Ugly Bicycle!

There is a blog I read from time to time called “Lovely Bicycle!“, an appreciation of bicycles and bicycling written by a rather perceptive blogger.  There’s a lot of discussion about the things that make bicycles and bicycling fun, and the writer has developed from a sort of “transportational” cyclist into a randonneur/roadie/cyclist-of-all-trades over the past few years.  Since much of what she has to say about design and riding is similar to my own views, I really enjoy reading her blog.

So I thought it appropriate to contrast the notion of her blog, lovely bicycle, with an experience I had last week.

Some acquaintances of mine on a limited budget were given bikes by a non-cycling friend of mine so that they could get around.  This non-cycling friend knew that GMC was a good brand (I cannot speak to that) and so he ordered a pair of GMC Denali “road bikes”.  I will henceforth be referring to these, collectively and individually, as the Bicycle Shaped Object(s) (“BSO”).

Since I know these particular acquaintances are often out and about in the evening, I offered to install some “be-seen” lights for safety.  I got two of this set:

I had heard of BSO like this before, but the first time I laid hands on one was when my acquaintances arrived to have me install the lights, what I figured would be a 5-minute operation.

Oh, boy.

The BSO is an invention created by a marketer to look like bicycle, and sort of function like a bicycle, but it is not a useful bicycle.  Here’s a photo:

Now, that may not look so bad.  I have no idea what the geometry is.  But the first problem was that the friend had ordered size large, and both of the acquaintances are at best size mediums, so the first thing is that the BSO doesn’t fit.  Since that meant that the seatpost was absolutely slammed down, that mean I had to figure out how to mount the tail lights to the oversized seat tube.  That wasn’t too difficult, fortunately.  But it gave me a chance to look at the rather overworked rear end of the bike.  Here’s a photo someone took that sort of shows what I mean:

Those are pretty curvy stays.  And they don’t need to be.  And that’s characteristic of the BSO; “aero”-shaped tubes that don’t do anything except (maybe) add weight.  At least the tires are nice and fat…I didn’t even touch the spokes.

But the real horror was the front end:

Several things to notice here:  (1) the handlebar is not made in one piece–it appears to be bolted together from three pieces–one in the stem, and one each for the right and left sides; (2) it uses grip-shift style shifters.  I’ve used road grip-shifts, which fit down at the ends of the handlebars.  They worked OK–like bar-cons but not quite.  These are MTB-style shifters, and on the BSO I examined, the cables were partially wrapped under the handlebar tape.  Don’t ask how.  Handlebars–which have to bear a lot of force–should be made in one piece and should never have holes in them, especially near the stem.

Shifters on a road bike should be–well, maybe they’re just ugly.  But I don’t think shifting both front and rear at the same time should require you to take your hands off the brakes, but maybe that’s just me.  Anyway, I had to strap the front lights around the “clamps” on either side of the handlebar, which meant modifying them by disassembling them and modifying the mounts to fit.  It worked, but just barely.

But the real killer (and I mean that in every bad sense of the word) was this one.  Bicycles with caliper or cantilever brakes can generally use the same type of brake lever.  It’s not ideal in all situations, but you get reasonable brake modulation.  The levers installed on the BSOs I saw were these:

These are nice-looking brake levers, but they are not designed to work with the brakes that were installed on the bike.  They’re designed to work with linear-pull (“LP”) brakes.  LP brakes require much more cable pull to stop than caliper brakes.  Consequently, levers for LP brakes pull a lot of cable.  The result of mixing LP levers and caliper brakes is that the lightest touch on the lever will clamp the brakes hard.  You’ve heard of stopping on a dime?  In this case, literally true.  This means that the rider has no ability to modulate the brakes.  They’re either on or off.

And, by the way, this puts a lot of stress on the handlebar, which has to absorb the rider’s weight moving forward.

The result is a catastrophe.

Not only is the GMC Denali an ugly bike, it is an unsafe bike.

Many years ago, there was a car sold in the US called the Yugo.  It was so bad that the standard joke was that it didn’t have a rear-window defogger so much as it had a handwarmer.  Its sole redeeming quality was that it was cheap.

This is also true of the GMC Denali BSO.

Buy a bicycle instead.

 

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4 Responses to Ugly Bicycle!

