As we do on occasion, a few weeks back Jim Langley and I were riffing back-and-forth via email on the seemingly never-ending escalation of high-end bike prices. I think it started with his mention of Trek’s new 10.25-pound model, the Emonda SLR 10, for just under $16,000.
That’s not nearly the highest price tag we’ve seen, but it is representative of a growing trend among bike makers. It strikes me as somewhat analogous to the airline industry: Charge a super-super-premium price for the few seats up front – a price most fliers think is ludicrous and/or simply unaffordable – and charge a “reasonable” price for the rest of the seats, with add-ons available, too (exit row surcharge, etc.).
Of course, airlines claim to make most of their money from those business-class and first-class seats. I wonder if the same can be said for bike makers?
Inherent in the conversation about these sky-high prices is the question of quality and value. What is it that makes a $16,000 bicycle worth that much money vs., say, a bike at half that price?
I’ve had similar discussions with other industry folks, and readers, recently. It’s a topic that is on cyclists’ minds, to be sure.
So, I thought it would be a good idea to gather up the threads from a number of these discussions and offer them to someone in the business of building bikes: Jim Kish, who writes The Bike Builder column for RBR. What follows is a generic recitation of some of the questions surrounding the issue, along with Jim’s take. I hope you enjoy it! – John Marsh
What on earth makes a $12,000 bike worth the cost? Can it really be $7,000 better than a $5,000 bike? Or is it more about some people having more money than sense? I know there are different carbon layup techniques and grades of material, but – really? Is any bike over $7,000 delivering something you can’t get in a less-expensive model?
(First, a disclaimer: I am in the business of selling expensive bicycles! I do not build carbon fiber bikes, which are typically the ones approaching − or demolishing − the $10,000 barrier, but my bikes do often cost over $5,000, still a tidy sum.)
It’s true, if you hadn’t been paying attention to high-end bicycle prices over the past 10 years or so, you might give yourself whiplash double-taking the price tag of a new, top-end wonderbike.
Obviously, most consumer goods aren’t immune to inflation, but bicycles (again, mostly at the upper end) have outpaced just about anything else I can think of. The most obvious answer to the “why?” part of the question is “because the market will bear it,” which isn’t all that helpful, I realize. But it is the correct answer.
Long History of Fetishizing New Materials
Bicycle enthusiasts are notorious for fetishizing new materials (most recently carbon fiber) and technologies (like electronic shifting). And gear-intensive sports like cycling tend to attract folks with a nice amount of discretionary income.
What we are witnessing now is a back and forth between manufacturers and consumers, wherein manufacturers keep upping the ante, producing newer, lighter weight frames and components, and seeing at what price point consumers reject the product. So far, it seems, that price point hasn’t been found.
I think it’s worth pointing out a couple of things even though they already may be obvious. First, the vast majority of bicycles sold cost a fraction of the price of the bikes we’re talking about here. Several hundred dollars can buy a very nice bike, arguably a much better bike than that same amount of money would have got you 20 years ago.
The majority of new bike buyers are not spending $10K on a new ride, but they are benefitting from those who do. Most of the technology used in the bikes up there in the rarefied air floats down to less expensive bikes, and it typically doesn’t take long to happen.
Prices can easily go from “hefty” to “stratospheric”
Second, a bicycle’s final price can go from “hefty” to “stratospheric” with the addition or substitution of a few key components. Carbon wheels can easily add $2,000 to an already perfectly fine bike, and electronic shifting components can add $2,000 more.
Other parts that had been built out of aluminum for years are also offered now in carbon fiber, and it’s not hard to spend an extra $500 to $1,000 on a carbon stem, handlebar, and seatpost.
As for the “is it worth it?” part of the question, only you, the bicycle buyer, can answer that – and only for yourself. True, it would be difficult to argue objectively that a $12,000 bicycle is 4 times as good as a $3,000 bicycle. But it would also be difficult to objectively justify a $6 latte, a $200 pair of shoes, or any car more exotic than a Ford Fiesta.
I would hope that someone who spends $5,000, or $10,000, or $15,000 on a bicycle does so for the love of the sport, and for the bike’s technology and craft.
And I would hope that purchase would spur the owner on to spend more time on their new bike, to get fitter and healthier. Because, in my subjective opinion, that’s the only way that new bike will make you any faster.