By Vernon Felton
We get hate mail for a lot of reasons—a comma is out of place, one of us has a goatee, some of us have British accents… Apparently, there are a lot of reasons we suck. None gets cited more often, however, than the pricey bikes we profile in the pages of Bike magazine and on this site. The general sentiment from angry readers goes something like this: "Ten thousand bucks for a bike? Are you f–king kidding me? Screw you guys and screw the bike industry!"
First, let me say that I feel you about the exorbitant price of bikes. If I could magically make these things affordable, I would. In a heartbeat. But if I could do that I'd probably have a cape, an invisible jet and a giant, purple gorilla sidekick.
I lack the invisible plane and the magic monkey, and bikes, yeah, they cost a hell of a lot these days.
Being a magazine editor has its perks, but great pay ain't one of them, which means we feel the sting of higher prices like everybody else.
True story: I went to an accountant once to get my income taxes filed (as a freelancer, my completed tax return looks a lot like a "How to Build a Nuclear Bomb" manual that's been written in Latin…it's way beyond my abilities). Anyway, the accountant looked at the line item which showed how much I spent each year on bikes and parts, paused and then simply said, "Jesus, you're an idiot."
He may have a point. I spend a lot of the little I have on bikes and I too marvel at the fact that most of the bikes in our Bible of Bike Tests retailed for more than $3,000.
So, what's up with that? Are we trying to be dicks or does it just work out that way?
GETTING AFFORDABLE TEST BIKES—NOT AS EASY AS YOU'D THINK
So, the Bible of Bike Tests (our annual gear guide) hit the streets about a week and change ago. To make that happen, we were out testing those 34 bikes in Sedona back in October. To make that happen, companies were trying to ship us 2014 models back in September of 2013….
In other words, we have to get next year's bikes in our hands before next year's bikes are anywhere close to being available in the states.
Most of the time, the company has just one or two of the bikes we are requesting in the country—and it's often the very bike that was sitting in their Interbike tradeshow booth. We usually ask for the mid-range bike, which is rarely available that early in the year. What might be available, is that pimped-out, blinged-to-the-max tradeshow beauty. So we have to choose: do we toss another pricey version of the Camber or Remedy in the mag or do we leave it out altogether? People want to know how those bikes ride and would be pissed if we didn't test them… On the other hand, they'll probably be enraged when they see the "Lawyers, dentists and plastic surgeons-only" price tags.
Damned if you do. Damned if you don't.
So we do.
But there's this—if you watch the video reviews, there's almost always a point in which one of us says something like, "We know that people are going to be pissed when they see and hear how much this bike sells for, but you can get the same basic bike for half as much. It comes with a RockShox Reba fork and a blah, blah, blah drivetrain blah, blah, 66-degree head angle blah."
Really. Watch the videos. It's usually in there.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE STUPID PRICE TAGS?
So I've established the bit about how hard it can be to get our hands on affordable models so early in the year. That only explains why such bikes are in the mag, it doesn't begin to explain why the bikes cost so damn much today. Fair enough.
Here are some thoughts on the subject.
Carbon frames are great when properly designed and executed. In some cases companies are able to shave as much as a pound and a half off the frame, boost the stiffness and make it worlds stronger (not necessarily "tougher", but stronger, which are, technically speaking, different attributes). Carbon, however, is pricey as hell. People have this impression that carbon parts and frames are made by robots in some kind of giant Betty Crocker Easy Bake Oven over in China and that they should therefore be inexpensive.
While China and Taiwan do make the majority of carbon bike parts, it's an incredibly tedious and time-intensive process—some of it (the lay-up process, for instance) involving a ton of handwork. Time is money, which means that there really isn't a way to make carbon frames as inexpensively as aluminum. There are, of course, other factors at play here that also drive up costs—with carbon you're also paying for the R&D, the materials, the molds and some executive's Audi TT, but the takeaway here is that the advent of composites as a frame material has played a big role in the rising cost of bikes today.
Here's a great example… Trek has always done a good job of offering a huge range of models for any particular line, in many cases giving you the option of buying the same bike in either carbon or aluminum. Example: you can buy the carbon Fuel EX 9.8 29 for $5,770 or you can get the aluminum version (the Fuel EX 9 29) with the same basic SRAM X01 components for $4,700. In other words, you save a grand by opting for aluminum. In fact, the carbon 9.8 model actually sports aluminum seat and chainstays, so you actually save $1,000 by opting for an aluminum front triangle. Is having a carbon front triangle worth an extra grand? Maybe. Maybe not. What's beyond debate is that carbon has helped send bike prices stratospheric.
You Want More from Your Bike? It'll Cost You More…
When I bought my first mountain bike for $650 I knew exactly what I'd do with it: I'd put in long fireroad rides. I might ride off of the occasional park bench or picnic table. That was about it. Most people weren't hucking their meat, performing back flips or doing anything particularly imaginative and rad. Not surprisingly, early production mountain bikes were basically heavy-duty road bikes with flat bars and 15-speed drivetrains. They were rigid steel or aluminum. They really shouldn't have cost much.
