My first, autodidactic lessons in bicycle maintenance were not happy occasions. One issue, granted, was not having the right tools. Using a pair of rusty pliers from my dad's motley collection at the back of the garage, I would try to manipulate the locknut after fitting a new brake cable. First, I nicely rounded the edges of the nut, which seemed to be made of a metal only slightly harder than marzipan. Then, since to get a grip on the nut to tighten it I now had to use all my strength, the bolt simply sheared off - leaving its broken end snug in the thus completely unserviceable brake caliper.
Like as not, untold millions of these hopelessly inadequate bike-simulacra are filling space in people's sheds, garages and lofts. Unloved, neglected, no longer working, but too substantial-seeming to throw out. Britain is not, pace Napoleon, a nation of shopkeepers, but a nation of crap bicycle-keepers. You think "millions" an exaggeration? According to the UK industry body the Bicycle Association, we bought 4.5m bikes in 2004 (the last year for which figures are available). How many of these would you bet on being still roadworthy?
I say "bikes"; in reality, we are talking of the dreaded "bicycle-shaped object", or BSO. As trade webzine Bikebiz points out, Mintel research in 2001 found that the average price of an adult bicycle was £107 - which, despite EU anti-dumping rules against cheap Chinese and Vietnamese imports being in force since 2000, is likely to be as low as £80 now. Although there is plenty of research that shows how, say, bicycle theft or the perception that roads are unsafe deters people from cycling, I have never come across any about how truly trashy hardware puts them off. Yet I am convinced that the BSO is one of the great menaces of our age.
It would be easy to blame the big chains such as Halfords for inflicting it on the British public, but that's too easy. For one thing, its 400-plus stores account for only a quarter of the market; independent bike dealers represent a third - the majority of which sell their fair share of BSOs. And Halfords' internal franchise Bikehut now stocks "real" bicycle-shaped bicycles, with high-end brands such as Boardman, Van Nicholas and Condor.
Who is the culprit, then? Unfortunately, it is us, the consumers. When we shop for flatscreen TVs, game consoles and MP3 players, we pay hundreds and rightly expect excellence. But, when we're buying a bike, somehow our mentality morphs into one that delights in buying a "bargain" lot of nylon knickers at a street market stall.
Perhaps, all too often, it's because we're buying for our kids and we figure they won't know the difference. But they soon will. What we need to remember is that a bicycle is not just for Christmas.