Tuesday, May 1, 2007

OTM May: A Look at a 2 Year Old Department Store Bike

There’s a neighbor kid named Ryan who rides around on a beat up department store bike. Ryan came over the other day looking for some help to fix a couple issues with his bike. His visit was timely. My Out There Monthly column this month discusses why you should buy your bike at a local bike shop (LBS). In the article, I try to make the case against buying a department store bike. Of course, I'm too long-winded to provide a proper and full argument in the column, so Ryan's visit provides a perfect excuse to spill a gob of virtual ink on the subject here.

First off, in most cases, you can spend the same amount of money or less on a used bike that is many times better than a department store bike that will perform much better, but folks just don’t know this. If you do the math and look at the cost of most used bikes (even when you spend some money to fix it up) and compare that to the cost of buying and maintaining a cheap department store bike, most good used bikes provide a much better value over the long run.

Second, there’s the whole buy locally thing – the money staying in the local economy thing. That’s an easy one that most folks agree with.

Third, even if you don’t visit bike shops often, they provide a necessary component to both the small business and bicycle culture ecosystems. Personally, I detest the mall experience. Any store that is fronted by a football-field-sized parking lot is not likely to get my business.

Small businesses that sit on a street in a neighborhood or in part of a business district appeal to me. They make cities and neighborhoods interesting and diverse. They encourage walking. Bike shops are one of the last standing small businesses that typically go into store fronts. Support them. Most cyclists are pretty cool folks – especially the ones that ride to work daily. Or to the store or to school. You may bump into one of these folks at a bike shop. There is a small and fledgling bike culture in Spokane. Be a part of it. It starts by riding when you would normally drive and it’s enhanced by going to the LBS and giving them your business.

Ryan's department store bike will be 2 years old at the end of this summer. Obviously, the bike has not been maintained. But I don't know of many 12 year olds that maintain their bike beyond dealing with the inevitable flat tire. Any bike built or bought for a 12 year old should be expected to perform pretty well for 2 years with minimal maintenance. Ryan is not heavy. He's into "jumps," but certainly not the extreme type; he's more of a curb jumper than a roof or cliff jumper.

Some kids stow their bikes away in the shed and get them out for a run up and down the block occasionally. When they’re done, they put the bike away and go on to the next toy. That’s the extent of the abuse a department store bike is built to withstand.

Ryan, on the other hand, is a lot like I was when I was a kid; he’s always on this bike and uses it to get around the neighborhood, hitting the driveway jumps along the way.
Here's a list of what's wrong with his bike:

  • The right grip-shifter is smashed and inoperable

  • The rear derailleur pulleys are broken and worn to nubs. Both pulleys are missing more than half the teeth. Therefore the chain jumps around on the rear cog when he pedals, further destroying the chain, pulleys, and rear cog. This also puts a ton of friction on the drive line, which doesn’t exactly inspire longer rides.

  • The front derailleur is nearly frozen. Shifting from the smallest chain ring to the middle chain ring is just barely possible, though according to Ryan, he stopped shifting all together a short while ago when shifting became too much of a hassle.

  • Both wheels are out of true so badly that the brakes cannot be adjusted to stop properly without rubbing drastically on the rims. Therefore, the brakes are barely functional, and certainly not safe for a quick stop.

  • There is too much play in the rear hub. Are those bearings I hear in there? Something is crunching and clumping as I turn the rear wheel on the stand.

  • There is too much play in the bottom bracket.

Liza spent an hour or so with Ryan triaging and fixing the worse bits on this bike. She trued out his wheels enough to take some of the slop out of his brakes, but it was still pretty mushy. At least the brakes will now stop the bike quickly if he needs to.

Once we realized how busted up the shifting was and the cost to replace and repair the broken bits, it just makes sense to remove all gearing. I suggested just removing the derailluers and running the middle chain ring and a lower gear. Ryan said he would think about it.

As I look at this bike and I think about all of the department store bikes out in the world today, I think a great program would be to find a big glob of money to fix them so they are ridable. Basically: if you get rid of all the brakes and gearing bits, you have a ridable bike.

Find a cheap source for 26" coaster brake rear wheels. Most of these bikes have horizontal or semi-horizontal dropouts. When the Ryan-bikes of the world hit that 2 year mark and become nearly unridable, rip off the gears and the brakes and replace the rear wheel with a coaster brake version. If you found an extra glob of money, make it a 3 or 5 speed hub with a coaster brake.

2 comments:

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Anonymous said...

Blah Blah Blah...... Most of the reasons you cite are half cooked at best. Even the issues with the kids bike seem to be more the product of the fact that he is 12 than anything inherent to the bike itself. Of course you probably get a boner at the idea that everyone should drive a hybrid and eat organic food. I seriously don't like people like you....