The trouble with plastic fenders…

3 03 2011

Planet Bike Cascadia fenders on my Big Dummy...

I like fenders.  I was a big fan of plastic fenders for a number of years.  They work for sure, but I’ve come to realize they have some problems:

  • they mount the fender brackets inside the fender which means water hitting the bracket can’t run down the inside of the fender to the road uninterrupted and some of it sprays out the side onto you and your bike. Metal fenders wrap the strut over the back of the fender avoiding this problem.
  • the fender struts themselves don’t mount very securely to the fender compared to the how a metal fender wraps the strut around the back of the fender keeping the strut in one piece which triangulates it for stiffness. This is exacerbated by the fact plastic fenders themselves aren’t very stiff.
  • most plastic fenders are too short to provide full coverage [front fender mudflap should almost touch the ground] although this can be solved with a DIY mud flap.
  • you can’t reshape a plastic fender to perfectly fit the outline of your tire without loading it with tension like a spring.  This leads to fender failures and allows the fender to go out of adjustment easily as it tries to go back to its original shape.
  • plastic fenders don’t come forward enough past the fork crown to stop spray from the tire from coming back and hitting you from the front.
  • because the mounting systems on plastic fenders are not as stiff as on a metal fender there is a greater chance something will get stuck in the fender causing an incident. Some plastic fenders get around this with breakaway struts [ie. SKS].

Sharon's Surly Cross Check with hammered Velo Orange metal fenders...

I assumed metal fenders would be super expensive and really hard to install on a bike.  It turns out they are quite reasonably priced – $55 for PB Cascadias & $60 for VO metal fenders. My install time for Sharon’s VO metal fenders shown above was no longer than a set of plastic fenders. Although some Berthoud & Honjo fenders do require extra time to install.  Once installed they are very stiff, quiet and provide excellent protection from road spray while enhancing the look of your bike.

Planet Bike vs. Berthoud...

The Planet Bike Cascadia ATB fender and Berthoud stainless steel 60mm fender shown above are both designed to work with a 26 x 2.0 tire.  The Planet Bike fender has two sets of struts on each side vs. the single strut on the Berthoud.  Just looking at it the PB looks like a more secure mounting system.

But when you try to flex the fender struts it becomes pretty clear that the PB system is weak [I can easily touch the end of the struts together] and the Berthoud system is very stiff.  This is simply because the wrap around single stay on the Berthoud is a superior design.  Attaching a single strut rear fender to your bike is easier and the metal fender allows you to gently reshape the diameter of the fender to perfectly match your tire.  This not only looks better it means the fender is not under tension and will stay in place and will not fail as quickly as a plastic fender.  Since a plastic fender has a memory it always wants to be a specific shape. If that isn’t fitting your tire well you can bend the plastic fender into shape, but it will be under tension and want to go out of alignment to release that tension.

Inside fender detail...

You can see from the above photo that the rolled edges and external strut mount of the metal fender will keep water inside the fender running down to the road which is where you want it to go.  The PB fender has two of these interior struts on each fender and when the water inside the fender hits them some of it follows the strut mount to the side and flies out onto you and your bike. Again the metal fender strut mount is simply a superior design.

Strut mounts...

You might be thinking the plastic fenders on your bike do a reasonable job protecting you from road spray.  Of course any fender is better than no fender. A longer fender is better than a shorter fender.  A longer fender with a mudflap that goes to the ground is better than one without.  A metal fender is better than a plastic fender. A metal fender with a mudflap that goes to the ground is better than one without.  At each stage we can see a tangible improvement in protection and functionality.  I have plastic fenders on a bunch of my bikes and I won’t be replacing them all with metal fenders.  I don’t ride all my bikes in the rain a ton and so optimized protection from road spray isn’t vital on all of them. However, I do have some bikes that I want to be as perfect as possible in terms of rain riding and these bikes [like my LHT and Sharon’s CC commuter] will get metals fenders.

I appreciate the good looks of a metal fender and my geeky side appreciates the subtle design elements that make them so functional.  Should your metal fenders ever become unusable they can be recycled back into new metal products easily.



44 responses

3 03 2011
Cycle Jerk

Great write up! I have SKS fenders on my LHTand am pretty pleased with them. I found that the key to getting them to fit correctly is to cut the plastic tabs at the end of the struts.

3 03 2011

Very interesting about the internal gutters on that sides of the metal fenders. I wonder if something similar can be done, if only at the strut attachment points, using something like sugru (or DIY sugru-like substance from silicone caulk).

