Walmart Bikes AKA Big Box Bikes (BBB), AKA Department store bikes, AKA Bicycle shaped object (BSO):
There are two fundamental problems with them:
1)They are made to have as many “features” as possible for the lowest possible price. Corners are cut to save every nickle. Here are some examples:
Start with the wheels:
-They are always machine trued, as hand truing is expensive. The truing machines do not produce adequate spoke tension, because they can’t allow for the spoke twisting that happens as tension increases. This results in spokes that soon fatigue and break and weak wheels that do not stay true.
-Steel rims instead of aluminum. Steel rims are heavier, rust, and have exceptionally poor wet braking performance. Check with a magnet, as it is very common for the steel rims to wear an aluminum plating. If you do by-chance get aluminum rims they are often anodized over the braking surface which offers poor breaking till it wears off, then galls some and causes accelerated pad wear and noisy braking. Machining a braking surface is expensive it seems.
-Iron-based steel spokes instead of stainless steel. Steel spokes rust and freeze in the nipples so the wheel can’t be trued.
-Really crappy hubs and bearings. Good bikes will have aluminum hubs with pressed in hardened steel bearing races or sealed bearings. Crap bikes have swaged steel hubs with integral races, possibly case hardened as if that helps.
-Recently they have started going to low spoke-count wheels. This saves money and looks racy. But it only really works on expensive racing rims, and people who race on these usually have a second set of beater wheels for training because even the expensive ones are a bit delicate. The BSO version might work for a while with a kid or petit woman, but “people of Walmart” should avoid them.
-Frame: Usually low carbon steel, AKA Hiten, AKA 1020, AKA 1018. This allows mig welding which cuts labor cost. Requires thick walls to be strong enough, so bike is heavy and has no give. Aluminum will be low strength alloy similarly chosen for low labor cost weld compatibility, and with thick heavy walls to compensate. Rear dropouts will be light gauge and flexible so that precision alignment is not required to fit wheels. Semi-horizontal dropouts to allow wheel centering in chainstays even though frame is a bit off. Frame alignment is iffy…they are usually OK due to jigging used, but nothing gets scrapped for being off it seems. Bottom bracket usually has notch to accomidate ashtabula bearing cups without needing to be reamed to precision fit.
Brakes: Rim brakes will usually be chrome plated steel fabrications rather than forged aluminum as on good bikes. Centering is usually poor and they are impossible to adjust to avoid dragging a pad on the rim. The linear pull brakes usually are OK IME. Brake cables often poorly prepped causing drag and exacerbating centering problems. Brake levers are often crap that slips on bar, and breaks when you try to snug it down. No bushings or other anti-friction things at pivots, which reduces braking. Brake pads will be cheap dreck.
Bottom Bracket/cranks. Often Ashtabula forgings. Heavy, hard to replace chainrings. Modern Ashtabula bearing sets are all crap IME (the old Schwinn ones were ok, but had proprietary sizing)
Bars: Usually heavy steel, but soft garbage so they still bend when a clyde like me sprints.
Shifters-Deraileurs: Several issues usually conspire to produce poor shifting performance. The owners typically get tired of messing with it, find a gear that works, and leave it there, making for an expensive and heavy single speed.
Too many features: You might be able to build a decent, if heavy, 5 or 7 speed bike for a given price. Walmart will take that budget and build a 27 speed full-suspension mountain bike. Every single thing from the shocks to the handle-grips will be crap.
- Lack of knowledgeable support. Working on bikes is not rocket science, but there are plenty of ways to make mistakes. There are a number of things that need adjusting on a new bike before it will work well, even a good one. Department stores do not have anyone qualified. Problems as a result will range from cosmetic to dangerous.
I have fixed, and fixed again a number of these for neighbor kids. They never, ever, ever stay working for very long. If you want one, go to a thrift store, they usually have a few. The going rate is $5-15. Usually they look pretty new, because nobody can keep one working long enough to put much wear on it. Bike shops usually refuse to work on them, not because they are snobs, but because it doesn’t matter what you fix, the customer is going to be mad when the next thing breaks.
Note: The companies that build this crap have purchased the trademarks of a number of formerly reputable bicycle manufacturers: Schwinn, Windsor, Mercier, Motobecane, and many others are now just names to be stuck on whatever crap Walmart is pushing this week. OR sometimes halfway decent stuff.
Small bike shops have fairly high overhead. If you absolutely must save a nickle, REI or performance bike sell decent hardware in volume and employ quailified bike mechanics. Bikes Direct online has no way to support you, but they do have some halfway decent bikes at good prices. They deal with frame manufacturers directly, and buy odd-lots and overstock components to complete them.