The default bicycle in the US market is the racer-wannabe sports bike. This follows from the paradigm that any weight added to a bike beyond what is absolutely necessary in competition is outside the norm. As a result, a lot of the bikes that people own are built for that single purpose and are unsuitable for anything but sport riding, preferably with a motorized support vehicle, and the general public is convinced of the impracticality of using bikes for utility purposes.
I think this is backwards. The minority paradigm, and the one that I would like to see become dominant, is that a bike is a tool for transportation that can also be used for sport, recreation, and adventure. The default should be a bike with safety and comfort features similar to other serious transportation, e.g. lights, fenders, and some means for carrying stuff. Any decrease in functionality from removing these features should be outside the norm, just as it is to remove these from a car. This would not eliminate fast or sporty bikes, and in fact, the performance difference between a stripped-down bike and a fully equipped bike can be small. It is much easier to ride fast on a complete bike than it is to haul groceries on a single-purpose sport bike, and the conditions suitable for recreation and adventure expand dramatically with adequate equipment. Even the tiny fraction of cyclists who actually race are safer and more comfortable with these features while training, and can get in more miles if they integrate routine transportation on a practical bike into their training.
Fenders are an integral part of the transportation bike primarily because they make it practical to ride in less-than-perfect weather. Riding in rain does not necessarily become pleasant, but the rider need only worry about, and dress for, what comes from the sky. There is a wider range of rainfall rate and temperature in which the wool jersey is all that is needed to keep you comfortable. Both the rider and the moving parts of the bike are shielded from water and grit from the road. Fenders keep the bike and drive chain cleaner even under dry conditions. This comes at a modest cost. Aerodynamics suffer little, if any, according to wind tunnel tests (Bicycle Quarterly, Volume 6 number1). Weight reduction, if the fenders were removed, is around a pound, or about 0.5% of a 200 lb bike and rider combination.
In a marketplace ruled by the transportation-bike paradigm, most bikes would come from the factory with fenders installed. In the real world, we are stuck with aftermarket afterthought fenders; the only exceptions are city bikes and custom rando bikes. I worked my bike shop days (1977-1987) in towns that took transportation cycling pretty seriously and I installed a lot of those retrofit fenders. In those days, the basic fender was the British-made plastic Bluemels, with German ESGE fenders as the premium choice. Bluemels were mostly white or black but were sporadically available in other colors. ESGE fenders consisted of a layer of aluminum foil sandwiched between layers of clear plastic, so they were silver colored (thus the name Chromoplastic). Nearly all bikes in those days were designed with enough clearance for fenders, and the hardware was designed so that installation was pretty easy for most situations.
Plastic fenders have a finite life. Bluemels did not seem to be as tough as ESGEs, and the Bluemels also tended to oxidize and get more brittle with age. The metallic-colored Bluemels were brittle and fragile out of the box, but an appropriate color did look sharp. My last set of ESGE/SKS fenders was purchased in about 1987 and lasted 10 or 12 years, and on the order of 10,000 to 20,000 miles. Their life was extended a couple of years with judicious hole-drilling at the ends of cracks and the deployment of zip ties.
Plastic fenders are still the most common aftermarket option. According to their web site, the German company SKS bought out Bluemels in 1983 and ESGE about 1988. Bluemels are gone, but SKS still makes Chromoplastics very similar to the old ESGEs, and they are readily available at bike shops and on the web.
Planet Bike fenders are also easy to find. I have no personal experience with them, but at least some people have found them to be very durable, and I have heard good things on the boards. There are a few other brands of plastic fenders available, but I have not seen them in shops. I would like to check out the Somas.
Metal fenders, either stainless steel or aluminum, are much more readily available now than they were in the past. They should last longer than plastic fenders (though everybody does not agree with that assessment ). Metal fenders can be noisier than plastic fenders, picking up road vibrations and clanking with object thrown off by the tires, and metal fenders are more prone to rattling. They can look really good, in a traditional art deco French-bike way. The bike shops I frequent do not stock them, but they are happy to order them, or they can be ordered several places on the web.
The big players in the small field of metal fenders are Honjo (aluminum) and Berthoud (stainless steel). Both brands are intended for installation on a bike with threaded attachment points at the brake bridge, chainstay bridge, and fork crown, as well as eyelets on the dropouts. Even with these frame features, drilling holes in the fenders and careful fitting is required; if any of these features are not included on your frame, you may have to fabricate or purchase additional hardware. This can be challenging. Recently, Velo Orange has stepped in with both aluminum and stainless fenders in a variety of sizes and styles, along with helpful mounting hardware.
