Batteries Not Included

Having given up finding an oversized bicycle in a bike shop I went and bought on online. Or, to be more accurate, a friend bought one for me and then I gave him the money. I don’t have a Chinese credit card so buying anything online is difficult. In fact it’s so complicated that even when the same guy helped me it took 90 minutes to download and configure the various security packages, enter 3 different codes, none of which were less than 20 digits and only then could I buy a four dollar USB cable I could have bought up the road for 50 cents more.

Because everything was handled by a Mainlander, purchase and delivery was straightforward, there was no confusion with passports bearing western name and ID bearing Chinese one. We were advised arrival would be in two days, or four allowing for the fact they delivered to the wrong address and had to come back and pick it up and redeliver, and another two because it had to go back to the main sorting office for reprocessing rather than just taking it half a mile down the road to the correct address.

Anyway, the bike company had warned me I would need to put on the pedals by myself otherwise the bike wouldn’t fit in the box. It wasn’t a big deal, after all, every time I put a bike on a flight it has to be semi dismantled and so, on a hot summers morning at the beginning of this month, we headed over to pick it up – the other guy had to come along to show his ID since he was the one who ordered it.

When we arrived, it was apparent which package one was mine because the delivery guy had left two large gashes along the length of the box (which was leaning against a tree in front of the shop with the arrows indicating up pointing out into the road)

It was also immediately clear that when they said “you’ll have to put on the pedals” what they really meant was “and the handlebars, both mudguards, the luggage rack, the saddle and the kick stand. Oh yeah, and the rod brakes will be in pieces.” I don’t think I missed anything.

I’d had the foresight to bring more than one spanner, some screwdrivers and a bicycle pump, but I hadn’t thought to bring pliers (which I needed for the rod brakes). It quickly became apparent that this wasn’t going to matter because it was going to take some time to put it all together anyway and a sidewalk on a hot on and humid Wuhan morning wasn’t the place to do it. We decided to attach the major components to the frame and then freewheel it back (we were both riding bikes) and pour everything else into the oversized bag I’d also brought along.

This was all taking place up a small side street so naturally people began to gather and watch the foreigner try to assemble a bicycle on the sidewalk. I wasn’t bothered by the attention, it comes with the territory, nor that someone might try to nick something. The problem was people kept trying to be helpful and so, while I was trying to insert the seatpost in the saddle, someone would say “you’ll need this” and hand me the kickstand. At one point, some old bloke informed me that he had “put the front wheel on” and of course I naively took ‘put’ to mean ‘attached’, so when I turned the bike over the wheel fell out the forks and rolled off down the hill watched by the sizeable group that had assembled.

Since I didn’t have any brakes, I didn’t bother putting any more air in the tyres, figuring this would provide me with a little inertia when I guided the bike in the wrong direction up three lanes of congested traffic.

Once back at the hospital, I wheeled it through the front doors as if it were a gurney bearing a patient teetering on the brink and straight into the elevator before anyone said anything. In the quiet of my air conditioned office I was able to apply myself to the task of assembling the bike more correctly. After all, I’d worked in a bike shop as a youth, how hard could it be?

Very hard as it turned out. It wasn’t so much the complexity of the task as the quality of the components. It was clear from the beginning that frame had been decorated with paint that was obviously lifted from an Airfix kit (given the frame colour it must have been the one for Waffen SS staff car) and diluted with gasoline to bring it up to volume; it was possible to scrape it off with a fingernail. Moreover, the screws were manufactured from some cheap alloy and the saddle upholstered in the finest quality plastic. The wheels were built with the thickest spokes I have ever seen and so were badly out of true it was hard to position the brakes shoes so they weren’t clipping the rim on one side or other during the course of a single revolution ( i used to build my own wheels, but i wasn’t confident of the quality of the components).

Another interesting touch was the absence of any oil on the chain. This turned out to be a good thing because, in order to get the back wheel in the frame, I had to worry about the mudguard, the kickstand (which was mounted on both sides) and the luggage rack, as well as two adjusting screws to centre the wheel in the frame.

My old bike was a Fei Ge (Flying Pigeon – it sounds better in Mandarin). After talking to some locals, this time I went for a YongJiu (which means Forever) because it was (supposedly) better quality. If British Leyland had made bicycles, this is the sort of product they would turn out. It was like comparing the Austin Allegro to the Austin Princess. They were equally ugly, had that really shit mechanism for the door handles, but the Princess came with that fake wood finish on the dashboard that came unglued within the first year. Similarly, if there was a difference between these two bikes it was subtle, although I did get some cute stickers with the YongJiu.

Once I finally had it all together, I pumped up the back tyre and found it had a puncture. Off came the mudguard, luggage rack, adjusting screws and kickstand so I could remove the back wheel and tried to get the tyre off the rim, snapping a tyre lever in the process. I fixed the puncture, poured it all back together and the tyre blew off the rim as soon as I tried pumping it up. After pulling out the back wheel a second time and reseating the tyre I pumped it up to 20psi and it blew right off in a different place. I once helped my Dad switch out the gearbox on his Citroen and I’m pretty sure it was more straightforward. I began to suspect the “Forever” was referring to the time it took to get the bike on the road.

I finally went out and bought a new tyre from the old geezer who runs a one man show in a small alley on the way home, and that episode is a whole blog in itself.

This time the tyre stayed attached to the rim and yesterday I finally headed off up the road on the assembled machine. I had become accustomed to my progress being accompanied by an array of noises as metal grinds against metal, aging springs groan under the strain and, the absence of decent brakes, my foot drags against the tarmac to control my speed. A student said it sounded like a donkey treading on a chicken, I always felt more like a 3 pack a day smoker in his later years slowly coughing and hacking his way up the road with a Zimmer frame.

But today there was none of that. The bike glided up the road; the silence was unsettling. No one heard me coming and pedestrians (who always walk in the road) jumped out of the way at the last minute with a whimper or crying in terror.

I give it about a week until something breaks.


2 Responses to “Batteries Not Included”

  1. Pseu Says:


    Well told.

    Shall I send you a bell?

  2. cyanide bunny Says:

    hey. they did give me a bell, i’d completely forgotten about it, it’s still in the bag, thanks for reminding me.

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