Tuesday, January 3, 2012

"Cheap" Versus Expensive Bicycles-An ongoing debate for Truth

Common Misconceptions about "Cheap"  and Expensive Bicycles

I wanted to introduce this thought provoking article as a way to get others to think about the way they view buying a bicycle. A bicycle is no longer just a simple two wheeled machine moved along by a chain and some perpetual motion. Now you have features such as electronic shifting, hydraulic disc brakes, dual chamber air suspension, remote lockout and the list goes on and on. Doing repairs on some of these bicycles almost requires a mechanic's degree. But what should people be looking for when buying a bicycle? Is it their first bicycle and will it be used as a primary/secondary means of transport? What is a "Cheap" and what is an "expensive" bicycle? This article will help to answer the following questions to the best of my knowledge.

Question : What should people look for when buying a bicycle?

Answer: The #1 priority is to find a bicycle that fits the person comfortably. People come in all shapes and sizes. Not everyone is cut out for riding a road bike style bicycle. Many women have difficulty on these types of bikes and many end up with back and wrist pains as a result. The second thing to consider is the type of riding that you will be doing. All bicycles can be ridden on the road, but not all can be ridden off road. Mountain bikes should have a thread less stem, riser bar and a higher sealed bottom bracket for clearing logs and other obstacles. Everything else is aesthetics and personal taste. Durability is up to how the individual rides the bike. Even the most expensive bikes can break down on an off road trail.

What if you want to use  a mountain bike for on the road riding? Don't let the roadies scare you. You still have the right to ride a bike on the road even if you are not doing the speeds and distances that a avid cyclist on a road bike would do. Nowadays you can find high pressure street style tires for mountain bikes. Although road bikes are pavement specific and the best choice for riding on the street, there are other alternatives to owning a road bike with the bike you may already own.

Note to reader: I am not endorsing riding on any street when I say this. The reader must use common sense and avoid high speed and high traffic areas. Always follow the rules of the road and use all safety precautions when riding a bike on the street. Read the warning labels that come with your bicycle about proper usage. If possible, use the bikeways and residential streets in your area.

Myth: "All department store bikes are inadequate for riding."

Fact: That is what some bike shops want you to believe. Most people prefer buying their first bike from a department store. There is nothing wrong with that. I bought my wife's first bike from a local bike shop and she was never comfortable on it. The next bike I bought for her came from a department store. For fifty dollars less, I was able to get a bicycle with a front fork, suspension seat and seat post, ergo grips, a hydroformed frame with interior cable routing and quick release wheels on both tires. In addition, the bike fits my wife well and now she enjoys riding more. In the last year or two department stores have stepped up and provide the public with more quality build in their bicycles. I used to ride the "Buy LBS only" bandwagon until I saw department store bikes like the Mongoose Deception 29er and the Truster fixie bike. Local bike shops, as much as they have surfaced in my area, have lost their argument that they are the sole quality bicycle providers. Again, as I mentioned earlier and in my last article, it is important that the bike fits the rider. Dicks Sporting Goods and Sports Authority are now offering several size options on their models. Wal-Mart would corner the market again if it did the same and hired bicycle repair technicians in their stores. 



Question: What is a "cheap" or "expensive" bicycle?

That question can be relative at best and get really philosophical in the most extreme of cases. But I will summarize it like this: Cheap is not a price point, it's the quality. There are bicycles that are priced to sell for the average consumer and bikes that can cost well beyond someones means and/or budget line. Department store bikes can no longer be considered cheap by any means. They are affordable to the average person  and priced to sell. There are cheap bicycles within their fleet of products but these are not all of their bicycles. Local bike shops may also have cheap bikes under more notable brand names. Brand integrity is a major marketing tool that allows local bike shops to sell the same or inferior specced items as department stores at a higher cost to the consumer. Case in point, the comfort bike I purchased from an LBS and the one I purchased from a department store. 

Expensive is a relative term according to how deep a person's pockets may be. But a good point of comparison would be to compare buying a bicycle to buying a used car. If the bike would cost more than buying a used car, then you would be spending well over your means to buy a bike. The point of owning a bicycle as an alternative form of transportation is that it would save the money you would use in buying a car, as well as encourage exercise.

Myth: "Carbon is better than aluminum."

Fact: Carbon is more fracture prone and less forgiving than aluminum or chrome molly. Once carbon cracks or is scratched you no longer have a safe bike to ride on. In addition, some aluminum models have the same weight as their carbon counterparts, differing only by a few grams in some cases.

Myth: "Bikes under $300 dollars are low end, poor quality bikes."

Fact: This again, is what some bike shops want you to believe. That is because their inventory consists of bicycles that may be $300 at the most affordable end of the spectrum. In the second hand market, $300 dollars can get you great quality even name brand status bicycles. But if you don't have $300 to spend, start looking at bikes on online classified ad sites (the most popular of which I am not allowed to mention at the moment) in the $100 to $150 dollar range. You'll be amazed what you come up with. If you still would like a new bike there are a lot of alternatives to buying from a bike shop. Online retailers have a wide assortment of choices in this price range. Bikes Direct, Vilano bicycles, Republic bike, Nashbar and eBay are some options. In addition Wal-Mart and Sears online have choices you won't find in stores.




Note that I am not trying to put down local bike shops. I think that small businesses like these are essential for an economy to grow. They are great to have around if your bike breaks down and you are not mechanically inclined. There needs to be more transparency in the way customers are treated, especially in specialty bike shops, which are the "top of the line" way expensive ones. The lack of knowledge and the preconceived myths about more affordable bikes are what keeps unscrupulous bike shops in business.


