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Monday, March 2, 2015

Spring is coming - the Dangers of Buying Bicycles from Big Box Stores

March 2nd 2015

In 19 days Spring will be here, which means it is time to start spring cleaning your bicycle and doing some maintenance.

And for those of you thinking of buying a new bicycle this Spring - especially if you are thinking of buying your bicycle from a Big Box Store - I recommend reading the following piece.

The Dangers of Buying Bicycles from Big Box Stores

By Smokey Dymny, Quadra Bike School

Spring is coming and many people’s thoughts turn to getting the kinks out of their muscles, getting some exercise while going to and fro to work or to school. "Let’s get the old bike out of the shed and oil it up. Whoops! It looks a bit rusty. Well, let’s take it for a tune-up at the bicycle shop."

"Oh, oh, it’s beyond reasonable repair.  Time to look for a new one. It’s still cheaper to buy a bike than pay for fitness fees. And I might try to skip the gym, but I’ll always take the bike if I’m going on short trips, and I’ll be able to take the kids on outings to the park, on the coastal trail, and to grandma’s house."

"But wait! These bikes at the cycle shop are nice, but they look a little more expensive than I remember. Let’s go to Canadian Tire (or: Rona, Walmart, Sports Experts, etc.) and get a cheaper one."

Stop immediately people. Here’s where you’re going to make a big mistake with your money and perhaps your safety. I run a bicycle mechanic’s training school on Quadra Island (search: Quadra Bike School for details). I developed this professional level training course in Toronto with tools provided by the Bicycle Trade Association of Canada and workshop space provided by a non-profit training school. In 2011 I moved the course to Quadra Island and funded everything myself, with smaller classes.

So here is why I’m warning you about going to a big box store or any place but a reputable bicycle shop. Inexpensive bikes come badly of pre-assembled pieces from factories in the far east. They are put together by assembly line people, not mechanics. Their bearings are not greased or well adjusted, the wheels are not trued (straightened) or tensioned, and the brakes and shifting can be completely maladjusted.  It’s up to a bicycle mechanic to put everything right so the bike is pleasant, easy and safe to ride. I stress the word "safe" because I’ve seen poor assemblies that will put someone’s life at risk.

This month I received an email with the headline “looking for mechanics” from a person stating that she’s “from Cycle Profix, a Canada-wide (sic) mobile bike assembly and repair team” and is currently “seeking skilled Bicycle technicians” to do assembly work all over B.C.

I requested more information about the company and their pay scales.

She wrote that Cycle Profix “hires bicycle technicians across Canada as independent contractors for daily work at either major stores (the ones listed above) or at our regional shops”. She wrote that for “In-Store assemblies, contractors are paid between $3.50 - $4.00 per bike.” She further wrote that “Bikes come 70% assembled, and given an average of 5 bike assemblies per hour, the comparable hourly rate would be $17.5/hr.”  “Skilled technicians can reach over $22/hr.”

Isn’t it nice to know that your bike from a big box store was assembled in an average of 12 minutes by a “technician” who was hired for “daily work” which means s/he doesn’t have a full time job; is just contracted to do a bunch of assemblies at Rona, for example, and then moves on. If your bike is faulty, the store won’t even have an idea of who worked on it and they won’t have a mechanic on staff to make repairs. In twelve minutes the “technician” won’t have time to grease any bearings or true the wheels. All the mechanical adjustments that would make the bicycle able to last, at least a while, simply won’t be done. An inexpensive bike it may be, but it should be adjusted properly to work safely. In twelve minutes the technicians going to tear off all the packaging, bolt on the front wheel, the handlebar and safety reflectors, pump up the tires, and try to adjust the brakes.  I’ve had a big box store bicycle brought into my shop for a tune-up last year and the owner did not realize that the front shock had been assembled backwards. (I have the picture too.) That means the front brake was operating backwards as well.

A front shock was also shown mounted backwards in a full colour Canadian Tire newspaper ad several years ago. Makes me wonder how they dare sell bikes.