The last set of fenders I went through used over the top metal brackets but the thin metal fatigued and snapped over time.

3 03 2011
Ty Smith

Another great article! Thanks Vic!

I haven’t checked yet, but I am guessing us lowly tikit owners are out of luck when it comes to metal fenders?


3 03 2011

i have been thinking about the hammered fenders for a while now. might just have to do that.

3 03 2011
Val Garou

Persuasive article, Vik. Between this and the write-ups of the dynamo lights, reading this blog is really starting to cost me a lot of money for a free-content site.

Question for you–a lot of plastic fenders, SKS in particular, have some sort of break-away feature (potentially important on the front wheel) in case something gets lodged between tire and fender. Do the metal fenders have anything similar? Do they need something like this, or is are those features more hype than actual safety?

3 03 2011

Is this the first time we’ve seen Sharon’s Cross Check? It looks awesome!

3 03 2011

Val, the main reason for the break-away feature on plastic guards is to save you when the guard folds under itself and tries to eject out the front of the fork. If you get something jammed under there its going to get stuck between the fork crown and the tyre no matter what guards your running (at least IME thats what happens)

3 03 2011

Great write up Vik, one question tho. How do you attach your VO guards at the seat-stay? mine use a metal strip you bolt to the frame and wrap round the guard, except mine rattles loads no matter how tight i pinch it up :0(

3 03 2011

@Val – metal fenders can be setup more solidly and with a constant clearance from the tire so that if something gets in it can rotate all the way around and get out. What will cause an accident is uneven tire clearance so debris gets in and then rotates as far as a tight spot where it stops and then stops the wheel.

The break away struts will work as long as the tight spot isn’t under the fork crown.

This is not to say it is impossible to get something caught under a metal fender, but consider that during the 1900’s when bicycles were honed to a fine art in France and every detail was optimized and refined none of the master builders ever worried about debris being caught in their metal fenders enough to design some sort of safety system.

3 03 2011

@Richard – depends on the bike. The best way is to bolt them to a braze on under the seatstay bridge. Not possible on bikes like the Cross Check so I used the metal bracket you speak of. Tightly crimped it is quiet on Sharon’s bike – so far! If yours rattles I would identify where exactly the problem lies and insert some dampening material – rubber or leather between the two metal parts.

3 03 2011

@Ty – I don’t know of any metal fenders that would work on the Tikit, but the plastic Tikit fenders don’t have those metal strut mounts on the inside so they actually work reasonably well.

3 03 2011

@RTK – Some folks have drilled out the rivets on the inside strut mounts on their plastic fenders and then reattached them from the backside. That won’t make the fenders stiffer or get rid of the tension issues, but it will allow them to retain the water inside the fender better. If I care enough about the fenders on a specific bike to consider this modification I’ll just get metal fenders as they offer other important benefits. For bikes I use less in the rain and/or for less critical missions I’ll just live with the performance of plastic fenders.

3 03 2011

With the the respect due as one of my favorite blogs, I have heard this before and it is not totally accurate.

-several plastic fenders mount with the strut around the back. Toba, PlanetBike Full Hybrid, Axiom Bladerunner Trekk…. The big nuts, washers and crimps inside metal fenders are disruptive to the water flow in the same way.
-many metal fenders are too short as well. Cut down a rear for a longer front fender or try the SKS Longboards.
-you don’t have to reshape plastic fenders because they stay round like the wheels as long as you buy the correct size.
-VO sells struts and bolts that could be used on plastic fenders also. With the average home tool box it is easier to cut, shape and fit plastic fenders than it is to do the same with aluminum and especially stainless steel. Unless you have experience working SS it best left to a shop.

Plastic fenders flex easier than metal but returns to their original shape more readily than metal fenders.
There is a variety of different plastic fenders. Choose the one best for your application.

I like metal and especially steel for many parts of my bike but good plastic fenders are still my preference. They are readily available, cheap, light, easy to mount and keep me clean and dry.

3 03 2011

@Calvin – that’s great that some plastic fenders mount struts on the outside of the fender. I’ve never seen any sold at any shops I’ve been to. Every metal fender I’ve mounted has been longer than the plastic fenders I’ve used, but as you note virtually every fender can use a mudflap on the front. I haven’t had to cut or add any more material to a metal fender beyond the mudflap…they’ve all been longer than the plastic fenders I’ve used and provided excellent coverage – see the VO fender on Sharon’s bike as an example.

