Ac­quir­ing an Ofo

The sum­mer be­fore last, when the world had not yet de­scended into a dystopian plague-rid­den night­mare, I con­vinced my wife to get a bike. Her daily train ride to work was­n’t ex­pen­sive, but the weather was nice and it seemed silly to stand on a crowded train when a bike would do the trick for free. Af­ter a mod­est ini­tial in­vest­ment, any­way. This was that in­vest­ment.

Yellow Ofo hire bike in front of fence.
An…Ofo decision?

You recog­nise this, right? It’s a Ofo bike, once avail­able for hire via a smart­phone app, and one of a wave of sim­i­lar dock­less bikes that ap­peared from nowhere in 2018 or there­abouts. Or­anges Mo­bikes, cit­rus Limes, ba­nana-yel­low Ofos; for a brief mo­ment, fruit-themed hire bikes were ab­solutely every­where. And then they weren’t.

Ofo had a par­tic­u­larly spec­tac­u­lar flame-out. Hav­ing raised more than $1.5bn from the likes of Al­ibaba and Didi Chux­ing (a ride-hail­ing com­pany) by early 2018, in early 2019 Ofo pulled out of the Lon­don mar­ket and by Au­gust that year it had stopped an­swer­ing the phones. It was a rocky road, too, not just a down­ward one: Ofo bikes were dumped in rivers, up trees, and on rail­way lines, and at least a few mug­gers used them as get­away ve­hi­cles. Granted, there was a cer­tain amount of man­u­fac­tured hys­te­ria about all this – the Daily Mail man­aged to in­ject a bit of xeno­pho­bia, froth­ing at the mouth about a “flood” of “Chi­nese” bikes – but there was some truth be­hind it, with the Guardian re­port­ing that Ofo had pulled the plug on its UK op­er­a­tions in part be­cause of prob­lems with van­dal­ism.

So: where did all the bikes go? At the height of the bike-share boom, there were some­thing like twenty mil­lion hire bikes in China, by far the largest mar­ket. Ofo, one of the biggest play­ers, had 6,000 in the UK alone. It’s hard to find any con­crete in­for­ma­tion about what hap­pened to those UK bikes, but there are a few clues. At least one US bike made its way to a po­lice auc­tion, for in­stance, while in Sin­ga­pore, al­most 8,000 were sold at pub­lic auc­tion. If the same thing hap­pened here, I can’t find any ev­i­dence of it, and yet, at the time of writ­ing, Ofos are still to be found on Gumtree, on eBay, and in the clas­si­fieds. Per­haps a con­tainer went “over­board” from a ship en route to Bei­jing? This faint whiff of mys­tery was one of the rea­sons why, on a hot day on July 2019, we made a pil­grim­age to a bric-à-brac shop in Spark­brook.

When we asked about the four yel­low bikes the shop had posted on Gumtree, the owner took us to a white van parked on the pave­ment a few blocks down. One soli­tary bike was in there, al­ready promised to an­other cus­tomer, but the owner asked if I wanted to take a test ride all the same. I did in­deed.

I stuck to the bro­ken pave­ment to avoid the nose-to-tail stream of Beemers, Mercs and Au­dis that crowded the melt­ing tar­mac of the road. The Ofo seemed of a piece with the Just Eat bikes I use oc­ca­sion­ally in Ed­in­burgh, or the San­tander bikes in Lon­don – a tank, but a well-screwed-to­gether tank. Worth a punt at eighty quid, we agreed, so we left a de­posit and promised to pick up our own Ofo the next week­end.

That sec­ond week­end, on the ride home across a few miles of town, I got to know the Ofo a lit­tle bet­ter. The first thing I re­alised was that it was much more nor­mal than a San­tander or Just Eat bike: there were no spats on the rear wheel, no fair­ings to pro­tect the brake and gear ca­bles on their jour­ney from the bars to the wheels. The Shi­mano hub brakes were fine; ditto the three-speed hub and dy­namo. That nor­mal­ity came to an abrupt and un­happy halt at the solid 26″ rub­ber tyres (once a bike share sta­ple, now ditched by every­one ex­cept Lime), which gave the bike a harsh and oc­ca­sion­ally ner­vous ride.

