I bought a bike in Madagascar.I met a kid in the town of Mahajanga. Five years old and full of attitude. I couldn’t understand much of what he said in Malagasy, but bicyclette came through loud and clear.He wanted one, bad. I told him I’d work on it.A month later I heard from the kid’s mom that he’s still talking about it. So I told her to go find one. I’m buying. Big spender. That evening she showed up at my house with this:
I paid 120,000 Madagascar Ariary — $40, more or less.How cute!, I thought. But then, I noticed everything about it — the good and the bad.But let me back up.How many children’s bikes have you seen that carry this implicit message: Grownups don’t use bikes except maybe for play — maybe.
Here’s another one:
And one more:
But this bike — the one purchased in Madagascar — says, Bikes are meant to be used in daily life.That’s what I hear it saying. Figuratively; I don’t actually hear this bike talking to me. I just want to be clear about that.It has practically everything on the utility cyclist’s checklist for everyday cycling.
It’s not easy to find a utility bike this well-equipped in the USA — for adults.I spent an eternity — like 30 minutes — looking at children’s bikes on Amazon.com and there wasn’t a fender to be found. There was whimsy up the seat post, but not much utility.Chain guards were pretty ubiquitous, but I have feeling that manufacturers were lawyered into that.I’m not a big fan of training wheels. I prefer balance bikes for teaching kids to ride, or a small bike like this one with the pedals removed. But I think I’ll let it slide.
This is the only bike I’ll probably ever buy for this kid, and I want to get the most mileage out of what bought.The bike has Milano written over it — literally. But I’m not fooled. This is not an Italian bike.No, this bike has China written all over it — figuratively. The sloppy welds and the multitude of loose nuts indicate someone making $1.20 and 12 bikes per hour.And like a cheap box-store bike, this one will need to be gone over by a mechanic — and I don’t mean a box-store mechanic.The spokes on this bike weren’t even finger tight. No child’s bike should be this much work to get it going. Which says something. I’m not sure what. Perhaps it shows people in Madagascar expect to engage the services of a mechanic. Or maybe I should give those WalMart mechanics more credit for how well they setup bikes.Regardless, I happen to know a mechanic in Madagascar. His name is Jeule and he works by the side of the road under an umbrella.
Jeule will do the setup on this child’s bike for me, and then I will send it to Mahajanga for the little bugger.The front basket is kind of useless. It’s mounted with a cheap piece of tin, and it is probably only good for carrying something very lightweight — like helium-filled balloons.Still, the basket represents something aspirational — like the unicorn. And the something represented by this basket won’t let the kid down when he’s old enough to realize that he’s never going to ride a real unicorn, but he can carry real stuff on a bike.The rear rack with spring clamp is actually functional — as a paperclip. Miles ahead of the “bikes are toys” offerings I found on Amazon.comPerhaps my favorite detail on this bike is this:
A cable guide. Unused.But at some point in the product development process, when the features of this bike were being considered and the business analysis was being carefully considered, someone must have said, “This cable guide adds an extra 0.3104 yuan per unit. Do we go with it or not?”And they decided, yes, they would put a cable guide on this frame. Because, maybe the owner might want to put gears on this bike, and those gears are going to need a cable, and that cable is going to need a guide. Because bikes are meant to be used, and accessorized, and adjusted to the needs of even little bicyclists.
Ted Johnson is a Peace Corps Response Volunteer in Antananarivo, Madagascar. Follow his hardly-ever-about-bikes blogging at Half-Hearted Fanatic, and tweeting at @TedJohnsonIII.Note that the opinions expressed here by Ted Johnson are solely his own and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.