B.S.O.s – fear and loathing in the chain store . . .

I’m sure I’ve vociferated about this in the past, but I’m impelled to do so again by the task we set ourselves yesterday – to rid our little BAC corner of the universe of B.S.O.s.

No, there are not multiple Symphony Orchestras from Baltimore, Berlin, Brussels and Balmain encamped on our back step, cadging the odd biscuit and seat bolt from passing BACcers. Would that we had such culture on tap. We have to make do with the radio  – which, it must be said, only accepts waves from the (sniff!) better class of station: 3RRR, 3PBS, 3ABC, Radio 621 KHz (Radio National) and, in extremis, JJJ. It turns out that I am the original radio fascist, and will not allow the corruption of decadent capitalism via their running-dog emissaries, the advertising agencies, to harsh our bike-mending mellow. Thus spake Bikeathustra.

Anyhoo, B.S.O.s – Bicycle Shaped Objects. We have a steady trickle of these things (the ones that have survived rust and teenage enthusiasm) being donated, so we hold our nose, control the gag reflex, say thankyou as politely as possible, then hurl (over) them violently on the pile out the back. At appropriate junctures, as we did yesterday, such as when we get a critical mass (ooze?) of them and they threaten to contaminate the rest of our bike stockpile with their stupidness, we pull them apart and strip them (a small, gratuituous frisson of creative and perverse defilement sometimes results) for the 20% of re-usable parts on them, then consign the rest to the outer darkness – the SimsMetal recycling pile (If they have only lightly-worn Shimano SIS shifters, derailleurs and cluster, we save these to make hybrids out of old gents 10 speeds).  But what is it about the remainder of them that excites my ire? Surely they all conform to AS/NZS 1927:1998 – the relevant Australian Standard for bicycles? Yes, an initial test sample does, but what of the loosely policed (you’d better believe it – it’s almost non-existent) quality of the remainder, as standards and tolerances of production and assembly steadily slip over the model’s lifecycle?

First, they are sold by chain stores. Most reputable bike shops refuse to stock them. You don’t buy a reliable watch or (usually) a camera from a supermarket, so why buy a similar high-tech item which may need repair from a mass marketeer? (Mass marketers have no bike service worthy of the name – no interested, competent bike mechanic wants anything to do with them because no matter how competent a job you do on them, they will boomering back with yet another material failure problem);

Surprise surprise! I do a Google search for an image of one of them, the Huffy Gila (Monster), and, at the top of the search ranking, this pops up. Go figure. It’s not the first: the first edition of the BV free bikes also suffered from this, amongst several others.

This is a Huffy Ignite. One of a slew of such bikes from the likes of Dunlop, Kent, Repco, Malvern Star (how times have changed for this marque, although they maybe, just might have got their mojo back), Progear, Northern Star, Royce Union, Mosban, Random 4 Digit Number Followed (And/Or Preceded) By A Letter, e.g. F8270A (“R4DNF(A/OP)BAL” ! – why didn’t I think of that as a bike name?), and notorious others. It’s a low-res image, granted, but you wouldn’t want to get any closer, due to the toxic fumes outgassing from the cheap plastic and rubber it is equipped with, giving it a particular, unique, and very noticeable smell. Thousands of Chinese bike industry workers get respiratory illnesses because of this, and countless others like it. Ironic ‘Hooray’.

It’s (ostensibly) a dual suspension bike. The front and back wheels are meant to go up and down in response to changes in terrain. This technology is under constant and revolutionary development at the leading edge of the racing development part of the competition bit of our chosen means of transport. However, the only product development that has occured to bring this particular model (and many, many others like it) of bike about is for an underpaid (and presumably completely career-constipated and mentally undestimulated) engineer to stare at a similarly low-res image of a 10 year old version of, for example, a Specialized Dual Suspension bike, such as this one:

. . . for approximately 5 minutes and copy it, with the overriding imperative of lowest-cost production. The price differential is in the order of $5350 between the real, and the copy. It’s sort of like buying a Rolex from Thailand. Why not buy a Swatch?  Swatchs work, are reliable, and have a certain dag style.

We have quite a few (metaphorical) reconditioned Swatches in stock. The reasons we do not try to repair the Thai Rolexes are these:

