Why “Walmart Bikes Are Bad”
Components, Design, and Compatibility
Some of the manufacturers that supply Walmart, such as Schwinn, Mongoose, and even Huffy, were once thought to be solid brands. While their names are still recognizable and trusted by many people, they’re now selling a much lesser quality of bike to meet Walmart’s affordable objective. One way that manufacturers have been able to cut their costs enough to meet Walmart’s price point is simply to make their frames cheaper and buy cheaper components. That means that their frames are typically much heavier than a comparable bike from a trusted brand such as Trek or Specialized. They’ll advertise that they have Shimano shifting components just good entry level bikes but they’re actually buying a lesser quality part from Shimano that will work but is not as durable or precise. While Walmart strives to be affordable, they also want to offer a variety of bikes, including full-suspension mountain bikes. They offer what is often called “dual-suspension” which has a large spring at the rear of the bike, instead of actual full-suspension which is only on higher end bikes over $1000. The dual suspension spring can absorb some shock but mostly offers a bouncier ride rather than a smoother ride. Bike geometry has come a long way among bike manufacturers in the last 20 years. Trusted bike brands have made adjustments as they compete to have bikes built specific to the needs of their riders. Most brands have been almost in unison through these many innovations. Walmarts suppliers have not been in step. Their innovations are catching up a little but I’ve seen a lot of things on Walmart bikes that just make me scratch my head. While most bikes have moved to quick release seat posts and wheels and allen key bolts, you’ll still find a lot of hex head bolts on big box bikes. I’ve been fixing and scrapping bikes for awhile. Occasionally, I’ll borrow something off of a Walmart bike but almost without exception, every piece of a Walmart bike is of low quality.
Walmart bikes don’t arrive at the store pre-assembled so somebody at your local Walmart is putting the bike together. If you were hoping that Walmart somehow manages to keep a certified bike mechanic on hand to build bikes, you’d almost certainly be wrong. There’s no policy against that happening but usually, it’s sporting goods employees that are reading instructions much like you would (even if you don’t read instructions). To make it easier, parts often have stickers identifying where things go: left, right, front, back. Those are most notable when they’re not in the position their label says. Even more commonly, bolts aren’t tightened, brakes and shifting aren’t adjusted, and innertubes aren’t aired up. I was at Walmart and ran into a friend who was buying a bike. She wasn’t sure she wanted the bike because the chain was off. I shared my general concerns and then put the chain on the chain ring. She asked me to give it a quick lookover. I’m glad I did. The handlebars were so loose I could freely spin them because the headset screws were barely in. They hadn’t even begun to be tightened. Three of the four shift and brake cables had a lot of slack and completely out of adjustment. The wheels were both completely flat.
Buy from a local bike shop
Yes, it’s usually a lot more expensive than Walmart and that’s really hard to stomach. However, the value is almost always higher. When you buy from a shop that services what they sell, you can rest assured your bike is going to come ready to ride. They’re going to make sure it’s the right bike for you and the right fit. Some shops even provide a maintenance plan to take care of your bike going forward. Getting a solid bike from the beginning increases the chances that you’ll actually enjoy riding the bike.
Buy a used bike
Buying a used bike is a great way to get a good bike for Walmart prices. I’ve even bought several used bikes now for less than the bikes at Walmart costs and they are of better quality. Quality bikes hold up well and provide a much better experience, even if they’re a few years old. Learn How to Buy a Used Mountain Bike
What to Do About It
Okay, so you’re with me philosophically but you still feel like Walmart bikes are the the right option for you. If you are going to buy a bike from Walmart, here’s how to do it.
1. Only buy hardtails
Remember the fake “dual-suspension” issues I mentioned? You can forgo those issues by buying a hardtail bike or, in other words, a bike with only front suspension.
