Without warning, Stephan Zitzmann lost control over his "Bernd Herkelmann"-bike and crashed to the ground. "When I was lying on the road", the 33-year old Frankfurter recalls, "I noticed that the fork was sticking out of the frame in a strange way."
To blame for the accident two years ago at the Main riverside was not a road hole or a curb: The manufacturer had assembled a fork whose thread was too long and gradually broke inside the frame's head tube. Zitzmann broke his left hand's scaphoid bone. It was not before six months the guitar teacher could play again. He was paid 3,000 Marks in damages - and got a new fork with fitting thread.
When doing some research about the accident, bike expert Rainer Mai came across another fork brake on a Herkelmann bike. The expert recommended recalling these bikes. But nothing happened. After all, Herkelmann bikes are meanwhile produced by another manufacturer.
Customers know recalls above all from the car sector. Many bike manufacturers, however, forego them in order to cut costs, critzicizes bike-expert Mai. Only in 30 cases, bikes had been called back last year, estimates bike-expert Dirk Zedler from Ludwigsburg.
"Actually, much more bike should be called back", Zedler complains. "But many dangerous deficiencies are not made known to the public." Especially with discount offers in DIY-stores, the serious deficiencies could be seen with the naked eye: bolts too short, loose handlebars or oliquely assembled pedals which fall off after a few kilometers.
Bike-expert Ernst Brust assumes that the manufacturers are secretive on purpose: "Especially low priced bikes are hardly tested for safety in order to cut costs. In case of emergency, the companies rather settle with the respective customer out of court - this is less expensive than a costly test."
This way, bike-buyers involuntarily become test riders who risk their health for the manufacturers. "The banana ripens at the customer's", says bike-expert Mai. "And if something happens, you only get spongy blah." His colleague Dirk Zedler experienced similar things: "If the customer calls the manufacturer after an accident, he will often be told: O, you are the first to which something like this happened."
One reason for many bikes' lack of safety was the medium-sized structure of the German bike industry. "Cars are constructed by engineers of big affiliated groups. But in Germany, everybody is allowed to build a bike - even someone who does not know anything about it", the expert says. "Small enterprises often cannot afford self-critical tests. They throw their products on the market just like that."
Rolf Lemberg, chief executive of the Association of the Bike Industry (ZIV) considers the experts' reproaches to be unsubstantiated. There could be no talk of lacking self-confidence: "Manufacturers and assembling whole salers know the risks. As soon as there is any danger to life and limb, they'll start a recall."
It is true that not all companies escape responsibility. Last October, the insides of a British cyclists' bike fork suddenly darted out because the lid of a suspension had broken. The man got away with a chest ache and a major scare. The bike manufacturer Votec from Bretten in Baden, Germany (advertising claim: Diabolic ideas - but truly divine) reacted immediately and called back 2,000 deficient forks.
"The fork mishap hurt us", admits Votec-salesmanager Andreas Engmann. The recall cost around 400,000 Marks. "Having a turnover of 20 million Marks, you think about such a step twice."
The product liability law, however, left them with no other option: "If somebody successfully files a lawsuit, we have to take responsibility for the accidents consequences with up to 160 million Marks." Furthermore, you could not afford camouflaging mistakes like this, Engmann says: "We also supply Porsche with our high-end forks and they would not accept such practises."
But even if the enterprises warn dealers and customers against using their bikes, their call often goes unheard. "Most recalls do not reach the customer because they are not published large enough", Mai says. In addition to this, it is difficult for dealers to reach all customers: there are no admission catalogues like in the car sector.
The experts agree that the number of recalls will increase in the next few years. "The court desicions in favour of the customers will increase and with it the pressure on manufacturers to call back unsafe bikes", Zedler predicts.
If the industry wants to avoid expensive recalls and lawsuits, it will have to invest more money in their products' quality and safety. "Every bike should at least meet the requirements of the DIN-standard 79100", recommends Brust who co-developed this safety-catalogue for bikes (and, among other things, earns his money by DIN-testing on demand of the manufacturer). His colleague Mai, however, considers the DIN-standard to be insufficient: "Every DIY-store bike meets these requirements."
Not even if there's a DIN-badge sticking to the frame, the customer can be sure that the bike really is standardized. Every manufacturer can claim that his model meets the DIN-requirements just like that - he does not have to prove a safety test.
The model "Laola" made by the Kynast company, is an example for how unfit the DIN 79100 is for every day life. Despite the bike having met the standard's requirements, Kynast had to call back around 35,000 bikes two years ago: due to a constructional mistake the frame of more than 50 of the fully suspended models broke at the back wheel suspension.
ZIV-chief executive Lemberg, however, rejects compulsory independent tests before a product is thrown on the market: "They are not in the industry's interest - also the customers don't want them as they would then have to pay more for their bikes."
As long as many customers decide upon buying a bike first of all because of the price, nothing will change, the experts agree. Zedler: "Customers finally have to develop the quality awareness they have with cars. Nobody would accept it if the car's lights died down and the brakes stopped working - just because it starts raining."
Author: Torben Mueller