Plastic fenders come in a few one size fits some options. GIven the wide variety of rims and tires out there you can’t get a good fit with a plastic fender without bending it during mounting – which it will do easily. Metal fenders can be shaped by anyone with two hands in a minute or two to perfectly fit any tire outline and the fender will not be under any tension.

As for all the hacks and buying VO parts to retrofit to plastic fenders – that seems like a waste of time when a better solution is available off the shelf for a reasonable cost.

3 03 2011
steve Jones

Vic,I hope you’ll keep on writing these articles as long as I’m still riding bikes
because I’m learning a lot of practical stuff that I can’t find anywhere else.
Wish the metal type fenders would have options in black or gun-metal gray as I personally don’t care for silver. Really wish for metal or wood Tikit fenders availability! Maybe if there’s enough demand! Would be a sweet thing for Green Gear to offer with the new bikes but they are probably far too busy building bikes to think about manufacturing them!

3 03 2011

@Steve – thanks for the kind words. I highly recommend a subscription to Bicycle Quarterly Magazine. Jane Heine the editor speaks about these issues and much more in a far more eloquent voice.

You can have your metal fenders powder coated any colour you like. The result will be quite durable and shouldn’t cost a ton.

3 03 2011
Cycle Jerk

Another plus of those SKS clips in front is they allow me to put the bike on a roof rack without the fender hitting the roof rack tray.

3 03 2011

Ironically enough, I’ve been thinking about getting metal fenders on my LHT, especially since V-O has some on special:
They’re not the hammered, but what the hey?

The only thing is that my Planet Bike Cascadia fenders are still suitable, and I feel like I should put new fenders on after the summer, when I do a lot of touring.

3 03 2011

For packing a touring bike for airline flight or shipping on a bus I can see the appeal of fenders that bend easily! I will keep my LHT’s SKS fenders for just such a situation once I install some metal VO fenders on it.

3 03 2011
Chris Emerson

Thanks Vik for the write up (and thanks commentators for the additional perspectives). I’ve never used fenders before but have been intending on getting them for my BD for a long time now. We live in a fairly low rainfall area so I don’t regret my procrastination and indecision often, but when it does rain I really kick myself.

On the BD I swap between 2.25 Marathon Extremes and Marathon Supremes (currently 2.0 but being replaced with 1.6) depending on if I am predominantly commuting or exploring at the time. I am wondering if fenders installed to fit 2.25 tyres would be fully effective on 1.6 tyres, even if I don’t adjust them inward when using the smaller tyres. I’m hoping not to mess with the fenders when I swap tyres. I wonder if the extra width of the fenders would make up for the extra clearance with the 1.6 tyres? Would big fenders on little tyres look silly? I’m sure nobody thinks Big Dummys and fenders look silly otherwise.

3 03 2011
Henrik Van Ryzin

Another fantastic write up. I’ve been riding my new Big Dummy for about 4 weeks now, and while I like the Planet Bike plastic fenders I have on it (they keep me dry in very wet Hawaii), they seem rather wiggly to me and I am always a bit concerned about them at high speeds/on windy days/on bumpy roads. Are you planning on swapping out your BD fenders? Do you recommend a metal fender that is BD compatible?


3 03 2011

@Chris – fenders look best when sized to fit the tires they are covering, but that’s not a hard and fast rule. I’ve used 1.6″ and 2.0″ Supremes and I think the 2.0″ tires will rolling nearly as fast for you, but give you a nicer ride. If you are swapping between 2.25″ tires and 2.0″ tires there wouldn’t be much of a fit issue for your fenders.

After trying the 1.6″ Supremes for a few months I gave them away to a friend and got some 2.0″ Supremes.

3 03 2011

@Henrik – thanks for the kind words. The 60mm Berthoud fenders I had on my Thorn Nomad before I sold it would work on a Big Dummy with 2.0″ tires.


You would want a mud flap on the front one that comes down close to the ground.

4 03 2011
Val Garou

@Richard & Vik,

Thanks for the input on the breakaways. In all honesty, I’ve been known to run my plastic fenders without the safety gear installed, so it’s not a huge issue for me, but I was curious.

For those interested in going this route, I noticed Velo-Orange has some metal fenders on clearance right now.

