Thrashing bargain basement bikes around Wales
How much fun can you have on a £100 bike? We gave four riders £100 each, let them spend it how they saw fit, then sent them to Cwmcarn in South Wales for a special challenge…
Words: Andy Waterman | Photos: Rupert Fowler | Feature first appeared in MBR August 2011
I felt like a fraud. “I’ll take that one,” I told the assistant in Decathlon; “Will you be riding much? Eez not a good bike to ride all ze time” the assistant drawled in his French accent, attempting to upsell me onto a more expensive bike.
“Oh, I just want a cheap bike for getting to the pub” I lied.
What had I let myself in for?
Worse off by £100, I wheeled The Supermarket Bike out of the shop and into the harsh light of day.
Sure, it had (spongy) V-brakes, alloy rims and a branded Cane Creek headset, but the frame looked (and when I picked it up to sling it in the car, felt) like it was made of scaffolding.
Meanwhile, back in Croydon
Deputy Dan was taking delivery of a 1996 Proflex, complete with front and rear suspension, V-brakes and SPD pedals, purchased on ebay, condition unknown, for less than £50. It looked like a bargain on screen, but if it needed more than £50 of spares to get it up to speed, he was buggered.
Darlow (or “Gnarlow” as we’ve been calling him since a recent DNA test proved he is gnarly by nature) had blown his wedge on an early-Nineties Specialized Stumpjumper, complete with a pannier rack, which he picked up in a south coast thrift shop.
The fewer questions asked about how our fourth competitor, DJ Mick Kirkman, procured his bike — a 1996 Kona Lava Dome — the better. If it wasn’t legit, we didn’t want to know.
Into the van
So it was that we loaded a rag-tag bunch of bikes into the back of a van and hit the M4, destination South Wales and the delights of Cwmcarn. Joining the fun was MBR’s own tame downhill racer, The Twig.
The plan was that once we’d completed a series of challenges on our own steeds, The Twig would then act as an independent test panel, conducting a series of timed downhill runs on them to sort the slow from the unslowdownable.
With the bikes unpacked, and the rain blown over, we set about working out what the challenges would be.
First up, we needed to work out which bike was the lightest, and in the absence of any actual scales, we decided the best we could do would be to borrow a test from the World’s Strongest Man Comp — seeing how long we could hold the bikes with outstretched arms.
With the bikes put comprehensively in weight order, we were then going to set off on a loop of the Twrch Trail, Cwmcarn’s 16km XC trail, well known for it’s rough and rocky climb and its doubly rough and rocky descent. Along the way we’d conduct a hill-climb time trial.
Should any of the bikes make it to the bottom of the final descent in one piece, we would then take them back up the hill to be piloted by The Twig on a timed downhill run.
In the highly unlikely event that any of the bikes made it through that far, we pencilled in two final challenges: a rear wheel hop-off, followed by a longest skid comp.
So, let battle commence!
Andy’s Supermarket Bike
Model year: 2011
Upgrades: RockShox stickers on the forks to make them look like SIDs (FOC)
Best thing about the bike: The brakes — they actually worked
Worst thing about the bike: The fork was the harshest I have ever had the misfortune of riding. My hands still hurt four days later. The plastic pedals were awful, providing no grip.
If this bike were a car it would be: A Tata Nano — the budget car for India.
Mick’s Kona Lava Dome
Model year: 1996
Cost: Don’t ask those sort of questions…
Upgrades: Geax tyres – 2 for £20 – These can be best described as “balloon tyres” and were a period-piece retro find from the dusty corner of the local bike shop in Risca — bargained down from £50 a pair as well — result!
Best thing about the bike: Real steel baby – classic skinny lines.
Worst thing about the bike: any suspension is better than none…
If this bike were a car it would be a… MGB — a tasty old school little sprinter, by a company that used to keep it real.
Jamie’s Specialized Stumpjumper
Model year: Circa 1992
Upgrades: With a fully functioning drivetrain, no less, and gear shifting like warm treacle, I couldn’t help thinking the whole thing must have been an upgrade later in the life of the bike. Could it be 1999 Shimano XT? Hard to tell, as the decals had long been worn off on rock or sock.
