Monday, April 27, 2009

Criminally poor kids bikes

Last Saturday I volunteered my time at a nearby middle school bike safety fair.

A bunch of people came together to help kids ride safely. It was great. The organizers had done a great job and the event ran like clockwork. The kids watched a video, got fitted for free helmets, and then could ride through an obstacle course under the watchful eyes of the Beaverton bike police.

Me, a couple of other guys and a couple of mechanics from Hillsboro REI were spinning wrenches for a few hours making sure kids' bikes were safe to ride. One of the REI guys, Erin (Aaron?) called it "bike triage" I think.

I took it a step further on one bike and performed emergency battlefield surgery. More on that later, maybe.

One thing that struck me was the astoundingly low quality of components on childrens' bikes. Truly awful stuff! It seems almost criminal that bicycles intended for children should feature such poor-quality components-- the brakes in particular.

I saw brakes that were so loose that the caliper arms would wobble back and forth an inch or more when applied; brake pads that were badly cupped and slipping under the rim (and into the spokes); disconnected brakes; and tangled, twisted, rusted, frayed cables and housing.

The fragility of bicycles was readily apparent. They aren't bullet-proof or maintenance free, yet none of the bikes I saw couldn't have seen more than a squirt of WD-40 in the past few years. To be clear, I'm not criticizing the children or their parents for just simply using the bikes. It just seems like the bikes that are destined to receive the least maintenance are the ones that actually need more care due to their lower-quality components.

I worked on a few bikes that were downright dangerous to ride on. One in particular: the right-side pedal had worked itself loose and destroyed half of the threads. The thing was only held in place by one or two threads and a lot of rust. I don't know what it would have taken to break that tenuous bond. Maybe coming down off of a curb? Hopping on the bike? Maybe just some random pedal stroke?

I kept wondering to myself if the collective genius of the bicycle industry couldn't come up with a few simple components that would be durable, reliable, and very low maintenance. I suppose the real problem would be cost-- anything that would meet those criteria would likely add significantly to the cost of the bike. Plus it seems that most childrens' bikes are "disposable" because by the time they DO fail or become unridable the child has already out-grown it and is ready fo the next size up. I guess this is what Wal-Mart is for.

But this brings me back to something that I feel pretty strongly about:
That a bike that is safe and reliable and that functions properly is more fun to ride and thus the child will be more likely to KEEP riding. When a bike doesn't function properly and, as a result, is difficult to ride, I could see the child becoming disenchanted and opting to have mom or dad ferry them around in the car. At the very lease they lose an avenue for healthy exploration and transportation. (I remember my first bike as a child-- what a sense of freedom! It was like I had been given wings.)

Anyway... I overheard that about 400 kids when through in just a few hours. We breathed new life in to lots and lots of bikes that needed a little TLC and I hope that we helped to keep the kids enjoying their bikes and the freedom of riding. I also hope that we gave them a favorable impression of "bike people".

Ride on, kids.

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