Recently a few of my work friends have been getting interested in cycling and have been asking for advice. Many of the questions are around whether a specific bicycle is good, or how much they should expect to spend. When talking about cost, my advice sounds a little bit like I am talking about selecting a CMS (my day job). There are lots of bicycles on the market and there is a wide range of prices. When I told a friend that he could spend between $500 and $10,000, his head exploded (his own words). The next question was “what do you get for $10,000?” He was expecting a long list of gizmos and features (like a REALLY comfy seat). But bicycles aren’t like cars and other products. In fact, the more you spend, the less the bike does. The really expensive bikes are designed for a very specific purpose (like a very light climbing road bike, or a time trial bike, or a cross country mountain bike, or a downhill mountain bike).
So, what do you get when you spend a lot of money on a bike? The short answer is lightness and stiffness. Expensive bikes are made out of very light materials but are constructed in such a way to efficiently transfer your pedaling force into forward momentum. The long story is about materials, workmanship, fit, and components. Recently, I have been splitting time between riding an entry level Cyclocross racing bicycle (a Trek XO1) and a custom built titanium Seven Cycles Alta (no longer in production, around $7,000). Riding these two bikes has made me very conscious of the differences. Here are some specifics.
But before I get into it, I should probably qualify what I say with a little background about myself. I am a former competitive road and mountain bike cyclist. Between 1983 and 1994, I did a lot of racing and worked in bike shops. Since then, I have tried to ride as much as I can but find running to be a more efficient use of exercise time. Other than bicycles, I don’t really get into expensive toys. I don’t get into expensive cars — driving is my second to least favorite form of transportation (behind United Airlines Economy Minus). A Porsche is about as appealing to me as a diamond encrusted gold subway pass.
So back to bikes… here are the things that are noticeably different with my Seven.
Materials. My Seven is made of ultra-butted high grade titanium. The tubes are very light because they are made from a light metal and the walls are thinner in the middle of the tube where there is less stress. This makes the bike frame very stiff but it also deadens the road vibrations.
Workmanship. Back when I started racing in the early 80’s, a lot was made of investment cast lugs (where the tubes are connected) and the skill required to braze them. Now everything is welded (or, in the case of carbon, bonded) but there is a big difference in workmanship. First of all, titanium is hard to work with. If any air touches the weld before it cools it alloys into a weaker compound. To get around this, the welder needs weld under a steady flow of an inert gas (like argon) to keep the air away. High quality welds are very precise in their thickness. Too thick welds add extra weight. Too thin makes the frame weak. A handmade frame can achieve a more precise weld than mass produced frames that need to err on the side of strength. The finish on the bike is nice for aesthetics but it doesn’t have a big impact on the ride.
Fit. While your overall position on the bike can be adjusted by selecting the right stem and adjusting your seat, a custom built bike will be tailored to all aspects of your cycling. My Seven was designed based on a lot of factors. My weight and pedaling style determined the dimensions and gauge of the frame tubes to optimize weight and strength. When I really crank up a hill on my XO1, I get chain rub on my front derailleur as the frame flexes under my force. Even though it is lighter, my Seven doesn’t do that. Because I said would not be racing in criteriums, my bike was designed with angles that make it comfortable and handle with stability down steep descents. The top tube is sloped to expose more of the seat post to absorb more road shock (great for the rough roads out here in the country).
Components. The higher end components (derailleurs, brakes, etc.) are lighter and operate more precisely than cheaper components. When I started to ride my X01, I realized that I had to think a little bit more about shifting: over-shifting a little bit to get a gear; unweighting the pedals as the chain finds the gear.
There are some differences. Do they matter to you? It depends. If you don’t ride much, they shouldn’t. A $10,000 bike sitting in your garage is no faster than a $500 bike sitting next to it. You shouldn’t buy an expensive bike to show off either. There is nothing more pathetic than an out of shape person limping up a hill on an expensive bike. Trust me, bike shop employees laugh at the customers who buy a $100 bolt to save a few grams when other weight saving options are so obvious. If you want to look like a pro, don’t do it with equipment. Do it with your fitness. If general health and fitness is what you are after, an average bike will give you just as good a workout (or better) as an expensive bike.
I think the expensive bikes are worth it if you ride a lot and start to appreciate the finer points of the sport. You could be part of a cycling club and participate in fast rides or club races where you really start to challenge yourself to greater performance. Even then, you still don’t really need a $10,000 bike or even a $5,000 bike. I love my Seven — it is a total joy to ride. But I also love to go for rides on my entry level cross bike. What matters is that I am getting out and riding and having fun.