Friday, January 6, 2012

Why Buy an “inexpensive” Bicycle?

(A response to why buy an expensive bicycle

Two “randonneur” bikes may look roughly similar. Both can have a front rack and both have gears. Yet one could cost more than five times as much as the other, if you ordered one today.

Of course, there are obvious differences: One already is equipped with lighting and fenders, the other isn’t. But even if we add $500 for those parts to the less expensive bike, we still have a remarkable difference in price. Why is one bike so much less expensive?

The “inexpensive” bike is made by a company that employs many people, both here and abroad and that supports bicycle related activities and business, including local bike shops, bike events and causes, whereas the more expensive bike is hand-made by a small constructeur. Having the satisfaction that may come with owning a handmade product is nice and well, but what do you get with the mass produced bike?

From my experience, a bike company that produces bikes for the masses, not only supplies hundreds of local bike shops across the United States with reasonably priced, quality bikes that are more than capable of giving years of solid performance to the vast majority of users, such bikes also do well in at least three areas:

1. Performance: The mass produced bicycle has a geometry conceived for its intended purpose and is made with good, strong, proven materials. The truth of the matter is that you can’t buy speed. Unless you have already lost that last 10 pounds, quit your job to train daily, ridden that perfect number of hill repeats and, in short, done all you can to maximize your fitness, blaming the cost/manufacturer of the bike for your poor performance is really just a lame excuse. Buying a race car doesn’t make you a race car driver, regardless of what the advertisements may imply.

2. Durability: Well-made mass produced bikes have passed the test of time and hard use. They have been commuted on, used to haul trailers, carry groceries, locked outside, ridden in deplorable conditions . They have gone across country and around the world and still come back. They are ridden in competition and take the podium. Even today, frames from the 70’s and 80’s are rebuilt, restored or still on the road. You don’t have to baby these babies. They can be ridden and ridden hard. And if there is a failure, rare as they may be, you can go and buy another with the money you saved and still come out ahead.

3. Value: The real value of owning a bike is in the riding of the bike. If you spend $5,000 or more on a bike that sits on wall or in a room waiting for the right weather or event before it gets used, you may own a piece of art but you are not getting good value for a bike. If you buy an “inexpensive bike” and then ride it regularly, you will get more than your money’s worth out of it.

Don’t you deserve a better bike? This question begs another question - What does “deserve” mean? If deserve means “can you afford to buy” a more expensive bike then the answer really has nothing to do with how you use the bike. You “deserve” to buy whatever your wallet can support. But if deserve means that you have somehow earned a more expensive bike through your biking exploits, then most likely, if you really deserve one, you won’t have to buy one -it will be given to you. 

Ride what makes you happy. If you want to ride a piece of art - go for it. Beautiful hand built bikes are a joy to look at and probably to ride. But, if you want to ride a proletarian pedal machine - join the movement, you will have lots of company with many satisfied customers. Because, when all is said and done, it’s the riding that matters most.


  1. Well said, especially about "deserving" bicycles. A kind reading would be that Jan meant something closer to "Will you make use of a better bike?"

    At the same time, I find myself agreeing with both arguments. The amortized cost of bicycle that lasts is small. If a nicer bike lasts longer, then it is a better value, especially if one rides it more. But as you point out, fear of damaging a nicer bicycle can negate this advantage.

    Like most products, there is probably a high point on the cost-value curve. You are attacking it from below while Jan is attacking it from above.

  2. Though provoking. It's true that the cost of a bike has little to do with how much it is enjoyed. At one time my two bikes where a Felt F2C full carbon race bike with Dura Ace components and the other an Aluminum Specialized Langster fixed gear costing about $700. I walked past the Felt to ride that fixie so many times that I finally sold the expensive bike on Ebay. I now own all relatively inexpensive bikes with steel frames. Nothing custom and I'm happy with all of them.

  3. That's why one should have a custom randonneuring bike, outfitted with Honjo fenders and all the necessary trappings of a cherish hobby, and a cheap (relatively) Surly LHT, with fully functional but plain parts, to run errands.

  4. I also found Jan's post annoying and I agree with everything you say. On the other hand, even though my preference is to assemble bike from CL/ebay parts, I've found that small differences get magnified by ultra distance cycling. For example, two saddles can seem equivalent for 200km but one can be decidedly better at 400km. The same thing goes for bars and frame geometry. As a result, even though my custom frames were each custom for somebody else, I suspect a custom fit with small tweaks to frame sizes and angles can also make a big difference.

  5. You can also think about whether you want your money to go towards a large corporation or towards a local crafts-person. Obviously assuming money is not a limiting factor.

  6. After careful consideration, I agree with everybody who likes bikes.

  7. Your 'Value' statement has more holes than swiss cheese. Regardless the cost, $500 or $5,000, a bike not ridden is all waste. I know a lot of people with expensive bikes, some hand built and some factory built. I can't think of any who wait for good weather to ride them. I do know lots of riders with cheaper bikes that are rigged out for commuting, and here in the PNW, commuting in winter is hard on any bike.

    "If you buy an “inexpensive bike” and then ride it regularly, you will get more than your money’s worth out of it." or ...."If you ride the kind of bike I think you should, regularly, you'll get your money's worth out if it." Seems riding regularly is your only criteria for 'getting your money's worth', so cost really does not matter in your equation.

    I have an expensive, custom built bike, and it is the bike I ride most. I am conflicted about it: I come from peasant genes so I am always a little self-conscious when I am seen on this machine, but too, class envy causes me to feel what, like I have arrived? All that aside, this bike makes me happy and feels good under me.

    In response to Jan's article some one rasied the question of how long it takes for you to realize the value of the spendy bike. It took me a few months and I can tell you exactly when I knew it was 'worth it' to me: It was when I got up the next morning in Loudeac and started riding for the second day in PBP '07. I felt soooo much better starting out on the second (and subsequent days) of that and other multi day events. I had the feeling that all my bike snobby friends with their customs had described. I was so much less sore, achey, and pre-tired than I had been on any of my previous off the shelf bikes. This was really quite a surprise.

    I'd never recommend a custom bike to someone else, but Rando being the big tent and all, I'm happy that I can rode a Huffy or a Tournesol without being looked down upon by my brevet mates.

    Yr Pal Dr C

  8. I'm with Anonymous, the one that posted on 1/6 9:23pm. I have a custom rando and an LHT. Both serve my needs, have their place and make me happy.

  9. Whoa! I had read your original post and thought you had added a reasonable opinion to the discussion at large. I didn't think this topic was so sensitive, but apparently it is. I'm sorry that you took it down, but I hope it doesn't discourage you from writing thoughtful posts.

  10. Keep 'em coming. I'm enjoying all of it - even the "controversial" stuff!

  11. Does the Surly LHT fit your definition of inexpensive bike? I rode cross country on mine lat year and love. But have to say the best bike is the one you ride because you enjoy riding it. A $5000 custom hanging I the garage doesn't make it.

    I made that mistake, almost but not that expensive, when I bought a Specialized Roubaix Elite compact double. It is a very nice bike but I'm still riding my LHT because It is just right for me.

    1. Actually it does. It's also the bike I ride. But this post was written in response to a post on another site that praised high end custom bikes, so it kinda should be read that way. The bottom line for me is the bike that you enjoy riding is the right bike for you - regardless of cost.

  12. Tip No. 3 is an excellent one! True, how can your bike have any value if it just sits on your wall? Thanks for sharing these helpful points.