  1. Peter says:

    This review was hard to read. I think you’re being way too critical and the price point has obviously affected your opinion of this bike. As a reviewer, you have to review it considering every aspect. It IS a sub $200 bike after all. No bicyclist wanting to go into road racing is going to go with this bike expecting a 3+ year life time let alone a few months.

    There are cheap cheeseburgers that just tastes bland and there are more pricier Big Macs in the Mcdonald’s menu. You can’t possibly criticize about how terrible the cheeseburger taste, can you? Some people just want some cheap calories after a lengthy ride. Not everybody wants to go for that premium stuff.

    As an engineer, the wavy rear fork is immediately recognized as a shock absorbing design. Think about it, when you’re jumping off a high step, would you have your legs straight down or bent? It’s the same concept. Sure, it might damage and bend the bike if the impact was hard enough, but it’s much better than having the rider absorb all that impact, wouldn’t you agree? A quick Google shows this as the Pinarello design, not “aero-shaped”.

    I can’t possibly see how you manage to identify the handlebars as two separate pieces. You are right, of course. Handlebars is safer when there’s only one monolithic piece in design. That handlebar you’re looking at is in fact one bar, visibly just from the photo. There is a stem, and there is the handlebar. The stem and handlebar are not one piece for the option to replace handlebars. The bolts are there to tighten the handlebar to the stem. I have no idea how you came to the conclusion of separate left right pieces of handlebar.

    The brakes cable travel length can always be adjusted. That’s up to the bike user to re-adjust it. Again, this is a sub $200 bike, grip shifter is pretty much expected. It’s not of poor quality that the bike will actually fall apart. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is a great bike, but for a $200 bike, this is a great road bike. For those daily commuters that just need a bike to commute that 8~10 km uphill to get to work every day, this is a great bike. If you’re looking into 100km+ voyages that will last you for the next 20~30 years, this is probably not the bike to get as I can’t see a lifespan of this being greater than a year with that kind of mileage without swapping out and upgrading parts, but it’s a good bike to let you know if you would like to get into biking. It’s a good starter road bike.

    • Peter:

      Thanks for your comment. Some thoughts and explanation:

      I doubt that even with casual use this bike will last three years.

      “There are cheap cheeseburgers that just tastes bland and there are more pricier Big Macs in the Mcdonald’s menu…” Leaving McDonald’s aside for another time, let me say I’ll come back to price-for-value at the end.

      “As an engineer, the wavy rear fork is immediately recognized as a shock absorbing design.” Well, only if you’re not an engineer. An engineer knows that shock absorption depends on materials. The $15,000+ Pinarello Dogma is made of carefully hand-laid carbon fiber, and you can control its characteristics. The Denali is made of heavy-gauge aluminum, and doesn’t flex.

      “I have no idea how you came to the conclusion of separate left right pieces of handlebar.” (1) Because that’s the only way to install grip-shift style shifters are the center of a drop bar; (2) because the bar *felt* like it was made in pieces, not like a single, solid tube; (3) because that huge collar (not the stem—the collar that passes through it) is bolted to the handlebar, and I can’t think of any decent reason to have such a collar *unless* the bar is made in pieces. The stem, at least, is fairly normal.

      “The brakes cable travel length can always be adjusted.” It’s not a question of cable travel per se, it’s a question of mechanical advantage. Matched levers and brakes allow you to apply the brakes gradually (modulation). These levers, which are designed to pull cable for a more slowly-moving brake, pull cable much faster than levers designed for the calipers on this bike. The result is that modulation is all but non-existent on the Denali. Odd, and possibly due to a supply chain problem, since the correct levers are no more expensive. But dangerous, because there is no way to adjust this problem out of the system.

      “Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is a great bike, but for a $200 bike, this is a great road bike. For those daily commuters that just need a bike to commute that 8~10 km uphill to get to work every day, this is a great bike.” Like the Yugo, it is *at best* adequate. With the current brakes, I wouldn’t ride it down a hill (the risk of locking and doing an endo is pretty high). And about the only thing this bike has in common with a road bike is the shape of the handlebar drops. Other than that, it’s a hybrid that someone has tried to make *look like* a road bike.

