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Elite transportation

June 27, 2008

One of the trends I have noticed lately on campus is the explosive growth of custom bikes.  Somewhere there’s a bike shop that takes old but high-quality frames (maybe a 10-speed racer from the 1970’s) and tricks them out with the latest high-tech components, like track gears, double-wall wheels, and LED taillights.  These bikes are usually ridden in any weather, which I love to see.

But the majority of bikes I see creaking around are mass-produced cheapo machines from discount stores.  These pieces of junk are, in my not-so-humble opinion, the main reason that many adults regard bicycles as an impractical way to get around.  It is not possible to properly adjust their gears and brakes, so they don’t work well enough to be good mechanical stewards of the rider’s muscular energy.  In addition, nobody at a discount store will make sure the bike is adjusted correctly, which again makes them much harder to ride.

Many bike shops refuse to work on discount-store bikes.  It isn’t just elitism or dealer protectionism; it is literally a waste of time to try to fix them.  They are broken when they leave the factory.  I’m going to talk a little bit about how to distinguish a good bike from a crappy one. Because as bikers like to say,
“Friends don’t let friends ride junk”. More detail below the fold…

In this illustration are two bikes; a reasonably well-made bike (the black one) and a dime store special (the red one).  What makes one an example of practical transportation and the other an example of why Wal-Mart is not the answer to every material need?

The first clue is that the dime store bike is overly flashy for the price.  It just seems to be trying to impress you.  See the complicated frame? It’s a “soft tail” which means it has a shock-absorber system for both the front and rear wheels.  This is great if you are a professional rider and you need to handle 6-foot drops without breaking your back.  Billing itself as a “Power Climber” – LOL – it assumes you are in top competitive shape for riding.  But for getting around town, you’re going to lose a lot of energy squishing the rear shock absorber up and down.  Soft tail bikes can be done well but they start at about $600 – and this one was about $100.  It is, to put it bluntly, a fake, and it will work like one.

The other bike shown here is a diamond frame, which has a hard tail and is simpler and far more efficient. (More on frames later) It probably cost around $250 and was worth every penny.  And as we discuss the differences between them, I hope to show that it’s worth going well above even that figure.

The fat tires on both bikes are fine.  On city streets, you want fat tires.  I can ride right over a pot hole or a storm grate without much hazard on my bike (though I avoid them for comfort’s sake of course).

Take a look at the cranksets – the part you actually pedal.  In the dime store bike, it is a single forged piece of steel; cheap to manufacture but heavy.  (Be sure to lift any bike you’re thinking about buying.  Could you carry it up stairs?) At least it won’t break because you won’t ever ride this bike far enough to induce metal fatigue.  The crankset on the good bike is 3 pieces: a steel axle with two aluminum levers.  This makes sense because axles carry a far heavier load than crank arms. But I have seen crummy bikes with really cheap 3-piece cranksets.  It still comes down to the quality of the whole bike.

Plastic pedals appear on a lot of bikes up to about the $300 range but the better plastic pedals will be very sturdy and spin smoothly.  Cheap plastic pedals have a lot of friction and under heavy use, they break.  Really good pedals are usually cast, forged, or machined out of aluminum.

The dérailleurs (gear-shifting machinery) of a bike are usually made by Shimano or Suntour, but try a test ride and see how smoothly they work.  Either Shimano has a crap-line or somebody in China is making fake Shimano parts. (Unthinkable!) You should be able to shift gears smoothly and without incident. 

Brakes should be powerful and smooth – so powerful in fact that you will need to move your weight toward the rear of the bike when braking hard to avoid tipping over the handlebars.  (This motion will become automatic as you learn to ride)  If the brake mechanism looks cheap, and if the brake shoes do not align with the wheels, steer clear.  Disc brakes are great in wet weather.

Notice the seat tube – between the frame and the seat.  Both these bikes have steel seat tubes with horizontal-bolt adjusters at the top under the seat.  No advantage to either bike here but the best seat tubes are aluminum with a single vertical hex screw at the top that loosens the clamp for adjustment.  The seat itself should be well-made with a depression in the middle to avoid damaging your penile nerve.  To put it crudely, your weight should be borne on your ass-bones, not your crotch.

If you are of the female persuasion, you will want a woman’s seat on your bike.  (Since women no longer wear petticoats, there’s less distinction today between the sexes than there used to be in the design of the actual bike.  But bike seats are the beneficiary of a lot of anatomical refinements).  Some bike shops may change the seat on a new bike purchase.

