The temperature outside is -1C. An unpleasantly gusty wind is strong enough to have blown our neighbour’s large potted olive tree over onto our hedge. The Ouse is in flood, so the cycle path along its banks is under four or five feet of muddy water. The traffic on the roads is busily affirming the widespread belief that the January 2021 lockdown is not being taken as seriously as the April 2020 one was. So, one way and another, going for a ride on my bike is not an attractive proposition. But I need to do something a bit more vigorous by way of exercise than playing the harp, so it is time to get to work on the large box containing an exercise bike bought with uncharacteristic foresight as a contingency against precisely the kind of adverse circumstances described above. Said box has been sulking in quarantine near the foot of the stairs for ten days or so but should by now have shaken off any lingering traces of Donald Trump’s ‘Chinese virus’. The box has indeed come from China, via Argos, as asserted by the label, but anybody other than the Donald would appreciate that any virus would have to be the responsibility of the Yorkshire-speaking delivery man who wasn’t wearing either a mask or gloves.
‘Get to work’ is the appropriate term, as the box has clearly been built with a view, firstly, to resisting any attempt to nick the contents en route; secondly, to giving the proud new owners the exercise they aren’t immediately going to be getting from the bike; and, thirdly, to giving owners under lockdown the mental exercise required to work out what on earth, in the absence of access to the municipal tip, to do with the mountain of residual packaging. The kerbside waste-collection technicians will unquestionably have nothing whatever to do with it, notwithstanding its rigorous adherence to quarantine restrictions. Having broken into the box and managed to extract the various components, one of which weighs the better part of 30kg, one is then confronted with the challenge of putting together however many of the total of 158 component parts aren’t integrated into the 30kg bit. The advertising blurb gives an estimate of 1 hour as the time it should take to put it all together, but it doesn’t tell one whether the one-hour estimate assumes a tech-savvy ten-year old, a recent graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering, or a distinctly tech-unsavvy elderlyish man with a bad back who is absent-mindedly meandering through his eighth decade.
All goes well for the first 90 minutes or so, give or take a few minor mishaps, such as forgetting to slide the bit of plastic that will eventually cover the screws joining the metal stem holding the handlebars onto the base over said stem before doing the screwing (note the confident grasp of technical terminology), which necessitates unscrewing it and starting again. But then one hits the electrical engineering part of things. The screen that will in theory eventually offer 32 choices of programme to get and keep one fit, including ones that mimic the ups and downs of the more hellish stages of the Tour de France, needs to be connected to the wiring coming up through the stem from the base. The first, relatively minor, difficulty is that the wiring in the stem has no slack at all, so it is extremely difficult to hold that end securely enough to enable any kind of connection to be made. The second problem is much more troubling. There are two connecting leads: one involves a perfectly simple single jack; the other is a connection that looks like a miniature mother-board with ten wires of various colours feeding into it that needs to be connected to a counterpart that, unsurprisingly, boasts ten identically coloured wires. What is surprising is that after another 30 minutes of fiddling, pondering, trying to access advice on the internet and getting confirmation from an electrical engineering friend that one would expect the two sides to fit together so that the coloured wires feed into one another, it turns out that the only possible way the two ends can fit together involves the wholly counter-intuitive process of pushing them together so that the colours do not match.
Everything having been assembled, it remains only to see whether connecting it up to the mains will produce a loud bang and fuse all the lights and every other electrical gadget in the house, and possibly the neighbourhood, or whether I will be able to start pedalling up the variety of Alpine ascents on offer. But even I know that turning an electrical gadget on requires an electrical connection – and there isn’t one. The final piece of the jigsaw is missing. After half an hour of searching it is abundantly clear that part N on the exploded diagram is simply not there. By now all help-lines and complaints departments have closed for the weekend, so the shiny new exercise bike is going to have to sit glowering resentfully in the corner for a day or two before it can be switched on to establish whether it, like the diagram, is destined to explode. Approaching the Advertising Standards authorities with any kind of complaint isn’t going to get anywhere because, as closer inspection reveals, neither a single one of the advertising photographs online or anywhere else, nor the exploded diagram or list of components, reveals that the machine is powered by electricity and accordingly requires a fully fledged connecting cable before it will work. In the meantime all that can be done is tidy the box away into the shed to wait for the time when non-essential trips can be made to the tip, and to break the polystyrene packaging into small pieces to fit into garbage bags for the Monday morning kerbside collection.
So Monday arrives, the lines open, and I eventually succeed in getting to talk to Emma from ‘Customer Satisfaction’ who somehow manages within the first five seconds of the conversation to instill perfect confidence that she knows what she is talking about. She agrees that the wiring connection is counter-intuitive but assures me that I don’t need to worry about it. As for the missing piece N, she tells me it will have been hidden somewhere in the polystyrene packaging: ‘They put it in a small recess in the polystyrene and cover it over with more polystyrene. You aren’t the first person I’ve spoken to who hasn’t been able to find it.’ Emma agrees that it would be a good idea for customers to be warned about this minor packaging eccentricity and tells me that part N together with a lead and plug, also supposedly embedded in the polystyrene I broke into small pieces, will get to me within a couple of days. If they do, and the exercise bike doesn’t explode when I switch it on, Emma will have one marginally less dissatisfied customer.