      “[I]t’s a good bike to let you know if you would like to get into biking. It’s a good starter road bike.” I have to disagree. It’s not a road bike, and trying to ride it as if it is will only bring heartache and despair. It’s a sheep (goat, actually) in wolf’s clothing. It’s not even a good deal for the money, which would be far better spend on a decent used bike at a shop where they can put you on a frame that fits and make sure it’s properly adjusted. There is a price-for-value relationship, and not everyone wants (or needs) a Big Mac. But there’s a point at which that relationship breaks down, and this bike, which as examined is manifestly unsafe, falls below that break point.

  2. Peter says:

    You have some good points, but you’ve lost me somewhere.

    “An engineer knows that shock absorption depends on materials. The $15,000+ Pinarello Dogma is made of carefully hand-laid carbon fiber, and you can control its characteristics. The Denali is made of heavy-gauge aluminum, and doesn’t flex.” Carbon fiber’s inherent stiffness can be controlled. The aluminum’s inherent stiffness cannot be controlled as much, hence the more reason why you would design the shock absorbing Pinarello design on such a material. Creating a structure in such a geometry develops the “external structural” stiffness on top of the inherent one. I went to my bike storage at work today and noticed every single bike had that design in the rear fork. None of them are carbon fiber frames.

    The collar is bolted to the handlebar so that it doesn’t spin on its axis. The collar itself has a grated surface to grip to the clamps. I agree it seems really redundant to manufacture it this way and really reduces the limited space to insert accessories. My best guess would be that tapered handlebars tubes are harder to manufacture than perfectly straight handlebar tube. But without the larger diameter in the center of the handlebar, they’d have to make the clamps smaller, which would mean users would not be able to install custom handlebars. Hence they put a collar around the handlebar as sort of an adapter to fit the clamps. That would, however, reduce grip, so they bolt the collar down to the handlebars. All of this is done to save the cost of manufacturing the tapered handlebars. From this design, the safety factor has been reduced at all unless the bolt threads wear out, which shouldn’t happen unless you screw and unscrew repetitively. From my Master’s days of designing and machining my own experimental apparatus, designing adapters that bolt down to the body is what I often use to avoid costly designs and time needed to machine these parts. It’s just as sturdy as monolithic parts.

    It’s interesting you should mention about the lever and the brake system because my Denali came with the front brakes being anywhere but sensitive. I had to shorten the cable length in order to get to that sweet spot of braking. Maybe you were looking at a different model of the Denali, but mine was pretty adjustable. I ride this bike up and down a 15% gradient hill everyday and it seems to be fine for me, so maybe we’re looking at different builds of this same bike. I read somewhere this particular bike has some changes in different yearly models. The details I’m not sure.

    “And about the only thing this bike has in common with a road bike is the shape of the handlebar drops. Other than that, it’s a hybrid that someone has tried to make *look like* a road bike.” I thought the definition of a road bike is that the bike itself is optimized for lengthy smooth road rides such that the tires are treadless/thinner, absence of suspension, and drop down handlebars.

    I can see if you’ve had a bike shop bike and tried to ride this bike, it’s easy to see this as a ‘non-bike’. Now that I have a smartphone, I had to use a feature phone while on vacation and I constantly looked at it as “not a phone”. But when you look at it, it takes calls and text messages. It’s slow and frustrating at times, but it is still a phone after all.