Shock-absorbing front forks make things a lot easier on your wrists, and help keep the bike under control.  As you might imagine, this is a major area for clues on quality.  The cheap bike has an upper fork made of welded steel; it is both heavy and weak.  The “shocks” may be cheap springs with friction dampers, or they may actually be pneumatic with adjustable vents and locking for efficient travel on smooth roads.  But I’d rather have high-quality plain forks than low-quality shock forks.

The gooseneck is a quality indicator.  It’s the part that connects the handlebars to the frame.  Basically you’re looking for good quality finish.  I have seen cheap goosenecks break from metal fatigue.  Larger diameter tubing is better here.  Take a look at the handlebars.  Grips should be deeply textured and high quality – if they seem thin and cheap, they are.  Make sure the shifters are comfortable and easy to use.  (I hate “grip shifters” but they have infested even some high-quality bikes)

Study the frame.  Especially compare the cheap frames with the really expensive ones.  Quality beats complication every time.  And for general use, you want a diamond frame bike, so named for its triangular frame sections. The frame can be made of high-strength alloy steel, aluminum, titanium, or carbon fibre composite, but by the time you get to the last two you’re up in the stratosphere, price wise.

Really cheap bikes have steel wheels.  This matters because heavy wheels have double-inertia to overcome – you need to not only make them move forward, but turn as well.  Then comes aluminum, and then double-wall aluminum, and then carbon fibre composite.  Spokes are usually stainless steel but may be titanium or carbon fibre composite. 

Don’t buy a bike without riding it, and herein is the most important advice:  set aside your preconceptions of how much you will spend.  Test ride a really good bike (I mean something in the over-$500 range at a reputable bike shop) at the beginning of your bike shopping experience.  Have the bike shop adjust the seat for you and show you how to use the gears before you ride it.  If you are not familiar with bike gears, experiment with them a lot, shifting up and down (don’t worry about what “number” gear you’re in, just get a feel for them).  Test the bike thoroughly, at least ten minutes. (Leave a friend in the bike shop as collateral) Get a feel for the bike responding to you.

All good?  OK, now you can try the cheaper bikes.  Go ahead and try one of the Wal-Mart specials.  Go back to the bike shop and try something in the $300 range.  Try something in the over-$1,000 range.  Try different styles of bikes – mountain, hybrid, cruiser, etc. Try different bike shops – a really good bike shop is your friend. And keep in mind, that’s not necessarily the big bike shop – I recently bought a great bike from a mom ‘n pop store.  Take notes.  Take your time.  Now go home and think.  Don’t be in a hurry.  Go back and test-ride your most likely machines again.  Think about the bike as transportation.  Think about $4 gas.

One alternative is the aforementioned custom bike.  If you have a local bike shop with a reputation for creativity, they might have a stable of customized older bikes that would be a real pleasure to ride.  (This is something that certain bike shops do in the winter when business is way down – they rebuild and customize old bikes) I’d take a tricked-out 1965 English 3-speed over the “Power Climber” any day.  Recently I saw a fully-rebuilt Bridgestone MB3 in a bike shop for $225 – a bargain (since they sold for $500+ new). Some high-quality older bikes may have steel frames or wheels, but they used high-strength alloy steel so they were still fairly light.

Unless you are ready for major lifestyle changes, a bike is not a total replacement for a car.  My basic rule is; “Buy a cheaper car and a more expensive bike”.  Many of my friends have told me they never imagined how much fun it is to ride a really good bike.  And, how practical because they ride it enough to stop caring about the weather.  A couple have lost weight.  One even relinquished his parking space – a savings of about the cost of his bike each year.  A couple have told me; “You know it’s funny, but I really don’t care about the price of gas anymore”.  Easy to do when you cut your driving in half; I put about eight gallons of gas a month in my car.  Some months, less.

Elite transportation is muscle – your muscle.  To me, philosophically, it’s the purist, most elemental way to get around, whether you use a bike, rollerblades, a skateboard, a scooter, or just plain old shoe leather.  For too long we’ve let our cars dictate where we live, what we wear, where we shop, how we handle traffic, even what income we need to have.  We think that being owned by machines is something from science fiction, but if you can’t go up two flights of stairs on your own power without getting out of breath, what else would you call it?  So break loose, already.

What’s your favorite muscle-powered way to get around?

  1. June 28, 2008 at 08:55 | #1

    I have four bikes. I ride three of them regularly. No Wal-Mart. Favorite form of muscle-powered transport? Shanks mare.

    Thanks for the disquisition on bike quality.

  2. Ted
    June 28, 2008 at 09:08 | #2

    I recently sold an old 10-speed Peugeot racing bike with the ultra-thin tires that was in horrid condition. Purchased it back in 1982(?) for about $200 but hadn’t ridden it in about 10 years.

