Not everyone needs an expensive, fancy, bike.
Not everyone needs an expensive, fancy, bike. (Photo: lutavia/iStock)
Bike Snob

In Defense of the Department Store Bike

These ubiquitous and inexpensive bikes are oft-maligned—but when it comes to accessibility, they win

Not everyone needs an expensive, fancy, bike.

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As cyclists, we all have different ideas, preferences, and opinions when it comes to our equipment. Some of us swear by the double chainring, while others dance with glee upon the front derailleur’s grave. Some of us embrace the disc brake, while others stubbornly cling to our rim brakes with the tenacity of…well, a cold-forged, dual-pivot rim brake. But there is one bit of commonly held wisdom upon which we all seem to agree: Department store bikes suck.

Like most ideas, we take for granted this one is built around a kernel of truth—that truth being, yeah, department bikes can be pretty damn sucky. While to the untrained eye the department store bike looks as flashy as its Independent Bicycle Dealer (IBD) counterpart at just a fraction of the price, closer inspection reveals that the manufacturers often skimp in less obvious yet crucial areas, such as frame material, bearings, headsets, and bottom brackets. Department store bikes are often poorly assembled, and sizing options can be limited at best. The “suspension” on the mountain bikes serves only to increase weight and provide yet another point of failure. And what self-respecting product manager still specs stem-mounted shifters on a road bike in 2019? (Pulling off a truly successful stem-shifted bike in the 21st century requires some not-cheap parts and a black belt in retrogrouchery.) 

Given all of the above (plus the fact that the shift to big box retail has effectively decimated Main Street USA) it’s hardly surprising that we treat department store bikes with disdain, and by no means is this attitude limited to the go-fast, high-performance recreational cycling set, either. When Target’s nationwide computer systems crashed back in June, @BicycleLobby (a popular satire account with roots in the far more inclusive and ecumenical bicycle advocacy community) tweeted:

Should they though? (Stop selling shitty bikes, I mean. Obviously turning all the parking lots into parks is an objectively fantastic idea.) Granted, I realize that by analyzing a satirical tweet I’m displaying a level of humorlessness rivaled only by the roadie with a burr in his chamois. Still, on balance, isn’t it a good thing that ubiquitous retail chains like Target and Costo and Walmart sell bicycles, even if they are “shitty”?  

Oh sure, if you really know your way around a bike, you know that the $200 department store road bike is a trap. If you don’t know anything about bikes and get taken in by the price tag and the decals, you find this out the hard way when you need a new headset or taco a wheel, and the bike shop explains to you that parts and labor will cost you more than what you originally paid for the bike (if the shop will even work on the bike at all). Plus, there’s probably no expert salesperson at the big box store helping you, which means that getting the right bike in the first place is a total crapshoot.  Meanwhile, in some cases spending just a few hundred dollars more at a local bike shop will get you a well-fitting bicycle with quality parts that will perform better and last longer—and if something does go wrong prematurely, then between the shop and the manufacturer there’s almost certainly going to be someone willing to stand behind it and make it right for you.

Even so, there are plenty of reasons why this proposition may not be attractive—or even viable—for a lot of consumers. For one thing, “just a few hundred dollars more” is still a lot of money to a lot of people. Furthermore, plenty of these same people have no direct access to a bike shop even if they were willing or able to strain their finances. And while department store money can buy you a lot more bike on the Internet, finding these solid bang-for-your-buck propositions requires a fluency in bicycle technology and jargon that many in the market for such bikes are unlikely to possess. Meanwhile, that big box store is right there, and not only can you touch and handle the merchandise, but you can also pick up some diapers and a 35-pound bucket of kitty litter while you’re at it.

Moreover, that big box store is a judgement-free zone. Yes, sadly these establishments are so free from pretense that the employees put the bikes out on the floor with the forks on backwards, but this is offset to some degree (fork pun fully intended) by the fact that at least you don’t need to gird your loins and brace yourself for insults before entering. Bike shops are vital institutions that have incubated and fostered innumerable nascent cyclists, and yet at times they can also be intimidating or downright discouraging. I’ve been riding bikes my whole life and writing about them professionally (or at least semi-professionally) for well over a decade now, and as much as I love bike shops, even I’m still kind of afraid of them. This discomfort is amplified exponentially if you’re new to bikes, and that’s not even taking into account how unwelcome you might feel if you happen to come from a different background than most of the shop’s employees and clientele.

Perhaps most crucially, it’s really easy to return merchandise at these “evil” big box stores, and that includes bikes. If you’re on a budget and you live in a country with the unfortunate tendencies to dismiss riding bikes as frivolous, and to stigmatize the people who rely on them as failures who can’t afford cars (hello America!), that can certainly make a new bike seem like less of a gamble.

Should you patronize your local bike shop over the big box store if you’re able to? No question. Can the frugal cyclist comb the used marketplace and cobble together a fantastic bike for about what a crappy department store bike costs? Absolutely. Is the perception that bike shops are rude or unwelcoming or judgmental sometimes merely the product of our own insecurities? Yep! Regardless, the sheer accessibility these mass-market bikes represent is hugely important—and while they sure ain’t perfect, they’re still bicycles, and as such they’re capable of providing a disproportionate amount of utility and joy to their riders. 

Recently I struck up a conversation with a fellow commuter in Manhattan who happened to be on a department store bike. He rides to and from work year-round, about 15 miles round-trip, every day, rain or shine. He did have some complaints about his commute, but his bike certainly wasn’t one of them. Mostly he was just frustrated with the drivers. I guess I could have told him his bike was “shitty,” but that would have made me a gigantic asshole.

Like it or not, big box stores play a huge role in the ubiquity of the bicycle in America, and ultimately that’s a good thing. There are a lot of reasons to lament the fact that they dominate the retail landscape, but at least they’re carrying bikes. If they stop selling them, then we should really worry.

Lead Photo: lutavia/iStock

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