Remembering My First Road Bike
When most people think of a GMC Denali, they think of a 2.5 ton, 400 horsepower luxury SUV. So, you might think if General Motors assigned the name “Denali” to a bicycle, then it must be one of those ultra-exclusive superbikes that the big bike brands release like the Specialized McLaren Venge, Colnago Ferrari CF8, or the BMC Impec Lamborghini. But it's not. You might also think that General Motors is following the lead of Peugeot and KTM by producing a line of bicycles to complement their gasoline-powered offerings. But it’s not that either.
The GMC Denali road bike is, in fact, one of the most entry-level of entry-level road bikes, it has a sub-$200 price point. Produced by Kent International via a licensing agreement with General Motors (there’s also a Tour de Cure variant), the GMC Denali road bike is sold in big box stores like Walmart and Target and online on Amazon.
Almost a decade ago, I bought a GMC Denali; it was my first road bike. As a recent college graduate, I didn’t have much money and spent a lot of time worrying about college loans, rent, and gasoline prices. Despite my feelings of financial insecurity, I spent most of my time dreaming about buying a road bike and being like Lance Armstrong. Of course, anything with a Trek logo was out of my price range so my bike hunt focused solely on the brands found in Walmart, Meijer, Sears, and – if I was feeling particularly fancy – Target. I ended up in Walmart’s bike section spending countless hours admiring the GMC Denali’s sleek, aero design and fancy paint scheme – knowing that it was the bike for me! Now I just had to convince myself to spend a whopping $165 on the bike when I technically already had a perfectly good Walmart mountain bike at home. Fortunately for me, that summer while I was contemplating the new purchase, I accidentally rode my old mountain bike over an industrial staple on my way home from a park. Since changing a tube was way too big of a task for me to tackle at that point in my life, my mountain bike was rendered useless. Without a bike, I was finally out of excuses; I ordered my GMC Denali that evening.
The day finally came to pick up my new GMC Denali. Since I didn’t own a set of allen wrenches or any other bike tools, I managed to convince a Walmart associate to give me a 5-second bike fit knowing that any adjustments would have to be final. Once the Walmart associate set my bike seat at a reasonable height, I headed to the parking lot for a test ride. I found a quiet space, and to my surprise, was terrified that I couldn’t touch the ground when pedaling. I quickly realized how different a road bike position is from the flat bar bikes I was used to. Turning the bike felt so unnatural with my hands wrapped around the drop bars and reaching for the brakes made me feel like I was going to topple over. Somehow, I managed to wobble myself the quarter mile down the road to my apartment. As shaky as my first ride was, I gradually started to build my confidence and even started to think about giving Spandex a try!
Over the next three years, that bike took me places that I could never have imagined. When I moved to a new city where I couldn’t rely so heavily on bike paths, I found the courage to ride on the road. I road my first 20-miler on that GMC Denali, and then my first 40-miler. Looking back, the GMC Denali really outperformed what you’d expect from such an affordable bike, not that it was perfect. Despite the bike’s slender appearance, the aluminum frame and steel fork meant the bike weighed at least 30 pounds. The chunky, generic Shimano derailleur was as big as my palm and was operated using twist shifters that required some manhandling. Of course, to put anything other than a low-end, non-commercially available groupset on the bike would have at least doubled the price. The tires were thin-ish with deep treads and were probably closer to mountain bike tires than a true road clincher. At the time, I understood that the GMC Denali wasn’t equivalent to the bikes that I saw the pros ride, but I still thought I had something special. It didn’t matter if my bike was better or worse than someone else’s, now I was officially a cyclist.
My delicate cycling ego kept me from ever testing my endurance levels on a group ride; however, I would occasionally ride with a friend who had some sort of lightweight chromoly bike with clipless mountain bike pedals. I remember my first ride with this friend was a nightmare! The pace was too fast, my legs started to cramp, and I strained my calf as I overexerted myself to catch up. Thankfully, this failing effort didn’t last long. Only a few months later, with over 1,000 new miles under my belt, we did another ride together. Even though I was still dropped on the longer climbs, I was more than able to hold my own on the flats and rolling hills. At one point, I thought that we were just cruising along when I heard my friend gasp for breath as he told me that our speed was hovering just below 21 mph and asked if we could slow down! What an accomplishment that was for me! There I was with an old pair of New Balance sneakers and a 30-pound bike and I was dropping a guy with bike tech that I could only dream of. In retrospect, I don’t think that my friend was nearly as fit and muscular as I thought, plus he probably drank too much beer to put in a great performance on a bike. Regardless, I had broken through another barrier and felt hopeful that I might have a future in the sport.
The next year, as springtime arrived my cabin fever had me hitting Indiana’s backroads like never before. I bought my first pair of clipless pedals and road cycling shoes which humorously cost nearly as much as my bike. Once I was comfortable with being attached to my bike, I decided to take on my first 60 miler. With such a large undertaking ahead of me, my plan for attacking the ride had to be meticulous. I diligently planned the course using Google Maps and memorized every turn and mile marker. Unfortunately, no matter how much planning goes into a ride there is always the unexpected. On the day of my expedition, a cold front blew in that forced me to layer sweatshirts and sweatpants over my jersey and shorts. The ride went smoothly until mile seven when I shifted my bike up a gear. My generic Shimano derailleur made a grinding sound followed by a loud crack as my shifter broke. All those miles over the last three summers had pushed the bike beyond anything its makers had intended. As I stood on the side of the road and inspected my shredded drivetrain, I was devastated, but I didn’t want to turn back. I had worked too hard preparing for that bike ride, so I remounted my bike and puttered along – barely able to maintain a pace of 10 mph for the next 53 miles. It took hours longer than it should have, but I finally made it. At home, my legs throbbed as I sat in my living room downing a cheese pizza from Little Caesars. I felt elated – like I could achieve anything I wanted to do on a bike.
That was the last ride I ever did on my GMC Denali. It wasn’t worth fixing the drivetrain since I felt like I had outgrown the bike’s abilities. I started looking at the mainstream frames from Fuji, Trek, and Specialized. Eventually I chose a carbon fiber Specialized Tarmac Sport with Shimano 105.
Even though I’ve moved on to higher performing bikes over the years, I’ve always kept my GMC Denali frame. That bike will always hold a special place in my heart. If I ever own a home, I plan on mounting it to the wall of my workshop as a reminder that great things can grow from the humblest beginnings. From a wobbly cyclist in a Walmart parking lot to a confident cyclist looking towards the future!