    I was shocked by the amount of interest in it from the local college students, and equally shocked that they knew about the old Peugeots and seemed to be some sort of prestige kitsch.

    For too long we’ve let our cars dictate where we live, what we wear, where we shop, how we handle traffic, even what income we need to have.

    Forgive me for saying this, but it appears that our Lizard overlords are paying you to write about the benefits of bicycles (and the appeal of muscle-motion) while they toodle around near empty freeways in their cars.

    It certainly cuts down their commute time.

  3. June 28, 2008 at 20:47 | #3

    I totally agree with you about the satisfaction of riding a bike which moves smoothly and efficiently. Definitely the way to travel! Unfortunately my last such bike was stolen, so I’ve been reduced to buying a cheaper bike which I’m more likely to use because I don’t worry about leaving it places!

  4. June 29, 2008 at 09:56 | #4

    Nice post … a really clear summary that prompted me to write a little
    Bikes entry on my blog … brought back some good memories!

  5. Bturner
    June 29, 2008 at 18:27 | #5

    While I pedal and get in shape our lizard overlords are getting soft. It’s just a matter of time.

  6. July 11, 2008 at 21:58 | #6

    I stumbled upon this post while doing research, so let me ask you a question. Let’s assume I got myself a cheap steel frame without any built-in suspension. Then, let’s assume that I bolt on a number of decent quality parts, some quality wheels, decent brakes, etc. Can you tell me what I’d end up with?

    While I’ve been told that all the exotic frames have a different “feel”, My experience with my old 10 speed and my current MTB is that the wheels make a far larger contribution to the ride than the flex of the frame.

    In light of what Sheldon Brown said about frames,


    I would think a cheap and durable bike could be made from a cheap steel frame and quality parts. It might be 5 pounds heavier than that elite high buck frame, but you could shave hundreds off the cost.

    Five pounds is nothing. The thing is on wheels, remember?

    I can see your point with the full suspension piece of junk pictured above, but I’m talking no suspension.

  7. July 31, 2008 at 18:32 | #7

    It’s interesting to see how the bicycle market is in competition with the cheap chinese “crap” just like the scooter market is.

    Peoples general desire for cheap products without any regards to quality don’t help the situation either

  8. July 31, 2008 at 19:00 | #8

    Cheap bikes are ridden maybe 75 miles during their entire life cycle from discount store to landfill.  An “expensive” bike may be ridden thousands of miles”, and more safely and enjoyably in the process.  Since a cheap bike and a high-quality one look very similar at brief examination, education is important.

  9. August 1, 2008 at 20:00 | #9

    Around 1985 or so I bought (as DOF will remember) an RGR preamp and Audionics amp (80 wpc … REAL watts, not inflated Asian watts) … needless to say, they are still going strong, as well as the Fisher valve (tube) receivers I picked up a few years ago, knowing that with some care I could sell one for what I paid for the both of them.

    In the long run, quality is “cheap” … i.e., it is less expensive in the long run than buying the cheapest POS today.

  10. August 2, 2008 at 17:49 | #10

    StandardMischief @#6, your comment got snagged in the spam filter and I just found it.  You are absolutely right that wheels make a big difference.  But I went to a police auction once and there were really good bikes – Gary Fisher, high-end Trek, etc. for under $100 just waiting for the kind of tender loving care you describe. My neighbor threw out an old Schwinn that I made into a bike again, which turned out really well.  I rescued a very nice Trek MTB – pretty high end – from a creek and made it back into a bike again.  Saved the frame, ditched most of the parts.

    But I have seen the real cheap frames fail structurally, which is really dangerous.

    Anything above the dimestore variety is fair game for the creative bike mechanic.  I have an old English 3-speed racer frame in the garage waiting to be made into a totally mental street bike some day.

    My current bike is a Specialized MTB and aside from some now-resolved trouble with the brakes, it’s been awesome.  And yes, that frame does make a noticeable difference, especially when sprinting.

  11. September 27, 2008 at 08:31 | #11

    Thank you for this great information on how to distinguish a good bike from a crappy one. I totally agree that Wal-Mart is not the answer to every material need. When it comes to gear, I’d rather spend some time checking out some professional websites.

  12. September 27, 2008 at 11:01 | #12

    Just a reminder about the comment policy here in the Decrepit Zone: there’s zero tolerance for spamming.  ONE strike, you are out, banned, finis.  And your comment gets pointed from the commercial site you entered to “spammersbegone.com” or whatever I feel like at the moment.

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