Best thing about the bike: I was also more than happy with the suspension seatpost, a touch of class revealing the previous owner’s good sense. This was clearly the key to my humiliation of Andy on the hill climb event that saw me cross the line a full second ahead of Mr XC. So comfy was it, I was able to stay seated on the climbs, while the ridiculously heavy rack and pack gave me the kind of traction usually found on a welly boot.
Worst thing about the bike: Almost everything gets a look in here, from the bone-crunching ride, to the insanely low front end, via the continually loose headset. The pièce de résistance was the lack of resistance from the brakes, though, which presented many challenges when descending.
If this bike were a car it would be a… Morris Minor Traveller — plenty of room on the back to store your gear, but with some of the worst brakes ever seen.
Danny’s Proflex 857 Expert
Cost: £49 on eBay
Upgrades: New V-brake pads front and rear: £8.99 a pair. Nice chap in the bike shop took pity on me and did them for £8 each. New brake cables £10. New gear cables £4.50.
My biggest mistake was to follow the rules and stick to the budget. I could really have done with a new drivetrain, and while it was nice to own the moral high ground, Karma wouldn’t help fix a broken chain halfway round Cwmcarn…
Best thing about the bike: That it was a better bike than our Tech Head, Burwell, raced on when he was sponsored by Proflex back in the ’90s. It’s always immensely satisfying to have better stuff than Burwell, even 14 years later. And it had suspension; a word not spoken in the sales patter for any of the other boys’ bikes. And SPD pedals. Oh, and the carbon swingarm was a massive retro turn-on as well, not unlike Kelly McGillis.
Worst thing about the bike: There were a couple of ticking time bombs on the Proflex. The drivetrain was so badly worn the middle ring looked like a circular saw and the jockey wheels could double as ninja stars. Would the chain snap sprinting into the skid competition? Would I be sent sprawling across the car park on my face?
And to add to my angst, the rims were so worn that the sidewalls might explode at any moment. So paranoid was I about a ruptured rim that I only dared pump up the tyres at the very last second. Should it have rained — which, being Wales, was highly likely — my wheels would have been reduced to swarf in seconds.
If this bike were a car it would be: Ford Sierra XR4i. Not old enough to be a classic, not exotic enough to be really valuable. Futuristic in its day but totally outgunned by anything modern. Likely to be found rotting in the front garden of an ex-local authority property on the outskirts of Basildon. Which is exactly where I found the Proflex.
Challenge 1: The extended arm bike hold
I was sure I’d seen this event on the World’s Strongest Man competition. What better way of judging a bike’s weight, at least proportional to its owner’s strength, than by holding out in front of you, arms dead straight and horizontal to the floor for as long as possible? It seemed like the perfect test of our steeds’ suitability.
I knew my chances were slim in this test. What advantages The Supermarket Bike had over the others in terms of newness and — hopefully — reliability, it lost, with interest, on the scales. I stepped up first to lay down a time.
After 25 seconds of increasingly gargoyle-like facial expressions I dropped the bike to the floor, bending the mech hanger in the process. Bugger.
Next up, Danny’s Proflex and its top-of-the-range carbon swingarm came to the fore, more than doubling my time.
Gnarlow, with his long, sparrow-like limbs and the uneven weight distribution (thanks to the rack, and leaving his three-litre hydration pack strapped to said rack) of his Stumpy lasted a meagre 12 seconds. That left us with just Eruption FM’s premiere Happy Hardcore DJ, Mick Kirkman and his dubiously sourced Lave Dome to take the stage.
As the shortest man on the squad, DJ MK had a natural advantage (short levers you see); combined with an unquestionably lightweight rig, he made the rest of us look silly, holding the Kona aloft for a good minute before calmly asking if he’d won yet. As soon as we conceded the victory, he placed the bike back down, his face barely reddened by the effort.
Disheartened by the ease of his win, it was time to hit the trail.
Onwards and upwards
It’s one thing holding a bike out in front of you, riding it is quite another. The bent mech hanger on The Supermarket Bike wasn’t helping much, causing the gears to skip. Luckily, I had taken into account the vagaries of cheap bikes and come prepared. By which I mean I’d brought the biggest adjustable spanner I could find. If you’ve got an adjustable spanner, you’re sorted for every eventuality, right?
