It’s the question that has crossed the mind of every aspiring cyclist or triathlete, why is cycling so expensive? You may have had a budget in your head of £100 (or regional equivalent) for your bike, but it seems even that is unlikely to leave you walking away with a bike. Let alone a road bike. That’s before you even get to the clothing and accessories.
Why is cycling so expensive? Is the whole industry a rip off? In this article we’re going on a deep dive into the cycling industry to find out. We’re going to be focusing on road cycling as this is the area I’m mot familiar with. The majority of the points here apply to off road as well.
Why Shouldn’t I Buy a £100 bike?
These bikes are what I have seen fondly referred to as “bike shaped objects” by mechanics. This may come across as snobbery, but there’s logic here.
These bikes are designed to be taken out for a short ride on flat terrain a couple of times a year. The quintessential family bike ride. They’re heavy, sluggish and will break very easily. When it does break, you will probably pay 30-40% of the value of the bike to fix it. The tyres will puncture easily, the chain will probably fall off without much encouragement, and you’ll struggle to get spare parts.
What Should I Buy Instead?
In contrast, let’s look at the classic starting bike, the Specialized Allez. Like many cyclists, I started out on one of these dream machines. Other brands are available.
So, what does this bike offer which our bargain basement bike doesn’t?
For many cyclists, a lighter bike is a better bike. If you get passed on the hills by those on much lighter bikes, this is very demoralising as you feel powerless. An entry level road bike like an Allez could be twice as light as a cheap bike. It still isn’t that expensive in the grand scheme of road cycling, but it’s a big step up.
I’m probably not exaggerating by much when I estimate that this bike will last 100 times longer than a cheap bike. I rode mine for the best part of 15,000 miles without major issue. Yes I needed to replace some parts, but when you consider you’re lucky to get 100 miles out of a cheap bike without needing to take it to a mechanic, the difference in longevity is remarkable. It’s actually cheaper to pay more up front in the long run.
The Specialized pictured above uses a Shimano Sora groupset. This refers to the brakes, gears, shifters, chain e.t.c.
When you shift a gear on this bike, it will jump to the new gear less than a second. When you shift a gear on a bike shaped object, it will make a slow, clunky shift. If you’re lucky it’ll end up in the gear you wanted to without jumping around. If you’re not changing gear much this doesn’t matter. But if you’re on rolling terrain and want to use your gears to make life easier, this can be frustrating.
In addition, when you turn a corner, the steering will feel silky smooth for a long time. Meanwhile, a cheaper bike’s bearings will wear quickly. Especially when it gets wet.
Once you’ve been riding for a year or two, you’ll probably find yourself looking at some upgrades for your bike. This could be more gears, better brakes or a new saddle. These upgrades are designed to fit traditional road bikes. Cheaper bikes often have non standard fixtures, as they don’t expect to be upgraded.
When you can be looking at £80 for a comfortable saddle, you will very quickly get to the place where you’re almost spending as much on single components as you did on a cheap bike.
If you buy a cheap bike and get bitten by the cycling bug, you’ll end up regretting it. Whether you ride with friends who leave you for dust, or it breaks down yet again at the furthest point from home and you need to call for a pick up; you’ll end up having to sell it for a fraction of what you paid for it, and buying a more expensive bike anyway.
So, where does my money go?
The Specialized Allez starts at £650, which is a lot of money to spend on a bike. So where does the money go? And why would someone look to spend £5000 on a bike?
Quality of Materials
The biggest factor which makes cycling expensive is the materials used in manufacture of the parts. If you want a cheap steel frame, you can get this for a song. However, it will be very heavy. There are Chinese factories which manufacture counterfeit bikes, which they sell on for a fraction of the cost. However, there’s a good chance these will break, potentially injuring you in the process.
When looking to purchase something it can be cheap and light. Or strong and cheap. Most bikes need to be both light and strong, but this doesn’t come cheap. For a bike to be able to withstand thousands of miles on the road without damage the materials have to be carefully chosen. They also have to be treated in a specific way to ensure performance and safety.