If you make it through one season with a big box bike you’ll be lucky. The wheels will turn with too much friction or they’ll wobble (bearings too tight or too loose). The wheel may twist into a taco - a ‘taco’ shape when you hit a big bump (wheel not trued or tensioned). In one case a young woman who “saved” $50 not buying a bike from my shop came back with her bargain bike after just one trail ride with a ‘tacoed’ front wheel. The disaster stories can be repeated endlessly.

The sensible course of action is not to try for the short-term bargain. Like any poor tool, the bike won’t last long enough for you to realize any savings. You may be having it repaired early, or you may stop riding and give up on your exercise goals. Don’t do either. Just stay away from crappy department store bikes. See you local pro shop instead. Happy riding!

Editorial Notes from Charles

I just wanted to add some notes here, having purchased bicycles from Big Box Stores when I was younger. Smokey is correct in his assertions above regarding both the low build quality at Big Box Stores and also the hazards of riding a bicycle that might not have properly tuned brakes (for example).

When I was growing up in rural Ontario (north of Kitchener, about 30 minutes drive from Kincardine) we didn't have any local bike shops. There was only Zellers or Canadian Tire or Home Hardware. That was it.

Which meant when my parents purchased bicycles for us kids we often had to spend a goodly amount of time fixing those bicycles on a regular basis. I can recall many a day when myself and my best friend Jonathan Davis spent fixing our bicycles. Jonathan's father was an auto mechanic by trade and we would borrow tools either from him or my father and we would spend hours upon hours fixing bicycles, patching wheels, readjusting the handle bars or seats, and removing the chains and greasing them with WD40 (note: Do NOT use WD40 for bicycle chains. We were 10 years old and didn't know any better).

One of the things I noticed was although my bicycles were often brand new, Jonathan's dad would buy second hand bicycles - Jonathan's bicycles were often slightly faster than mine (even though we were physically equals). The reason, looking back on it, was because my bicycles were typically the cheapest available bicycle from Canadian Tire whereas Jonathan's bicycles were 2nd hand bicycles that were of a higher quality. This means that even though they were used, they were often slightly better than any new bicycle I had at the time.

The bicycle I used in highschool got me through university and I didn't buy a new bicycle until I was living in Jeonju in South Korea. I remember this clearly because I bartered the shop owner down to 50,000 won (roughly $50 CDN in 2003) and managed to get him to throw in a lock too. What was spectacular however was despite that being an amazing bargain, that bicycle was the best bicycle I had owned up to that point. It was well made, well put together, had shocks, disc brakes - it was a very impressive bicycle for the tiny amount I paid for it. So Kudos to the Koreans for making such a well made bicycle.

Coming back to Canada I took the bicycle mechanic training program Smokey spoke of up above in 2009 (back when Smokey was still teaching in Toronto). The course changed my life even though I ultimately decided to work in a different industry. Around 2007 I had purchased a cheap Canadian Tire bicycle because at the time I just wanted something to get around on.

Within the first week of owning that bicycle the plastic pedals broke - both of them. I wasn't overweight (not terribly at least) so my only conclusion was that they were very cheap plastic pedals. So I purchased steel-alloy pedals that lasted considerably longer until I eventually sold that bicycle. By the time I sold it however I had replaced: Both front and back brake pads, one of the inner tubes, the aforementioned pedals and the seat (although that was a comfort decision, not a matter of it breaking).

When I took the BAM program as taught by Smokey I learned the errors of my previous ways and determined I needed to start buying quality bicycles for their longevity. Since then I have gone through numerous bicycles, finding old broken bicycles that had been abandoned, buying used bicycles - fixing them all up and then selling them for a tidy profit.

I have also gotten quite good at disassembling bikes to give them a new paint job and then reassembling the bicycle, so when sold it looks practically brand new - or at least modified to the point that it still looks good.

One of my favourite activities is when I find a really old antique of a bicycle and then fix it up, either restoring it to its original state - or modifying it so I making the retro bicycle something new and interesting.

Anyway the point of my whole story here is simple. If your old bicycle is beyond repair, go buy an used bicycle that can be restored and then hire a local bicycle mechanic to do some restoration work. Then send me the before and after photos of what the bicycle looks like after it has been restored and everyone can see the results and agree: Restored bicycles look better than anything you could buy at a Big Box Store.



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