Why you Should Avoid the Department Store When Buying a Bike

High functioning scrap metal

RIP Kranked DSXC

Meet the first bike I bought, a Kranked DSXC (2011) from Canada’s entrenched department store: Canadian Tire.  To many, it looks like a marvellous symphony of metal, rubber and plastic, working together to turn simple rotational peddling into a rolling force onward.

Back in 2011, in my naive days, my procurement process was much simpler. I was easily impressed by the ostentatious features that bikes had to offer. The Kranked DSXC had all the bells and whistles (did not literally have a bell) of what I wanted in a bike:
√ Cheap, at $200
√ Disc brakes
√ Dual suspension

On my crisp LCD screen it looked good, but a couple weeks ago I disposed of the Kranked DSXC frame as scrap metal, where did it all go wrong?  Beyond the facile facade of shiny features, the bike was an unmitigated failure of machinery. Less than 20 kilometres in on ownership I had my first real problem.

This failure of a procurement reinforced one solid piece of advice for buying a bike, don’t buy from a department store.

How I came to the point that I was standing in the bike aisle at Canadian Tire was the result of a rather banal outing.  For a couple months, my 2 km walk to campus was growing wearisome, I wanted to expedite the whole excruciating process of commuting.  Bikes are excellent, quick, efficient and cost-effective, my hunt for a bike was in the back of my mind for quite awhile as I went to stores that sold bikes.  One fateful day in the rear of February I found my lemon two-wheeled steed.  Without hesitation I spent $200 and I rolled out on the bike.

A nontrivial $200 was spent, it felt like I had walked out with a pocket full of consumer surplus, however, my enthusiasm tempered by the spectre of wisdom that had been imposed on me many times: department store bikes suck – would soon be awakened somewhere in the closet of my grey matter. Soon I would discover the litany of serious issues this bike would throw at me.  Less than 20 kilometres were put on the bike when the crank decided to withdraw from the frame of the bike.

Yes, less than 20 kilometres I had a major fault with the bike. With each rotation I felt the wobbly nature of the crank. It got successfully more wobbly as each rotation went down until a catastrophic failure happened.

The crank was too loose to ride anymore. After having to walk my gliding rust pile home, I started to carry a socket wrench with me to keep the crank secure. But no matter what, it found a way to slimmer away from the confines of the frame.

I wish that was the only problem, but the seat, or ‘saddle’, to use proper cycling nomenclature, was designed by masochists or Kranked got a nice deal with the gel seat industry, because the seat was unreasonably uncomfortable, the first thing I did was buy a gel seat to cover the atrocities that the saddle designers at Kranked cooked up.  It still baffles me that such a seat could pass QC, but I guess if the team at Kranked just had to check off the item “have a seat on bike” on their list, then they succeeded.

The word comfort was not in Kranked’s vocabulary

Both plastic pedals couldn’t take the pressure anymore and both ended up breaking. It is a state of unfortunate affairs when an essential part on the bike is not only very likely to break but for many it is expected.

My Austerity pedal

My Austerity pedal

Disappointment was an apt descriptor of my state of feelings, in an attempt to remedy the situation and save some money I attempted to refurbish the pedals with duct tape reinforced with metal pieces extracted from an abandoned umbrella. It worked reasonably well.

The myriad of problems was not an unique experience for myself, a Youtuber named Michael Summers made this product video back in 2011 about the same bike and had some of the same problems, namely the crank being defective.  Information is key, let this post be a testament to the risks that one will bear if he or she does not engage in meaningful research.  A product review page on the Canadian Tire website repeated many of the same claims (Unfortunately that same page cannot be found anymore).

So after about two weeks of ownership what did I do? I went back to Canadian Tire, their return policy said no returns, but offered warranty repairs.  At the time of purchase I didn’t really think about the return policy, the honeymoon phase was upon me and I didn’t have to think about the future, but reality would ruin that soon enough.  A cashier told me that it is possible they would take it as a return but they are not obligated to do so.

So I turned up at the Canadian Tire armed with a receipt for my lemon of a bike and a disposition towards righting the scamware that I recently bought. My bellicose meter was turned up, was I hostile to the young store manager? No, but I had to let him know that Canadian Tire sold a defective product.  But the manager was unrelenting, the policy was the policy, as Judge Judy would say: buyer beware.  My consolation prize was a warranty repair that took 45 minutes in the back room.

