ORLANDO, Fla. – As parents consider purchasing bicycles for their children this holiday season, bike mechanics are warning consumers to make sure the bikes have been properly assembled at the store, particularly those bought at department stores and "big box" retailers like Walmart and Target.
[WEB EXTRA: Is that bike safe?]
"You should really have the confidence and assurance that the bike you're purchasing has been put together correctly," said Joshua Jiannuzzi. Long before he began working as a mechanic at Kyle's Bike Shop in Orlando, Jiannuzzi assembled bikes at Kmart.
"A lot of times the people assembling it are the people assembling your patio furniture, your barbecues, your grills. The same people who sometimes bag your groceries," said Jiannuzzi.
Other times the bicycles are assembled by contractors hired by the retailer. Those contractors are often paid for each bike they put together, according to Jiannuzzi, giving them a financial incentive to assemble the bikes quickly.
To see how well bicycles have been assembled at stores, Local 6 reporter Mike DeForest purchased four bikes from popular retailers and took them to Kyle's Bike Shop for a basic safety inspection.
Three of the four bikes failed the mechanic's examination, based on the way they were assembled.
"This bike absolutely should have been made safer," said Jiannuzzi, referring to a 24-inch Huffy Trail Runner purchased at Walmart. "This is personally a bike I would not have my own child riding."
When Jiannuzzi pinched the front tire with his knees to hold it steady, he was easily able to rotate the handlebars from side to side. If the handlebars and stem are not tightly attached to the front fork, the rider can lose control, according to the mechanic.
The mechanic also found a damaged brake cable that was so loose it did not apply proper brake pressure on the rear tire. "If the child were to brake in an emergency, they would actually find themselves slowing to a stop rather than stopping immediately," said Jiannuzzi.
When Jiannuzzi placed a wrench on the bolt holding the front tire to the fork, he was able to loosen it with just a light tap. That suggests to the mechanic that the person who assembled the bike may have tightened the bolt by hand instead of using a tool.
"The next thing you know, you get a phone call. 'Mommy, can you come pick me up? My teeth are on the ground. My front wheel came off.' I've had it happen. I've got my scars," said Jiannuzzi, pointing to his chin.
In 2011, Walmart settled a lawsuit filed by Stephanie and John Klug. The West Virginia couple claimed their son was "thrown over the handlebars and hit the pavement face-first" when the front wheel of his Mongoose X-75 bike broke free from the fork.
They blamed the bike's manufacturer, Pacific Cycle, for allowing "untrained personnel" at Walmart to assemble the bikes. The terms of the settlement were sealed by a judge and remain confidential.
A second bike purchased at a different Walmart fared much better during Jiannuzzi's safety inspection.
"It would definitely be able to be ridden. But the overall quality of the bike would soon decline," the mechanic said of the 24-inch Roadmaster Granite Peak bicycle.
Like the three other bicycles purchased by Local 6, the Roadmaster's handlebars were loose. Also, the gears did not shift properly, according to the mechanic.
"You can stand up to pedal and it will do what we call 'ghost shifting'. The gears shift on their own," said Jiannuzzi. "It can throw you off."
A 24-inch Magna Outreach mountain bike purchased at Target also had malfunctioning gears, according to the mechanic, as well as inadequately assembled brakes.
"If I apply the brake, one side is making contact (with the wheel rim), the other is not," said the mechanic. "You're going to end up spending another $40-$50 just to have this fine-tuned. This didn't necessarily pass my safety inspection."
But the most poorly assembled bike in the mechanic's opinion was a 20-inch Mongoose Index 2.0 purchased at Target, designed for boys age 8 and up.
"By far, this is the worst-off bike you've brought to me. This one would be an easy 'F'," said Jiannuzzi.
The bike's handlebars were not only inadequately secured to the fork; they also tilted up and down with a minimal amount of pressure, according to the mechanic. "That's a big safety issue," he said.
Jiannuzzi also noticed the bolts holding the foot pedals to the crank arm were easily loosened by hand, potentially causing the pedals to fall off. The front brake lever also failed to activate the front brake pads.
Jiannuzzi's boss, Kyle Markel, would prefer customers buy a higher-end bicycle, like the kind sold at his bike shop off Primrose Drive. However, he is not discouraging consumers from purchasing bikes at "big box" retailers.
"Those bikes do have a place," said Markel. "Not everybody can afford $300 and up for a bicycle."
According to the National Bicycle Dealers Association, 74 percent of the 16 million bikes sold in 2013 were purchased at mass merchants like Target and Walmart.
If consumers do purchase a bike from a "big box" store, Markel highly recommends that they take it to a professional bike mechanic for a safety inspection.
"We have a lot of bikes come straight to our shop, right from the department store, for a tune-up," said Markel. The cost of those tune-ups start at around $40-$50, he said.
Owner's manuals for many bikes also suggest seeking a professional evaluation.
"We recommend that you consult a bicycle specialist if you have doubts or concerns as to your experience or ability to properly assemble, repair, or maintain your bicycle," states the owner's manual that is attached to the Mongoose Index 2.0 sold at Target. "If your bicycle was obtained assembled, we recommend that you... perform checks specified in this manual before riding."
"Improper assembly of this product may result in serious injury or death," states the manual.
"Target is committed to providing high quality and safe products to our guests," Target spokesman Evan Lapiska wrote in a statement. "Our team members receive training for bicycle assembly and items are regularly checked while they are on the sales floor. We are in contact with both stores directly. If a guest has any questions or concerns about a product, they are encouraged to visit their local store for assistance."
Likewise, Walmart officials tell Local 6 they are looking into how the bikes were assembled.
"Safety is a top priority and we appreciate you bringing this to our attention," said Walmart spokesman Aaron Mullins. "We have reached out to those responsible for manufacturing the bikes you mentioned and are following up with the stores to reinforce our policies regarding bicycle assembly and safety complaints."