Some bicycles come with a plastic disc slid between the largest cog of the cassette or freewheel and the spokes of the rear tire.
This is the so-called spoke protector also known as a “spoke guard”, “a pie plate”, “the dork disc” and “the rookie ring.”
More often than not, this accessory is found on cheaper bicycles with entry-level specifications. Hence why you never see it on TV during big cycling championships.
Most beginners don’t pay attention to this mysterious plastic disc, but some wonder why it’s there and whether it has an important role at all or it’s just an unnecessary gadget part of the “packaging”.
This leads us to the main topic of this article – is a spoke protector necessary?
When the rear derailleur is adjusted properly, the need for a spoke protector diminishes because the chain isn’t in contact with the spokes when shifting to the largest cog.
But even in that case, the spoke protector could still provide value by acting as a barrier between the spokes and the chain during an accident involving the rear mech.
How Could The Chain Come in Contact With The Spokes
Option 1: Improper Derailleur Adjustment
A well adjusted rear derailleur keeps the chain as centered as possible over the cog of the cassette or freewheel in each gear.
If the derailleur is out of position, it will pull the chain laterally. If the misalignment is large enough, it could result in an involuntary shift to a different gear – a phenomenon known as gear slipping.
When the bicycle is put in its highest or lowest gear, slipping can trigger the following scenarios:
If the rider shifts to the smallest possible cog (largest gear), and the derailleur is misaligned and pulling outward (away from the wheel), the chain could drop and get stuck between the cassette/freewheel and the right chainstay.
If the rider puts the bike in the lowest gear (biggest cog), and the derailleur is pulling inward (towards the wheel), the chain could drop and get stuck between spokes and the largest rear cog.
If the rider continues to pedal, the wheel will be damaged. But even if he/she immediately halts all pedaling effort, the chain will still harm the spokes because the wheel will keep on spinning due to the coasting hub.
Hence why the best option is to stop the bike right away if possible.
In a similar situation, a spoke guard would protect the spokes by acting as a shield.
“A rhythmic sound is coming from my rear wheel when climbing steep hills. Why?
One time when I’d just replaced my cranks, cassette, and chain, I heard non-tuned “guitar sounds” coming from my rear wheel during a short ascent that’d forced me to shift into the smallest gear.
At first, I didn’t realize what was happening and ignored the noise because it quickly disappeared after the climb. The next day, the “tune” repeated itself at the same location.
Then it hit me – my chain was rubbing against the spokes of the rear wheel ever so slightly. I fixed the problem by turning the barrel adjuster of the rear derailleur anti-clockwise (away from the wheel) a little bit.
Had I not adjusted the derailleur, the chain would have slowly eaten away my rear wheel. I say slowly because this short 50-meter climb was the only part of my commute necessitating the lowest gear.
If you’re hearing the same funny sounds when climbing, check the setting of the rear derailleur as soon as possible.
Don’t be too aggressive because a small change could put the rest of the shifting out of harmony. Upon adjusting the derailleur, check if it shifts and operates smoothly in all gears.
Option 2: Unexpected Situations
Even if you have your derailleur adjusted by the most talented mechanic on the planet, a spoke protector can still be valuable in case of a sudden chain drop caused by an emergency.
Here are some possible situations when the chain of a bike can fall off unexpectedly:
1. After a jump or a drop.
If the chain is on a big cog, it can bounce high enough after a jump and drop.
2. External hits
If an object such as a rock, a branch, or on an obstacle that you’re bunny hoping comes in contact with the derailleur, it could bend the cage or the derailleur hanger and sent the derailleur into the spokes.
In consequence, the chain will drop again. A spoke protector could minimize the damage.
Having said that, the protector doesn’t offer 100% protection. For example, if the derailleur gets bent inward, it may reach the spokes in an area that the guard doesn’t cover.
Does a Spoke Protector Have Any Other Benefits?
Another positive side of spoke guards is that they isolate the rear cogs and reduce the chances of contaminating the brake rotor and subsequently the brake pads with oil and dirt coming off the cassette and chain.
If the brake pads are dirty, they don’t catch as efficiently and start making unpleasant squeaky noises.
Why Are Spoke Protectors More Common On Cheaper Bikes?
The main reasons why spoke protectors are more frequently seen on low-end bicycles are:
1. Generic parts
Cheaper bicycles have entry-level components that do not operate as majestically as their “upgraded brothers” relying on the latest cycling technology.
This increases the risk of “technical errors”.
2. Poor maintenance
The most likely buyers of basic bicycles are beginners who don’t have the necessary knowledge and skills to maintain their machines efficiently.
And since ignorance and neglect raise the chances of malfunction, manufacturers install spoke and rear derailleur guards on their more genetic machines.
3. Cheaper bikes aren’t supposed to be pretty.
An entry-level bike isn’t expected to look like a piece of art. This realization makes unsightly accessories more tolerable.
Why Are Spoke Protectors Absent From Higher-end Bicycles?
You rarely see spoke protectors on more luxurious bicycles for the following reasons:
More advanced cyclists have a special code of conduct including silent and yet undeniable criticism towards accessories that steal away aesthetic points or imply technical incompetence.
