Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bikes From Boxes

I've seen a fair number of bikes that came from boxes lately... both literally pulled out of a box by an owner who bought it online, or received it as a promotional item, as well as those bought from a "big box" retailer like WalMart. Working on these bikes has gotten me thinking, and we all know that more often then not ends up here!

Before I launch into this, I want to start out by pointing to a link to my friend Beth's recent post on a realted topic:

In her post, Beth basically makes the case that no matter how cheap a bike might be, it's still a bike and can still give a rider some serviceable use. I can't argue with that, and for many folks, who probably won't be riding more than a few times a year, for a few miles, maybe it doesn't matter that a bike is heavier than it needs to be, poorly manufactured and poorly assembled. But as a life-long cycling enthusiast and now a professional mechanic in a shop, I think it's worth pointing out some of the shortcomings of such bikes. Folks can certainly make the choice to buy them still, but an informed public is a good thing, no?

So what's my beef with the Box Bikes? Well, let's start with the bike IN the box. It seems a lot of folks get these bikes still in the box... either because they ordered it online, or got it as a promotional item through work, or for whatever reason... and then they have to try to put it together themselves. Now I'm not going to try to tell you that assembling a bicycle is some dark art that requires years of study and self-denial, and offerings to the spirits of Michaux or Lallement (, but it's not without its challenges. And based on the number of times someone has come in to the shop saying "I got this bike from x, and put it together out of the box, and it just doesn't seem right", I'd guess a fair number of folks aren't up to the challenge, or at least feel the need for a professional to look it over. I've also had similar requests from folks who bought bikes at big box stores, fully assembled, by the way... which gives you some idea of the skills of the people in those stores assembling bikes!

So what's the problem? Well, first off, many folks buy bikes like this because it was a "bargain". And it's true, almost any Box Bike is going to have a purchase price lower than you would pay for a bike in a bicycle shop. But depending on how much I have to do to the bike when you bring it to me, you could easily spend an additional $70 or so getting it working as well as possible. And that's the second part... in most such cases, "as well as possible" just doesn't measure up to how well a bike bought in a bike shop will work. Granted, it may still be less cost over all, and for some people the quality difference doesn't matter. But I'd ask that you think long and hard about that... the Box Bike is not as good to start with, and will not last as long, nor be as reliable as a bike bought from a reputable bicycle dealer.

One other thing I've run into a lot with Box Bikes... more often than not, they seem to be purchased not by the intended user, but by a well-meaning spouse, parent, or relative. And on a number of ocassions, I've been told that it was bought "so they can start riding again"... giving the impression that it's an attempt to help a loved one regain the joy of riding they had in years gone by. Well, I have to say... most of the Box Bikes I've worked on are unlikely to inspire much joy and enthusiasm. It's hard to get fired up about riding something that's heavy and creaky and doesn't shift well or stop well, and seems to always be having problems of one sort or another.
I'm sure there are those souls who through luck and pluck, manage to make these bikes work for them, and even find pleasure in riding them, but I sometimes wonder if such bikes don't turn more people OFF of cycling in the long run.

Now, all that being said, it's still hard to argue with folks who can't imagine spending more than $150 or $200 on a bike (which, by the way, was what bike shop bikes started at when I got my first 10-speed in the early 70s). And I can understand that, especially if they are on a tight budget and don't imagine riding it more than a few times a year on short, casual rides. But some of the folks I see bringing bikes like this in clearly have the money that they could afford a better bike that would last longer. I guess it's just a matter of priorities, and the fact that we still generally view bikes as toys in this country. But for that same $150-200, you can get a heck of a good used bike from a shop that handles such things. And you'll get a bike that's better quality, although older, and that has been adjusted and tuned before sale. AND you'll have a bike shop behind it, should problems arise.

So before you reach for that box... give your local bike shop a chance. They may be able to help you find something better for about the same price... and if not, at least you know who to call when you are sitting in your garage with this big box and partly assembled mystery in front of you!


David said...

Hey Tim,

I think we're spiritually linked...

Tim said...

Wow, David... that's just too funny! I knew we got along for a reason!

Had you read Beth's post (that I linked) previously?

David said...

Nope. I went and checked it out just now. Ha ha!

I read a comment somewhere (velo-orange?) from a fellow who mentioned it, saying he spoke with a higher-up at W-mart about it. It might have referenced Beth's piece. I'll see if I can find it.

Circles of cycles. How's your self-made rig?

beth h said...


I wish that my shop could still sell a quality, refurbished used bike for 150 to 200 bucks. We can't anymore, partly because of the scarcity of quality (read: bike shop brand) used bikes and partly because of inflation of both wages and labor. Our most affordable refurbished used bikes START at 300 bucks; 100 to 150 will get you that same bike in AS-IS condition and yes, people are snapping them up.

I'm not saying the Walmart bike is actually all that great. It's not. I'm just saying that those of us with heavy doses of excellent bike-savvy need to watch ourselves around new riders who show up on a department store bike.

Be nice. Go slowly. Be gentle and use utmost discretion. Let your overwhelming love of riding put that seven-second delay on the part that wants to dope-slap the well-meaning friend or relative who bought this bike for the rider. If you cannot make their bike safe, be honest and tell them why, but be gentle.

Eventually, that rider may come back to you for advice, accessories -- and perhaps a new and better bike. Progress often takes time and a deft touch.

Tim said...

To David -

My "self-made rig" is great! I just put some Velo-Orange leather bar tape on it, and it looks really sharp. Also swapped out the Pasela tires for a set of the Scwhalbe Marathon Supreme... the jury is still out on those... they're not as fat as I'd hoped, and the all black look isn't as nice as the tan sidewalls on the Panaracers.

Beth -

Wow! $300 for a used, refurbished bike? I'm assuming that must be totally overhauled? And a pretty nice bike to start with? We sell used basic hybrids and mtbs for around $150 if they're decent quality, and we fix anything that's wrong when they come in on trade, but we don't do a full overhaul.

Excellent points on dealing with the Box Bike Folks... all very true. Tact, honesty, gentleness, all essential. One never wants to make a customer think you are saying they are dumb.

Anonymous said...

Tim -- yes, really. But remember I'm in Portland. Used bicycles in general fetch higher prices here than in less bike-friendly cities. (If it's a road bike, add 100 to 200 dollars to that price. People are paying the prices because road bikes are currently in high demand.)

Thanks in large part to the internet, people are beginning to see the value of a refurbished old-school ATB converted for city use, and the demand -- and prices -- for those bikes are going up.

Our Goodwill AS-IS store ("the Bins") last summer had a rusty Bridgestone MB-6 with bad paint, a broken fork and missing front wheel. Two professional scavengers went to blows over the bike. They were kicked out and the bike was removed from the sales floor. Goodwill employees may not shop at their stores, it's a company policy; but I'm told that an employee called his roommate and got HIM to come down and buy it later.

Incidentally, Goodwill was asking 75.00 for the bike.

With the advent of the internet, people now know what they have, and prices have gone up.

Crazy world.

Tim said...

Beth -

Wow. Yes, it is a crazy world. We certainly do have some folk here who monitor the Goodwill and snag the good stuff quickly, but I don't think it's reached the level you're talking about. Kind of sad to see it go this way.