I blacklisted Canadian Tire from any future procurement of such magnitude and I learned that the old adage of buying cheap bikes from the department store would lead to misery was unfortunately true. Canadian Tire ripped me off with an inferior product and I learned through failure, it was then I learned that the buying the cheapest product wasn’t always the cheapest.  Canadian Tire also adorned the frame with their Jump Start Logo, celebrating their charity work, I hope the Kranked DSXC is not the quality of bikes that children have to contend with.

The bike had a continuing list of problems and I ended up retiring it by putting it in the shed.  Giving up, a phrase often scribbled out by the mega-aggressive, grab life by the horns type of people, lose out on a valuable tool and strategy.  I gave up on my piece of junk.  My first bicycle procurement had gone sideways.  I ended up walking during the next school year.

To collapse a couple years of cycling history, the cliff notes were that I ended up using a beater bike that functioned fine for awhile, eventfully paving the way for a proper procurement.  I learned that the features I yearned for were silly, why did I need a heavy mountain bike when all my riding took place on the road? Not to mention that I’ve seen mountain bikes that literally state “do not take offroad”, the quality offered by department stores does not even allow these timid beasts to leave the pavement.   Instead I ended up finding a used hybrid commuting bike for $350 that came with a laundry list of modifications, e.g, front and rear racks, saddle bags, etc.

Happy endings are the domain of Disney movies, trite and predictable they are, but my story ends with a happy ending.  My bike has exceeded my expectations and my bike is the paragon of cycling virtue.  But the point of my story isn’t to embolden the immense success of my second procurement, but to illustrate two things: department store bikes represent the high cost of cheap, bikes come with low prices, but ensure job security for bike repairmen. Second point, the quality is elusive on department store bikes, shined up, loaded with irrelevant features to tickle the wallet folds of those who have done little research.

That old adage, the one that sticks in the title of this article, stay away from department stores when buying bikes, is true as ever.  As someone dedicated to trying to maximize my savings, the department store is not a place to do so.  These bikes are created to maximize profits for the retailers that sell them, these bikes are sold usable but long term usage is elusive and impossible without heavy maintenance. Return policies, such as the one at Canadian Tire do not let you return the bike if it turns out to be a lemon, as my case would indicate.  Even Consumer Reports recommends looking at bikes beside the cheap department store bikes.

Bikes also are personal, like an article of clothing.  Big box often does not allow the flexibly or the services to fit a bike. Properly adjusting a bike is imperative for comfort. Like a fine suit, a tailor unravels an old measuring tape to find out the dimensions that will let a suit sit on your frame properly, bike usage benefits from a custom fitting, seat height, handle bar angles, and so on are properly calibrated to keep your comfortable.  Most riders go without, most riders suffer.

The sticker shock is what turns away business from bike shop proper, no one wants to pay $350+ for a bike.  But if you plan on riding a bike frequently these costs are not only cheap, but turn out cheaper in the long run compared to high functioning junk that big box USA cranks out.   Bike shops often have rider friendly policies that often include free tuneups and tight warranty provisions.

Of course, the sticker shock is still insurmountable to some,  the question I pose to them is how often do you plan on using a bike? Casual riders looking to ride once the summer solstice is in the rear view mirror, warm days, a sunset that doesn’t come until after nine and heat that makes you reconsider the cruelty of winter, may be able to cave in on a department store junk. But why not buy second hand, or rent? Options abound for the casuals who like the idea of cycling more so than the actual activity.

For the dedicated cyclists, or those consider trading the car fob for a u-lock key, those who will beat the morning traffic jam by zooming by in the curb lane, or those dedicated to more than just one or two summer rides should consider the quality found at local bike shops.

The key to this whole issue is costs, in a department store the costs are slashed, assembly, quality and longevity are compromised to save you money upfront and make money for the corporate side. However, those costs withheld at the onset are often levied later down the road via part replacement, repairs, and the opportunity cost of your time.

Many have a hard time visualizing or imagining long term costs especially when they’re unknown. Unfortunately there is no universal metric to decide where you should get your bike, so I will speak in more qualitative terms, if you looking to jump on your bike frequently, consider the more ‘expensive’ bike at your local shop, but remember that the initial costs are higher, long term cost will probably remain low.

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