Sunday, January 8, 2012

On Bicycle Pricing and Its Discontents

Cicli Montante
At the moment there is an engaging dialogue going on about the cost of bicycles, which I believe many readers here will find informative: Last week Jan Heine of the Bicycle Quarterly published a post entitled Why Buy an Expensive Bicycle, in which he argues in favour of custom-built bicycles costing 5 times as much as mid-tier production bikes. In response, Kent Peterson of Kent's Bike Blog explained why he prefers inexpensive bicycles, presenting an almost diametrically opposite viewpoint. Together, I think these two posts and the reader comments that follow make for some truly thought-provoking reading, and I invite you to check them out.

Having read both posts, I find that my own opinion on this matter does not fit into the dichotomy of the debate. But I will try to explain it in my own way, without framing it as an "expensive vs inexpensive" issue.

Put simply, for me it is about the bicycle and, more importantly, about the cyclist's experience - not about the price. Bicycles are made for riding, and in order to ride them (and be inspired to ride more) the cyclist's experience must be positive. Not everyone is mechanically inclined and able to fix even minor issues when things start to go wrong. Not everyone's body can withstand poor (or even mediocre) ride quality. Finally, not everyone is inspired by a bicycle that is so crudely made and generic-looking as to be utterly without character. Now, we can criticise people for their lack of mechanical skills, their sensitivity to discomfort and their preoccupation with aesthetics. Or we can accept these traits and turn our attention to the bicycle itself - defining a "good" bicycle as one that will inspire people to ride. And by "people" I mean people as they are, with all their flaws and biased preferences and love of pretty things and mechanical ineptitudes.

Based on the huge amount of feedback I receive from readers who are either would-be cyclists or fledgling cyclists, I believe there are three characteristics a bicycle must have in order to attract those who are not already committed to cycling: (1) it has to work properly without a lot of fussing, (2) it has to feel comfy, and (3) it has to look nice. And it makes sense that a person of average financial means who desires to ride a bicycle, will naturally strive for the least expensive option that satisfies all three of these criteria.

And therein lies the first glitch.  Based, again, on the feedback I get from readers, it is quite challenging to find a bicycle nowadays that both satisfies all three of the criteria listed above, and costs what most first-time buyers consider to be a reasonable amount. When I quote the $500 figure as a first-time buyer's typical budget, I am by no means making fun of this figure or disparaging persons with such a budget. On the contrary, this was my budget as well when I first began shopping around for a transportation bike. Unfortunately, $500 or thereabouts is considered "low end" by the bicycle industry today. Sad as it is, if you walk into a bicycle store right now, $500 will afford you only the lowest quality bikes available. The salesperson may even tell you, holding back a laugh, that with such a budget shopping for a new bike will be difficult. It is what they told me in 2009.

Now let's get back to this fictional person who, on the one hand, wants a nice bike, but on the other hand is discovering how tough it is to find a bicycle that satisfies their requirements on a modest budget. At this stage they have a choice between two main options: (a) compromise on one or more of their criteria, or (b) increase their budget. Many choose the former option, which, granted, seems very reasonable. However, I kid you not that I now receive perhaps half a dozen emails a week from persons who are unhappy with their bikes and are not enjoying cycling as a result of a budget-driven compromise. The biggest complaint is that of frequent failures. The cyclist is not experienced enough to deal with them, and moreover does not want to deal with them. They also do not have time to constantly take the bike to the shop. The second biggest complaint is that of severe discomfort and poor ride quality. With all these problems, the bicycle does not get ridden very often and the cyclist begins to lose faith in cycling all together.

So you see, it is not the price I have a problem with. It is this outcome. By no means do I believe expensive bicycles to be better simply by virtue of costing more; that would be absurd. When a $500 bicycle becomes available that I believe to be reasonably well made, comfortable and attractive enough to make new cyclists happy, I gladly herald it here and post lots of sexy pictures. Unfortunately, I find few bicycles in this price range to be of good quality, and I refuse, absolutely refuse to promote manufacturers who churn out overpriced bike-shaped toys by giving them exposure here based on their "low" prices alone. If a person cannot afford a well-made new bike, I recommend buying used or vintage.

Now that I've finished that rant, the next question might be: So what is my idea of a high-quality new bike and what would it cost? Unfortunately, I have no definitive answers for you. Unlike Jan Heine, I do not believe that a $5,000+ custom bicycle is necessarily the solution. Customers are not always experienced and informed enough to truly know what they want, and builders make mistakes all the time. Also, the custom process takes forever and by far not everyone is willing to wait a year or more for a bike. Moreover, I agree with Kent that beyond a certain price point the anxiety over potential theft and damage may diminish a bicycle's utility.