After a few minutes of fettling, bending and banging, I once again had a full spread of gears. While I’d been messing about, the other guys had carried on going, but they hadn’t got far thanks to Mick ‘Muscles’ Kirkman scoring the first, and only, puncture of the day. With at least two miles under our belts, plenty to become acquainted with our steeds, we decided it was time for our first riding challenge — a technical hill climb.
Challenge 2: The Hill Climb
For those of you familiar with the Twrch Trail at Cwmcarn, we intended to do a timed climb from the toll-booth at the entrance to Forest Drive, all the way up to the picnic area. I figured that was long enough to sort the men from the boys.
With the climb decided upon, we briefed The Twig, synchronised watches and sent him off up the hill to the finish point with instructions to call out our times to us as we rode past.
What we hadn’t taken into account was the fact that The Twig had never actually ridden a lap of the XC loop at Cwmcarn, so didn’t really know where he was going. Come on, give the guy a break, he is a downhiller.
As this was my idea, I was once again volunteered to go off first. Knowing how long the climb was — I was predicting a time of about 12 minutes — I set off at a steady pace.
This first bit of pedalling in anger confirmed to me just how unsuitable a £100 bike is for trail centre riding. No sooner had I left the gate than I knocked the front wheel on a rock, not with any great force even by the standards I’d expect to be able to get away with on a rigid bike (I ride a cyclo-cross bike off-road all the time, I’m not averse to leaving the suspension at home), and yet, the force transferred back through the bars nearly caused me to let go. This fork wasn’t just rigid, it was a shortcut to arthritis.
Worse still, the resin pedals supplied with The Supermarket Bike had so little grip that the mere thought of standing up caused your feet to slide off, meaning I’d be approaching all the technical sections sat down. And the technical sections of this climb are by no means easy.
The climb steepens up and gets technical as it follows the river, clawing its way over rocks and roots right at the point where the pitch is the most punishing. I surprised myself by cleaning the majority of it, but I mis-shifted the Gripshift gears on one section: too afraid to stand up and power over the obstacle, I got off and ran.
Approaching the second river crossing, I spotted, lying in the foliage, The Twig, his stopwatch primed. This was a good kilometre from where I expected to see him. He told me my time, and I told him he was in the wrong place. He shrugged and turned his head, looking into the middle distance for the fast approaching Stumpjumper and its pilot.
Gnarlow crossed the line, besting me by one measly second. Next up was Dr Fox’s arch-rival, DJ Mick Kirkman on the wheels of lightweight alloy.
We had a new fastest time, despite the stocky producer taking a wrong turn at the only fork on the trail (it’s well signed, so we don’t know how he managed it).
A mere 45 seconds later, the Proflex appeared. Its SPD pedals, lightweight carbon parts and custom tuned rims ( the braking surface was about to wear through — a bonus for lightness, if not reliability) made it a natural favourite for the terrain, but the time gap was surprising.
Two down, three to go
With two events done, things weren’t looking good for the Stumpy or -The Supermarket Bike.
Before long we were at the top of the hill and ready to hit the long descent back down to the car park. This is where we knew things were likely to get interesting.
Already feeling battered and bruised from the punishing The Supermarket Bike, I felt envious of Mick and Danny on their lightweight bikes, each with an element of ‘give’, via suspension or oversized tyres.
The only bike worse or equal to mine was the Stumpy, with its self-extracting headset, huge saddle-to-bar drop and total lack of stopping power.
At least The Supermarket Bike had working brakes.
Things weren’t too bad on the smoother parts of the descent, but as soon as things got rough — as those familiar with Cwmcarn know they do — The Supermarket Bike’s tooth rattling feedback got so bad I essentially took the role of passenger, leaning off the back of the bike and praying I didn’t hit anything hard enough to send me flying over the bars.
I don’t think anyone was enjoying the ride, but there was one bike that was clearly closer to what we’d normally ride than the others — the Proflex.
