You wouldn’t think it would be hard to spend upwards of £500 on a light, nippy, flat-barred road bike, would you?
I’m talking the kind of bike that you stick a rack on plus a pannier or two and maybe some mudguards and pedal reliably to work and back in the week. There must be loads of them. Well, there are on cycle shop websites anyway.
It’s only when you want to actually look at them and, heavens forbid, sit on one or ride it, that you run into problems. Some won’t let you try unless you buy. Some take 25% of the cost if they order it in and you try it and you don’t like it – transferrable to any other bike but not refundable. A few will order in a bike of the right size AND let you try it. But not if it’s raining.
Who wouldn’t be spellbound by the look of this hanging on the wall of a local Trek dealer?
Love at first sight. Twenty-four pounds of gorgeousness with sculpted saddle built for ladies. Matt black with thin sweeping gold accents, roadie-type gears, carbon forks and thoughtfully-placed elastomer here and there to ensure a comfortable ride.
You can imagine my excitement (I never had a bike as a kid apart from a second-hand pre-war black job and I’ve only ever had two other bikes in my entire life) when the bike shop guy showed me the bike, in my size, he’d ordered in and built up so I could take it for a trial ride.
Saddle adjusted, front bars lowered; things were all looking good. The most dreamy bike I ever rode was son no 2’s Felt racer. Directionally positive, responsive as hell and gears like silk. Riding only a mountain bike for fifteen years, I was anticipating a similar heavenly experience.
I took off but this was the road to hell. Real struggle changing up from middle to big ring. So bad I felt like putting out an indicating hand to the lorry behind me in the spirit of “Bear with me, guv just…arrrrgghhhhh……changing up… nearly finished…one more push….” I won’t compare it with childbirth, but you get my drift.
The thumbshifter on the left really was like pushing concrete – and in order to shift from middle to big ring, you needed to push it about three inches, awkwardly under the bar. This wasn’t going to be a ride; this was going to be war.
I rode on, astonished at the amount of clanking and unsatisfactory gear changes, struggling to the extent it was tricky to concentrate on those AND traffic. So after about eight miles, I went back to the shop and said “Hmm. Nice bike, apart from the gears being all over the place, the impossibly stiff thumbshifter and the back brake a bit soft.”
They said they’d sort those things out for me, although they “Hmm’d” in a non-specific but discouraging way over the stiff thumbshifter, so I could go back and try it again a few days later. So I returned still full of hope and expectation (for it was indeed a spiffy bike and very comfortable as long as you didn’t actually do anything with the gears) that the glitches would have been sorted.
But no. They hadn’t adjusted the gears because they thought they were working well. And the manager’s wife had sat on the bike and pronounced that she could manage the thumbshifter ok, sitting on the bike, stationary, in the shop, so that was ok too.
But she’s not interested in having it. I’m the one who wants it and I want it right. I said something like that but secretly thought, oh dear, maybe it’s me. Maybe I haven’t got the required knack with road gears. So I took it out for a spin again. Clanky, clanky gears, chain slipping from one ring to another and then, oh dear, slipping off completely. Stopped and re-positioned chain. On the ride back to the shop on the flat, I heard the merry musical sounds of the chain skipping randomly from one ring to another on the rear cassette. I actually smiled. This was so very, very wrong. I began to wonder whether their mechanic was some kid who only practised his bike-building skills on his Raleigh Burner with stablilisers at home.
I told the guys my view in a polite manner without mentioning the Raleigh Burner. There was surprise and I detecting a patronising kind of pity in their expressions. “Poor old bat can’t cope.”
One lifted the bike on to a rack and wound the pedals through the gears. Nothing wrong. Oh wait. One of the chain links is a bit bent. That would account for the skipping antics on the rear cassette, then. They would sort it in the workshop. Bike wheeled into workshop. A minute later grumpy old fart mechanic appears and accuses me “Have you put this bike in a boot?”
“Er.. no. Just taken it for a test ride. Why?” He didn’t think I was worthy of an answer and disappeared again.
