23 July 2009

Hangover from buying a cheap bike

Over at the Guardian bike blog, Helen Pidd has been testing out Asda's 'cheapest UK bike'. Unsurprisingly, the £70 BSO - 'bicycle shaped object', the acronym used on bike forums to dismiss such cut-price junk - turned out to be nothing but trouble.

I acquired a BSO unintentionally in 2007. I'd Eurostarred to Belgium for some riverside riding and Belgian culture (beer, chips, chocolate, comics, bitter linguistic factionalism) with a chum. He had taken his folding Airnimal; I had organised to hire a bike on arrival. But for various reasons, mostly the cheery can't-do attitude of the hire shop, the rental bike fell through.

Determined not to miss out on a cycling holiday, I strode across the road to a Decathlon-style chainstore and bought their second cheapest bike for about £120 (top right). It had dynamo lights, mudguards and a rack, and was called mystifyingly 'Gosport Railway'. I wondered why a French-made bike should be named after a Hampshire town's train link, especially when it's said to be Britain's largest without a railway station. Then I realised it was actually 'Go Sport'.

Well, it saved the holiday, which went without a hitch. (Apart from the Airnimal, ironically. It blew a non-standard-size tyre, which fortunately took two days and 15 bars to replace. Then its entire derailleur collapsed, luckily necessitating a well-lubricated layover in a French village where we found a cycling blacksmith.) And I somehow smuggled the bike back on Eurostar, wrapped up in a discarded sleeping bag.

It's languished in a shed since, as a 'spare bike'. But it never gets used. Because it's just so horrible to ride. It's stiff where it should be smooth and loose where it should be tight. The gears slip. The brakes judder. The saddle is made of concrete and the derailleur of tinfoil. The flimsy tyres could twist into a sausage-dog to amuse a kids' party.

Sleek and shiny and black, it looks like a million dollars. And rides like a Big Mac 2-for-1 voucher. For a leisurely camping bar-hop round rural Belgium it just about did its emergency job. But use it round London? I'd feel safer skateboarding through Blackwall Tunnel.

Cheap bikes are a waste because, as Helen confirms, they're just so unpleasant to ride. If this was your first experience of cycling, or at least the first since your paper round, it would put you off for life. Just three hundred quid will get you something that's worth repairing when it goes wrong and which is actually a joy to use. If we want to get more people using bikes, low-budget junk isn't the way to do it. Now, happily, Eurostar encourages you take bikes; it may be a steep £20 each way, but that still leaves plenty to enjoy Belgian culture.

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