The truth is that what constitutes a quality bicycle and a good value often depends on the person. It depends on their needs. It depends on their standards. It depends on the kind of riding they do, on their body's sensitivity, on their terrain, even on their climate. It depends on their level of mechanical skill. It is impossible to profess "the answer" that will be applicable to everyone.

In conclusion, my view is that it's not about pricing; we are way too focused on pricing. If you are serious about cycling, determine the criteria you are looking for first: What kind of bicycle makes you want to ride? Because that is what ultimately it is all about. Then find a way to buy that kind of bicycle, without compromising on those criteria. For some this may be doable at $500, for others it could be $5000, and most of us will fall somewhere in between. It does not matter to me how much a bicycle costs, as long as the owner loves it and wants to ride it all the time.

92 comments:

  1. I like your nuanced approach and I actually think Jan and I aren't really in a serious disagreement. We do, however, have different approaches to things. I have some more thoughts on this subject in my latest blog post here:

    http://kentsbike.blogspot.com/2012/01/richest-man-in-issaquah.html

    Have a lovely day.

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  2. One thing to look at when shopping for bikes is whether the bike shop has an "interest free" installment payment option. Several bike shops in our area have either 6 or 12 month interest free payment plans, i.e., you are required to make a monthly minimum payment and if you pay off the bike w/in the allotted time, you aren't charged interest. This option may allow bicyclists to buy a slightly more expensive bike more easily than putting down the entire bike cost in one lump sum.

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  3. I find it incredible that Mr.Heine could offer the idea of a custom bicycle as a viable option: for 99% of people who either currently bike or would like to bike, coming up with $5000 is just not possible.
    And perhaps not preferable either: if I had such cash and wanted a bike, I would probably buy a $1200 bike and then do a helluva a lot of good with the rest of that money. Either for other people, probably kids, who were dying to have a bike or for my own child, who could use that extra influx into her college fund. Mr.Heine should spend some time with kids who've never owned their own bike. I was one once.

    Most people in this country are pinched for cash and most people in this country need to get more exercise and improve their fitness.

    Really, I understand commitment to quality and all, but there's only so much of the big crisis you can miss. What's missing is a bigger perspective and bigger heart.

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  4. Before things go any further I ask that the comments please refrain from attacks, either explicit or veiled, on either of the two authors I've linked to. They put a great deal of thought into those posts, and the comments on both blogs stayed respectful at all times. It is not possible to have a constructive discussion otherwise. Thanks in advance.

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  5. You understate the used market. In contrast to automobiles, lightly used bicycles of good quality are readily available for half their new price. The consequences of guessing wrong about the "best" bike when buying used are also much less for that same reason - the bulk of depreciation has already occurred. I could probably sell my cyclocross bike for nearly what I paid for it, despite having ridden it for the better part of 10k miles, for that very reason.

    Of course, I'm a fiddler...

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  6. "One thing to look at when shopping for bikes is whether the bike shop has an "interest free" installment payment option. Several bike shops in our area have ..."

    That's a good point and we have done this on at least one occasion. In future I will try to put together a practical guide for buying a bike, and things like this are really helpful.

    Anon 9:12 - I think that once you evoke poverty and children without bikes, that changes the scope of the topic rather unfairly. I doubt that Jan was suggesting impoverished children ought to forgo food and save up for custom Rene Herses. Rather, he and I are both writing for our respective readerships, most of whom I have reason to believe are middle class and can afford a bike or two if they spend less money on things like shoes and restaurants. Or cars...

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  7. I'm the rare single professional with no school loans or interest in automobiles and status properties so probably am willing to spend more on bikes than most.

    As I started getting into cycling I bought off the shelf bikes. My first, a Cannondale was stolen. My second, a Trek, was decent enough, not great. My third was a Rivendell Homer Hilsen. A very nice bike but I still wanted something more.

    I now have a custom Spectrum (Tom Kellogg) 30th Anniversary road bike and a Coast Cycle 650B random style bike that I use as my commuter / light tourer. (I just sold a third custom as I am determined to get by with only with two bikes.)

    There is indeed a palpable difference between having bikes built not only to fit but with tubing selected in light of the rider's weight and intended use. The latter is probably the more important, but less understood value of customs. The Hilsen was a good fit. But Rivendell had to build the bike for most of its potential U.S. market which include a good many people who weigh a heck of a lot more than I.

