Halfords Bikes - because life is over-rated

It's now been three weeks of cycling the 22-mile round trip to and from work as a way of keeping the fitness up whilst my knee recovers, ready for my third attempt at trying to run the London Marathon next April.

It's been a mixed experience as there have been several, shall we say 'issues', with the bike.

As I'd not ridden in a long time, and didn't know whether I'd just get bored and give up on the whole thing, I wasn't prepared to fork out more than £200. I just wanted something cheap, but good enough to get me from home to work, with the potential for some light off-roading on weekends.

I am painfully aware of my limited knowledge of bikes and so I thought I'd play it safe by heading to one of the biggest bike-sellers in the country, Halfords.

The logic I used was that:
  1. a big chain will have more choice of cheaper stuff for me to try
  2. they'll give it a safety check etc first
  3. its the only place that sells bike close to work
So, three weeks ago, after several exploratory visits and research online, I bought my first bike in 12 years from Halfords' Hounslow store.

It was one of the worst shopping experiences of my life.

Having taken an early lunch to get there well before 12 so I could collect it by the end of the day, it was frustrating that it took me 20 minutes of proactive hunting to actually find someone in the bike section who I could spend my £180 with. "Recession? F**k that, we don't need your money!"

Once I'd parted with my money I was assured it would be ready to collect by 4pm that day.

As I had a work commitment that went on longer than expected I couldn't actually get there until 5pm, and when I did I was then told they'd made the wrong bike ("Are you sure you're not a foot taller than you look?") so would have to wait 20 minutes while they put it together.

Half an hour passed, and it still wasn't ready. Another 20 minutes and the bike was at last built. So, having added a lock and helmet to my purchase, I was ready to go.

Unfortunately, I then had to deal with the security guard who insisted on making sure that, despite having been in the store for around an hour and a half all day, I'd actually bought the bike I had just been given, and was now pushing out of the store.

For some reason it took him a couple of minutes to establish that the bike on the receipt was the same model as that I was pushing (I would have thought the big sticker on the frame with the model number on would have been a good clue, but apparently not).

Once it was established I wasn't the least subtle bike thief in the world, he then noticed I had two other items on the receipt and wanted to check them - despite having the helmet on my head, and the lock in my bag!

I asked why, and he just grunted inaubdibly at me.

Another couple of minutes passed while he established beyond all reasonable doubt that the helmet was the same make as the one on my head ("look at the f***ing name on the front you t**t" I inwardly screamed), and the lock was the right length as the one on the receipt (I wouldn't have been surprised if he'd got a tape measure) before I was at last free.

I imagine it must be dull being a security guard at Halfords, but still, there's no reason to act like a tit just because you can.

Relieved to have got that over with, I then I tentatively got on the bike and began pedalling off.

Now, I hadn't been ridden a bike in some time, but I'm damn sure that the first time you turn the handlebars, the front wheel shouldn't keept pointing straight ahead.

Braking heavily to avoid ploughing into traffic as I left the car park (which is harder when your arms are pointing to the side), I soon discovered that the bolts attaching the handlebars weren't just a bit loose, they'd never been tightened.

Eager to get home at some point that night, and reluctant to spend any more time in that store, I tightened them as best I could by hand, and set off again.

This time they turned, which was a relief.

What was now annoying me was my inability to use all three of the cogs on the chainring, or three on the freewheel. The combined effect of this meant my supposedly 21 speed bike only had 8 gears to choose from, and those which I could were for what I can only assume is an attempt to cycle up Kilamanjaro.

This left my pedalling like mad, and seemingly going nowhere - always a good look!

Also, the front wheel was making a scraping noise where the brake disk was touching the rim. After investigating this at home, it turns out this was simply down to the front wheel being not being attached properly.

Always good to find out that kind of information after cycling 11 miles through heavy Friday night traffic.

Most of these problems are now rectified thanks to the interweb and trial and error in my garage, but it does make me question whether they use trained chimps to put these together, and what exactly the safety check was looking for.

"Do we check the handlebars and wheels are attached?"

"Nah, we're keeping an eye out for sharks hiding under the seat. Oh, and make sure poison darts don't fly out of the brakes!"

I had hoped that this was an isolated bad experience, but I soon realised it wasn't when I accompanied a friend to buy their first bike in some time the next day from Halfords' Brooklands store.

To cut another long story short, this one came with an 'out-of true' (ie, not round) front wheel (hadn't even been on the road when we realised that the scraping noise from the brakes wasn't just them "breaking in") and the accessory pack (pump, bottle, lock, tool thing, etc) was made of cheap crap plastic - the pump holder broke by bending past it to get a drink, and lock holder broke with the little jiggle you do to make sure the lock was secure.

Frankly, I think we could have paid someone to beat us up in the street for the £340 we spent there and feel less like we'd been mugged.

I have been in touch with Halfords to express my 'disappointment' (had to wait a week so I could be sure I wou'dn't swear!), but despite the promise to get back to me within five days, they've now had 11 and I've not heard a thing.

Lessons from this?

For the love of god, don't get a bike from Halfords unless death by poor craftsmanship is something that appeals to you.
If you do get one and don't want to die, you need to learn how to get it roadworthy yourself. This is pretty fun actually as usually involves getting oil and grease on you and feels quite manly.

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