During quiet moments I often find myself hatching cycling challenges; they provide me with tangible reasons to get out on my bike and train, especially during the cold winter months. “Something to aim at”, as Tom Simpson would say. Some challenges, however, seem to appear out of left-field and, no matter how ridiculous, plug away at my subconscious until I do something about them.
The Scrapheap Challenge came as a result of a conversation with a work colleague, during which he asked how much I had paid for my latest piece of cycling hardware - a full suspension mountain bike that was receiving rave reviews from the bike press at the time. When I explained it had cost me several thousand pounds, an amused yet horrified expression came across his face. “I’ve just bought one the same, and it cost me £115!” Slightly sceptical, I enquired if it was the same brand and model. “I don’t think it’s identical, but it’s almost the same”. He said he would bring it in to work the next day to prove it.
True to his word, the following day he produced a full suspension (I think the correct term is dual suspension) mountain ‘style’ bike with disc brakes. It was made of Hi-Tensile steel, had gears of unknown origin and suspension technology the Flintstones would have been proud of. It weighed about twice what my beautiful work of art did, but then it was a factor of 30 times cheaper! There was no denying it though; it was a full suspension mountain bike with disc brakes and lots of gears.
I pointed out a few of the – how to put it delicately – minor differences, but he was adamant that his bike was, to all intents and purposes, the same, and could do anything mine could. What if he was right?
My plan was to purchase a sub-£100 mountain bike. It had te be full suspension, brand new and from a legitimate source. I could change nothing on it except the pedals; everything else was to be as supplied. At that time I cycled in Afan Trail Centre in South Wales regularly, and rode most of the trails at least twice a month. These trails can be quite tough on a bike, especially when ridden hard. A good bike will handle it, although it may need a few minor repairs afterwards: trued wheels, new disc pads or the like. This would be the test ground. The bargain bike would be pedalled for all it and I was worth around Whites Level trail then onto The Wall trail, if mechanical condition and/or physical injury allowed. This tough 40 km of rocky climbs and rough mountain descents would truly test whether a sub-£100 bike could do what a £3K+ one could. We were all set. Then I forgot all about it.
A few years passed and, with my riding now focusing purely on road bikes, I decided to sell my full susser. It was just gathering dust and I had several other mountain bikes anyway. Watching it go to a new, excited owner, however, awoke something in me – the challenge. I outlined the plan to a friend (and bike shop owner) and he, too, wanted to know if you could make it round alive on a very cheap, supermarket bike and he too didn’t seem to prize his personal safety too highly!
Our enthusiasm for the challenge, along with constant peer pressure and taunting, meant that we now had 7 riders prepared to put hard earned cash (admittedly not much of it) and personal safety on the line and commit to taking part.
We had the riders, now we needed bikes. Lots of leads were followed up, mostly ending in disappointment; missing 2 for 1 deals at Tesco or last minute price hikes at Asda all meant we couldn’t get anything suitable for significantly under the £100 limit. The search continued, until we eventually came across a discount bike outlet prepared to let us have 7 bikes – a mixed bunch, but all within spec – for £75 each. Cheap, certainly, but a bargain? Time would tell.
As is the way with bikes of this price band, they were all flat packed and semi-built. They allegedly just needed the wheels bolting on (not a quick release in sight), handlebars rotating into the correct position and tightening, saddle and seat post assembly sliding into place and a bit of air the tyres before heading off into the wilderness for hours of cycling fun! The reality was a little different however…
We had the unlimited use of a high quality professional bike workshop and Cytech 3 trained mechanic; a big step up from what these bikes would normally see: a pressed steel spanner in a living room. We were expecting them to be pretty poor, but what we found was truly eye opening. Tightening the quill stem past what seemed sensible didn’t actually secure the handlebars enough to keep them pointing in the right direction. Oh well, we’ll watch the wheel rather than the handlebars for direction information…
The fit of the seat post within the seat tube was vague at best and, with the clamp bolt tightened to the point of bending the clamp lugs together, it still only had a tenuous grip. Lots of standing up on the pedals looked to be on the cards.