This extends beyond the frame materials to everything on the bike. Wheels are notoriously expensive because they have to both be incredibly light, and withstand huge forces from hitting potholes without buckling. There will always be a cheaper option out there, but this will come with a penalty to performance and longevity.
Research and Development
If you want to create the lightest and fastest bike on the market, this involves a considerable amount of research and development. This involves paying designers and engineers to build prototypes, time spent in a wind tunnel, stress tests on the frame itself, and dozens of other steps between concept and the bike appearing for sale at your local bike shop. These costs are passed onto the consumer when they purchase the bike, to help the bike manufacturer stay in business. And help them keep pushing the boundaries.
Pro Team Sponsorship
A bike sponsor will provide a World Tour team with hundreds of bikes over the course of a year. When you consider many manufacturers will sponsor multiple teams, you’re looking at companies spending hundreds of thousands over the course of a year to support professional teams. They hope to recoup the cost by inspiring customers to buy their bikes via the team. If you think recreational cycling is expensive, wait until you see the costs involved with running a professional team!
Running of the Business
Smaller bike manufacturers will only really make money from selling frames. The sale of bikes cover everything from the receptionist’s salary to the van they use for deliveries. If companies did not make a profit from each sale, they wouldn’t be able to stay in business, offer warranties or provide any customer service. While some products provide manufacturers and retailers with a large profit margin, bike frames are not one of them, and the whole industry relies on bike manufacturers staying in business.
But What About Expensive Cycling Clothing? Some Kit Costs As Much as Cheap Bikes
It’s true that you can get a cheap bike for the cost of some waterproof jackets, but it all comes back to performance. When cycling you build up a huge amount of heat. When you cover yourself with what is essentially a plastic bag, this traps the heat and causes the rider to overheat. You may keep the rain off you with cheap jackets, but you’ll get soaked with sweat, losing a lot of sodium in the process which hurts your performance in itself. A high end waterproof jacket will be far more breathable, while still keeping you dry.
Expensive cycling jerseys may be incredibly lightweight for summer riding, aerodynamic for use in time trials, or windproof for riding in poor weather. However, they may also be expensive simply for the sake of fashion. Where bikes themselves are all about performance, clothing is far more susceptible to trends, and you can get away with spending a bit less here. Cheaper kit will be heavier, not as breathable and won’t fit as nicely, but this will have far less of an effect on your ride than a bike which is constantly breaking.
Do I Need to Spend a Lot on a Helmet?
All of the helmets for sale will meet basic safety standards, so you don’t need to spend a lot on a helmet to keep you or a loved one safe. Money spent on an expensive cycling helmet can make it more aerodynamic (faster), lighter and more breathable. Cheaper helmets will feel like a block of polystyrene on your head, where you won’t notice you’re wearing a more expensive one. There are safety systems such as MIPS available on some models, which is suggested to improve safety for a small price increase.
Fit is more important than cost when it comes to safety. You shouldn’t be able to fit more than two fingers under the chin strap, and it shouldn’t be too tight, or too loose on your head.
Manufacturers Will Charge What People are Willing to Pay
This is true in many industries, but is especially true in cycling. Many people will walk into a bike shop, ask for the latest bike, and price won’t even be discussed. They might not even look at the total. Manufacturers will push the very limit of what current technology permits, because they know someone will buy it and justify the investment in developing the product. It will also win professional races, building their brand.
The good news is that these customers help keep manufacturers in business, which allows them to keep the price down on their entry level bikes. Top end bikes will rarely be discounted in a meaningful way, but many components and accessories will be discounted within a matter of months following their release.
There are many factors which make cycling expensive, but you don’t have to remortgage your house to get started. A budget of £1000 will get you up and running with a setup that lasts years, and prove to be more economical than going for the cheapest possible option.
If you’re looking to get started, check out our article on choosing a road bike