    Both the customs are good looking, sure. Beyond the looks, they fit perfectly, ride beautifully, and the Coast has internal light wiring, a cable stop built into the stem and was built for the fenders I am using. The integration is amazing to look at and makes the bike that much easier to clean and maintain.

    To me these features are worth the extra money.

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  8. I think a custom-built bicycle frame is an insane choice for almost everyone (and here, I'm thinking general population, anyone that might ride a bike ever). The price is very, very high, and who's to say that you even know what you want when you order the bike, or that your needs won't change? (Clearly, what we all need are multiple, custom-built bicycle frames, for all the different uses of a bicycle :-)

    I also think we are done in (in the US) by the warped market for bicycling. For most people/most uses, a "racing"-influenced bike (dropped bars, skinny tires) will be uncomofortable, unreliable, and perhaps even dangerous. A "mountain"-influenced bike with shocks and knobby fat tires will be over-heavy and more difficult to ride on roads. I've just written off about 90% of the inventory at the LBS down the street.

    Most people would not like my bike, either, since it is a heavy, expensive, cargo bike. A bunch of people 3 standard deviations out from the norm using their personal bicycling experience to derive good choices for "people" in general is unlikely to yield useful results.

    Look at what most people ride in other wealthy countries where many people ride bikes. Nothing fancy, non-custom, upright bicycles.

    That said, what do those bikes cost? Whoops, "Batavus Diva" (in Britain) costs $770. "Batavus Topper" in the Netherlands (city bike, 3-speed, dynamo lights, roller brakes, skirt guard, fenders, chaincase) is about the same. And a Breezer Uptown 3 is in the same ballpark. Theft risk may be part of the package, of course, but it seems to me that theft risk goes with using a bicycle.

    But notice where the money goes -- chaincase, fenders, dynamo lights, rack. So on the one hand, $500 probably is too little, but on the other hand, custom-custom-custom is (provably, by the Dutch example) not necessary to get most people out on bicycles.

    Value-shopping also drives some of the suboptimal choices in the US. It's rare to find a bike costing less than $1000 that is sold with tires on it that are "good". I'm not sure that there's an incentive to do it otherwise; a cheaper tire allows a slightly lower price and a little more profit, and the people that care will (as I understand it) buy the tire retail at a markup, and maybe even pay to have it installed.

    I think we do also get to criticize people for their lack of mechanical skills a little bit. I've worked on bicycles, and I've worked on cars (all the way to taking apart engines and tranmissions). Bicycles are vastly easier to work on, and far more standardized. But when they do need to be repaired, they're far cheaper than an automobile.

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  9. BTW I know Jan and I can tell you he is a very generous man. On a variety of occasions he has used his talents and resources to raise funds for a range of good causes. The anonymous poster at 9:12 AM has obviously never met Jan. As I've noted elsewhere sometimes Jan phrases things in way that strikes some people wrong and while Jan and I may have certain honest stylistic differences, I'm proud to call him my friend.

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  10. I remember when I bought my Ribble, my first "good" bike back in 90 or 91. It cost me approx£600, about a months take home pay at the time. My Dad reckoned that was way too much for a bike, but when we did the maths, it turned out he paid about 2 months wages at a similar age for his first "good" bike 30+ years earlier.

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  11. Kent - The problem is that things get easily misinterpreted and misrepresented over the internet. I have seen myself misquoted in a way that suggests I dislike inexpensive bikes as a matter of course and look down on those who buy them, which is of course upsetting since I suggest no such thing. IMO people need to be more careful and sensitive, taking the time to understand each other and keeping in mind that we are all "real" and mean well and ultimately love bicycles.

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  12. I'm the common married non professional and until someone can absolutely guarantee that the expensive bike will put me in cycling nirvana I will continue to throw hundred dollar bills at my '87 Miyata 112.

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  13. At FIRST, I was going to call the whole thing popy-cock and rant about the used bike that I got for sixty bucks that is my number one, go-to ride. It has never given me an issue and has taken all of the abuse that I and my two tear old can dish out at it. It looks good and even the front fork is holding up, both with time and under my great weight! It must be classic! It must be vintage! Perhaps some one's cast-off, one-off custom? Nope. Trek's bottom of the like, mass-produced MTB from 2005 or so.

    THEN, I had to admit something. Even though I have not really been cycling as an adult much longer than you (and had NO cohabitant to guide me: my wife hates bikes as viewed as any ting but a toy) I went through 4-5 bikes before I stumbled upon this bike. Truth be told, I found the BIKE and as a bonus the DEAL was amazing. By then I knew what I wanted and what I wanted to do with it.

