Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Bike Snob?

Am I a bike snob? I've pondered that from time to time, especially recently, when I wrote my post about "Bikes from Boxes" around the same time that two of my friends also wrote in their blogs on similar topics.

I'd have to say the answer is a qualified "yes". I do believe that a good quality bike, from a bike shop, is substantially better than a bike from a mass merchandiser, whether it be an online vendor or a "big box" store like Wal-Mart. Such a bike will give more enjoyable, reliable service than anything you can find in the same store that provides you with your coffeemaker, sheets, and deodorant. And I believe that the odds you will enjoy and continue cycling are much higher if you buy the better bike from a bike shop.

However, that does not mean you need to buy a "high end" bike... you do NOT need to "ride what Lance rides" to have years of enjoyable cycling experiences. There are a lot of perfectly good, perfectly capable bikes for the casual rider for less than $500. They are available in a range of sizes, to suit a wide range of riders, while the "box bikes" typically come in "one size fits all", an approach that really doesn't work with bikes. And a bike shop bike will have almost certainly been put together by someone who knows more of what they are doing than the stock clerk at your local K-Mart.

So how did I come by my views? What has made me a snob? Well, first you can blame it on my dad. He spent a few years in England in the 1940s, thanks to the U.S. Army Air Forces, and it was there he discovered what later came to be known as "English Racers" in the U.S. These were your typical English 3-speeds, with Sturmey-Archer hubs and "North Road" handlebars and fenders. Nothing remotely racy about them, honestly, but compared to the heavy, fat-tired bikes typical in the States before WWII, they must have seemed so light and nimble. And very well made... made to LAST. So years later, when it came time for my dad to buy bikes for us kids, he understood and appreciated quality bikes, even if he hadn't ridden one himself in years. As a result, as near as I can remember, our bikes always came from the local bicycle shop, and while by no means high end, were always good quality... and several of them were English 3 speeds. So while many of my friends rode Huffys and Iversons from the local discount store or catalog showroom (remember the Best stores?), my first bike was a Dunelt from Britain, proudly wearing the "Ride a Wheel on Sheffield Steel" slogan. It looked a little stodgy, especically compared to all the banana seat chopper style bikes popular at the time, but it was a beautifully made machine, and held up to everything I did to it. The next bike my folks bought me, my first 10-speed, was a Raleigh Record... their base model "racing style" bike... and while it wasn't by any means a real racer, it was a quality bike that lasted for years. So from the start, I acquired a taste for well-made bicycles, thanks to my family.

As I got more and more into cycling, I had the opportunity to work on and ride a fair number of bikes, and even assembled my share of bikes for the local Woolco (F.W. Woolworth's answer to K-Mart, which was itself a spinoff of the S. S. Kresge "five and dime" stores). And over the years, I've worked on and ridden any number of bikes, from single speed beach cruisers to high end carbon fiber race bikes, and lots of stuff in between. I've ridden and worked on adult bikes and kids bikes (a 6'-1" adult male on a 12" wheeled child's bike is a sight to behold), and I have to say, while in many ways the "box bikes" of today are a lot better than those in the past, they still don't compare to a truly good bicycle sold by a reputable bicycle dealer. I'm not saying "box bikes" can't bring pleasure and/or utility to someone's life at all... just that the qualitative difference of the experience is rather large. I really feel that if at all possible, one is better off buying a "bike store bike", even an older, used one, than any bike from a mass merchandiser like Wal-Mart, K-Mart, or online mass retailers.

If that makes me a snob, I guess I'll just have to live with that. I came by it honestly! :-)


Anonymous said...

I think the differences in our introductions to bikes are telling. I grew up riding -- and dirt-jumping -- a succession of cheap banana-seat bikes that, while not first-rate, certainly saw me through my childhood. They were affordable, simple and strong enough to last until my next big growth spurt, and that was all my folks cared about. I didn't get my first bike shop bike until my senior year of high school, and only then because I begged and pleaded for a decent bike that would "see me through college".

I don't begrudge you your tastes one bit. Today, the bikes *I* ride are top-drawer as well, and I wouldn't have it any other way. But I still have a deep affection for department store bikes and for all the kids they inspire to get out and get riding.

Tim said...

Excellent points, all, Beth, as always!