I have 2 bikes with Berthoud stainless fenders. On the commuter bike (a ’74 Schwinn Sports Tourer), I bolted the front of the rear fender to the tab on the chainstay bridge/kickstand bracket. Initially, the bike ran a roller brake on the 7-speed internal-gear hub, so the brake bridge was not being used for a brake and I drilled a vertical hole through the bridge to mount the fender. Dissatisfaction with the roller brake prompted me to mount a caliper brake, at which point I bolted a bracket to the fender scrounged from the old front Chromoplastic. The front fender used a “silent block bolt”, which consists of a bolt with a long head with a hole that the front brake mounting bolt goes through; the threaded part of the bolt extends downward through the fender and is secured by a nut on the bottom of the fender. There is a rubber washer to prevent rattles. This worked fine with a 32 mm tire, but the bolt and nut extended far enough that it rubbed on a 35 mm tire. I removed the sbb and installed a VO sliding brake bridge bracket (normally used on the back), and that worked fine. These fenders have held up well for 7 years and almost 12K miles of daily commuter and utility abuse. I have some occasional tire-rub issues, but that is because I am running the biggest tire that will sort of fit. Not surprisingly, the fenders do look a little battered.
The touring bike has threaded mounts on both back bridges. This bike has cantilever brakes, and the front rack mounts through the fork crown. Installation of the fenders on this bike was pretty easy, and the silent block bolt attaches to the front rack and leaves plenty of clearance. I also mounted the front of the fender to the rack so that it could not flap around. I have ridden 5K miles or so since installing these fenders, with no rattles or rubs.
The Early has VO anodized aluminum fenders. These fenders come with some of the holes pre-drilled, a bracket mounted on the front fender, and a sliding bracket to connect the rear fender to the brake. The frame had a threaded mount on the chainstay bridge. For the pre-paint mock-up installation, I used the sliding bracket, but I could not get it tight enough to stop rattling. The front fender uses the pre-installed bracket, though I had to cut it down a little to get it to fit. Before the re-paint, I brazed a water bottle mount to the bottom of the brake bridge, which eliminated the sliding bracket (and it works fine on the front fender of the commuting bike). These VO fenders have an anodized finish, which has a somewhat rough/porous surface that is impossible to keep clean and difficult to clean once it gets dirty. However, it is a great surface for painting.
These fenders make a lot of noise when the tire throws off debris. I have also had a lot of problems with rattles, even with liberal use of leather washers. I tried everything I could think of to quiet one particularly loud rattle, and finally discovered that there was a crack halfway across the fender. I do not know if this is common with this particular model – maybe the anodizing makes them brittle – or if aluminum fenders in general are this fragile. I probably contributed to problem with an extra hole drilled for the brake bridge (I did not line it up right the first time). In addition, the brake spring made contact with the fender, putting some additional stress on that area and probably causing or contributing to the rattle. Perhaps coincidentally, the anodized fenders are no longer listed on the VO web site.
I did not want to try to return them or toss them since they were painted to match the frame, so I patched the crack with strips of sheet metal, pop rivets, and a little epoxy for good measure. I also replaced the rear brake with a Weinnmann center pull which has significantly more clearance for the fender (and by the way, it stops as well as the Galli sidepull). This fixed the big rattle, at least for now, but there are still small rattles that I have failed to cure. This bike does not currently have a rear rack, and I am thinking about adding one that I can connect to the fender for some more reinforcement.
Part of the cause of the crack may be the single mounting point between the stays and fenders for the VOs, which allows the fender to pivot around this point and flop around; the Honjos use two eyebolts. This issue is discussed in this post in the Fuji Otaku blog. I think a better solution is the two-bolt flat connection on the Berthoud, which has the rigidity of the two-bolt Honjo-style mount and does not stick out as far.
In summary, plastic fenders still have some things going for them, including availability and easier installation. In my experience, stainless steel is probably more durable, but plastic can last long enough that the difference may be moot. I am not yet convinced that aluminum is a good choice.
By the way, whichever fenders you end up with, buy them wide enough — at least 10 mm wider than the widest tire you will ever put on your bike.