Why bikes from big box stores are dangerous

by Neil Fein

There’s a school of thought that goes like this:

[I see bikes in Wal-Mart for $100] + [You paid what for your bike?] = [You got ripped off, chump.]

Well, it’s not that simple. Stores that sell towels and televisions—and groceries, and guns—aren’t exactly experts in assembling the thing your child will be riding down a hill at twenty miles per hour. Stories abound of parts installed backwards, brakes that don’t work, and bikes that are just uncomfortable to ride.

Anyone who’s looked into buying a bike has heard the words “local bike shop”. The phrase conjures up the image of a small business, perhaps family-owned, and one that’s barely scraping by while they sell the thing they love.

There are bikes shops that specialize in racing bikes, that will try to convince you to buy a sleek $2k machine you don’t need or want. And there are shops that make money on low prices that I wouldn’t trust to change a flat tire. Local shops can have many problems, but these shops are in the minority. A bike shop’s most important asset is its reputation, and they want to make their customers happy. A Target or a Wal-Mart couldn’t care less about how your bike’s shifting is rough, or the saddle is uncomfortable, let alone help you fix the problem.

Because they don’t have the negotiating power of a nationwide chain, the local shop’s prices will be higher. However, a shop that charges a little bit more can afford to pay employees a living wage, including the mechanic that assembles the bikes. (They come at least partially disassembled.)

On those lower-priced bikes, components will—no surprise—be cheaper and they’llwear out fast. The big-box store employees, knowing less about bikes, won’t happen to mention that you need to change your chain and tires every so often—unless they sell those, of course. These bikes are sold and treated like toys, not transportation. A friend recently bought a bike from Target. It’s not a bad bike, but I did urge her to go to a real bike shop and have a mechanic inspected.

There’s also bike fit to consider. You get a bike to be comfortable by fiddling with several different kinds of adjustments, including handlebar height—the list goes on. A bike shop knows how to do all these things. They also know that selling you the right size of bike to begin with is the best way to make the rider comfortable on the bike, and to keep them riding.

Cycling junkies will replace parts before they wear out. A cheap bike’s components will fail under stress sooner rather than later, and will the rider know what to look out for? It’s probably cheaper to buy a real bike to begin with, and skip the bike-shaped-object entirely. To someone who’ll ride the bike once as month if that? Such a bike would probably be good enough, if they have it checked by a mechanic before riding it.

There are people who have crossed the country on cheap bikes, and some people commute to work on them. I’ve heard stories from people who make a living assembling bikes for these stores that love their jobs. These bikes can be good bikes if you’re very, very lucky. But your best chance for finding a good, comfortable, safe bike for any kind of riding is from a local bike shop.



To readers in the U.S., Happy Independence Day!

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4 Comments to “Why bikes from big box stores are dangerous”

  1. Interesting article and my experience leads me to agree 100%. I would recommend a bicycle co-op over big box stores any day, but if you don’t have that available in your city, a bike shop with a good rep and knowledeable staff is key. :)

  2. As you’ve mentioned, the biggest single factor is the quality of assembly. Unfortunately, big-box bikes often suffer from trying to look “extreme” at the cost of functionality as well (terrible rear suspension, barely-function disc brakes, etc, as opposed to just a rigid frame with no-frills parts).
    The other big downside, especially for someone like me, is the fact that big-box bikes are made in only one size per a model, and if you’re too tall or short, too bad.

  3. @Matt – What’s the worst big-box bike you ever had to work on?

  4. Excellent website you have here but I was curious if you knew of any forums that cover the same topics discussed
    in this article? I’d really like to be a part of community where I can get feed-back from other knowledgeable people that share the same interest. If you have any recommendations, please let me know. Thank you!

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