There were other prob­lems, too. The cranks were too short and the gear­ing too long, with two of the hub’s three ra­tios un­us­able for any­thing ex­cept a down­hill grade with a fol­low­ing wind. The seat­post was ad­justable, at least, al­though not by much: I’m 5’9” or there­abouts, but even with the seat at its high­est point my knees were bounc­ing off my chin.

There’s an episode of 99% Invisible that talks about the time, back in the 1950s, when the US Air Force mea­sured thou­sands of its pi­lots and found that not one of them was av­er­age across all of their mea­sure­ments. Which was a prob­lem be­cause, since 1926, the Air Force had been de­sign­ing cock­pits for the “av­er­age” Amer­i­can male. Planes were crash­ing be­cause their pi­lots just did not fit. The so­lu­tion was to in­tro­duce ad­justable seats, ped­als, straps, and so on, but in the Ofo’s case its sin­gle point of ad­just­ment did­n’t make enough of a dif­fer­ence. Even on that short ride home, I could­n’t get com­fort­able.

Seatpost height adjust lever on yellow Ofo bike.
What a terrible place to put the release lever. The absence of a top tube means that you naturally grab the bike under the nose of the saddle, which inevitably means accidentally moving the saddle right to the top of its travel all the damn time. Pick up the bike to get it out of the shed: raise the saddle. Swing it around to face the other direction: raise the saddle. Lean it against a wall: raise the saddle. It's fine if that's where you want the saddle, less so if you don't.

Back at home, I took a closer look. There were some neat touches, I had to ad­mit: a steel bracket at the bot­tom of the head tube to stop the front wheel swing­ing all the way round. A grip­shift-style bell. A sturdy-look­ing front bas­ket. A guard over the hub gear’s ca­ble mech­a­nism. The ex­e­cu­tion, how­ever, was less im­pres­sive. The bell thun­ked rather than dinged. The mud­guards, the bas­ket and the bars were all mis­aligned and, un­help­fully, they were all se­cured with pro­pri­etary Torx bolts that I could­n’t ad­just. I or­dered some spe­cial­ist Torx bits that looked like they might work.

One of the main rea­sons we bought the bike in the first place was an as­pi­ra­tion to cart around our tod­dler on sun-dap­pled fam­ily rides through a lit­ter-free, be­atific Birm­ing­ham that does­n’t ex­ist. We al­ready had a Hamax child seat mounted on my com­muter bike, and I’d hoped to sim­ply bolt an ex­tra seat tube bracket onto the Ofo and call it a day. Of course, the Ofo re­belled. Per­haps to stop renters from do­ing ex­actly what we wanted to do, the seat tube had a teardrop pro­file that was­n’t com­pat­i­ble with the Hamax bracket, and nor were there any rear rack eye­lets. I thought about try­ing to hack some­thing to­gether us­ing the mount­ing plate for the now-ab­sent wheel lock, but I did­n’t see an ob­vi­ous way to make it work. I put the bike back in the shed and told my­self I’d tackle the prob­lem an­other day.

A few days later, it oc­curred to me to give the bars a yank to see if I could re­align them with­out hav­ing to undo the steerer bolt. I could, and I did. Those Torx bits have yet to leave their box.

In the spring this year, just as the ’rona was start­ing to take hold, we took some pho­tos of the Ofo and put it on eBay for £50. I tried to work out how many times it had left the shed in the in­ter­ven­ing nine months, and I could­n’t even reach dou­ble fig­ures. It fit­ted my wife, but it was too heavy and over-geared for her com­mute. I liked the idea of it, but the solid tyres and the aw­ful fit more than took the shine off that idea. It was time to get rid of it.

The Ofo was sold within the hour, bought by an old gent up in Har­borne with a brain in­jury and a garage full of sec­ond­hand bikes. He was sur­prised but not de­terred by the solid tyres, and chat­ted about how he’d al­ways wanted a yel­low bike. I said good­bye and walked home, and, with that, our Ofo ex­per­i­ment was over.