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.
N. Kraft says
The real question you need to ask yourself is whether what you are being sold as an improvement or innovation actually makes any measurable difference to the function of the machine or the enjoyment of the sport on any level. For years all I’ve been seeing in manufacturers’ hype has to do with lightness, and no one seems to question the relevance of a bicycle or a component’s weight. When a club rider turns up with a new bike, the first thing the others do is to pick it up and level some sort of assessment based on the thing’s weight. Absurd !!
I’ve done fairly extensive testing of riding the same bike up the same hill with more and less weight (varying by several pounds), and I saw no measurable differences between these test rides ! I added up to 4 pounds more weight to the same bike and rode the hill in the same times, sometimes even quicker !! So a component that is 8 grams lighter or even a frame that is 200 grams lighter, can make no difference to one’s performance or the enjoyment of the sport.!
Of course, the industry does need to keep ‘feeding’ itself to survive, but how sad that the poor unsuspecting consumer can be so easily misled by claims that are generally unfounded. That’s not to say there are no differences between, say, titanium frames, steel, or ‘plastic’ ones. There are most definitely vast differences in the ‘feel’ and perceived response between these, and also between poorly, cheaply made frames and components, and those that are well engineered and manufactured. My rather extensive personal inventory of bicycles bears out the fact that there are real differences between them all, (even those from the same maker), But these are ‘perceptions’, not actual measurable performance results as the manufacturers and retailers would have us believe, and certainly not to the extent of the claims. Of course, engineering a better part may take more time and resources, as does a hand-made frame compared to those that are squirted out of a mold in Asia, so costs increase proportionally.
In short, as in all purchases, the buyer needs to be informed, and make purchase decisions on actual results, not fictitious promises of increased performance based on myth..
I cycle with someone who is 230 pounds to my 165 pounds. He has the $ 5000.00 bike, and I drive a $ 1000.00 bike. He always zooms ahead of me as I lag behind. He of course is in better shape, Years ago, my wife bought me that $ 1000.00 bike for my 60th birthday. Just to settle my mind with regard to a $ 5000.00 bike, I asked the owner of the store if I could try the $ 5000.00 bike. I couldn’t feel a difference between the 2, and I couldn’t go any faster either. In conclusion, the more expensive bike will work better and faster for the athlete in better shape and condition. For myself, I’m happy with the $ 1000.00. Also , I have to work a bit harder to move the bike faster – and this itself has me burning more calories and getting a harder workout.
I’m writing in a sort of bike limbo, I have purchased one bike in 10+ years a Guru Carbonio, I love it with all my heart but I want a new bike it’s my 50th birthday and I can afford a $11,000 bike that is beautiful I will ride and ride it but I feel a tinge of guilt my wife is like you deserve it, you work hard we can afford it, get it if you really love it, I know you will ride it like you did this bike, it’s stiff, it’s a great geometry fit for me and it is $5000 cheaper as the are moving it. The reviews 10/10 everywhere, a Trek Madone SLR 9 disc with the XX wheels SRAM red but I don’t race it’s only in my range because of the discount but this is my dream possible purchase ? Why shouldn’t I buy it ?
NICHOLAS MOHAT says
I’m 71 yrs old and still ride regularly. I have a stable of bikes that include bikes that I built to race back in the 70’s. I presently ride recumbents. Which are harder to ride but way faster & comfortable than diamond frame bikes. I’ve always been amazed at the marketing/pricing of bicycles and bicycle equipment. In the past a product or bike would come into the market at what I would consider a high and in some cases ridiculous price. If the product was good and developed a following. The price would remain high. If it were junk the price would go down or the product would disappear altogether.
I would say in the late nineties with the proliferation and growth of companies like Specialized & Trek I saw the prices begin to rise and not recede. Today the prices are ridiculous. Yes the materials and processes are refined. But most people are buying aspirational equipment which they will never draw the full capabilities from. If you took a $150.00
Hyper and slapped a set of different decals on it. Put it in a bike boutique with a $1500.00 price tag. In the present market you’d sell a ton……Plus you’ve got the wannabe racers….Dude it’s the motor not the bike!