Life with a department store bike

Some people dismiss them as merely bicycle shaped objects (BSOs), but many people ride department store bikes bought from the various X-marts. This is my account of the life cycle of a cheap department store bike, a $99 Triumph Sahara from Walmart. I don't remember exactly when I bought this bike but it would have been around 1998 to 2000. The rear axle snapped in July 2010. I left it with the Sustainable Technology Education Project (STEP) group at the University of Waterloo for potential use in a bicycle generator project. Read on to find out how to neglect, abuse and ensure the timely death of a cheap bike, along with an account of the types of problems I had with it during the last 10 or so years.

Triumph Sahara, Walmart bike

Description

The Triumph Sahara was a steel-framed, rigid (i.e. no suspension), 26-inch wheel “hybrid”. I use the term hybrid instead of “mountain bike” (which is what it was sold as) because I do not think it can actually be used as an MTB or any other type of off-road use. The pedals, for example, were very flimsy. In any case, I consider it more of a hybrid with 26-inch wheels. It had the lowest end of Shimano components available; simply marked Shimano SIS. When new, there were 15 speeds (3 in the front, 5 in the back). All in all, it is the cheapest type of bike you could have gotten back when I bought it. I suspect $99 bikes today are even cheaper. I liked the fact that it came with bar ends, which I used during very relaxed riding. The bar ends were actually more comfortable than the after-market ones I added to my Devinci Stockholm (which is a “proper” hybrid bike).

The ride quality was not spectacular but not terrible either. The 1.5 inch wide tires absorbed a lot of bumps and were good enough for gravel trails at low speeds (up to about 20 km/h). At the end of 10 years, the brakes were very weak compared to the standard V-brakes now available but I think the brake pads needed replacing. The handlebars and stem position allowed for an upright ride which was comfortable for the sort of short distance rides I did on it. The stem and handlebars were solid and did not come loose or creak even after 10 years, unlike my more expensive Norco Yorkville, whose adjustable stem required frequent cleaning and re-seating. Due to the fat tires and upright sitting position, the bike was slow. But as a way of getting to class faster than walking, it was more than sufficient.

Condition of bike after 10 years

Just as a point of reference, here is a look at the condition of the bike in 2010, when the bike was at least ten years old. These pictures were taken a few days before the rear axle broke.

Condition of drive train in 2010: Everything was rusty but it still moved. Cables were frayed and the front derailleur was basically stuck.

Rear derailleurRusty sprocketsFront derailleur

Condition of frame in 2010: The frame was starting to become rusty but had not rusted through yet in 2010. Surface rust is evident but not too severe. I did not look inside the frame to see what type of corrosion had occurred (I have heard that rust can be nasty inside the bike frame as moisture cannot escape as easily). Cable rub has taken off the paint in places, which then started to rust. The underside of the down tube, which was banged against some stupid bike parking racks, was rusty but not as bad as I would have expected. There was a vinyl sticker or decal that goes around the down tube (where it says “Triumph”) that probably protected it from being scratched even more.

Rust on the frame

Abuse and Neglect (aka Usage and Maintenance)

Use cases: I bought the bike when I was still in high school and for the first few years did not really use it much. It stayed in the garage and was occasionally taken out for short rides (about 3 to 4 km each time). When I started my undergrad, I used it during the summer and fall school terms to get to and from class, which was a total daily commute of about 2 km. During these terms, it was stored outside with no cover for a total of 16 months. Aside from this, the rest of the time it was stored in either a garage or outside but under cover. During grad school, I used it interchangeably with my Norco Yorkville (until the Yorkville was stolen) to get to and from campus; a daily commute of about 4 km.

Ride conditions: The terrain for these commutes is either paved road or gravel paths. I frequently semi-hopped onto curbs by lifting the front wheel and riding the back over the curb and also rode the bike off curbs and down a certain flight of stairs with a gentle slope on campus. This is nothing too onerous but I do not do this with my newer bikes with 700C sized tires. Every year there are a few weeks where there is some snow and salt water that I ride through, but this is quite rare.

Maintenance: The bike saw almost no maintenance at all during the entire time I owned it. I had a bike shop replace the rear-derailleur which popped off in the summer of 2003. Someone probably smacked the derailleur while parking their bike on campus. That was the only time any adjustments were made. I replaced the brake pads once, probably also in 2003. The chain was lubed starting in 2007 and it was lubed only once per year. I replaced the inner tube in the front tire once in 2007 due to being punctured by a pin and the rear inner tube was replaced very early on due to a slow leak. Aside from this, no maintenance of any kind was done on the bike.

Going over the last few paragraphs, the abuse and neglect I inflicted on the bike amount to just slightly rough usage. Still, the rear axle snapped and the bike died.

The table below lists approximate usage characteristics of the bike up till July 2010, at which point I stopped using it:

CharacteristicValue
Age10 to 12 years
Total duration of outdoor storage16 months
Distance traveled1700 km

The distance traveled is a very small number for a bike that has been owned for 10 or more years. This is due to the fact that I only used it for very short trips to and from the school campus.

Problem history

The major problems I can remember having for this bike are listed in roughly chronological order.

2000 - 2001: Shifting problems. The shifting was unreliable very soon after I bought the bike. For the first few years the problems were limited to being unable to reliably switch to the smallest rear sprocket (highest gear) or the occasional “automatic” shift (when the gear changes on its own).

