Well, yes . . . but no, at least not in the way most of us tend to think of bikes being "cheap". Which is to say that they aren't free.
Riding a bicycle you already own on a day-to-day basis is pretty cheap. Not just because you don't have to buy gas and throw money into the pocket of some Saudi Prince in whereverthehellistan, but also because you're not paying for insurance, you're not paying for a gym membership, and you're saving money by limiting the wear and tear on the truly expensive car that is likely parked at home as you pedal about. These are all things that are worth remembering when you pay a bike shop to tune and/or renovate your beloved bicycle.
You will spend money on your bicycle if you ride it at all.
Tires, brake pads, grips - these are all made of rubber. They wear down. If they don't get used often enough to wear down, they dry out and when they do, the replacements cost money. Your bicycle has dozens of moving parts. Moving parts can - and will - wear with use. The more you ride, the more these things are going to stack up and you're just going to need to replace certain parts of your bike once in a while.
F.Y.I. - If you're spending $100 per year on bike maintenance, you're riding for as cheap as you ever will with a quality bike. It's worth remembering that if we put that kind of use into our cars, we're spending $9,000 per year, according to AAA.
"My cheap bike is just as good as the expensive ones, it just weighs more."
People will frequently tell you that the main difference between cheap bikes and expensive bikes is the weight. This is a lie we tell ourselves as cheapskates when we want to rationalize a bad purchase (Never trust the opinion of a self-proclaimed bicycle expert who claims to have never made a purchase at an actual bike shop).
This is also one of my favorite myths in all of bikedom. Bicycles cost money for all kinds of reasons. If you've owned and ridden multiple bicycles, you've likely experienced a difference.
Bikes from these places are typically offered in only one size, which pretty much guarantees that whatever you buy won't fit. Even beyond that, there are lots of reasons that people say that department store bikes are junk. Poor assembly is at the top of the list. When a bicycle is shipped out of a factory, it isn't rideable. It is packed into the smallest box the manufacturer can squeeze a bike into in order to keep shipping costs to a minimum. Wherever you buy a new bike, it pretty much had to be built in that building.
If your bike comes from a place that is not a bike shop, it was probably not assembled by a meticulous and experienced mechanic. No self-respecting bike mechanic will take a job at a department store. If that shows up on his resume', he will have a great deal of difficulty finding work in a real bike shop when Target lays him off. No, the bike from Target was built by whomever assembles their barbecues and patio furniture.
If Wal-Mart doesn't care that the fork is backwards, what else do they not care about?:
|To a bike shop employee, this is a picture of job security.|
A bicycle, as a machine that has to safely carry 8 to 12 times its own weight in a safe and controllable manner, is far more complicated than a lawn chair. There are numerous moving parts that require numerous adjustments and proper alignment in order for the bike to work as well on the 47th ride as it did on the first.
Even beyond that, it's worth thinking about the fact that one of these bicycle-shaped objects will cost just a few bucks more than the labor charges for a single tune-up from any mechanic worth paying. How do you build a reliable machine with the remaining $50? You don't.
Manufacturers of these bikes frequently acknowledge that the quality of their product is sub-par. "Not to be ridden off road," or some scrambled version of that statement is a warning label found on many "mountain bikes" found at your typical big-box retailer.
Awesome. This is right up there with "Keep toaster away from heat source," and "Warranty void if boat used in water."
If you're on a budget, you may be surprised to find that even an independent bike shop will have affordable bikes on their sales floor. If Wal-Mart has a great "deal" on a bike for $200, your local bike shop has one for $300. One that was built by a mechanic, one that the bike shop hangs its reputation on, and one that comes in multiple sizes so that it will actually fit you.
Long story short: Your bike can be as inexpensive as you'll allow it to be, but there does come a point near the bottom rung of the dollar ladder where quality drops faster than the number on the price tag.