It really hit home on the run to the final viewpoint out over the valley, just before you go back into the woods to begin the descent properly. Normally I’d pedal the whole way, building speed all the time; on The Supermarket Bike I had to banish any thought of fun, excitement or speed out of my mind. Somehow I’d found my way to the front of the pack, but not for long; just as the misery peaked, Danny spotted a gap and nosed the Proflex out in front, cheerfully pedalling past as the rest of us on rigid forks grimly — and slowly — held on for dear life.
We got to the bottom of the final descent shaken but uninjured beyond the arm pump that comes from squeezing grossly underpowered brakes as hard as you can for 10 minutes without a rest.
Amazingly, all four bikes had got round a whole loop of the Twrch trail with just one puncture and no other mechanicals.
With our hands eventually prised from the bars, and fuel taken on board, it was time for the final three challenges — The Twig’s downhill challenge, a rear wheel hop-off and finally, a longest skid compo.
Challenge 3: The Twig’s Downhill Challenge
Time to hand our bikes over to our tame downhill racer. Some say he neither loves nor hates Marmite and when he farts it smells of Mint Sauce. All we know is he’s called The Twig.
The first bike in the start gate of the Granny Gear Test Track was Darlow’s Stumpjumper. Extensive race preparation had shaved several stone off the Specialized’s weight (he’d drunk his Camelbak dry) but, even in lightweight trim, manhandling the Stumpjumper down the high-speed bends of the Trwch Trail’s final descent would be a stern test for The Twig. His first hurdle was actually reaching the handlebars; not a problem for Darlow’s freckled flagpoles, but would The Twig’s humanoid frame be a match for the vintage stem? Luckily, The Twig has had two ribs removed, a disturbing trait that allowed him to replicate the Darlow stoop.
Selecting Celine Dion’s ‘Power of love’ on his iPod, he wheelspun away from the cattlegrid; tearing the knobs off the Stumpjumper’s tyres. With the most aerodynamic position of the bunch, the Spesh was soon up to speed, skittering off towards disaster, AKA the first corner. It was here that the Stumpjumper’s archaic geometry began to unravel. The 150mm tiller meaning that the handlebars arrived at the apex well before the front axle. Steering was as safe as juggling with grenades. But if anyone could tame the Stumpy it was The Twig, and with barely a dab of opposite lock, he held his line and disappeared out of sight, miraculously crossing the line in 1-41.
Mick’s-mate-who-moved-to-Oz-owing-him-money’s Kona Lava Dome
Resplendent in its chipped copper paintjob and mint green Geax tyres, even standing still the Lava Dome looked like it was going at least six or seven mph. And with Club Roost Go Fast bars — the Nineties downhill handlebar of choice — The Twig looked almost radiant as he swung an appendage over its signature sloping top tube. DJ Kirkman had high hopes for the Kona in the final challenge; after all, this was effectively the bike Steve Peat started his downhill career on.
The geometry had certainly stood the test of time, and the wispy steel tubes still felt frisky after all those years, but the brakes were little more than decoration and the stem was long enough to reach Gloucestershire. None of these details mattered to The Twig, however, and no sooner was he out of the gate than he was pre-jumping the fades and pumping the compressions of the first straight. With machine and machine in perfect harmony the Kona crossed the line in 1-31.
Andy’s Supermarket Bike
20,000 tons of steel and plastic were used to build this off-road leviathan. According to bike’s designers, the forks were tuned to provide maximum trail feedback, to the point where you can ride over a dog egg and know exactly what it had for dinner. Sporting semi-slick tyres in a deluxe hard compound, The Twig quickly had the The Supermarket Bike up to speed down the first roll-in.
Like an out-of-control aircraft carrier it hurtled towards the first corner, the ground visibly shaking under its wheels. As combinations went, Sheffield’s monthly output of mild steel, a tame downhiller and the anthemic vocals of ‘In the air tonight’ pumping out of The Twig’s mobile phone looked dangerously unstoppable, so it was disappointing to find the time was 1-37, only four seconds faster than the Stumpy.
