A carbuncle on the existence of bicycle . . .

. . . with apologies to Samuel Johnson. What am I gibbering on about? I’m going to offload, once and for all, about a particular subject that rankles (look up that word in Dictionary.com, it’s interesting) with me, and not only me, within the cycling world.

It’s those three editions of freakin’ free bikes that Bicycle Victoria have seen fit to visit on us, the multicoloured monsters that clog up garages and bike shop workshops the land over. Why am I at all entitled or qualified to rant about them? Because I was there when they were new, I perforce became an apologist for them, and now feel myself free to state some views that are widely held within the industry about them, and the whole idea of them, with which my own now coincide.

Is it any accident that after half an hour searching for pictures of them on the web, I came up with this sole low-res example, the only one that BV has seen fit to let loose? Are they, perhaps, ashamed of them? Note the seat angle in this supposed publicity shot.

2005 BV free bikeThey were conceived as an attempt to entice more people to come on the Great Victorian Bike Ride of 2004, and wasn’t that fun, boys and girls? Widely regarded as a disaster on par with the 1997 Guns n’ Roses concert at the Calder Park Thunderdome: 8000 (dropping to 6000) people crawling over one another for 9 days in underserviced campsites along the Great Ocean Road, and I was there, attempting to keep these pieces of misbegotten cycling excrement on the road for the pissed-off punters who had been led to believe that they were riding something that approximated a reliable bicycle.

They weren’t, and this is why:

The gears were the cheapest you could buy from anywhere. Due to the bone-headed and doctrinaire insistence of Paul McKay, the supposed leading mechanical light on the sourcing committee, the rear wheel had to have a cassette hub, at the expense of the reliability of other parts of the bike, which were then swept in at any cost under budget.

The top knuckle of the parallelogram of the ‘Nova’ rear derailleur snapped under very little provocation (the bike falling over, for example), and did not respond at all accurately to the signal sent to it by the very basic right hand index thumbshifter. The left hand shifter pivot screw had the habit of winding itself out, even when tightened right down, leading to people being stuck in low range for days. Both were fragile, and many just snapped.

The tyres on the 2004 bike were abysmal. Many died after about 200km.

The saddles were bona fide arsebreakers. Cheap foam covered in cheap vinyl.

The bar grips might as well have been made from garden hose, they were that comfortable, and about as grippy, but nowhere near as long-lived.

The cranks, apart from weighing the most of any crankset I have ever picked up, were also the ugliest I have ever seen (but this is pure nitpickery). The bottom bracket bearings’ short average lifespan belied any gesture toward reliability that the ‘upgraded’ rear hub attempted to make, i.e., were shit.

Even in the small size they weighed over 17 kilograms. This is a very heavy touring bike. The handling was neither inspired nor confidence-inspiring. So, waddaya want for free?

There were other little niggles that surfaced and added up to an unpleasant ride on any particular bike, but these were the main ones. These problems cropped up on many bikes, and it was not unusual, in an average field of 200 repairs bought in per night on the 2004 ride, for 100 of them to be on these supposedly “free” bikes. So at least 1/8 of them failed in some way (or some more than once) on this ride. We (I was one of the team of mechanics) did not see many of the repairs – they were handled by the warranty representative of the company that supplied them. 2004 bikes are orange and purple – an accident in a spraybooth.

2005 saw a few changes – the most notable was the change to a 700c wheel size, and more reliable tyres. The gears remained the same. Same problems. These are black and green, like the photo.

2006 saw the introduction of a Shimano rear derailleur. Screw-on cluster on the rear wheel to keep price down. Yay. Too little too late. Blue and black, these ones.

It is, apparently, an experiment whose time has passed. 2007 sees them nowhere in sight.

Why do I get so worked up about them? Apart from having to fix the f%&*ing things as a penance within my job (there’s over 10,000 of them out there, in total), I don’t like the spirit in which they were conceived, the manner in which they were justified, and the place they occupy within cycling culture. Let me elaborate.

Bicycle Victoria needed to generate cashflow in 2004. They had just put on many more staff (20+ full-timers in total), had lost a lot of money in a property deal and needed to keep the ship of state afloat. Everything was geared to getting the 2004 Great Victorian Bike Ride to be the turning point on the balance sheets. 8100 people at an average entry fee of $600 gets you $4,860,000 – less about 40% for expenses, still gets you close to $3M profit, a fair chunk of revenue for operating the following year. Never mind that about 1/4 of the participants went home by halfway in disgust at the queues, the terrain, the sheer overwhelming number of other people on the ride, and not least, the quality of their ‘free’ bike. BV had their money. No refunds, folks.