    The point remains though. It certainly IS possible to get a bike that looks cool, fits well and functions properly (again, I never had a problem with this bike and it's the BOTTOM of the line) without spending $5000 or even $500.

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  14. Also, in defense of Jan's defense of expensive, custom bicycles.....

    Why there is such variance in the costs of seemingly comparable bicycles is newsworthy to many bicyclists, and Jan was simply explaining why the difference, in his experience, isn't artificial.

    V, your point about evaluating bicycles not in terms of the equipment itself, but in terms of how effective that bicycle is in enabling a particular type of experience to occur is, I think, the best measure.

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  15. I think it is absurd that one can't configure his or her own bicycle easily in the United States, and end up with something most people can afford. The only way to do it is to buy all the component parts and assemble it oneself of pay a shop to do it, but this extends the price out of reach of reasonable and so takes it back to square one.

    In Germany, Patria, in business since the 19th century, allows one to configure their bicycle however they wish, and generates an order based on the customers' specifications. Their frames are made in Bielefeld, in Germany NOT TAIWAN. Check it out here: http://konfigurator.patria.net/

    I think far too many importers call themselves bicycle companies (Soma, Surly, etc...) and the bicycle factory now no longer exists in the United States - only for multi-thousand dollar custom machines. That's really too bad, and I think rather than support this model we should reject it.

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  16. I think the poster at 9:12 was only trying to raise the issue of values. That's how I read what he/she was saying, and I think it's fine for that to be part of the conversation, whether this is for a middle-class audience or for anyone, really.

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  17. The problem with secondhand is the danger you're buying a stolen bike - something no cyclists wants to do. I solved the problem by getting my bike from a bike recycling project, of which there are many good ones in the UK, who took a frame that fit me pretty well and built it up from scratch with new parts (something I would never have had the skills for). For £500 I got a nice steel frame tourer that suits me down to the ground and would have started at about a grand new - while people recovering from mental illness got a chance to work and learn new skills. I don't know if such schemes exist in the US but they're a godsend here.

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  18. I believe the appropriate line here is, "to each his own." Or, of course, her own. When I had to replace my last ride (just couldn't make it fit) I started on Craigslist then moved to a local shop that rebuilds older bikes for sale. I found what turned out to be a '93 Trek singletrack. It's a beautiful lugged frame from the days when they were still being built in Wisconsin and the shop had gone over it stem to derailleur and it was in perfectly ridable condition. Even with the changes I've made (stronger brakes and new levers, new shifters, shorter stem and swept back city bars, fenders, rack, front basket, and even a Brooks...) I'm into it just over the $500 mark. And I've got a transpo bike that rides smooth, fits perfect, and isn't the shiniest one on the rack. In other words, it fits my current needs perfectly!

    None of that is to say I don't drool on customs, but for my needs, this was the way to go. And when funds allow, I'll be adding a similar ride to the "Budget" one in Jan's piece for longer rides. Bottom line is ride what works for you. If on a strict budget, but you have the desire to get into cycling, shop used. If you're lucky enough to have a local shop like Recycled Cycles where you can get knowledgeable help with fit, etc with used bikes, take advantage of it! And if not (sorry Kent, I know you work at a shop) go to a shop and get as much information as you can about what size you ride, how you want the cockpit set up, wheelbases, etc... then take the search to Craigslist. There are some amazing deals on there.

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  19. Great post! I went back and read the links and I notice you haven't added Bobbin to the list of budget bikes. Is this just an oversight or is there a reason for not listing them as a budget option?

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  20. Amen, sister!

    I am exactly the rider you are describing -- I don't have mechanical skills, I want comfort and I need a bike that makes me want to ride it. Yes, in a perfect world, we would all be able to fix up any old bike and ride it just because riding a bike is a good thing. But that's just not the reality for a lot of people. Sorry.

    And to Anon 9:12, yes, a lot of people are hurting in this economy -- ESPECIALLY SMALL BUSINESSES. I can guarantee you that nobody building custom frames is getting insanely rich off their work. But they ARE supporting their families, putting their children through school, and in most cases doing a lot of bicycle advocacy work in their communities. They have studied their craft, honed their skills, and taken the huge financial risk of opening their own businesses. If someone is lucky enough to be able to afford to buy from these artisans, I say FANTASTIC. Otherwise, these small businesses would go under, we would lose an important part of our cycling community and frame-building would become the sole dominion of mass-producers who out-source to places where no one cares about things like paying a living wage and protecting the environment.