Let’s face it; the result of this entire challenge was a forgone conclusion. Up against 1997’s finest amalgamation of aluminium and carbon fibre beginning with a P, none of the other bikes stood a chance. OK, so the rims were dangerously close to splitting, and you didn’t need a £70 chain checker to tell you the drivetrain was worn out, but full-suspension and functional brakes were luxuries the others could only dream of. Sure enough, despite being tired and miserable from riding everyone else’s £100 donkeys, aboard the 857 The Twig demolished the Granny Gear track record with a time of 1-26.
Challenge 4: Rear Wheel Hop-Off
It was as if every moment in Danny’s life was leading up to this one defining moment, from short-trousered schoolboy larking about the streets of London on a BMX to jaded journo at mbr. This was the competition he was born to win. Rocking onto the front wheel before gracefully arcing onto the rear, like pure ballet — the perfect symbiosis of creaking Nineties mountain bike and creaking 40-something mountain biker. We held our breath as he accelerated past 11 hops, the tyre squidging under the load, shock moving through all its mighty travel. Amazing, he’d managed 12! Or something like that, I forget.
Next up, Dulwich trendie Andy took to the gravelled stage, peaked road cap shielding his heroic visage. Quite a crowd had assembled by this point, and all three gasped as he could only manage three hops. He was hauling on 40lb of steel, but we had expected more given his regular ride is a 29er trickster.
Finally, Mick and Jamie. What a letdown — both forfeited with brakes too crummy to attempt anything so silly. Later on, after the crowds had dispersed, Danny revealed the secret of his success: “I let the tyre down a little to get the desired bounce.” Once a racer, always a racer, I guess.
Challenge 5: Longest Skid
The skid competition pitted man against machine in the finest tradition — basically, how hard dare you pedal on a bike that felt like it would fall to pieces all the way round the preceding XC lap?
The rules were simple — a ‘Death Sprint’ down Cwmcarn’s hallowed gravel, carefully measured from the bins to the gate, before slamming the anchors on, and seeing how far you could scrape down the car park. This was obviously either on a bike that last had a service in the 1990s, or the piece of ‘unidentified metal’ that was Andy’s Supermarket Bike.
The challenge was also slightly hampered by only two of the four bikes actually having brakes that worked well enough to do an acceptable skid.
Technique-wise, thrusting your nuts into the stem to keep the rear tyre light seemed to work for Danny, so we all just copied. God knows how far we were getting, but after the 30m or so run up it felt like quite a long way before we eventually ran out of steam, or in Jamie’s case, accidentally barged into some riders out for a quick evening’s XC loop. Conclusion — skids are solid proof that the old ones are still the best.
And the winner is…
The standout bike of the competition was the Proflex and it won hands down. Buying a bike on eBay isn’t a foolproof strategy, and had Danny been landed with a dud, he’d have been in trouble. The fact was though that he got a bargain: a proper, working full-susser for £50.
Next best was the Kona Lava Dome. Back in the Nineties, Kona was the ‘it’ brand, and even now the Lava Dome is a desirable bike. The geometry is sorted, it’s light and it looks good, even 15 years later.
Unfortunately, it couldn’t compete with the V-brakes or suspension of the Proflex, but what could?
Gnarlow’s choice of a decrepit Stumpjumper looked daft from the outset, and so it proved.
Presumably there’s a shopkeeper somewhere on the south coast laughing at this feature, while rolling in £10 notes. All 10 of them.
Even the Stumpy’s secret weapon, its rack, proved more hindrance than help when Jamie’s Camelbak kept falling off on the trail. Admittedly, our ‘buckaroo’ tactics of loading up the rack with all our junk didn’t help matters.
What this story confirmed for us was that £100 bikes are, for the most part, junk, not fit for the name ‘mountain bike’. If you shop around and get lucky, you can just about get a second-hand bike that will provide you with a bit of fun, but even that’s not a cheap option. To extend the life of Danny’s event winning Proflex, it would need at least £300 spending on it to pay for new rims, new drivetrain, headset and a shock service.
All four of us had started out on bikes just like this: cheap, rigid ATBs, barely worthy of the moniker. The surprise to us all was that we had stuck with it — after a day on these bikes we were all agreed that if mtb’ing was limited to riding bikes like these, we’d probably take up golf.