Right now, I’m looking at a mountain bike that retails for less than the shoes I sometimes ride in. Ok, they’re expensive shoes, but this is a low-cost bike, too, and not the kind you'd usually see here on Flow.
This issue is a hot potato in some ways, but it’s a discussion we want to have, as it’s a reflection of how bike retailing has evolved, and how mountain biking has grown. So here we go.
This unbranded, no-frills, 27.5”-wheeled mountain bike costs around $350 and it comes in a box. From ALDI.
Yes, we said ALDI, that eclectic marketplace where you find drop saws and vacuum cleaners alongside chickpeas and gingerbread. They could hardly begrudge us for saying they’re not renowned as a proprietor of fine cycles. Yet, in the last paragraph I deliberately used the phrase mountain bike, not just ‘bike’. Because this hardtail, unlike the buttery soft boat anchors with fold-o-matic wheels that are usually sold at department stores, is a true entry-level mountain bike.
In terms of build quality, value and attention to detail, this bike is well ahead of most others we’ve ever seen at this price. It’s constructed and assembled by the same manufacturer of Polygon Bikes, so it does have a quality manufacturer behind it, and they’re coming at this project with genuine mountain bike knowledge, which is reflected in the spec, construction and geometry.
It has a hydroformed alloy frame with sensible geometry that a beginner will appreciate, a 9-speed Shimano drivetrain with a direct-mount rear derailleur, full-length cable housings to keep the crud at bay, a wide handlebar, decent 2.25” tyres, a fork with hydraulic lock out for the tarmac… In short, it looks and rides like much more than $350 worth of bike. It is only available in two frame sizes, (restrictive, as they’re both on the big side) but if it fits you, then it’s a much better bike than those that got us started on the path of mountain biking all those years ago.
Now, if this bike had a familiar brand name on it and came from a bike shop, we’d all be cheering. But it does come in a box, and not from a bike retailer and that means it attracts a debate that we’re happy to thrash out here.
So what are the pros and cons of bikes in boxes, particularly at this end of the market? We’ll aim to present both sides of the debate here and let you make up your own mind.
FOR: Affordability and accessibility
Mountain biking, while not motor racing, is a relatively expensive sport to get into – conventional wisdom says you’ll need to spend the better part of $1000 on a bike and clothing to get yourself geared up with equipment that will be reliable and comfortable enough allow you to actually experience what mountain biking is about.
When mountain bikes are what you live and breath, it’s easy to lose track of the fact that $1000 for a bike and gear is an awful lot of cash for most people, especially if you’re a parent or partner forking out for a new rider who might well decide it’s not their kettle of fish at all.
A decent $350 bike certainly lowers the financial barriers to entry. The logical upshot of lowering the costs of getting riders onto a mountain bike is that more people, from more diverse walks of life, will get into the sport. More riders on bikes means more awareness of mountain biking across more sectors of our society. That’s a plus.
AGAINST: No expert knowledge
When you buy a bike from a retailer that doesn’t specialise in bikes, it’s pretty hard to expect a whole lot of expert advice. I mean, if they’re making you pack your own cans of tomatoes into a green bag, they’re not likely to be able to offer much advice about sizing, or show you how to change a tube, tell you what tyre pressure to run, or teach you how to lube your chain.
Conversely, when you buy a bike from a bike shop, you’re more likely to get a few of these gems of wisdom thrown in with the sale and down the line, not to mention establish a relationship that will hopefully continue as you progress in the sport.
FOR: It’s a steppingstone
Assuming that someone who buys a $350 mountain bike enjoys their experience, there’s a good chance that before too long they’ll want to upgrade their bike. This is where traditional bike shops can benefit, servicing the needs of riders who are looking for the next step up.
All bikes need servicing too, even cheapies, and this is another area where bike shops can stand to really benefit. Aldi’s never going to replace your gear cable! So even though bike shops didn’t make the original bike sale, they now have the opportunity to make some money through service, as well as foster a relationship with a new rider.
AGAINST: Taking sales from traditional bike shop retailers:
Buying bikes from a shop like Aldi, at least theoretically, takes sales from a bike shop. (We say theoretically, because you can make the case that someone looking for a $350 mountain bike isn’t going to go to ‘proper’ bike shop anyhow – they’d normally go to a department store.)
And while tradtional retail might be less relevant in some industries, bike shops are still the hub of our sport. They foster the sense of community that makes mountain biking great. They sponsor events, organise group rides, replace your hub bearings the night before a race and campaign against trail closures. And they need your support to keep doing so.
FOR: This is the new reality of retailing, economy-wide:
Bikes, like the televisions we now buy online or the desks we’re assembling ourselves with little Swedish screwdrivers, are subject to the same changing retail realities as everything else.
Part of this trend is that bikes, increasingly, are being sold in boxes. It’s not just at this bottom end of the market either – Bicycles Online, Cell Bikes, and now YT-Industries and Canyon all currently sell (or are about to sell) proper, high-end mountain and road bikes in a box, direct to the consumer. It’s all about shortening supply chains and lowering margins.
It’s something we accept (and benefit from) without a murmur in other industries, so why does it upset us so much when it happens in the bike industry?
AGAINST: It comes in a box
Buying a bike in a box means there’ll be an element of assembly required. And given how many people we see riding around with their helmets on backwards (or worse, their forks), we shudder at the idea of some punters wielding an Allen key. Admittedly, there’s bugger all needed to get this bike rolling –installing the pedals, bar and front wheel is it, and the instructions are clear and easy to follow – but before you go launching off water bars, you want to make sure everything is assembled as it should be.
This issue can get pretty heated: while we don’t necessarily agree, there are plenty of people out there who feel strongly that bikes just should not be sold in boxes, ever. Some even call for laws specifically to prevent bikes being sold in a box, citing the safety concerns of having improperly assembled bikes on the trails (or more worryingly, the roads).
So that’s that. Can of worms, opened! What are your thoughts?