[Thanks to Alan over at the terrific Eco-Velo blog (http://www.ecovelo.info) for bringing this to my attention.]
Word is out that Walmart now sells a bonafide "Commuter" bike. It has almost all the right stuff: upright riding position, fatter tires, rigid frame and fork (no shocks!) and a rear rack. (It could use fenders, too; but I live in Portland and I think ALL bikes should have fenders year-round.)
And get this: it retails for $132.00.
After I choked on my drink, I checked out the bike at the Walmart Web site. It's being sold under the Mongoose brand name. Mongoose used to be a serious, cutting-edge brand for off-road and BMX bikes. Then, like so many other formerly-cool brands, it lost so much market share that the rights to the name were sold to a Chinese or Taiwanese Cheap Bike Conglomerate, and now Mongoose bikes are made in China using mostly the lowest possible standards and the cheapest components. In short, this is a department store bike. As such, my shop would never consider selling it. But the truth is that, no matter how low the quality may be -- and it IS low, believe me -- lots of people who can't afford anything better are going to snap this baby up. Some of those people may even bring their bikes to us to have adjustments made, or to have serious mechanical issues corrected. (Generally speaking, we try to get them to go back where they bought the bike if it's still under warranty. If it's not, we try to talk them out of any repair that costs more than the bike is worth.)
Of course, there are bike snobs everywhere: on the internet, in my shop, everywhere. I am even a bit of a bike snob myself, meaning that as long as I earn enough money to have a choice I will choose to ride a quality-made bicycle that will last a long time. It costs more but, in my opinion, is well worth it.
My shop has a policy that we absolutely will not sell bikes that we consider to be the Lowest Common Denominator. That generally excludes from our showroom any new bike that costs under $350.00 retail. And while that decision means we can stand behind what we sell with more confidence, we've paid the price in the number of low-income customers we've turned away as a result. People who used to shop with us ten years ago, even five years ago, now go to the Walmarts of the world, which is where they'll find the bikes they can afford. A generation or two ago those bikes came from Sears, Penney's and K-Mart. Now they come from Walmart and Costco. I grew up riding a succession of cheap department store bikes and they served their purpose -- they got me outside and moving, and dreaming. They got me hooked on riding a bicycle for the rest of my life.
A few of my snobbiest bike buddies refuse to even call department store bikes actual bikes; one friend of mine calls them BSO's, or Bike-Shaped Objects. Well, if the cranks turn and the chain moves and you can ride the thing, then in my book it's a bike -- not a great bike or a cool bike, but a bike nonetheless. And while lots of people may buy these bikes and end up regretting it, so many more will buy them and find that they work just fine for trips to work or school or the store. We who ride nicer bikes do a disservice when we snicker at or snub new riders who show up at our shops, club rides and bike advocacy events riding cheap bikes. Someday their fortunes may turn and they'll be able to buy something better. If we scoff at them now, they may buy it somewhere else; or worse yet, they may bag bicycling altogether and save up for a nicer car instead.