Tossing and Tortured 'Till Dawn

I come back to you now, at the turn of the tide.

Friday, August 22, 2008


You remember the Wal-Mart Varsity I tested last year? I realized I hadn't previously uploaded the wrap-up to my blog, so, here it is...

Rather than donate it to a generic charity, I passed it on at no charge to Carrie, a coworker at Starbucks. She had been bicycling to work out of necessity and not really enjoying it. It made me sad, because she talked up her fitness gains but was really excited she'd gotten hired at SBUX (it's a second job for her) because she hoped to buy a car again soon.

She was riding a cheap old MTB in poor condition, even though her entire 5-mile commute is on paved roads. At first I wondered if the bike was her size, but then I realized, hey, these things are one size fits all! Actually, since it was a little bit small for me, it shouldn't do her too badly, mostly she just needs something that rolls a little better, and that's in good repair.

Conclusions from this cyclist on what you get for $200 -- is this worth it? My answer is a fairly solid NO. There is almost no type of cyclist that this is the ideal bike for. I'd either spend more money on a slightly better entry-level machine, or get something used.

What's right with it:

Wheels: these are actually pretty good. 36 spoke, Joytech hubs, not terribly out of true from the factory. If I could just buy the wheel / tire / tube package for $50, for a basic bike (or a rehabilitation project,) I think I might. The tires are 25mm, quite tough, and have sorta okay rolling resistance. Their ride quality is quite poor, though, and they are scary un-grippy in highspeed turns, but what do you expect?

Frame: yes, it's an aluminum frame from China that probaby costs about five dollars. But despite fat, fairly ugly welds, it's at least kinda smoothly put together, and clearcoated aluminum is an okay color. It's not a badlooking bike, all in all.

Brakes : the calipers themselves are generic dual-pivots, but they are smooth enough. I've seen scarier generic brakes on "real" road bikes. The stock pads, though, are another story: they are less grippy than the tires! Thankfully, that's an easy fix.

But, the bad parts outweigh the good:

Derailleurs -- Stock "Falcon" stamped-steel pieces do more flexing than shifting. Swapping to Sora ($12 for the pair from Recycled Cycles in Seattle) 7-speed units markedly increased performance. I was somewhat surprised to feel the difference.

Shifters -- Stem-mounted shifters are okay for basic bikes, but these ones aren't even that. They lightly clamp to the bars just beside the stem, and are a huge bear to get adjusted right. Also, I REALLY wish they did not bother to 'index' the rear shifter. There is no option to turn it to friction, so most of the time the 7-speed rear gives me more like 5 gears, and it makes a lot of noise. It's because of these things that I never even took it to a Tuesday Night Worlds: I can't make it shift DECISIVELY. Sometimes it'll hang up between gears, and I've had a couple of scary moments when the thing ghost-shifted under pressure. While I didn't care if this made me lose the race, I DID care if I crashed people out!

Crankset -- Actually, the problem here is the chainrings. Whose idea was it to give a bike targeted at the department-store crowd a 52 x 42 double? Okay, sure, there's a 28t sprocket, but 42 x 28 is NOT that light a gear for a recreational rider! It looks sharp, though, and it's much easier to adjust a cheap double than a triple. Still, while a 50 x 34 compact would probably be ideal spec, can't you at least track down a 39-tooth chainring?

Assembly -- The bike, as pre-assembled at Walmart, could barely ride. If one was not at least basically versed in bicycle mechanics, woe be unto whomever takes the first ride! Out of four brake pads, only one was calibrated enough to touch the wheels, and that was a rear pad. And I don't even want to tell you what the brake levers looked like.

Clearances, braze-ons, odd bits: So, they grabbed a Generic Steel Fork from the parts bin with fender eyelets. +1. Then, they leave neither eyelet nor clearance at the rear triangle for a fender. -3. Seriously, pick one. Also, it has a front quick release, but rear axle nuts. Could you just pick one, again? And, what's up with the 1.25-pound steel stem? I know weight is not a giant issue here, but, really, for a "lightweight aluminum racing frame," I don't get it. How much does the most generic aluminum stem in the world cost, another quarter?

NUTS AND BOLTS : Yeah, the bike was assembled with hard-to adjust, annoying nuts and bolts. Party like it's 1972! No allen keys required on this bike! Added to the rear axle, and you need to bring a set of box wrenches with you on a ride to make adjustments...

So, while Carrie will do well with the bike on her daily commute to work, and some fitness rides on the MUT, the cost / benefit math on the purchase just doesn't add up. It makes compromises, and we'd expect that at this price point, but it makes all of the wrong ones.
((Also, I hate supporting chinese child slave labor, but this isn't PO))

This was a fun experiment, though. Thanks again to everyone who helped!


  • At 9:09 PM , Blogger Miriam. said...

    What it is good for: People who need a cheap commuter that is faster than a mtn bike.

    It may be a crappy bike, but most people are not even going to maintain the bike. One of my co-workers has one, the tires are constantly borderline flat. When something doesnt work, they are going to take it to the LBS thus generating income for them.

    But you are right, it however is NOT an entry level race bike.

  • At 9:48 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


  • At 10:16 AM , Blogger Argentius said...

    You can do a lot for $500.

    These bikes cost $200, and probably aren't worth that.

    There isn't much difference between most bikes in the $500 or so range, but I might be drawn towards a used bike, if you wanted to learn mechanics. You can get a 2-year-old ride with some pretty solid components for that.

    New, you can get something fairly basic, with Shimano 2200 / Sora components, that will serve you just fine. The wheels, at this range, are probably the weakest link.


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