Bike Budget: How Much Do I Need to Spend?

Serviceable enthusiast bicycles start around $2,000 while the very top of the line bikes can exceed $20,000. That is a pretty broad range and begs the question, “What am I getting for my money and what should I spend?”. While there is not a clear cut answer for exactly what you should spend, there is information that can help you figure out what you get at certain price points and what you give up or gain by spending more or less. For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on road bikes, but the general information applies to most categories of enthusiast bike.

First, let’s break things down into three categories, Entry Level Performance Bikes, High-End Performance Bikes and Über Bikes.

Entry Level Performance Bike ($1000-$3000): At an entry level investment, expect to pick-up a mass produced bike from one of many manufacturers. These bikes will usually be made in China or Taiwan and include a grab bag of components from several manufacturers in order to hit their intended price point. From a fitting perspective, expect a rider position and frame construction built to maximize manufacturing economy and a marketing department’s aesthetic template first and foremost. While there are some brands that offer some variety in positioning in this price range, most of these bikes are not designed to address any specific rider benefit or position and thus will suit some riders better than others from a fitting perspective.

High Performance Bike ($4000+): Bikes at this level should not have to suffer from compromise and it is crucial that you make sure any bike you are considering in this category fits your riding position well and matches your needs or you could spend a fair amount of money only to get a compromised end result. A surprising phenomenon exists in cycling at price points above $4000, you will find two divergent paths companies pursue.

1) Mass Production Bikes – Mass produced bikes at this level are usually “package” based (frame and all associated parts) and are offered by some of the biggest brands in the bike industry. Many of these bikes are marketing based and designed around the needs of a racing team the company sponsors. It is important to note that the team’s needs and your needs in a bicycle may not be well aligned and a fair portion of the price of these bikes is used to pay for the company’s sponsored team riders and the associated marketing. Like the Entry Level Performance Bikes, mass-production bikes in this category will fit and match some rider’s handling, ride quality and long-term ownership needs better than others.

2) Hand Built Bikes – As opposed to the “package” approach of the mass production bikes, hand built bikes are not about marketing and minimizing production costs, they are all about you. This path employs a small population of dedicated and passionate craftspeople who are devoted to the art and science of producing the highest quality bike they possibly can and making sure it is designed to work ideally just for you. Many of these bikes are available in stock and custom geometry and are designed to maximize the fit, performance and durability of the overall package by addressing the individual needs of the rider as comprehensively as possible.

It is interesting to note that once you are at a certain level of frame quality, the personally tailored bikes from the hand built builders do not cost more money than their production counterparts. In the High Performance Bike category, it often comes down to whether you want to spend money on a bike that makes you look like Lance Armstrong or whether you want to invest in a bike that helps you ride to your potential (more like Lance Armstrong).

Über Bikes ($12,000+): On the opposite end of the scale from the Entry Level Performance Bikes, you will find a select few bikes that are 30% lighter than their entry level counterparts, can have 5 week to 3 year delivery lead times, and are equipped with components that ranges from serviceable and functional to, sadly, barely rideable. Seeing as the frame is the heart of any bike, a bike of this level should have a frame that is as compromise free as possible and ideally matched to your ride, fit, and handling needs. Top of the line components should be ubiquitous and the frame should be designed to last forever and be built of the very best quality materials and to the highest tolerances and specifications available. At their best, an über bike will be the most rewarding bike you could ever own. At their worst, they will be little more than an expensive garage decoration.

Regardless of the category you are considering, prioritizing the order in which you select the major components of your new ride is a critical step to finding cycling nirvana.

The frame should always come first. As the single most expensive part of a bike, and the part that unifies the rest of the package, the bicycle frame has the single greatest impact on your cycling. Chosen correctly, you will end up with a frameset that fits your riding position with as little compromise as possible while addressing your riding style and aspirations. A well matched frame will facilitate maximum performance and comfort. Remember that if you get the right frameset, you will likely not need to be in the market for another new bike for many years as you can upgrade the rest of the parts with time as new components are introduced.

After the frame, pick the wheelset. Because the wheels are rotating when riding, a pound saved in the wheelset is worth 2-3 pounds anywhere else on the bike. With the guidance of your fitter, select a wheelset that minimizes weight while addressing durability, serviceability, the ride qualities of your frame, and your aerodynamic agenda. A hand built wheelset can be had for less than $1000, or you can invest in one of the many available production wheelsets for $200-$6000. Note that wheels are one of the most frequent places where many mass-produced models save money. For example, there are many bikes that are represented as Dura Ace, yet have $200 wheelsets. Dura Ace level wheels cost $800 or more on their own – so, especially with production bikes, shop discriminately and know what you are getting.

Finally, select the rest of the bike components to meet your personal goals. In general, the more consistent the component selection is on the bike, the more reliable and functional it is as many component groups are designed to work together. Especially if you are buying a pre-packaged production bike, use caution as one way many companies cut costs is by substituting aftermarket and “house brand” components. Common areas to find such lower quality substitutions are wheels, brakes, cranks and bearings.

When it comes to selecting the level of components that is most appropriate, you have options. The top tier of components from the big three component manufacturers in cycling, Campagnolo, Shimano, and SRAM, consistently offer maximum performance, but that performance comes at maximum cost. If you’ve followed the recommendations above, and invested the majority of your bike budget in your frameset and wheels, consider the second highest groupos from the big three. These groupos offer excellent value as they have 95% of the performance of the top end components at 60% of the price. If you are choosing between getting parts on a more basic frame or getting a better frame with more basic parts, keep in mind that upgrading parts down the road is relatively inexpensive while upgrading the frame is far more involved.

Additional Expenses: When considering a new bike, remember to budget 15-20% of your bike budget for a quality fitting session, accessories, and nutritionals. If you are just getting into cycling, this percentage could be significantly higher as items like quality shoes and pedals will run at least a few hundred dollars on their own.

Long Term Investing: When calculating what you are spending, remember to amortize your costs over the time that you expect to keep the bike. Considering that most rider’s get a new bike every six years on the average, making the investment in an appropriately selected rig that matches your desires will pay enormous dividends in performance, comfort, and safety for many miles.

Ultimately, you get to decide what to spend on your new bike. A $2,000 bike will put you on the road today; a $25,000 bike will make you best friends with your local shop. Regardless of price, a well fit, carefully chosen bike facilitated by a fit professional will give you years of enjoyment and maximize your investment and value.

Additional Links on Related Subjects:
Accessories – What do I need and what do they cost?

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