I have a background as a bike mechanic, having worked at several bike shops. I have witnessed an unspoken bias when it comes to certain types of bicycles that come in and out of the shop for repairs. Once I even saw a bike mechanic tell someone that their bicycle was not worth fixing and that they should get a new bike. The customer had a Schwinn mountain bike with a flat tire. The mechanic convinced the customer to donate their bicycle and buy a new one from their shop. Later he set their bicycle by the dumpster. I was shocked and appalled at the treatment that both the customer and their bicycle experienced. It has always stuck with me and is one of the reasons I would like to clarify these misconceptions which can easily be perceived as "bike-snobbery" by people who just want to ride a bike without emptying their savings account. The goal of bicycle stores and commuters should be to encourage people to ride a bike, and not discourage people by saying their only option is to opt for an expensive and uncomfortable bike. I hope this article dispelled some common misconceptions about what constitutes a cheap and an expensive bicycle. 

12 comments:

  1. Thanks! Very helpful :)

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  2. Yo thanks finally some reassuring words

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  3. Nice, well ive had some cheap and some mid priced bikes in my time, best upto now was a Saracen havok DH and this was my last. I haven't biked for many years and have just bought a specialized camber so will see for myself in afew days when it arrives. Even the camber at £1500 English pounds isn't exactly expensive but more than 90% of people would spend.

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    1. The Camber looks like a great bike! I hope you get a lot of use out of it. The conversion rate from pounds to dollars means this bike is worth $2405.00. That's a pretty big chunk of change here in the states. It is enough to buy a 10 year old used car here where I live.

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  4. I've been an avid cyclist since the mid 90's. I can't imagine how anyone who worked as a bike mechanic could even defend big box bikes, and down local bikes shops. The reason the mechanic probably said to replace the Schwinn, is because the amount of work to repair it would be more than the value of the bike, and that is easy to do. Think of it this way. I just bought new tires, Schwelbe Racing Ralph 29" mountain bike tires and went tubless. It cost me $197 to do this conversion and the tires. That is more than the Schwinn probably cost new. My hydraulic disc brakes cost more than the Schwinn. Big Box stores are made of sub par components. That Mongoose you posted while it may be top of the Walmart offerings doesn't come close to a Kona, Specialized or Scott. Saying does a bike cost more than a used car means you can't afford it is silly..if you are serious about biking, then you either can afford it, see the value in it, or are required to buy such a bike to compete in races. I race my bike, and $2600 is the bare minimum for me to be competitive. It would be like saying you should take a Ford Focus to a Formula One Race. If you can't afford it, don't buy it, sure..however if you are serious about racing..you will need a real car. The same goes with bikes. Granted most people would be happy with a $5-600 bike, and don't need $1500+ rides, but that doesn't mean they can't afford it, or it's a ripoff.

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    1. Wrong. If you want to race, you need real legs, something all the money in the world can't buy you. I still keep up in group rides averaging over 18mph on an Atala I spent less than $500 putting together. That's right, a steel 24-25 pound bike. Just imagine what I would do if my bike were a sub 20 pound bike made of carbon. Remember, furthermore, that just because you race on an expensive bike doesn't mean you'll be on the podium. I can't imagine anyone who's ever been into cycling since the mid 90's still defending the outrageously inflated LBS prices. You of all people should know it's about the engine, the guy who turns the pedals. Put me up against someone on a Kona, Specialized or Scott and give me a similar specced bike from Bikes Direct. I'll be waiting for them on the finish line, that's all I have to say.

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    2. This anonymous poster should post their USA Cycling member number so we can look up all of his great stats and race results he's had over the last 20 years of "avid" competition. Or he could just post his segments on Strava and share the link with us. What he's essentially saying is if people can't afford a $2-3k bicycle they have no place entering bicycle races. Only an elitist bike snob would think that bicycle racing is everybody's end goal of riding a bike. Some people just want to ride a bike, period. Later on they also might want to enter a race. Respect the process. I personally do not need a gold plated bicycle that costs as much as my car or whatever to compete, either. I will never spend more than $1,000.00 on a bike. A $1,000 bike can get me all the latest technology I would ever want, including Shimano Ultegra components. If anyone deceives themselves into thinking they need to spend more than that, then it's really not the bike that needs upgrading, it's the rider. Eddy Merckx quoted it nicely when he said "ride up grades, not upgrades".

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    3. What a total snob you are sir...defend yourself with facts and stats...not numbers...I bet the fact that Chevy is winning best car of the year awards now really pisses you off too.

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    4. Well said Aaron, thanks for your support.

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  5. I will never understand this LBS is God and everything else is crap. I grew up with a dad who was very hands on and he raised us the same way. I repair and work on just about everything I on and I can tell most of the people who make these comments about department store bikes have no clue what they are talking about. I can take any any department store bike and strip it to the frame, the frame (one more time) THE FRAME. If that frame is good and strong with no defects and can build that bike back up with quality parts that are way better quality than what you can role out of the LBS dollar for dollar. With today's internet prices on parts, there is no way you can get the same bang for your buck walking out the door. Let me just say that I stripped a Mongoose XR 200 (not the red one but the original from late 90's) down to the polished 4130 chromoly frame. Went back with ISIS BB and comp crankset, shimano alitus derailers, cane creek headset, Rockshox fork and raceface bar and stem, dual alloy wheels and kenda tires. Now I have about 300 or 350 in all of those parts and if match part for part quality wise it would cost you over a thousand to walk out of Trek with the same bike. Usually at this point people start to tell how great the trek frame is, and then I tell them how many technical tracks I have been on and 6 to 8 foot drops with my bike. One more thing these bike snobs need to do their research first, you know that Huffy that wal-mart sells, that company is owned by a company called dorel who also owns cannondale and produces frames out of the same factory.

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    1. You are absolutely right. Thanks for your comment.

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