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  21. $500 might be the price to get you into a good bike but remember to also do your research and know what "years" model you are looking at on the showroom floor. Often the owner of the shop might give you enough off the price of last years model to really make it worth your while! I got lucky and did that with the purchase of my last bike and wound up buying fenders for it too! And yes the dealer was kind enough to knock a percentage off the price of the fenders also! YAY !

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  22. Used bikes? Shiny new cost much more than it's worth, especially for a first time buyer.

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  23. This post got me thinking about a number of issues as an adult recently re-entering the transportation biking world: 1) I like the idea of a used/vintage bike - but I actually had a difficult time finding anything "transportation-like" in my area....and as a newbie, I do not know enough about bikes in general yet to understand how to adapt another style bike to my needs! This leaves me with trying out a budget transportation bike. 2) How do the Europeans do it?? How do they have many brands of transportation bikes that seem to be of quality, affordable and fit most riders?? Or is "fit" not as important to them? Thanks for the blog - it has been invaluable to me! BTW - I have had a Biria I bought a few months ago for under $500 - so far so good but I'll let you know: http://www.biria.com/bicycle/citibike/700c-lady

    Tina from Texas

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  24. I found both Jan's and Kent's posts interesting to read - excellent examples of the fact that people can travel very different paths in their search for the right bicycle. An expensive, custom-built bicycle isn't for everyone (probably not for me - at least, not at this point), and not everyone can come up with that kind of money in the time frame needed, even if they do save. But, Jan makes a very good case for custom actually being worth the money, which is interesting to me.

    My own experience was that I bought a used vintage bike that had probably been ridden very rarely, so it has turned out to be an excellent value. But, I was able to do so because I had done several months of research, had some experience with bikes, and had a knowledgeable family member to advise me. I also knew that if it didn't work out, I could easily sell the bike for about what I paid, so the risk was low. It was a time-consuming process - checking ads, following leads, etc. All this is to say that whether one chooses new, used, custom, etc. is an individual decision that will be informed by many factors including one's own experience, time, finances, and availability of bikes in the area. What worked for me won't work for everyone. But, reading about different experiences that people have with buying bikes was very helpful to me overall, even if my approach ended up being different.

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  25. WRT Kent and Jan, I won't attack Kent because his perspective is unyielding and always well-written. I feel Jan changes his and writes in a conflicting way.

    That out of the way, epic rant.

    "However, I kid you not that I now receive perhaps half a dozen emails a week from persons who are unhappy with their bikes and are not enjoying cycling as a result of a budget-driven compromise. The biggest complaint is that of frequent failures. The cyclist is not experienced enough to deal with them, and moreover does not want to deal with them. "

    That's a big deal. All my bikes regardless of price require tuning. If a buyer wants light weight and no fuss at a certain price point, that's like asking for wool not to wear.

    $500 is a fair price point and is dirt cheap in this day and age because of Asian labor. Get used to it, people. No one said you had to have cable tv.

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  26. I don't think shortage of cash is the main reason people don't want to spend a reasonable amount on a bike.

    People spend lots of cash on things they don't need, but the important thing about these purchases is that in the mind of the buyer they bestow status, are regarded as fashionable and can be paraded to friends and neighbours.

    Examples include very frequent and pointless 'upgrades' to all sorts of electronic equipment, car accessories such as alloy wheels and metallic paint, and clothes.

    A bike is not seen as something others will envy, so it has to be cheap.

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  27. I'm in a permanent state of penury and my current bike cost £155 ($200ish) a bit over a year ago. It's a hybrid city type and came with vast amounts of accessories, every one of which is useful. None of the running gear is listed as aftermarket parts, they wouldn't dare! Some parts are however surprisingly high quality. The brakes are superb and need little adjustment, the 7-speed rear change is immaculate off a twistgip shift and the wheels are free and true despite not only my immense bulk but the 25kg+ (56lbs) that I regularly overload the rack with. If only they'd fitted a bottom bracket that could manage more than 10miles without adjustment (not exaggeration!) it would be a superb utilitarian machine.

    The downside is that it isn't at ALL fun to ride. Based on mountain geometry it's nervous, twitchy and unreponsive. Speed is a problen for it, and sweeping bends a nightmare. Many, many people however are not looking for these more abstract qualities, they need a short-trip workhorse. As I've found, ANY aftermarket part - pedals, tyres, chainset, bottom bracket have all been destroyed and replaced - will make a marked improvement to its workhorseness, without improving the riding experience at all. Except Schwalbe, big thumbs up to them for adding enjoyment as well as quality.

