, that makes it unsustainable in the modern context.
Orville and Wilbur Wright probably built a sustainable product in their bike shop in Dayton, Ohio. I'm sure there are boutique handmade frames out there that are made in ecologically, economically and socially just ways. It is possible to return to bicycle manufacture as a cottage industry. The Transition to a world where bikes are truly the most sustainable machines rolling over the landscape will be long, but it is a worthy goal for an industry to have. Wait, did I throw down another challenge?