Last Sunday I went for a ride through DC (the weather was perfect for it) and stopped at Mid City Caffe for a delicious iced coffee along the way. As I was coming out, two guys walking down 14th Street complimented my 15-year old Kent mountain bike that I was unlocking from the bike rack. The noted that they never see nice mountain bikes like mine out on the street anymore, only cheap-looking crappy mountain bikes.

Quick sidebar: I bought my bike about five years ago. I was in the market for an inexpensive used bike for tooling around campus and there was an advertisement on my university's classifieds for a $75 used mountain bike. I called the seller, we arranged to meet on a street corner in Little Italy. I brought along my roommate as muscle. I met the seller, we exchanged the cash for the bike and I was on my way. I've replaced and upgraded many of the components since, but for $75 it has been a great value, though I plan to replace it with a much more efficient bike soon.

So what prompted these guys to comment about my bike? I think there is some truth to the claim that most of the mountain bikes you see people riding around the city are cheap. Why?

The culprit, I believe, is big box stores.

(from Flickr user fourstarcashiernathan)

If you walk into a legitimate bike store and talk to a salesperson, the first thing they will ask is what you plan to use the bike for. If you say riding around the city, they aren't going to sell you a mountain bike. If anything, they'll steer you toward a decent hybrid.

On the other hand, when you walk into Walmart or Target, you see a big wall full of bikes, but there really isn't anyone to help you figure out which model is best. Mountain bikes, when they're on the shelf next to other types of bikes, look tough and sturdy and reliable. They're like the SUV of bikes: big and heavy and inefficient. They seem great until you realize something more energy efficient may have made a lot more sense.

So people who shop at big box stores wind up walking out with cheap mountain bikes (for what it's worth, most of the bikes sold at bix box stores look and feel cheap). A person shopping at a bike store will only walk out with a mountain bike if they legitimately plan to do offroad riding, even then, they will probably opt for a decent mountain bike. And thus, the prevalence of crappy mountain bikes in the city may be explained by the fact that people who bought from a bicycle for the purpose of city riding store probably didn't opt for the mountain bike.

Of course, this is more than just about bikes. Big box stores sell all kinds of cheap high-end goods: TVs, electronics, appliances, etc. Without the expertise of a salesperson a customer might find at a specialty store, people walk in and look for things that look nice and cost little. I can't help but wonder how often people wind up buying stuff that they may never completely realize is a poor value.


    Your observation holds true in my side of the world. The health and wellness fad here is seriously ushering an era of cheap, surplus and crappy mountain bikes with no real value whatsoever. Not much of a bike enthusiast, I still cannot tell the difference between a good set of wheels and an "imitation of quality". But I'm learning and choosing wisely when I do make a purchase. I hope people do get to realize this sooner or later and be more vigilant about the bikes they buy. We have to get rid of the litter in our world in our own ways, at least. Litter = crap bikes.