So the bike was brought out again with a new chain link and the gears were supposed to be fine. Although it was just about to rain (and you’re not supposed to test ride bikes in the rain – the water, I was told in all seriousness “gets into the frame” had to snigger at that) I took it out again thinking “This is it. Thank God. It will be rideable.”
But alas, no. Same trouble with the front gears. Just ridiculously awful.
The shop guys still had their doubts but one of them was starting to believe the whingeing old bag and declared that he would take it for a ride himself when the rain stopped.
I was unfeasibly disappointed and depressed. I confided in a mate who’s an ace cyclist. He basically said “Don’t buy from them” and that I should be enjoying the whole bike choosing experience. Fat chance. Then he started talking cogs and ratios and maths and helpfully sent me a diagram of a dismantled rear cassette with rings, sprockets and very probably flanges. It was quite artistic. Reminded me of my old spirograph, which would only ever draw round things with cogs on.
I got a phone call a day or two later from the manager “Brad’s taken it out. It’s not too bad – didn’t change maybe one time out of ten but we’ll replace the chainset so you can try it again.”
He claimed it was big mistake having that make of chainset – I won’t mention it because there is nothing wrong with it and it’s found on loads of high-end bikes – and he would stick a Shimano on there.
A nice gesture, but too little, too late – and in real terms, absolute bollocks. There is nothing wrong with the chainset which comes with the bike. What was wrong was that the bike was built badly in the first place by the mechanic at the shop.
I know this is a fact because I went down to Mud Dock bike shop in Bristol on Saturday and they had no similar trouble with an of the Trek 7.6fx hybrids they had sold. They’d get me one in and I could try it without obligation. They’d also get a Trek 7.5fx in my size and a Cannondale Quick4 for comparison. I could try the whole lot. I must admit I had a little thrill of anticipation.
And so it came to pass that I was at Mud Dock at 8.40am on Thursday and on the road trying the Trek 7.6fx over the cobbles (checked with them that would be ok, natch) and then mixed it with traffic on unfamiliar roads around the city centre, which was great fun. I had no idea where I was except somewhere near The Wells Road. My strategy was to follow and catch the nearest cyclist and then find another to chase after, all the time negotiating some kind of circular route in order to find my way back to Mud Dock.
The bike rode like a dream. The gears changed in a silky-type way without failing once. The left thumbshifter was fine – no more stiff than expected and with an inch less travel necessary. There was no chain skipping and the chain stayed on. The brakes were perfectly set up. It was just as I hoped it would be.
I was wondrously amazed and stupidly impressed that The Mud Dock guys really know how to build the bikes they sell. I tried the Cannondale but it felt a little small and wasn’t as nice as the Trek – and as I was very happy with the Trek, there was little point trying the next model down without all the spiffy elastomer bits and the road gearing. So, dear reader, I bought the Trek 7.6fx from a bike shop which is everything you’d hope for and more.
The guys at Mud Dock are friendly, efficient, they do what they say they’ll do, they make sure the bike is a perfect fit – and they’ll go the extra mile for you if necessary. I needed accessories fitted – bottle cages, rack, pump but there was little time and the workshop was booked up. The suggested plan was to pick up the bike another time when that had all been done. But waaaahhhh, I had no time to go back. I had son’s wedding to think about, closely followed by the Tour de France hol. I really wanted to take it then and there. So the guy said he’d do his best in half an hour. I went upstairs to the totally bikey cafe (bike bits on the walls of the loo, bikes hanging from the roof of the caff) and watched 1975 TV footage of the Tour de France Nice stage featuring Eddie Merckx while munching a smoked salmon/cream cheese toastie and having tea.
When I’d finished, the bike was ready in the nick of time for me to head up the motorway to get to work in Chelters. Hell, the guy even offered to help me load it into the back of the car and made sure the V brake could be released to remove the front wheel.
So, after much searching, I finally found my perfect bike in my perfect bike shop.
I will, of course, be going back. Apart from the ambience, the lovely fresh-cooked food in the cafe, the bike parking the deal includes two free services a year for the lifetime of the bike. Plus there’s the promise of some ladies bike evening where they show you how to rip off and replace a tube without breaking your nails, display some spiffy new ladies clothing and give you a free goody bag. I’m THERE!!