Compare those bikes with what we have today—essentially mini-motorycles that lack engines and exhaust pipes. My go-to bike today weighs five pounds less then my first fully-rigid bike, but has six inches of travel, amazingly tuneable suspension, a dropper post, ultra-light disc brakes and components that can withstand levels of abuse that were unthinkable back in the `80s. Of course it costs a shit ton more than my first bike. My first bike was about as performance-oriented as mother's "hybrid" junker that she rides to the grocery store.
We, simply put, expect a hell of a lot from our bikes and that expectation has birthed a whole array of expensive components that drive up the sticker price. I think a lot of us, however, compare the sticker price on today's bikes with the sticker price on the bike we bought six years or eight ago—but that's like comparing apples and orangutans. There is no comparison. We demand more from our bikes now and that's always going to cost us more.
Case in point: if I spent the equivalent of $650 today (that's $1,280, when adjusted for inflation) on a bike, I'd get a hell of a lot more for my money today than I did with my first mountain bike back in 1988. I sure as hell wouldn't walk out of the shop with a 32-pound, fully-rigid pile of shit, saddled with both a U-brake and Biopace chainrings.
Yes, bikes are stupid expensive these days—I'm not denying that—but there's also no denying that you generally get a lot more bike for your buck today.
…BUT, YEAH, IT STILL HURTS
I've bought a few bikes in the past couple of years and each time around I spent around four grand. That used to be considered an astronomical figure. And when I say "used to", I mean, like, six years ago, not back in the Pleistocene era. Anyway, I pretty much hated myself after each purchase because it seemed like an obscene amount of money to pay and yet, if you want to get a bike that will hold up to daily abuse on rough terrain and which comes with a good fork, good wheels and good brakes (all of those parts being incredibly expensive to replace), it's hard to find anything that'll check off all the little boxes for under three grand. There are, however, a couple ways to help keep your financial blood loss to more of a minimum. Here are a few:
Consider Buying Aluminum
I love carbon as much as the next geek, but if it ain't going to buy you a huge weight savings and it isn't backed by a long warranty, screw it. Just stick with aluminum. You'll save yourself a grand or more and on some bikes, you aren't really going to notice a massive change in ride quality anyway. Aluminum may not have the sex appeal it once did, but a thousand bucks is a serious chunk of change.
Remember the Law of Diminishing Returns
Up to a certain point, you get huge leaps in quality, performance and durability as you move up from one price point to the next. Sure the $1,600 bike can seem like a huge bargain, but if you are bending wheels or getting manhandled by the mountain because the fork sucks, you aren't really "saving" money anymore….you're just delaying the very expensive upgrade a year down the road. Save your money up until you can get a bike that isn’t going to require pricey upgrades in the near future.
But by the same token, after you've spent more than three grand, those leaps in performance start to decrease. For me, the cut off point is about four grand. Another dollar spent beyond that price isn't going to buy me greater fun or speed. If I want to get fast, I just need to ride more. That premier bike is fun to ride and pretty to look at, but you can usually get almost all of its performance for about half of its sticker price if you drop down to the mid-tier model.
I’m a fan of full suspension, but there is something to be said about the skills you gain when riding a hardtail and there’s no denying the savings. If you look around a bit, you can build up a stellar hardtail with a great fork and wheels for almost half as much as a comparably-equipped, full-suspension bike.
I built up a hardtail a few years ago for about as much as I paid for my first fully rigid bike (that is, adjusted for inflation). My new hard tail is 10 times the bike that my original bike ever was. It also cost me just a bit more than a grand. I’m sore after a long day on that bike, but it’s hard to argue with the price. There’s something to be said for keeping things simple.
Forget the Bling, Focus on the Bread and Butter
Do you really need a travel-adjust fork on that next bike? Carbon-fiber lever blades on that disc brake? XTR is awesome, but do you even really need it? Probably not. XT is nearly as good and, surprisingly, SLX packs a hell of a punch given its blue-collar price tag. In short, you should focus on getting a solid frame, some good wheels and a quality fork. All the other bells and whistles are nice, but not necessary. It’s amazing just how much you can save on a given bike when you follow that rule–thousands of dollars.
And Then There’s This…
Do you even need a new bike? We abandon the majority of bikes before their time has come. We get caught up in the new wheel size or frame material when we can probably squeeze another couple of seasons out of our “old” bike. Keep the chain lubed. Don’t pressure wash the pivots. Buy a good set of tires and don’t pump the bastards up to 40 PSI (what’s the point of having a full suspension bike if your tires are deflecting off of every rock on the trail?). Chances are, you can boost the performance of what you already own.
New bikes are fun. They are exciting. They are sexy as hell. But, in many cases, they aren’t necessary and they won’t make you a better rider. Those facts never stop me from looking at the latest crop each year, but it’s worth bearing in mind.