Friday, January 22, 2016

sometimes, a bicycle is just a bicycle. and that's okay.

This week over at, we were treated to a series of videos that a guy shot while testing a department store mountain bike. The video can be seen here:

I watched that video, and the two that went along with it, over at the guy's Youtube channel. His videos were well done and made many excellent points about the pros and cons -- and the limits -- of a department store Mongoose. Then, I went back to Bikeportland, and checked out the comments. Nearly all of them were quite disdainful of department store bikes.
Then I remembered that Bikeportland's regular readership consists mostly of Bikey People. You know, people who ride all the time and have what Grant Peterson used to call "a job and bicycle priorities". (He was speaking of folks who he felt ought to be able to justify buying, say, and hand-built Atlantis frame, but I digress.) And I have been one of those people for a long time.
Because after twenty years in the bicycle industry, I was spoiled rotten by discount pricing on bikes and parts and a trained mechanic's eye and hand that knew the difference between a real bicycle and, well, a turd. That's what we called department store bikes back then (out of the customer's earshot, of course). I'd come home from a ten-hour shift and tell Sweetie I'd spent the afternoon polishing turds, and she'd know what I meant.

Twenty years of wrenching turned me into a serious bicycle snob.

Then, the summer after my career change, I got a month-long teaching residency that required me to commute back and forth on a borrowed bike, towing my guitar and teaching supplies in a borrowed kiddie trailer, every day. The bike was a little small for me, and the trailer was a really cheap steel model. I had brought a small tool bag with me so I could make adjustments. I went to a bike shop and bought a taller seatpost and decent brake pads and installed them; lubed the chain and adjusted the hubs and headset (I could do nothing for the bottom bracket but it worked well enough). I trued the wheels, adjusted the brakes and gears, and it was fine. Really. It worked just fine for the five-mile round trip I would make each day. The raincover was falling apart on the trailer so my guitar case would get a little wet; but my hosts wouldn't let me ride in the rain during my summer residency because Midwestern rain is usually accompanied by thunder and lightning.

Everything worked out fine. And the school was so happy with me -- AND with the bicycle arrangement -- that after four more visits on a different borrowed bike each time, and with loaner bikes in my size getting harder to come by, they offered to pay for me to ship a bicycle in my size to live there for return trips. So I fixed up an abandoned mountain bike, a department store Diamondback. I straightened the derailleur hanger (probably why it was abandoned), adjusted the hubs, trued the wheels, upgraded a few things like the handlebars, shifters and saddle, and tossed some old street tires on it. I packed it in a bike box and hauled down to UPS in my Burley trailer and shipped it east. When I arrived a couple of weeks later, the boxed bike was waiting there for me. I built it back up, recycled the box and rode the bike to my homestay. That bike has now served me on three subsequent trips, and will serve me again this summer — along with the trailer, which the family’s youngest outgrew. The parents left it folded up and leaning in a corner of a classroom “on permanent loan for Beth’s visits.” When the kids come in and see that the trailer's gone, they know I've arrived. I've become, in addition to my regular role as the music specialist, the "Bicycle lady." It's very sweet.

Here's the bike that now lives in Kansas, along with the trailer. When I'm not there, the bike lives in my hosts's garage; he sometimes lets house guests ride it to nearby shops or a park, but mostly it just hangs out at the back of his garage. It still works fine. This summer if I have some time I may overhaul the bottom bracket and headset while I'm there. Or at least drip a bunch of Phil's oil into the bearings and adjust them so they'll run a little longer.

I will NEVER diss a department store bike again, at least not for commuting purposes. People with little means get around on them all day long and they’re fine. And my crummy little bike is allowing me to show by example how fun bicycle commuting can be, in a town where most people drive everywhere.

Past the glitz and glamour, if you’re riding for basic transportation, a bicycle is just a bicycle. If it's been assembled properly, works and stops safely, and you take care of it, well, it’s fine for that.

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