    It's this experience that costs the big bucks and is the reason blogs like this are so valuable. The problem is getting ordinary folk to realise what their current bicycle can't provide that a better quality one would, but starting ANYWHERE is better than nothing surely? Except... My LBS currently sells my bike at a mere £130, and nothing is higher than £300. People would be forgiven for assuming that this is as good as bikes get and settling for the mundane. That will inhibit aspiration, which is unfortunate.

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  28. Velouria said...

    "IMO people need to be more careful and sensitive, taking the time to understand each other and keeping in mind that we are all "real" and mean well and ultimately love bicycles."

    Hear, hear!!! I'm a novice cycler, still finding my way, so I've been doing a lot of research in various bike forums and blogs. It's amazing how catty and dismissive people can get. Yes, there are of course a lot of very generous and helpful types too, but it's these negative elements that seem to have the most impact. (I'm an idiot for not knowing how to fix my own bike... I'm frivolous and shallow for considering a more expensive choice... Why on earth would I choose a bike based on whether or not it has TCO... etc.)

    Just because you like to go fast doesn't mean that everyone does. Just because you aren't afraid in traffic doesn't mean that no one else is. Just because you can build up a complete bike in two hours doesn't mean that I should know how to install my own dynamo hub. We're all at different levels here -- but the common ground IS that we all just love bicycles. And that should be plenty of glue to keep this community together -- whether we're riding a Royal H or a Huffy. (I, myself, ride a Pilen.)

    BTW. I was talking about the metaphorical "YOU", not you, Velouria. :-)

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  29. "Get used to it, people. No one said you had to have cable tv."

    cable... tv... What's that?

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  30. I wouldn't know. Maybe I'll watch a movie iffin winter ever comes.

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  31. "I think we do also get to criticize people for their lack of mechanical skills a little bit. I've worked on bicycles, and I've worked on cars (all the way to taking apart engines and tranmissions). Bicycles are vastly easier to work on, and far more standardized. But when they do need to be repaired, they're far cheaper than an automobile."

    Sure, it's a free country and in theory we get to criticise anyone we want. But shaming people for their lack of mechanical skills is just not going to get them excited about bicycles. Also, ask cyclists in the NL and DK and you will be shocked and horrified how many of them can't and don't work on their own bike. Whoopty doo. There is no reason cycling must come with a side of popular mechanics.

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  32. "Unlike Jan Heine, I do not believe that a $5,000+ custom bicycle is necessarily the solution."

    Neither do I!

    It's interesting how much response my post has generated. To clarify, I did not advocate a $5000+ bicycle for everybody.

    My post only was an attempt to define what you get when you spend that much money. Too many people think it's all about lugs and shiny paint and the feel-good factor of buying something "hand-made." In my experience, there are many benefits to a high-end bicycle, which I outlined in my post.

    Whether the high-end, high-quality bicycle is worth the money is an issue every rider has to decide for him/herself.

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  33. "You understate the used market. In contrast to automobiles, lightly used bicycles of good quality are readily available for half their new price."

    Big +1. For the knowledgeable buyer, the used bicycle world is your oyster. I have put together some amazing machines for a song.

    The willingness with which people purchase bicycles new, given that the bike will be worth a mere fraction of its purchase price in a short while, frankly puzzles me. I suppose most people are willing to pay big-time for the convenience of buying something appropriate off-the-shelf and not having to fish.

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  34. I may be wrong, but I think the point of Jan's article was more to help convince people that were on the fence about buying an expensive custom but didn't know if it was worth it or not. His message: "If you can afford it, it probably is worth it for you"

    Obviously for most people it's not even a realistic option to consider buying a Rene Herse or JP Weigle or something of that nature, whether we thought it was a worthy investment or not, and I'm sure he realizes that.

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  35. Jan - I think this topic is pretty much inexhaustible for cyclists, and what's more is that people seek a magic formula. They read magazines like the Bicycle Quarterly and blog reviews like mine hoping to find the answer, then often getting disappointed when they don't.

    I did not mean to suggest that you advocate a $5K bicycle for everybody, but that you position it as a solution for those concerned with quality and willing to find a way to afford it. I however cannot entirely agree with that, because I've heard of one too many failed custom experiences at this point. Even with all the money in the world, it may surprise you that some customers have been unable to get what they want from a builder. It happens.