The rear suspension… erm… system… well let’s call it that, is basically a hinge in the middle of the bike with a spring attached above to allow it to move a bit whilst simultaneously stopping it collapsing. There is a thing in the middle of the spring that tries to do an impression of a damping cartridge, but is in fact just a sleeve to restrict the spring from flying off into a nearby bush.
The strength required to rotate the twist grip gear shifter was herculean, and, if you did succeed, you were greeted by a grinding noise, but rarely a gear shift. We alighted on the fact that a down shift required you to drop down three gears then shift back up one, you then ended up in something like one gear lower than you started in – well, sometimes at least.
The forks were possibly the scariest part of the entire creation and flexed wildly under normal braking, which was even scarier when you appreciate how little braking was on offer from the pressed steel and plastic brakes: none, basically. The general consensus was that the forks were going to snap in half under any sort of load - and our test was going to offer lots of load!This unnerved one friend who had previously found himself flying horizontally headfirst down a rocky trail, like Wiley Coyote fired from a canon by Road Runner, after a set of Kona P2’s gave out on his rigid single-speed. Visions of this happening again seemed to haunt him, which of course amused the rest of us.
Some unfamiliar trailside tools would be required: I sourced one of those nice old-school ‘dog bone’ wrenches that appeared to be the correct tool for the job and I reckoned on finding rocks on the trailside to do any fine gear tuning that may be required along the way. The main focus for all of the riders, though, was padding. It was now very clear we were going to crash, and in ways not previously experienced, so personal protection seemed wise. I managed to beg and borrow a full face carbon downhill helmet worth around the price of at least three of the bikes I was to be riding, plus some knee and elbow pads. I was sure I would be very grateful of these at some point soon.
It was 07:30am on a cold, dark and very wet November morning when I met up with the rest of the group to make the 150 mile trip down to Afan Forest. We were already down by one rider prior to the trip, due to hair coiffuring emergencies or the like, and we lost another who bailed out via a text message the night before with an equally pitiful excuse.
The weather was ominous as we set off. It was raining intermittently as we neared the Severn Bridge and the wind was picking up. Once we crossed into Wales it turned from ominous to positively livid. The rain was now torrential, combined with gale force winds that were buffeting the van all over the motorway. This tempest followed us all the way to the Glyncorrwg trail centre. On arrival, I was pleased to see the car park was still teeming with mountain bikers despite the storm.
After we changed into our riding clothes and body armour, we got the bikes off the trailer and made our last minute adjustments – for all the use they were going to be. The sight of 5 riders in body armour and expensive full faced helmets emerging from a very cool, tricked up van (known as the Mystery Machine, although my wife prefers The Sunshine Bus), to then get aboard these bike shaped contraptions caught the attention of more than a few riders in the car park. We explained the mission to those who enquired and everyone wished us good luck; they were sure we were going to need it!
So this was it. After years of talking, I was finally going to find out the answer to my question. The trail starts with a long climb of around eight kilometres, on rocky single-track, and had been the main focus of my attention. I had only really thought about the joy of overtaking people on proper bikes on the climb. Anything that happened after that was, well, just gravy.
After negotiating the initial jostling by my team members, I started the long toil to the top. Within about 100 yards I discovered that the inner chain ring was off-limits. I dismounted and manually selected it by lifting the chain off and putting it on the inner ring. I could still get a random selection of gears at the back, so the climb was proving no real problem. The forks kept making a loud thud each time they bottomed out, which was over every bump, but they were sort of working. Once I got the hang of the very unergonomic riding position things improved. A bit.
The bikes came in one size only – adult men – which meant that, at an unremarkable 6’ 1” tall, I couldn’t get the saddle high enough despite being about 1 ½ inches above the max insertion mark on the seat-post. My knees were taking quite a pounding, as were my hamstrings. The cockpit was also really short, as the stem had around 10mm of reach and with a very steep rise, which resulted in a bolt upright riding position. The tyres were a revelation though; they gripped on the wet rocks, powered through the mud and held tight through the bends…amazing!
I was making good progress when, to my delight, I spotted riders up ahead! In no time I was passing the first of the group, then the next, and the next. I was in heaven. The Virus (yes, that really was the make: a Virus Tidal Wave) was flying!