How to do this? “More people cycling more often” becomes the justifying mantra of sourcing bikes which cost less than $60 at the warehouse door as a ride entry add-on. The quality of the riding experience was subsumed into the marketing momentum that the GVBR generated: mostly positive stories in the past had generated good “brand recognition” amongst the people who might possibly, but didn’t already, get on a bike for a holiday. So ‘Some is good, therefore more is better, and most is best’ got the accountant’s brains whirring, and the cashflow problem sorted, on paper at least. Give them a free bike, then they’ve got no excuses not to come along. Once, at least. They partially realised the error of their ways in the subsequent rides and never went after maximum numbers again. BV’s brand and product loyalty took a bit of a battering that year, I reckon.

The disingenuous explanations that you tend to get from people paid to talk up this meretricious experiment mostly centres on the “It got people onto bikes” argument. What this doesn’t address is how many stayed on bikes thereafter. True, it increased the total number of bikes in the community. It didn’t, however, increase the total satisfaction of people with bikes in general. As my dad is fond of saying, you don’t buy a 9/16″ drill bit, you buy a number of 9/16″ holes. The holes that these particular metaphorical drill bits sunk were crooked, under or over diameter, and the bit was prone to snap off, making it a bad buy, even for free, devaluing the whole idea of drilling holes for anything.

The fact that it was part of a package, a “take it or leave it” option as part of the entry fee, led those entitled to their unwanted bikes (who had a perfectly good touring bike of their own, thank you very much) being stooged out of the cost of the bike as something that could have been spent better on the rest of the ride – fresh instead of rubbery dehydrated eggs for breakfast, for example.

To be quite honest, they are not much better than the better bikes from a department chain store, which isn’t saying much – another blight on the cycling landscape. You certainly don’t get a free service with one. And unless you caught one of the skimpy assisted assembly days (in the arse end of West Sunshine), you had to muddle through assembling it yourself (a la chain store practice), or be charged $25 and up by a bike shop to do it. It became a standing joke that if a bike shop saw one of these coming in the door in bits, the assembly charge usually went up to $40 straight away. They are not an easy and quick bike to assemble. Once the average low-to-middling-mechanical-skills-level potential ride participant had a go at cross-threading the pedals and butchering the none-too-robust hex-head bolts with the supplied allen key and spanner (both of which had a Rockwell hardness rating equivalent to that of your average cheddar cheese), then the whole exercise became even more interesting – along the lines of the old “May you live in interesting times” Chinese curse.

It certainly pissed off people in the bike industry. No shop owner that I have talked to saw them as a positive thing. Whilst accessories and upgrades could be sold to ‘free’ bike recipients, the lack of communication between BV and the industry in general about this (and other things) generated much bad feeling, whilst the belated and short-lived appointment of a BV “Industry Liaison Officer” only added insult to the injury. That was a poisoned chalice, if ever there was one (such jobs abound at BV, for the unwary embryo not-for-profit do-gooder recruit). This tends to be the way Bicycle Victoria deals with the wholesale and retail arms of the trade in general – not seeking consensus nor guidance in matters technical, but launching in and iterating a world view which it expects the mere purveyors of merchandise to follow. It wasn’t just sour grapes on the part of shop owners. It was an actual concern with the way in which BV, a supposedly responsible industry player, had high-handedly flooded the market with what was essentially rubbish. Bike shops have been trying to wean the non-committed potential cyclist away from Huffy and Dunlop and Kent and Progear and Cyclops and all the other devalued supermarket brands for years, and BV just jumped in, boots and all, and didn’t even canvas local suppliers to see if they could come up with a solution to the problem they had set themselves. No wonder people’s noses were out of joint.

But this is past now. The issue is dead. Beware, tho’, if they try and introduce it again.

So, what do you do if you have one? Be aware that it will not be ‘free’ for long. Don’t buy one secondhand for more than ~$25. If you are given one, make sure it is in ‘as new’ condition, and be prepared to spend upwards of $100 making it reliable, if you are going to ride it more than once a week. Or, even better, come and get a better reconditioned bike from BAC.

Replace the shifters with reliable units from a name-brand manufacturer. Replace the front derailleur with a Shimano or SRAM one. Replace the chain, and the rear derailleur if it is not a Shimano Tourney model. The seat should be swapped for something more comfortable. If you have an orange and purple bike, chuck the original tyres straight away and spend $25 each on something that won’t blow out on you. That’s about all that is justified spending on this bike (the wheels break spokes after a few thousand k’s, don’t worry, that’s normal for this sort of bike) – if you want something better, donate it to BAC (no, on second thoughts, the Salvos or Vinnies are your best place to put them) and be prepared to spend $400 keeping your local bike shop in business.



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2 responses to “A carbuncle on the existence of bicycle . . .

  1. BACBikes

    You’re welcome . . . I think. I recycle wheels and brakes off them now (the only good bits really) to fix up other bikes.

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