Recently, I discovered that Wal-Mart now sells e-bikes via their website (they also now carry a cyclocross bike and an entry-level road bike, both equipped with brifters, thanks to microshift). Part of me felt a little perturbed (now even more people will buy Wal-Mart bikes!) and part of me felt like, well, actually, for people with mobility issues living on a fixed income, that might actually be kind of a great thing.
So, of course, being the obsessive weirdo that I am, I decided to read the reviews. All of them.
All too soon, I stumbled across a one-star review that essentially said, “One of the tires went flat, so I returned it, and I’m mad that I had to pay the return shipping and tires aren’t covered under the warranty.”
That review made me sad — in fact, it made me very sad.
It made me so sad because it reminded me that, all over the United States, neglected bikes are hanging unused in garages and rusting in back yards because people (even some who, presumabl, know how to change a flat tire on their cars) don’t realize that bike tires aren’t like car tires.
For the most part, bike tires still use inner tubes. That means that, when you get a flat tire, you can simply go out (in your car, even!) and purchase another inner tube from your local bike shop — or even from Wal-Mart &dmash; for about $5 – $10. Then you pop your tire off the rim of your bike’s wheel, look for the offending pointy bit, remove it if you find it, install the new tube, inflate it, and you’re ready to roll.
It’s a simple skill, and it’s easy to learn — and yet potential millions of reasonably-smart Americans … Americans who presumably even have internet access … have no idea it can be done.
I have to suspect that forty or fifty years ago every Dad in America — and a sound percentage of everyone else — knew this. If they didn’t know how to change a bike inner tube, they at least knew it could be done — and if they didn’t know how to do it themselves, they probably knew someone who could. They might even have known that it is often possible to patch inner tubes.
Wal-Mart’s e-bike actually gets pretty great reviews. People like it because it adds a little bit of extra freedom to their lives. It was disheartening to see someone who could’ve enjoyed that little bit of extra freedom angry and discouraged because the bike he or she purchased came with a small problem that could’ve been fixed very easily.
Yes, bike tires and inner tubes are generally considered “consumable parts” under manufacturers’ warranties. That’s because they’re cheap and easy to replace. Don’t like the tires your bike came with? You can buy a whole new set for less than $30 if you know where to look. Inner tubes defective? Well, it happens. They can be replaced easily enough.
Being able to ride and maintain a bike is a big step towards the kind of freedom and self-sufficiency that we Americans claim to cherish. In fact, as a competent and fit cyclist, I have a measure of freedom even drivers don’t — I can ride in places cars can’t go, gas prices exert essentially no impact on my life, and if someday we should experience a gas shortage, well … that’s no skin off my back. I can still get where I need to go, even if “where I need to go” is all the way across the country. It just might take a little bit longer.
I’d like to live in a country where people are able to think for themselves well enough to whip out the self-same computers they used to order their bikes from Wal-Mart and google “What do I do about a flat bike tire?” One where beloved family bikes aren’t blamed for ruining the fun just because Bubby or Sissy rode over a nail. One where we aren’t afraid to roll up our sleeves and said, “Hm, I wonder what these little screws on this here gear-changing dingus do?”
…Because, in all honesty, that’s how I’ve learned much of what I now know about bike repair, which is enough to fix something like 95% of the problems my bikes throw at me (I don’t build wheels, so I can’t replace worn-out or hosed-up rims — but I do know how to pay someone else to do that).
The one bike repair skill everyone should learn is how to replace an inner tube: because once everyone realizes how easy it is to do, they might feel a little less intimidated about, say, adjusting the brakes a bit, or trying a different set of tires, or figuring out what’s making that insufferable squeaky noise in the pedals.
That, and it’ll get a lot of those neglected bikes back out on the road, doing what they should be doing: providing people with freedom and fun.