2003: Rear derailleur pops off after one term on campus at U. Waterloo. It was probably due to it being smacked a bit while stored in the on campus bike racks. The derailleur and associated cable is replaced and the shifting works about the same as before for a while.

2008: Derailleurs stop working completely. The pivots of all the derailleurs are stuck. This is due to lack of maintenance and corrosion. During 2007, the bike was used for a few weeks of warm winter conditions, with road salt and grime getting into the drive train. No real effort was made to clean it off before storage during the winter. The chain became very rusty and noisy (but still functional) in 2008 and the derailleurs no longer functioned at all. I lubed the pivot points on the rear derailleur as an experiment in 2010 and I re-obtained use of two gears. The front derailleur was completely stuck on the small chain ring (which meant I had to pedal far too fast to get any sort of speed). Lubing the pivots did not help and the cable was also starting to fray. I manually adjusted the front derailleur to give me the middle chain ring and left it alone.

2009: Seat-post fused to frame. Since I never greased the seat post, it was almost impossible to adjust the seat height after 9 years. I ended up dripping lube down the seat post and twisted and pulled the seat out a bit. It never became fully unstuck. I could see that the seat post had corroded.

2010: Rear axle snaps. I was starting from a stop light and felt the rear wheel seize. The axle had snapped and caused the back wheel to turn toward the chain stay and rub against it. I removed the wheel and took apart the entire axle and bearing assembly and found that the axle bolt was half snapped. Removing it snapped it completely and the back wheel was finished. I am not sure about the cause, but it might have to do with the rough handling (half-hopping onto curbs and jumping off of them, as well as the occasional trip down some stairs) and corrosion (the bolt looked a bit rusty). The moral of the story here is that it could have snapped more catastrophically. Thus, I am going to be a lot more careful with my bikes. Aside from being gentler with them, I also need to inspect areas that can potentially fail. There are no guarantees that I can find all problems before they happen but it is better than not doing it at all.

Summation

Having ridden the bike for nearly 10 years (but not everyday), I can say that in spite of its problems and low quality, it did its job. I used it on short trips to get to and from the school campus and to get around town. With most trips being shorter than 5 km on fairly flat terrain, the shifting problems were not bothersome. Since it was such an old and cheap bike, I was not worried that it would be stolen. The only thing that would concern me in terms of buying another bike like this is whether the axle snapping is due to how I used the bike to jump curbs and occasionally go down some stairs, the bike's low quality or a combination of these factors. In any case, if I did get another bike like this, I would probably be a lot more careful with it.

Discussion

Steve, 2011/08/16 03:02
Interesting reading. I sure hope your Stockholm gets more frequent maintenance than this bike! I'm surprised anything worked.

Shifters can also stop working due to corrosion inside the cable housings.

It makes great sense to inspect a bicycle periodically. It was only because I was cleaning mine recently that I discovered a very small crack on a rear dropout. Trouble is, the crack went entirely through the most important web of the dropout. I have no idea how long it's been cracked, and it puts very high stresses on the other two webs. Had another web broken, the rear wheel would have come loose. Considering for example how many times recently I've been racing downhill while being passed closely by semitrailer trucks, makes me shudder.
Peter Yu, 2011/08/18 21:11
I definitely agree - regular inspections and maintenance are essential. I haven't had to do much for the Stockholm so far, just cleaning and relubricating the drive train and one adjustment so far.
Richard Roy , 2014/09/25 23:58
Thank you so much for your detailed analysis of the bike. I just saw a used one for $95 and wanted to know more about it. You answered my questions thoroughly.
Kate, 2016/07/13 23:42
Well at least you are honest about how you cared about the bike. I pick up discarded and cheap bikes from decent makers (I avoid department store bikes) and am surprised often how badly they are treated by their former owners. I just picked up a very nice early 2000's Trek to restore and so far its been one of the newer bikes I've worked on and yet the most frustrating -- because it was owned by someone on the seacoast and left out all the time. Everything was corroded.



Once rust and corrosion sets in, a user may then start forcing things to work and that usually causes parts to fail. In addition, rust weakens everything much less binds everything together -- or corrosion of dissimilar metals. Then stresses increase in areas where they aren't supposed to on parts that can no longer handle the stress or torque -- or shouldn't have to when things function, so things break.



Department store bikes are cheap and their parts are cheap, but I've been surprised at how many bikes I pick that hold a "high-end" pedigree really have cheaply constructed parts as well.



So even though they are heavier, built clumsily and the parts are cheaply built, a department store bike can last if well taken care of and maintained. No, these bikes aren't something to buy for training or long trail rides, but they will get you around and somtimes that's really all you need. All the bike needs, like any mechanical thing, is to be protected against the elements and kept functional, like anything else.



Keep your expectations to what your device can do and take care of it and you'll be happy.
I would love to hear your feedback. Enter your comment below [ Terms of Use ]:
FTGVC
 

About Peter Yu I am a research and development professional with expertise in the areas of image processing, remote sensing and computer vision. I received BASc and MASc degrees in Systems Design Engineering at the University of Waterloo. My working experience covers industries ranging from district energy to medical imaging to cinematic visual effects. I like to dabble in 3D artwork, I enjoy cycling recreationally and I am interested in sustainable technology. More about me...

Feel free to contact me with any questions about this site at [user]@[host] where [user]=web and [host]=peteryu.ca

Copyright © 1997 - 2017 Peter Yu