Editor’s Note: Contributor Luke Elrath has broad and deep experience in the bicycle industry. Here he shares some information from his current job as a bicycle forensic investigator and how it applies to keeping your bike and you safe.

In my work I look into the factors that contributed to a cycling incident and try to find out what caused it. In some cases I will discover that a bicycle frame, fork, or component failed that was the subject of a safety recall. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) is a government agency responsible for protecting consumers from unreasonably dangerous products. To do that, the CPSC develops mandatory design criteria that bicycle makers must follow. They also track injury reports that are related to the use of consumer products, and when a consistent problem is identified they work with the industry to issue a recall of the dangerous item. All this happens to keep you, the bicycle rider, safe from design and manufacturing defects.

Frame alignment quality control is often a little chaotic. © Luke Elrath 2013

The CPSC issues recalls for tens of thousands of bicycle-related products every year: frames, forks, handlebars, brakes, pedals, and more that were designed, manufactured or assembled in such a way that you the rider may be injured while using it. Sometimes they get reports directly from the person injured; sometimes bicycle companies will inform the CPSC when they get a high volume of warranty claims from shops or customers. Hospitals also report injuries related to consumer product use, and the CPSC scans that data looking for multiple issues with similar products. Where the dangerous conditions that cause these incidents come from is a complicated thing to track.

Manufacturers are faced with pressures to make bikes lighter, more durable, and less expensive than their competitors. Retailers are constantly trying to find ways to offer better quality bikes at lower prices. Technological innovations give bike brands an advantage, help riders win races, and drive high-end sales. All these challenges sometimes lead to corners being cut or important details being overlooked. It doesn’t take very many slips to create a big risk to the bicycle-riding public.

Hand made means different things in different countries. © Luke Elrath 2013

In 2012 18.7 million bicycles were sold in the US. 99 percent of those bikes come from mainland China and the island of Taiwan. Bikes that are designed in the US get made overseas and then are shipped by cargo freighters back here. In that process there are many details that need to be worked out to insure a safe product: frame design, tube shape, material, manufacturing tolerances, parts compatibility the list is endless. The product manager responsible for making sure all the bases are covered has a lot to verify. The big companies have full time employees living in Asia where the bikes are made; they can monitor the quality of the manufacturing on a daily basis. They can personally supervise compliance testing. Often the big companies have their own prototype and testing labs so they can get a better idea of what will work before it goes to the assembly line.

Frame tubes ready for large scale production where speed is key. © Luke Elrath 2013

The smaller companies with limited resources rely on the representatives at the assembly factories to keep an eye on things. Emails sent back and forth are how the inspections are tracked. Third party testing laboratories certify that bikes coming off the assembly line meet the CPSC and other US standards. But the reality is that the US-based companies are reactive, not proactive. They are forced to deal with safety issues only when they pop up in the course of consumer use. That’s when the CPSC would step in and make a decision about the necessity for a recall. If they decide it is necessary, the CPSC and the bike company issue notices to the bike shops that have sold the bike, the bike buyers (if they registered the bike), and the general public through the CPSC website, the bike brand’s website and bicycle industry publications.

The fork leg forest. © Luke Elrath 2013

Regardless of the source of the safety concern, there are some simple ways you can help in this process:

Register your bike. Often you’ll be given a warranty card in the bicycle owner’s manual. Some companies allow you to register online. Whichever way you do it the bike company now has a way to contact you if anything is identified as a risk.

Check www.cpsc.gov/en/recalls. There’s a section for sports and recreation that lists the current recalls, or you can search your bike’s make and model name to see if anything pops up.

Read your owner’s manual. Even if some of the things you find in there don’t pertain to your specific model, the more knowledge you have about your bike and riding in general the better.

Talk to your shop. You bought the bike from an independent bicycle dealer, didn’t you? They have trained mechanics and a knowledgeable sales staff. They are excellent partners to help keep you safe and your bike in smooth running order and have information about recommended maintenance and inspection intervals. They can help you understand what needs to happen based on your riding style, conditions and frequency so that your bike will serve you for many safe, happy miles.