4 03 2011
Henrik Van Ryzin

Mahalo Vik!
Those look perfect. I do believe I’ll be ordering a set from Peter White Cycles. My only concern is my disk breaks. The shop that built my Big Dummy kinda did some “fender tweaking” to get the Planet Bike fenders on, and the results are less than great. Mine attach at the front hub (Your photo of your Big Dummy front fender attachment looks much cleaner). I see your Thorn bike didn’t have disk breaks. Do you think disk breaks are a deal breaker for the 60mm Berthoud fenders?
Thanks again – your blog is a daily must read for me!

4 03 2011

@Henrik – the easy way to attach fenders to a bike with disc brakes is to use a spacer that offsets the strut on the disc caliper side. I have a bunch of these spares from Planet Bike fenders installed on bikes without a disc brake. If you can’t get one from your LBS let me know and I’ll put one in the post to you.

The other way is to intricately bend the strut around the caliper. Very possible, but needs a steady hand and a lot of attention to detail.

Note in the image on the post below that the VO fenders were mounted on a bike with discs. Because the fender was nice and long the front strut came in below the caliper and req’d no modification:

I test fit those 60mm Berthoud fenders on my BD and it looks like they will clear the caliper with little or no bending.

BTW – if you like I could come to Hawaii and help you mount them…=-)~

4 03 2011
Henrik Van Ryzin

Fantastic! Consider the fenders ordered. I was sold the second I saw that the mud-flap was leather (so fancy!). Thank you for the install info – and you are more than welcome to stop by the island anytime – your bike friday could be a carry-on for the flight over!

4 03 2011

I need to fit fenders to a disk / Rohloff combination. Due to the location to the external gear box, there is only route that the fender strut could possibly take (I think the depth of the gear box rules out a spacer).

I think this means I will have to get Honjo fenders, as I will be able to attach the struts to the fenders in a position of my choosing, rather than the fixed position on the VO ones.

Am I right, or is it possible to change the strut mounting locations on the VO too?

4 03 2011

A few points on the plastic fenders:

The side spray problem with the brackets on the inside is solved by sticking clear packing tape against the clean and new inside of the fender over the bracket. The tape lasts for years and solves the side water on the feet problem

As for the length question on the front fender, it’s certainly come into vogue to have a fender that nearly reaches the ground but if you have to put your bike on top of your car, it won’t fit with that long front. Better to have a shorter fender with a mudflap the flexes. Oh yes, the mudflap should be attached to the outside of the fender so as not to spray sideways.

Lastly, fender line following the tire curve. Tricky but with practice, it can be done. That would be something to look into.

That said, my Big Dummy has chrome steel fenders from a Schwinn Cruiser that work wonderfully, though the chain recently caught the rear fender and bent the fender out of shape.

Remember that BQ has much, but not all, truth.

4 03 2011
Nick in San Francisco

I had the opposite experience, beginning with Honjo fenders on a 54cm Surly Cross Check and ditching them in favor of plastic SKS fenders a couple years later. Here’s why:

1) The aluminum ‘posts’ on the Honjo fenders got bent really easily. After a few years of leaning, locking and piling the bike around the city and every time they get bent, having to realign the fenders, I got tired of it. Plus, the bolts on the metal fenders are on the inside and realigning them means taking the wheel off.

2) The aluminum fenders make noise and there’s no way to stop it. Especially if you ride a bike in a pothole and streetcar-track-filled city, you’re going to be hearing a ‘ping’ now and then – even with leather or rubber damping washers. If you ride on smooth pavement this is less of an issue.

3) Toe overlap is more of a problem with aluminum fenders. At least with 45 fenders, 35 tires, a 54cm Surly Cross Check and a size 12 shoe, you get toe overlap with the Honjo fenders. Plastic fenders on the other hand, have the bolts on the side, out of foot’s way. Aluminum fenders have bolts on the back/top — the perfect place for your toe to hit them.

Just sayin’…

5 03 2011

@Nick – both plastic and metal fenders can rattle if not attached securely. I can ride over a wooden bridge deck with 100 sharp joints and my metal fenders are totally silent. I’ve ridden at high speed over dirt and gravel with metal fenders with no noise. Having said that I have had the same experience with plastic fenders so I think that’s not so much an issue of the fender material than how they are attached.

As for preferring plastic fenders for getting beat up I can see why that would be the case. I don’t let my bikes get banged around a lot when using them or locking them. Also if I had to fly or put my bike on a bus plastic fenders would be easier to pack. I don’t think metal fenders are the only useful option, but I do prefer them for a lot of uses.

