Tuesday, October 19, 2021

The problems with mass produced bicycles

Next Powerclimber 24"
The main reason why many people buy bikes at big box stores is the price. You buy one of these for reasons like having fun, exercising or commuting. Not all of these bicycles are bad, since many are from reputed brands and can be maintained or upgraded easily. In that case, yeah, you'll spend more money but in the end, you'll have something more than good for years to come.

The problem comes with basic bikes either for kids of adults. They're not so cheap now though. These bikes are assembled by companies that cram 100 employees in a 300sq feet room and pay them a commission for every unit completed. There are some of those places here in Palm Beach County.

If you've ever built a bike, you'll know that it takes time to get everything right and it'll be safe to ride. You can't expect that when someone is getting paid $5 or less for the job. They'll do it in 10 or 15 minutes. 

The parts are already bad out of the box. We're talking about obsolete technology, phased out decades ago. If it was put together in a hurry, with no grease and mostly loosely... Its the proverbial recipe for disaster.

Why are these bikes bad?

Their frames are made mostly of high tensile steel which as it's names states, it's gonna bend easily. To counter this, some manufacturers use more material. The results are frames that weight sometimes 10 pounds or more. Now add the rest of the parts and you'll end up with a 45 pound bike. Even putting this on a car rack is a weightlifting experience. Imagine being 80 years old and having to do it constantly.

These units are not upgradeable for the most part. Besides the poor quality of the frame, your choice of better parts is limited. It just won't fit.

The worst of the pack are the "Full Suspension" or with a "Suspension Fork" ones. Many people call it Pogo sticks but they're really worse.

The forks are generally threaded with an 1 inch steerer tube. The manufacturer does NOT recommend their off-road use. It's on the stickers placed on the legs of the fork! Those legs are generally thin and will flex to the extreme. The rear suspension is just a coiled spring. Those are making a comeback now!

A few years ago I did an experiment with the cheapest bike I found at Walmart. It was a Next Powerclimber with 24" wheels. I paid $49 brand new. After spending some time making sure everything was secured and tightened, I went to Amelia Earhart in Hialeah. I survived that day. By the end of it, the bike needed a complete overhaul.

The brakes are normally a stamped sheet of metal molded into the desired shape. They're too flimsy and will bend. You'll see many people riding around without functional brakes. The levers are made of plastic. The spongy feeling and the almost impossibility of adjusting them is overwhelming.

Add to this the wheels. Who can build a wheelset in 10 minutes the right way? So these are out of true right out of the box. The hubs are often dry and they only take 6 or 7 speed freewheels. The spokes will rust before your eyes in real time. Faster than paint drying!

The drivetrains are almost always 3x6 or 3x7. They use loose bearings bottom brackets and one piece cranksets. The pedals are 1/2 inch in diameter vs the standard 9/16. The front derailleur is regularly the worst part. It's a cheap molded piece of steel that will rust real quick. It can also bend. The rear derailleur is generally the lowest, unlisted Shimano unit, with many plastic key elements. The shifters are the twist type, which sometimes just stop working. Plastic is not good for bike parts. Let alone when they're subject to friction or heavy use.

Not going much deeper into this topic, you can have an idea of why these things are not a good investment. The resale price is about 25% at best. They're not customizable whatsoever and if you break something, it may be the end of it. You'll be spending more than the bike's tag price on parts and service. As the matter of fact, sometimes you just have to do that after walking out of the store. Paying someone to make sure you'll survive your next stroll down the road.

It's totally understandable that better bikes are more expensive. However, in the long run, $200 for an used one will be better than a now $200 for a brand new big box store bicycle. 

Those cheap Chinese bikes that you can buy from eBay and Amazon? Honestly, pure garbage. On top of that, you have to assemble them. Do it wrong and either you'll get hurt or will be paying extra for parts and professional care.

I'm not going as far as others who call them BSOs or bike shaped objects but they really suck!

Customers usually come for a flat tire fix and end up having to adjust gears, brakes, stems, cranksets, pedals, truing wheels... So it's good for the shops. Not so much for your pocket!