Better to burn your money

If you’ve never tried to ride or work on one of these, it’s hard to imagine just how shonky they can be. Brake blocks won’t adjust to hit the rim, front derailer can’t be positioned where it won’t rub on a chainring. Inflate the tyres to a practical pressure and they lift off the rim, try and fix a loose headset and you find the target – between too loose and too tight – only exists in theory.

want to buy a cardboard box?

A significant minority of the products sold as bikes in this country – if you include machines  for children it might even be a majority – come into the category of ‘bicycle shaped object’ (BSO).

If you’ve never tried to ride or work on one of these, it’s hard to imagine just how shonky they can be. Brake blocks won’t adjust to hit the rim, front derailer can’t be positioned where it won’t rub on a chainring. Inflate the tyres to a practical pressure and they lift off the rim, try and fix a loose headset and you find the target – between too loose and too tight – only exists in theory.

The worst of these machines are usually sold part-dismantled in cardboard boxes. The box may carry a sticker, ‘this product must be assembled by a trained professional’. No trained professional will touch such a thing. The sticker is there to dodge trading standards.

The difference between a budget bike and a BSO is that the former is built to a price, but built to be ridden, the latter is only designed to sell. Once the customer’s money hits the till, or their payment clears, the BSO has fulfilled it’s function.

The fixed costs of a bicycle are the same regardless of quality, the cardboard box, the shipping from East Asia. The sale price of a BSO covers these costs and a retail margin, leaving almost nothing for the machine itself. If it’s offered for sale in the UK for £89.99 you know that, at the factory gate, bought by the container load, it costs ten dollars. If you already love cycling and know how to use a spoke-key you might get some limited short-term use from a BSO. If not it may easily break your heart.

A conspiracy theory is always over-optimistic because it assumes someone, somewhere is in control of something. If there really was a conspiracy social progress would be a simple matter of finding the conspirators and seizing control of their levers of power. The conspiracy theory can be a useful tool of analysis but it never describes what’s actually happening.

BSOs aren’t part of a conspiracy to stop people taking up cycling, but they might as well be. If you wanted to put people off cycling, selling them a heavy unserviceable lump of ship-ballast and telling them it’s a bike, would be a good way to go about it.

It’s easy to sound snobbish when explaining that cheap products are no use, but really the people who buy BSOs would be better off burning their money. They’d have enjoyed a few seconds heat and light and not be left with lump of scrap, rusting on their balcony, to remind them how troublesome cycling is.

Bikes are expensive. You can buy a new car for £7,000. Compare this to a bike for £350. How many components, and sub-components, in the car? How many in the bike? The car’s fuel pump is more complicated than the bike. How come the little saloon only costs twenty times more than the push-rod?

On a cheap car everything is twice as strong as it need be and the engine moves all the redundant weight around. A bicycle, engineered for rich people like us, is more like an aeroplane or a race-car. Everything is much closer to just-strong-enough, this kind of engineering costs money.

When you understand about bikes this is not a problem. If a cheap car lasts ten years that’s a minor miracle. Aeroplanes last for decades, old race cars are a blue-chip investment. Give a bicycle basic attention, don’t crash it and it will out-last you. When you’re gone and your descendants are riding around on it, they won’t be worrying about what you paid for it in 2012. If the service-life is measured in generations the steep purchase price starts to look like good value.

If someone flirting with the idea of cycle-travel asks you what bike they should buy? Or even how much they should spend on a bike to get value for money? It’s best to dodge the question. They’re an adult and need to make their own decisions. I suggest passing on these principles…

  • If you’re not sure whether you need a particular feature choose a bike without it.
  • Only buy a new bike from someone who offers a first check-over service – after it’s been run-in for a month or fifty miles – as part of the purchase price.

If the trader doesn’t offer you a service it probably means the bike is not serviceable.

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