    Cheers

    • “You have some good points, but you’ve lost me somewhere.” I hope not!
      “The aluminum’s inherent stiffness cannot be controlled as much, hence the more reason why you would design the shock absorbing Pinarello design on such a material. Creating a structure in such a geometry develops the “external structural” stiffness on top of the inherent one. I went to my bike storage at work today and noticed every single bike had that design in the rear fork. None of them are carbon fiber frames. “
      As I’m sure you’re aware, there’s a lot of copycatting in every industry, bicycles not excepted. Aluminum flexes so little that cyclists are advised not to spread the stays (say, to accommodate a 130mm rear hub instead of a 126mm rear hub). Even that tiny amount of movement at the end of the lever arm (i.e., the dropout) is considered enough to permanently damage the structure of the bike. Of course, you likely wouldn’t do that on a carbon frame, either, since it’s engineered for stiffness in that plane. OTOH, steel frames can easily be spread (or compressed) and a steel structure set up the way the Denali’s rear end is might flex sufficiently to absorb road noise. Aluminum frames just really aren’t built that way, especially not with the kind of tubing you find in the Denali.
      “The collar is bolted to the handlebar so that it doesn’t spin on its axis. The collar itself has a grated surface to grip to the clamps. I agree it seems really redundant to manufacture it this way and really reduces the limited space to insert accessories. My best guess would be that tapered handlebars tubes are harder to manufacture than perfectly straight handlebar tube.”
      Yep, but that collar is there because of the grip shifters. Those, which are ill-considered for a road bike, require that instead of a rigid one-piece structure, you end up with multiple bits bolted together. I can buy standard drop bars in a bike shop at retail for <$20 (granted, they’re not the lightest, nor are they grooved for cables, but), so I don’t think cost is the issue here. The grip shifters could have been replaced with inexpensive downtube shifters (for those who enjoy retrostyle) or low-end Shimano STI shifters. Either system allows for simultaneous braking and shifting, something grip shifters do not allow for when paired with drop-bar levers.
      “It’s interesting you should mention about the lever and the brake system because my Denali came with the front brakes being anywhere but sensitive.”
      As I think I said, this may have been a supply chain issue. Matching brakes to levers is very important in getting good modulation (ask anyone who has tried V-brakes with caliper levers—it’s almost impossible to stop!). However, it doesn’t make me anymore confident in the rest of the bike that it shipped with this unsafe setup. I’m glad that yours does not suffer from this problem. But as I also noted previously, there’s a difference between adjusting brakes that are poorly set up, and installing a combination that simply cannot be made to modulate well.
      “I thought the definition of a road bike is that the bike itself is optimized for lengthy smooth road rides such that the tires are treadless/thinner, absence of suspension, and drop down handlebars.” That’s a pretty broad definition, and save for the drop bars, it perfectly describes hybrid bicycles.
      Traditionally, “road” was short for “road racing,” and such bikes were/are equipped with narrow rubber (23mm tires were the standard until recently, when some riders went to 25mm tires—the ones on the Denali look to be (I didn’t check the sidewalls) more like hybrid tires, at 35mm). Traditional road gearing is a double in front with something like a 50+/38+ ratio, though some folks are now going to “compact doubles” and triples. Road shifting is, in order of popularity from most to least, STI/Ergo/SRAM integrated levers, bar-end shifters, down tube shifters. There are a few other variations, and Grip Shift manufactured a road version of their product 10+ years ago, but it was mounted at the ends of the handlebars. I installed a set of these on a friend’s bike, and they worked well, but they were almost entirely different from the set on the Denali.
      Tradition, however, is beside the point. There is a wide, but reasonably well-defined, set of road variations, including touring bikes, randonneuring bikes (my preference), sport-touring (which the Denali most closely resembles), triathlon bikes, gravel grinders (newly popular, designed for off-road touring), cyclocross bikes (almost their own category), track bikes, fixies, time trial bikes, and more. This bike really doesn’t fit any of those categories, but that’s OK. The main takeaway from this is that road bikes are generally built for performance. This one isn’t. And that’s still OK. The problem is that the Denali is designed and sold in a way that tends to make people think it’s a road bike, and they try to use it for a road bike purpose, and they give up.
      I’m a crank, I’ll admit it. I have the same reaction to wood-grained plastic (why???) and to the inexpensive (cheap!) Zebra fountain pens that drugstores sell, because they actually turn people away from using fountain pens. They’re that bad (and just as there are good cheap bikes, there are excellent cheap fountain pens—Pilot makes a nice disposable that costs about the same). My problem is one of looking at these things and viewing them ultimately as a waste of good material and people’s time. You will find Zebra fountain pens not in hands, but in drawers. You will find, within a year of purchase, most Denalis under a tarp, not under a rider. Had those riders been given a good single speed bike instead of something tarted up to be what it’s not, they might have continued to ride.
      As I said, I’m a crank. I don’t like to see people on bicycles that are ultimately only meat for the Huffy Toss. Which is why I wrote the review I did. I would never approach a rider on this bike, or any Huffy/Murray/*Mart bike and tell them they’re riding crap. But if that review stops one potential buyer from purchasing crap and gets them into a bike shop, I think that’s a good thing, FWIW, I do not own, work in, or have any commercial interest in a bike shop. I do volunteer to tune up bikes before local scouts ride, etc., and have had to suffer through trying to make these things work.
      OK, rant mode off. I hope you enjoy riding your bike; I would, however, encourage you to visit a good bike shop at some point and see what’s available. If you enjoy the Denali, you will feel like a bird in flight on the bikes you find there.

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