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  36. Val said.....
    "Bicycles are made for riding, and in order to ride them (and be inspired to ride more) the cyclist's experience must be positive. "

    IMO this covers it all. It's whatever bicycle you decide makes your ride a satisfying activity.

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  37. There is an analogy between bikes and one of my other habits, guitars. I have owned about 100 guitars in 35 years of playing. They have ranged in price from $200 to $7000.  There have been basic/starter types, many "factory" models of good to superb quality, and a few ground-up custom made items.

    There are many lessons I've learned from this journey, and I doubt I can contribute a post of sufficient brevity here. But I don't believe one is wise to commit to a custom item until one has significant experience with the range of variables available in a market.  The main reason for the neophyte to do so is rooted in vanity - in the desire for something exclusive.  That is surely not evil by any means, but much of the joy in commissioning custom products lies in the satisfaction of realizing a very particular set of physical, and not just aesthetic, specifications. Unfortunately, internet fora - and their overly zealous denizens - have contributed immeasurably to the neophyte's inflated sense of need.  Practical, circumspect advice is hard to come by.

    Second, in no way does the average person typically use even basic items to the limit of an item's potential. That goes for bikes and guitars and countless other things. Most things of reasonable (not superior) quality will last longer and withstand more use than they are given a chance to endure. Most things are sold or replaced or discarded before their utility has been exhausted.

    Finally, there are many people who value what a product enables them to create far more than the product itself.  We have extremely talented and famous musicians who can afford any instrument they want, and yet they "stubbornly" play something rather pedestrian and become associated with that instrument. Simply, their art is far more important than their tools. Of course, their tools are certainly up to the task. See my second point above about most people not using an item's full potential.

    To summarize, there are different types of people out there (duh!) and they value different things. For me, some sense of exclusivity is desirable, but it doesn't necessarily have to include a very high price. It can be a relatively modest item that I've personalized and tweaked to reflect my taste. I envy those utilitarians whose craft surpasses their tools in importance, but I'll probably never get there.  And I've only been riding seriously for 2 years, so a custom bike is not in my stable yet, and probably won't be til I have a better sense of my "needs" (quotes intentional).

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  38. "You understate the used market..."

    Perhaps this is easily missable because the post is so long, but I do propose used or vintage bicycles as the solution for those who cannot afford a new one without compromising on their requirements. Elsewhere on this blog, I have also repeatedly promoted used bicycles as an option for those on a budget.

    That said:

    1. I did not want to posit used bicycles as the central point of my take on the debate. It's not about expensive vs inexpensive vs used. Used is not always the answer either for various reasons.

    2. A great part of my readership is resistant to the idea of used bikes, and when I make this suggestion they will sometimes straight out tell me they are not willing to do it. Unknown history and the possibility of hidden problems, no warranty, and a lack of local bike shops that are willing to work on an older bike are just a few of the reasons cited. I feel that to ignore this would be counterproductive.

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  39. At the risk of this becoming "Occupy Lovely Bike"...

    RP Guitar, I totally get what you're saying and agree to a point -- however, one could also take that as "you should only be allowed to have what your skill set merits." If you're a below-average rider, you only need a below-average bike. If you're an above-average rider, then you're allowed an above-average bike.

    Personally, I'd rather start with the above-average bike/guitar/whatever so that I can grow into it and not have to re-buy later. Some might bristle at this philosophy but I truly believe it has saved me money in the long run -- and inspired me to greater heights at whatever discipline I've pursued.

    Case in point, when I started playing guitar, I didn't buy the $300 Sears special. I bought a Gibson Hummingbird Artist (for $1700). I'm sure you would think that was foolish because my talent at the time didn't merit such a nice guitar, but it was/is beautiful, I loved it and the quality of the instrument actually made it easier to play -- which means I stuck with it and my skills grew exponentially.

    It's still the only guitar I have ever owned.

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  40. Yes anon, I agree completely about beginning any activity with decent, capable gear. Bikes and guitars alike. It is nearly always a mistake to buy the cheapest thing, because it lacks the quality necessary to give the neophyte a reasonable experience. And that can prematurely end one's efforts. I would try to spend enough for quality, but not so much that I would feel awkward replacing the item when my tastes and knowledge matured. I'm a believer in earning one's expensive toys, as I think it's more fun to have something to look forward to in the future when I can appreciate it.

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  41. someone asked "how do the Europeans do it?"

    In my experience with the Dutch, they do it by biking all their life. They have reasonable to high quality bikes available at all ranges of the cost spectrum. Repair shops are on every corner.