Also, many cyclists take great pride in being “hardcore” and stay away from products associated with beginners “who don’t know what they’re doing”.
2. Extra weight
Since a spoke protector happens to be matter in this reality, it weighs something. That’s a problem because cyclists don’t like extra weight even if it amounts to 50-100 grams.
3. “Anti-pro” Looks
In the mind of many cyclists, a spoke protector is a symbol suggesting that a bicycle is used by a nerd in flip-flops to go to a friend’s house and watch reruns of superhero movies.
In consequence, cyclists who want to preserve their pro appearance skip the dork disc.
What Are The Downsides of a Spoke Protector Besides Poor Aesthetics
When you ignore the dreaded look of a spoke protector, you’re left with four additional shortcomings:
1. Possible Spoke Damage Through Dirt Accumulation
Spoke protectors get very dirty over time due to their proximity to the cassette. In consequence, dirt infiltrates the contact points of the guard with the spokes.
This phenomenon could have a negative effect because the spokes aren’t fully immobile objects. They tend to flex ever so slightly when you ride.
The small movement is enough to create friction between the spokes and the protector and turn the grit in-between into sandpaper eating the spokes slowly but persistently.
This problem could be prevented by cleaning the wheel regularly, inspecting the area and replacing the guard when needed.
2. Wear and Tear
Most spoke protectors are made of cheap plastic that isn’t UV resistant.
Under sunlight, the material degrades fairly quickly, loses flexibility, and starts to chip off at the ends. Subsequently, the guard loses traction and starts rattling.
3. Mud Accumulation
The spoke protector has to be larger than the entire cassette. As a result, its body tends to accumulate a lot of hard-to-clean mud “contaminating” the rear cogs. This is a problem primarily for mountain bikers and touring cyclists riding in hardcore conditions including mud and snow.
4. Drivetrain Jam
If a spoke protector breaks or detaches from the spokes, it can make the cassette or freewheel jam. This can result in irregular behavior of the rear derailleur and chain.
Therefore, it’s wise to inspect the spoke protector occasionally to see if it’s strongly connected to the spokes.
Tip: If the spoke protector drops on a trip in the wilderness, and you don’t have the means to remove it, you can make holes in with a knife or a tool (e.g., the awl of a Swiss army knife) and tie it to the spokes with zip-ties.
Are All Spoke Guards Ugly?
Modern spoke protectors have been degraded to cheap plastics, but that hasn’t always been the case.
Many retro road bikes were equipped with shiny metal spoke protectors with a level of craftmanship encouraging people to install them rather than remove them.
The image above illustrates an elegant and compact spoke protector.
There are larger and shinier models too. A popular one is the low rider spoke protector which has a chrome finish.
If you are looking for a vintage spoke protector, you could check online stores selling second-hand goods.
There are some models made by Suntour that look pretty sweet. (image below)
Metal spoke protectors have the following benefits:
1. Better aesthetics
Some people put on metal spoke protectors on their bicycles not for function but because they like the extra shininess and retro appearance.
2. Better resistance to the elements
A spoke protector with a good finish isn’t expected to rust…at least not quickly. Moreover, it won’t become brittle as a result of UV exposure like plastic ones.
3. Larger Cover Area
Some metal spoke protectors are significantly larger than the plastic ones found on cheaper bikes. The extra surface results in better protection.
That said, metal spoke protectors have the following downsides too:
1. Extra weight
The weight of a spoke protector isn’t that high, but it’s still worth mentioning that the metal models tend to be heavier than the plastic version even with all the holes drilled in them.
2. Low availability
Metal spoke protectors are harder to find. And since most bike shops do not store them, you will have to look for one on the Internet and wait a while until it’s in your possession.
Meanwhile, plastic spoke protectors are readily available. Chances are that your local bike shops would give you one for free, especially if you’re a regular customer.
Hardly a surprise, since people sometimes ask the employees to remove the “dork disc” before purchasing a bicycle.
3. A retro style look that doesn’t suit modern bikes
A metal spoke protector may be stylish on a retro road bike, but it looks out of place on modern bicycles.
Are There Other More Sophisticated Spoke Protectors?
Due to the lack of love for the spoke protector, the industry hasn’t been investing much effort into improving the spoke protector segment. For that reason, you don’t find a great variety of spoke protectors on the market.
Besides, the aforementioned metal protectors, the only more sophisticated spoke protector that I found was DH Block by OneUp components.
It’s a spacer designed to convert a 10-speed cassette into a 7-speed “downhill-specific” cassette. The spacer takes up the place of the last three gears and also acts as a spoke protector.
The product looks cool and comes in nice colors. You can check the official page here.
How Do You Install or Remove a Spoke Protector
To remove or install a spoke protector, you would have to take out the rear wheel and then unfasten the cassette or the freewheel. Only then you can slide on or take off the spoke protector.
I can write five pages on how to do that, but it’s best if you consult a video on YouTube.
Note that cassettes and the freewheels require different tools and techniques. The first step is to figure out what you have on your bike.
Having said that, in some cases, you could use strong and long scissors to break the spoke protector and remove it without additional disassembly.
However, that method doesn’t always work and robs you of the opportunity to use the guard later or on a different bike.