Approaching the top of the climb, I rode past a group of riders who were hanging around at the top and spotted some disdainful looks toward my bike. I said nothing and rode proudly through. I hung around for a few minutes for the others to catch up, but they were nowhere in sight. The rain had started again, so I decided to ride the first of the days downhill sections alone.
I’d hung my full-face helmet on my Camelbak for the climb but now I was going to need it. I leant down and selected the middle chain-ring – by hand – and went for it. I was skipping over the rocks and railing the berms and actually enjoying the ride. The track then took a long, steep drop into a rocky off-camber corner with a drop into a gully to either side. I grabbed a handful of brake lever, to scrub off some speed for the slippery looking bend, to be greeted with... noise. This was my first encounter with the brakes in anger, and they were non-existent. Nothing.
I made the bend by a mixture of luck and judgement. With a rapidly increasing heart rate I clamped the brake levers to the bars from a long way out and, along with a dragging foot, managed to stop with a gentle bump into the fence. As the others tolled in there was consensus: We were all surprised how well the bikes had survived the climb, but everyone was a little shocked by the lack of brakes; all five bikes had, to all intents and purposes, no way of stopping!
The beginning of the Energy section of Whites Level trail is a series of fairly decent sized tabletops which four of us chose to take fairly easy. The fifth rider, a national-standard downhiller, chose to ride them as if he was on his free-ride bike. He got several feet of air off every jump, styling it up in the air, to hit the down ramp spot on each time. We, along with a small crowd that stopped to watch, were suitably impressed; in fact we made him do it again.
More downhill sections meant more comedy dismounts as the lack of brakes was getting more and more scary. One rider attempted to slow for a bend, and failed; I passed him as he sat in a smelly quagmire. As the final descent unfolded we dealt with our first and – amazingly – only puncture which appeared to be the result of a spoke or two poking through the rim.
We were soon onto the rock drop-offs that mark the final section. There are optional chicken runs around the drops but a rush of blood saw me launching and landing the drops, albeit noisily. We were in a tight group and the speed we were picking up was terrifying, we knew we couldn’t get rid of it so had to just hold on for the ride. More overtaking as we swept past another group of riders, we were flying again. The jarring through the bike was intense and that, combined with the death grip on the bars due to the braking situation, meant we all had dead arms.
We made the bottom and regrouped for a final assessment. Well, four of us did, as one rider had cased it on the rock drop-offs further up, when his forks decided to fold back at the steerer tube rendering it un-rideable.
We now had five bikes with no brakes at all, one with a tacoed back wheel (the pilot reckoned it gave some braking in the turns as it rubbed against the chainstays), one bike with bent forks, one with collapsed front suspension. I had no useable gears and the saddle kept pointing to the sky no matter how tight I did the bolt up.
They were certainly not in a fit state to take on The Wall trail, so we retired back to the van and awaited the arrival of the last team member, who was on foot for the last 3km due to his catastrophic fork failure. As we waited, I mulled over the results of our non-scientific-but-pretty-exhaustive test.
I have to admit to being surprised at how many had actually finished the ride, though the others pointed out that the above list of damage had occurred within the bikes first 11 miles from new. As for the question of whether these supermarket brand bikes are capable of anything a real mountain bike is…well, for a short, uncomfortable and terrifying period, they are! Assuming that you're willing to buy a new one each time – or spend some serious hours on repairs – you can take a BSO on proper MTB trails. We overtook people going up. And going down, but that was more by default than choice!
On a more serious note, however, most people will buy these bikes, build them in the living room with the tools supplied, and ride them on roads that they'll be sharing with HGVs, taxi drivers and teenagers in Citroen Saxos. We had the a Cytech-qualified mechanic to build ours, body armour to protect us and plenty of bail-out options when it did all go pear shaped. If you're coasting down to the main road and you find out then that your brakes don't work, it's a different – and much more serious – story. If you're going to own one, off road is probably the best place to ride it.
All in all, though, it was some of the best fun I have had on a bike; we may even try to mend them ready for a new challenge...