  1. They weigh in excess of 15kg, and sometimes 20kg each. This is usable when you are an over-excited 13 y.o. with lots of calories to burn and prone to jumping flights of steps and picnic tables (however, see 3 below), but pathetic, slow and sad when you just want to get from A to B in a reasonable timeframe and with a fair degree of non-sweaty composure.
  2. The accurate description of the  ‘suspension’ that these bikes are equipped with should be: ‘significant-weight-penalty-adding, durability-countering and massive-reduction-of-pedalling-efficiency mechanism’. The bike it is copied from is made for one thing only: pedalling downhill and over jumps at speed by fit, rich teen/twentysomethings.
  3. The durability of the materials they are made from is low, when subject to such sudden shocks. Sudden failure of bars, fork, stem, cranks, rear shock, spokes and rims are not at all unknown. This may put the ongoing well-being of the said over-excited teenager in jeopardy, and in need of paid-up health insurance.
  4. They mainly have steel rims and flimsy brakes (flexy, plastic levers and pressed-steel brake caliper arms) – a recipe for disaster in the wet, with very low stopping power. Or, increasingly, ever so slightly better disc brakes on the front wheel, which, frustratingly, are impossible to adjust so that they don’t rub on the disc, adding watts to the total needed to keep them moving. Steel rims, paradoxically, are weaker than aluminium rims, and once bent are bent, much more often, for ever.
  5. As such, they are hard to keep in good repair. Wheel bearings fail sooner rather than later, necessitating the replacement of an axle, or the whole wheel. Unless you keep an eye on the bottom bracket bearings, they come loose, and wear out quickly, or the cranks come loose and fall off, destroying themselves in the process. Cheap gears and brakes are constantly coming out of adjustment, cheap brake pads wear quickly and refuse to stay put, and control cables rust, fray and stick, stopping things working.
  6. They run hard up against the Bontrager Dictum: “Cheap, Light, Durable – Choose any two”. They are cheap. They are not light. But neither are they very durable, except under ideal circumstances.
  7. ‘Ideal circumstances’ for these bikes are: a meticulous, detailed and remedial-of-the-mediocre-factory-build-quality assembly by a (understandably highly disgruntled) skilled bike mechanic – rarely, if ever encountered; 15km/h average or lower sedate, controlled riding; along smooth, flat bike paths on sunny days, by experienced riders of 70kg or less. The combination of the above qualities is never encountered in the real world, so in actuality, such bikes are destined to fail in less than 18 months under anything approaching normal usage for things real bikes are designed for, such as riding to work or school, or for a fun blast on the weekend.
  8. They hint at being able to perform feats that they actually can’t, not even if Cadel Evans nor Nathan Rennie were riding them. They might look like a bike that can get 6′ of air off NorthShore ramps and berms, but like they say, it’s not the fall that kills, it’s the landing. So effectively, the bike designers and makers are lying to those that might be looking to do so, or even aforementioned teenagers that vaguely aspire to such feats of derring-do, and their distracted parents who just want to get them out of their hair for a little while, by buying them something, anything they might want.
  9. As such, they are seen and justified as a ‘good first bike’. A taster, to see if the person will like riding. No big loss if they don’t. No big loss? Are you sure? What about one more person lost to cycling, as . . .
  10. . . . disillusionment ensues in the majority of cases – the rider gradually realising that such an item fails to live up to something . . . better? More pleasant? Easier? Faster, like the people zooming past them with smiles on their faces? Inklings start that the ‘bicycle’ they thought they were riding is actually a bike placebo, or cycling-Spakfilla for the place a real bike should go, but with no therapeutic and very little practical use. It takes/takes up the place in their lives where a functional bike could be, fails to perform and/or satisfy, and then tends to prejudice them against bikes thereafter: “Tried it once – it was hard and hurt! Don’t like it!”. It lies rusting in the garage (and man, does that cheap chrome and black paint rust right up super-quick in the bayside suburbs!) until it goes to the tip, or to us.
  11. They are prevented from buying another bike by the knowledge that they have a ‘bike’ already, even though they don’t ride it.
  12. Consequently, you may even call them an Anti-Bike. An object that actually stops people from cycling. Much like the Anti-Christ is told of stopping people living happy and fulfilled and good lives.
  13. Thus, they are actually evil. Q.E.D.

I think, and have said so, ad nauseum almost, that the bike industry in Australia, and also North America, suffers from (and allows to happen!) this phenomenon of disposable fashion-bikes (25-30 years ago it was the 10 speed racer – marginally more functional) somewhat disproportionately, when compared with, say Europe. Europe has a greater appreciation of bikes as an everyday artefact that most people use, for many different purposes, whereas in their erstwhile colonies, bikes have, over the last 40 years, become an inconsequential plaything to most people. They are, despite the rise of the hybrid,  still either a high-priced novelty, such as the carbon-fibre road or lightweight XC mountain bike, the 6″ travel dual-suspension bike (the real one, not the Thai Rolex), or this low-priced ghetto, where kids and those with no money cringe and grovel for a small slice of the transport cake. This end of the market is filled with (low-quality) steel bikes that are actually nowhere near as functional and reliable as the trusty old Malvern Star that grandad rode – handed down and ridden into eventual, hard-fought-against decrepitude by successive generations – by being nowhere near as simple, nor nowhere near as robust in its materials, design nor manufacture, despite its design aping something more advanced.

So, I’d rather send these to be made into tin cans, and concentrate on something lighter, daggier, more functional and more pleasant to ride than these dim and turgid gestures towards style over substance.

BTW, this doesn’t get the hard-tailed cheapo MTBs that chain stores sell, nor their hybrid-knockoff cousins, completely off the hook either. They are slightly more functional, but only marginally more reliable. Second-hand from us will always be better than anything from K-(deleted) or Big (deleted) or (deleted), no bullseye there. Most of the above applies to them as well. On the rare occasions I venture into K-(deleted) for some seeds for the garden, for instance, I drift past the bike rack, in a sort of car-crash attentive horror, and am saddened by people seriously weighing up the relative merits of one such pile of (deleted) over the other. Unfortunately, they make up a large proportion of the people who buy the million-plus bikes sold in Australia each year. They’re being seriously duped by colourful paint jobs and lookalike cheap pricing, and I don’t want them to be.

I’ll give a prize to the person who comes up with the best idea to knock this stupid trend of B.S. pretend bikes on the head. Free bike service, anyone? 🙂

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