Watchdog gets its teeth into bicycle shaped objects - again

John Stevenson looks back to the last time

Some stories never go away. In the early 90s, when I was working on Mountain Biking UK, I went on the BBC’s Watchdog show to talk about the perils of flat-packed bikes. Back then, dirt cheap bikes were sold through mail order ads in Sunday supplements, through a few department stores and from non-bike outlets like filling stations and car parts shops.

Now, of course, you can pop into one of several major high street retailers and pay less than a hundred quid for a bike, or, as many in the bike industry call these budget machines, a ‘bicycle-shaped object’.

Do these cheap bikes deserve this level of scorn? Surely anything that makes riding a bike more accessible to more people has to be a Good Thing™. After all, not everyone can afford three grand for the latest carbon fibre wunderbike.

Watchdog are taking another look at cheap bikes on their show that screens on Thursday and they asked me along to comment on them. (Which meant I got to meet national treasure John Humphries, who was presenting the segment, and who’s genuinely passionate about cycling as well as being a thoroughly nice bloke.)

Back in the Bronze Age, Watchdog got two researchers to attempt to assemble a cheap bike in the studio. Attempting to follow the lousy instructions and use the inadequate tools that came with the bike, they managed to put together an almost-unrideable near-deathtrap.

Here’s that early Watchdog piece, featuring a man whose 80s ponytail hung round long past its cut-by date:

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Fast forward to 2009 and Thursday’s show will see five members of the public attempt to assemble bicycle shaped objects. I won’t spoil it for you, but let’s just say that the state of the art really hasn’t advanced very much.

The bike Watchdog tried to assemble then cost 120 quid – now they’re under a hundred. Back then, I recommended people should spend about 300 quid on a new bike; that advice hasn’t changed. Nor, it seems, has the cost of getting a flat-packed bike sorted out by a professional mechanic. Paul Topham of bike repair business South Coast Bikes is also on Thursday’s show and he says it’ll cost about 40 quid, the top end of the range I mentioned all those years ago.

What also hasn’t changed is just how dreadful bicycle shaped objects really are. Nobody tried to ride the bike Watchdog built in the early 90s, but Thursday’s show has its five brave volunteers attempt to ride the bikes they’d built – after Paul Topham spent some time making them safe. Nevertheless, problems developed pretty quickly. After watching what went wrong, I’d be reluctant to take off into traffic on any of them.

At this time of year us bike geeks often get asked about Christmas bike purchases. If you know anyone considering a bicycle shaped object, do them a big favour and steer them to a proper bike from a proper bike shop, or, if the budget won’t stretch that far, a decent second-hand bike from eBay.

Bicycle shaped objects tend to have poor brakes, unreliable gears, flimsy wheels that are loose and out-of-true out of the box, and components so crummy that they are simply not reliable. Even if you get one working well to start with, it won’t stay that way.

That means lots of ongoing maintenance costs, which makes the cheap purchase price a false economy, but more importantly, it means there’s just nothing fun about riding one of these bikes. They’re a chore at best, and more likely enough hassle that they will just end up as garage wall ornaments, balancing the feng shui of the lawnmower on the opposite side.

Friends don’t let friends buy bicycle shaped objects.

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