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The First Scratch Hurts the Worst: Loving a Bike With Imperfections & How You Can Protect it From Scratches & Chips

No one likes a scratched up bike. Or do they? Maybe scratches and chips in your paint can actually be a good thing. Read on as I try to convince myself after damaging the paint on my most prized bike.

Written by: Bruce Lin

Published on:

Posted in:Opinion

Dear god, what have I done to my poor bike...

My Lauf Seigla is less than a year old, and one of the reasons I chose to buy it was the beautiful pearlescent white paint. It looked great in photos and even better in person. But now, after a tough race where I dragged my bike through the most heinous mud imaginable, the paint inside my chainstays and fork has been rubbed straight through to the carbon and my frame is covered in scratches. 

Of course, this sucks. But if I’ve learned anything from riding (and abusing) bikes over the years, it’s that the first scratch always hurts the worst. Once you come to terms with imperfection, then any scratches, chips, and other blemishes are actually a bit of a relief. 

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Bikes Are Meant To Be Used

Bike paint chipsThose are pretty deep paint chips and they're super visible.

I discovered the tire rub damage while washing my bike after Unbound Gravel. My bike has a ton of clearance for mud, but the mud in Emporia was something else. The paint inside my fork and chainstays didn’t stand a chance. There was a large chip in my paint near my rear dropout where my derailleur smashed into the frame after it broke. There are also plenty of tiny scratches on my downtube, seattube, seatstays, and brake levers. 

When your bike gets scratched

When I initially discovered all the damage, I felt super angry and depressed. I was ready to dump my frame in the garbage. Overdramatic, I know, but I felt intense emotional trauma. I started looking up paint repair services near me (expensive). I even started shopping for a new frame (even more expensive). I didn’t want to spend money, but I also wanted my bike to feel pristine and perfect again. 

Then, after a day or two, I thankfully cooled off. This is a process I’ve been through many times now. I don’t think I’ve owned a single bike that I haven’t cosmetically damaged in some way. My mountain bikes are especially vulnerable since I tend to crash a lot. Every time I mess up my paint, I fall into a pit of despair. Then later, I crawl out and just keep on riding. Such is life. 

Bike paint wearYour average gravel bike after a rainy day. What horrors hide under all that mud?

No bike stays perfect forever. Dirt, dust, mud, wind, rain, grease, crashes, and contact with your own body are unavoidable. After enough miles, pretty much every bike goes from showroom new condition to used and abused. 

For some, loving your bike is all about fighting against the forces that seek to make your bike “imperfect.” But I’ve found that I tend to be happier (and I ride better) if I actively try to embrace the imperfections. Of course, that’s easier said than done. I’m vain and obsessive, and every time I get that first scratch, it feels like I've lost something incredibly precious. 

Kintsugi potteryA beautiful Kintsugi repaired dish. Photo: Riho Kitagawa. 

So how do I move on after putting my once-pristine gravel bike through a muddy cheese grater? I like to think about two Japanese artistic concepts anytime I bang up one of my bikes: 

  • Wabi-Sabi: A worldview centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of appreciating beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete" in nature. It is prevalent in many forms of Japanese art.
  • Kintsugi: "Golden joinery" - the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum. As a philosophy, it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.

So how do I apply this to my bike ownership?

What I always need to remind myself is that no bike should exist in stasis. To truly appreciate a bike, it needs to be ridden. And riding a bike, no matter how careful you are, creates wear. That is simply the nature of things. 

A pristine bike is beautiful, yes, but a bike that’s been both well-loved and well-used can be just as beautiful. My damaged paint is a record of my history with this bike. It’s a reminder of all the idiotic crap we’ve been through together. The blemishes are what make THIS bike, MY bike. 

Nail polish bike scratch and chip repairI slapped some nail polish on the damaged areas just to keep the carbon protected. Maybe I should have used gold to make it Kintsugi?

There’s also a sense of relief now that my paint is blemished. My bike has entered into a state of imperfection. I don’t have to baby it so much anymore. I can ride hard, push my limits, and hit gnarly terrain worry-free. 

If I do Unbound Next year, I can send my bike into the mud and not worry about getting more scratches. It’s incredibly freeing. 

Are Scratches and Chips Safe for Carbon Frames?

Used bike inspection and testingThis is Myles, he makes sure every bike is solid, including mine.

Want to avoid scratching your new bike? Then buy a used bike that’s been pre-scratched for you! 

Joking aside, one thing I get asked fairly often is whether chips and scratches in carbon frames are safe. Often, scratches and chips are purely cosmetic and the carbon fiber underneath is intact. Sometimes though, there is damage hiding underneath. In these cases, frames do need to be carbon repaired or replaced. 

@theproscloset We take a hammer to all of our carbon bikes 🔨 #bikeshop #carbonfiber #mechanic #biketok ♬ original sound - The Pro’s Closet

Fortunately, when you buy a Certified Pre-Owned bike from TPC (sales pitch incoming), every frame is thoroughly inspected and tested. We inspect carbon frames using an electronic digital tap hammer. This is the same tool used by technicians in the aerospace industry. It ensures that every pre-owned carbon frame we sell is safe and structurally sound.

After I discovered the damage to my own frame, I took it in to get it checked out by one of our technicians and he confirmed that the damage to my frame was cosmetic. Now I can ride it with complete confidence. 

If you’re ever unsure about a scratch or chip on your frame, it’s always best to get it inspected by a professional. If you’re in Colorado, you can bring it to the technicians at our retail location too.  

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How Can You Protect Your Bike From Scratches and Chips?

A Yeti wrapped in invisiFRAME.

Okay, maybe you’re not convinced, and you want to do everything in your power to keep your bike from getting scratched. Well, the best way to do that is with protective tape or film. I’ve tried a bunch of different frame protection products and I have reviewed many of them here. The basic gist is, if you’re looking for ultimate protection, then a tailored full-frame kit from invisiFRAME or RideWrap is as good as it gets

I’ve put invisiFRAME on my last three mountain bikes and have been very happy with the protection. When I turned around and sold these bikes after a few seasons, I removed the wrap, and my frames looked near new, which greatly upped the resale value. Just know, these full-frame wraps are expensive and pretty annoying to install, and they won’t do much to protect your frame in serious crashes. 

[product-block handle="7431419953344-wilderwild-full-frame-protection-tape"/]

These days, I’ve gotten more stingy and lazy. So I just buy a roll of frame protection tape, and apply it to key areas like the underside of the downtube, on top of the top tube, and my chain and seatstays. This protects all of the areas of your frame that are the most vulnerable to scratches and chips. When I’m bikepacking, I use this tape to cover the frame where my bags tend to rub. 

If I had known how bad the mud was going to be at Unbound this year, I probably would have put a layer or two on the inside of my fork and chainstays. Oh well… it’s wabi-sabi now.