9 03 2011

If someone could enlighten me if Honjo are the only metal fenders on which you can attach the struts to the fenders in your own optimal location, I’d be very happy. (please see my comment about three up from this one)

2 05 2011
Bradford Champlin

I just wanted to say I love all the information you supply Vik. I also wanted to say that I’m making the switch to Berthoud fenders. I’m currently running 1.6″ Schwalbe Marathon XR’s on my 54cm Olive LHT. My question along the same lines as Chris Emerson asked. My only gripes about the XR’s are that they don’t grip well, when it says the grip is outstanding. I still slide all over gravel roads and what not. Does wider tire clearance cause for better grip on gravel roads, especially for those Marathon XR’s? Just wondering if I should maybe choose some 2″ tires instead? Just wondering so I can order some fenders soon. Thanks!

2 05 2011

Wider tires with a more aggressive tread with give better grip on gravel. Maybe try the 2.0″ marathon extreme tires from schwalbe?

2 05 2011

You should also run a wider tire at lower pressure than a narrower tire. For situations where you want to maximize traction you can lower the pressure even more than you typically would use – say on gravel vs. a paved road.

7 08 2011
george white

Interesting thread and especially as I am now considering fitting SKS Longboards to my 80’s Mercian Vincitori. Mudguards (Fenders to you) are very much a necessity if you live here in Scotland as rain isn’t unknown. Right now I’m worrying about clearance as this bike was made at a time when tyres seldom exceeded 28mm. Think I’m going to go for it though.
Many thanks for the info.

21 09 2011

After the most annoying multi-hour multi-session install of anything in my life… I’ve been riding some Velo Orange metal fenders for the past few days. My first set of metal fenders. I’ve been riding black-plastic fenders for years and years.

I have to agree with the noise factor. Even when completely tight, you get this constant hollow din sound. It’s not an overt rattle, but it’s the same kind of sound that annoys me when I ride aluminum frames. When going over a pothole or hitting things while wrestling your bike into parking spots, you get rattles and pings… it makes me feel like I’m on some old junker. Plastic fenders are much quieter overall.

It’s only been a few days but already I have scratches and they are no longer showroom fenders… so the beauty factor gets beat down a bit. They are gorgeous, but there’s more negatives than positives and I’m switching back to plastic.

Live and learn. Hopefully I can re-coup my cost selling them on craigslist.

21 09 2011

Picked up some SKS Longboard silver plastic fenders. These things are great! Installation was much breezier, they are super quiet, LIGHTER and also still look great (shiny silver).

22 11 2012
Dan Palmer

You have a great site Vic. Very informative. Could you tell me of a Canadian (Ontario) dealer for Bertoud fenders? Thanks Dan.

23 11 2012

@Dan – I don’t know of a Canadian dealer for Berthoud fenders. I got mine from Boulder Bicycle in the US.

7 04 2013
Ethan Cohen

I ride through a 100 ft section of trail path in the woods on my 14mi commute. So far I have eaten 3 SKS fenders (which for the road are quite nice). I am usually doing about 10mph or less so wipeouts are not an issue, but I need a fender that is fairly twig resistant. I can unbend metal fender things but the SKS’s usually crack, even in the rear. Then you need to buy another.

17 09 2013
Paul Vincent

Went to some bike shops on a recent trip to Europe. Surprised to see that none of the bike shops I visited (one in Berlin, one in Amersterdam) carry metal and had never heard of either Bertoud or Honjo. SKS all the way. At the train station in Amsterdam there were hundreds of bikes but only saw a couple of bikes with metal fenders. The Europeans need to figure out how to build practical bikes. Aluminum fenders are clearly superior for everyday use. You’d think 350 milllion people who ride their bikes all the time would have figured it out by now.

18 09 2013

@Paul – people buy what they see on other bikes, in magazines and what’s on the shelf at the LBS. Plastic fenders work and have some pros [easier install – bend and pop back into shape]. They just don’t work as well as metal fenders, but if you have never tried metal and don’t hear/read about it you don’t think about it.

14 09 2014
Jeff Schneider

Europeans need practicality for everyday transportation – where the bike gets knocked around next to hundreds of others at train stations, etc. Plastic fenders can deal with this, are easy to install, and are good enough to go 5 km from the train station to your home.
The difference is really about everyday transportation vs. hobby or sport.
BTW I love the look of hammered Honjos.

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