Monday, December 07, 2009

Buyer's Guide to Bike Shaped Objects

The "Bike Shaped Object" or BSO is the derisive term bike snobs like me use for the cheap, two wheeled toys sold at mass retail outlets. They seem to almost always be improperly assembled with parts installed backwards, non functioning brakes, bent pedals, and warped wheels.

My first bit of advice about buying a Bike Shaped Object is... don't. But I also know that that if I tell you sex, drugs and rock and roll are bad for you, it's almost an invitation, so here's my "don't do it but if you do use a condom" essay on buying cheap bikes from the store.

For goodness sake at least get the size right.

Amazon lists this Huffy 24 inch bike as an "Adult Men's" bike. One of my co-workers rides a 24" 'adult' bike and it looks ridiculous when he rides it. 24" is the tire size, and this size is appropriate for my 10 year old daughter. Adults should generally ride bikes with at least a 26" or '700' tire size, unless you're buying a specialty small wheel bike like a folding bike.

If you're buying a low cost bike you're probably not too worried about getting the bike fit exactly dialed in. You should still get the basics, though:
  • Saddle height: You should at least be able to stand over the top tube of the bike without racking yourself and hop up on your saddle without too much strain. Ideally, there should be a couple of inches at least between the top tube and your crotch. The saddle height should be adjusted so when you pedal your knee is just slightly bent when it's fully extended. If your knees move up to reach your handlebar, your saddle height is probably too low. If you can't extend the saddle high enough to reach the proper leg extension, get a larger bike.
  • Reach: How you stretch your arms to reach the handlebars is determined by the distance from the saddle to the handlebars, which is determined by the top tube length and, to a lesser degree, by adjusting the saddle and handlebars back and forth. If that reach is too long, you're too stretched and you'll kill your back and shoulders. If it's too short, you'll be scrunched and uncomfortable as well. You want your elbows to have a relaxed bend: not too extended, but not too tight either.

cheap full suspension mountain bike Get a basic bike.

You should absolutely avoid "full suspension" style bicycles. These are the bikes with the springs and swingarm assemblies in front of the rear wheel like that shown in the image to the right. They're completely ineffective and put on the bike just for show, and even then the "show" is pretty awful because they don't look anything like real full suspension bikes. They add weight, cost, complexity and ugliness with absolutely no benefit.

While we're on the topic of suspension, suspension front forks are also more about looks than function. They might provide a little give for bumpy roads. They're probably not too safe for use on mountain bike trails.

You can expect the gears to mostly work, but in general the fewer gears, the better unless you need the gears for hills. Some more expensive department store bikes have "Shimano MEGA RANGE" gears. It's not a bad thing and for hills it can be helpful.

You want the most basic bike frame available. This usually means the standard bike frame designs that have been around for the last 100 years.

Bike Assembly.

I've assembled "bike shop bikes" and I've assembled department store bikes. I'm not that mechanically inclined and I've never been a real mechanic, but bike shop bikes are a mostly breeze to assemble and adjust. Department store bikes are a pain in the neck to assemble, and adjustment is almost impossible for some parts.

Common errors to watch out for include front fork installed backwards, loose parts (check everything - handlebar, pedals, wheels, brakes), improperly connected brakes, loose brakes, unconnected brakes. Ensure the wheels are round and true and can spin without rubbing against the brakes or even the frame. Put the bike up on the repair stand and ensure you can shift through all gears.

Oh wait: mass retail stores don't have repair stands.

When you get the bike home, expect to find problems. Unless you know bikes, expect to pay your local bike shop somewhere around the cost of the bike (or more) to have them assemble the bike properly for you.

What about mail order?

Since the mass market retail chains offer absolutely no support on their products, it doesn't really hurt to buy a cheap bike mail order. The bike will come in a box and you must assemble it yourself. I'd say this is a job best left to experts, but honestly you certainly won't be any worse than the guy at BigMart who also cleans the fish tanks.


Bike geeks like me sneer at the BSOs, but I realize that tens of thousands of people use these cheaper bikes to get around, get to work, and even ride recreationally. Most folks are intimidated by the elitist attitude of the typical local bike shop, and the local shop might not serve the needs of the entry level rider.

A few years ago, I followed the adventures of Poor Guy On a Bike who, amazingly, toured 2000 miles from South Carolina to west Texas on a Wal-Mart Schwinn. The only problems he had were with flat tires. "Hey," he writes, "if anything major breaks on the bike, I'll just buy a new one at a Walmart."

If you decide to go to Big-Mart to buy a bike, stick with the inexpensive basic bikes and avoid the “full suspension” models. There’s much less to go wrong on the basic bikes, and the frame suspension on the more expensive models add a lot of weight and complexity for absolutely zero benefit. Ensure the bike is correctly assembled and everything works as it should.

Some helpful resources include:


Mike said...

Thanks for a reasoned approach to this touchy subject. I appreciate that you recognize some of the factors that keep folks out of a LSB. The elitist attitude of some LSB staff you reference can be very, very real. Luckily, some of us find a LSB where the staff values cycling more than inflating their own cycling ego, and a genuine appreciation is cultivated.

It's just too easy to dismiss everyone not so fortunate in this regard as simply unaware that bike shop bikes are better.

Instead of adding to the snobbish noise, you gave this some thought and approached it from a helpful viewpoint. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

What do you think about the new "Kids Bike in a Box" from Performance that are supposed to compete with BigBox BSOs?

Yokota Fritz said...

@Mike: This is the edited version! My initial draft was a lot more sneeringly condescending. I still need to work on the opening paragraphs -- they're still a bit alienating to the neophyte. Thanks for the kind words though.

And I'm looking at your "spokes" blog now -- very nice!

Yokota Fritz said...

@Saj: I think it's a stroke of genius on Performance's part. I hope it works out for them. They're offering assembly on their adult bikes now as well (for an extra cost - $99 I think?)

Ron said...

Howdy, Fritz--

That attitude thing runs both ways. As a former shop employee, I found people often walked in with their quills up, having promised themselves they wouldn't tolerate any sneering employees. Attitude at that point is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I suppose some people have techniques for defusing these situations, but I was a bike mechanic, not a social worker.

Anyway, I always deferred to the BSO manufacturers' recommendations to convnice people the bikes are inappropriate, especially given that I was working in Moab, which is hard on bikes and riders. The bikes almost always feature a sticker which says, "Not intended for stunting or off-road use."

Aside from the awkward, gerund form of "stunt", the message is still pretty plain. Nonetheless, these people would often protest. My favorite was the Boy Scout "leader" (and I don't toss out sarcasm quotes lightly), who, upon seeing the sticker, said, "Oh, it's just for one of our scouts."

My attitude overflowed. "You're right, we've got plenty of those already. Have a good ride."

Happy Trails,
Ron Georg