2. Get the right size
Most Walmart bike shoppers are looking one of two things in relation to sizing: wheel size and seat height. Believe it or not, a 20″ wheel could be the perfect fit for an adult male or a 6 year old girl. Seat height isn’t dependable either. Frame size is really the biggest indicator of bike size on a road or mountain bike. There are two places where the bike has to be small enough. First, you need to be able to solidly stand over the top tube of the bike. Second, you need to be able to pedal while sitting on the seat. That’s right, you don’t need to be able to stand on the ground while sitting on the seat. That’s one of the biggest misconceptions that puts people on the wrong size of bike. Generally in road and mountain biking, you want to be able to have fully extended legs when pedaling from a seated position. On a mountain bike, you also want to be able to put some distance between you and the seat. Being able to raise and lower it easily with a quick release lever will make a big difference.
3. Buy 1x drivetrains
If you’re buying a kid’s bike, this MAY be possible. Most of the issues kids have with their bikes come from the bike not shifting properly. You can eliminate a lot of the issue by buying a bike that only shifts by the back wheel. That’s called a 1x (one by) because there is only one gear up front by the pedals. This may feel like a downgrade because it’s fewer gears but the front gears don’t add as many gears as you’d think. In fact, most high end bikes are now being sold with 1x drivetrains and bikers are converting their bikes to 1x as fast as they can.
4. Make sure you have all of your parts
This is a less common issue but you can work with a bike that needs adjustment much more than a bike that’s missing parts. Make sure you don’t have any empty bolt holes, you’ve got a handlebar, frame, 2 wheels 4 cables, pedals, etc.
5. Don’t trust anything
Plan to repair and tune your new bike as soon as you get it. Expect every bolt and cable to be loose. Don’t have the tools? Don’t worry. That’s something that you can get at Walmart, usually right next to that bike you’re buying. They sell multi-tools that have multiple sizes of allen keys and thankfully, that’s a standard it looks like Walmart brands are catching on too. Not too long ago, you had to have unique sizes of allen keys to make adjustments to a Walmart bike. You’ll also need a small wrench to fit the derailleur (shift) cables and a larger wrench to fit the wheels. I said don’t trust anything, that includes the list of tools mentioned here. Because these bikes aren’t standardized, you’re likely going to need something else as well. Look it over. You’ll need to air up your tires too. Walmart does have decent pumps right there too. Get one with a gauge and follow the specifications printed on the sidewall of your wheel.
Lastly, don’t trust the bike itself. It may be great to play around near your home but your Walmart bike will never be far from something falling apart. I’ve heard a lot of stories but personally, my wife was riding her brand new Mongoose and had her derailleur just completely break and mangle while riding up a hill in town. I had my “dual-suspension” just come apart on me. Luckily, it happened right as I stopped. It could have been extremely dangerous if it would have come apart while I was riding. My pedal fell off on that same ride. If you do venture further with your Walmart bike, make sure to take all the allen keys, wrenches, and duct tape to make the repairs needed to get you home and never get into a situation where a broken part is going to put you in danger.
6. Remember: Biking is great even if your bike isn’t
For years, I hated the very idea of biking, especially mountain biking. I’d ridden my bike up the street to the school and that was challenging enough. Why would I ever want to ride that up a mountain. Could anything be more painful? Then one day I borrowed a Trek hybrid bike and rode up the steepest hill in the area. I have loved biking since. You see, I’d only ever had a Walmart bike and they’re just not made the same. It’s hard to love biking if your bike just doesn’t work well. Can you have fun on a Walmart bike? Sure! If you’re struggling to enjoy it though, maybe you just need a better bike.
7. Return or exchange broken bikes
If you can make it work, bravo! If not, you can return it. One thing that’s still great about Walmart is that they stand by their products, regardless of quality. If you buy a bike that doesn’t work or breaks quickly and easily, you can often get it exchanged or even returned. I would never promote taking advantage of that system. This is why that system is there. If their product fails to do what it was supposed to do you do have options.
Ride What You Have
Whatever you can get your hands on (legally), that’s what you should ride. If Walmart is your best option, figure out how to make it work and how to enjoy it.