    The average female adult will have had 4 or 5+ bikes by the time she's 25. A tricycle, walking bike, small bike with training wheels, youth bike, teen bike, first university bike. She has grown up fixing flats or taking her bike to her neighborhood bike shop where she has met the owner/family that runs the shop throughout her life. She has biked daily, or at least 3 times a week.

    When she is 25 if she is in a relationship and having children she might start looking for a moederfiets. If she enjoys cycling as a sport she's probably already got a racing bike in the garage.

    If her bike gets stolen, she can go to the local bike impound and pick up a used bike for less than 50 dollars. She can buy quality used bikes at specialized stores for under $200.00 If she wants new and her previous bike was insured, she can purchase a new one.

    Compared with the cost of a driver's license, auto and auto insurance the cost of a new 1,000 euro bike is easy. If she has a good employer she can purchase a new bike every three years as a gift from the company. If you don't like the bike you have, there is ebay or similar things to Craigslist to sell one off and get another.

    It's a different culture where bikes are part of every day living and you can go through them pretty quickly due to theft, growth, life milestones.

    For me as an American, I had several bikes as a kid, but stopped for nearly 20 years. Everything I knew about bikes I forgot... unfortunately, many Americans are just like me. We are late to the game and have no idea what we really need, what we are capable of and what is on the market for us.

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  42. Cheap(er) bikes have a positive side of their lower quality. You can learn how to fix them! (If you want to, of course).

    When I was a kid, I started riding on a cheap bike. And then another one, and another one. Mostly, because better bikes were too expensive for my parents and also because they were not really that available.

    This made me familiar with fixing nearly anything on my bike, from trueing wheels to replacing bearings in hubs. Over years, as I gained experience, my bikes became more complex and more expensive. I ended up servicing hydraulic disc brakes and open oil bath suspension forks.

    Buying custom may be risky. Even for a person with lots of experience. Just like Velouria seems to be struggling now on her Rivendell.

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  43. I have been bicycling almost as many of my 54 years as I have been walking. I am not especially wealthy but don't have to worry about money, and tend to the frugal side, in general. With my family's permission, I splurged and had a bike made for me two years ago, and it remains my most beloved physical possession. All told, the cost clocked in at about $6000, and I could have spent far more. I was very fortunate to have a superb builder (Rich Adams) who took great care to micro-tweak the bike for my style (long club rides, hilly terrain, snappy performance but comfortable).

    I have owned many fine bikes, but the custom bike, when well done, is in a class by itself. I have over 5000 miles on this machine so far (well below my goal, BTW, due to crappy weather this summer and a knee problem last year). Of course, as a certified bike nut, I own other bikes for different purposes. I never go anywhere with my custom bike where I have to lock it. For me, the custom bike experience has been the highlight of my life with bicycles, and for the right person, I cannot recommend the experience too highly.

    BTW, I concur with previous posts about the great opportunities in the used bike market. I have helped many friends by bikes on Craig's List, mostly around the $500 mark.

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  44. And then there's bicycle headlights, a microcosm of all the above where one can spend $19.95 to almost a silly grand. I like the $40 1 watt 100 lumen price point now knowing full well I'll have to remedy/hack the shabby mount (which I've become quite good at, btw).

    2 cents...

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  45. One big plus for the novice cyclist is buying from a shop that offers free lifetime tuneups. That comes in handy until the cyclist becomes comfortable with doing their own repairs.

    As mentioned above, buying a previous year's model is a good way to save some money or lets you get a nicer bike for the same amount.

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  46. It is really unfortunate novice riders cannot take advantage of the used market. The best bike I've ever owned is parked outside the window, set up just as I want it and I've less than 500 in it. Now that I have more miles on the Rickert I'm quite sure it's better (for me) than the new '73 that Andre Cinelli set up for me. A novice is not going to buy or ride that bike.

    Last summer I briefly had an original '73 Motobecane Grand Jubilee. Very original. To sell it I had to replace the broken Jubilee FD (they all broke) with an early 70's Campy. I located an NOS 70s Ideale 80 just like what the bike came with. New brake shoes, new tape, new tires and everything else original. Everything working. Low miles. Included 2nd set of wheels with 1st gen Dura Ace hubs, SC Gentleman rims, db spokes. Got 202.50 on ebay.

    I offered that Moto here first and I don't think anyone believed me. Ebay is a hassle and I would've happily taken 150 here. But it is not easy to give things away.

    Novice riders want comfort and security in their purchase. They want a well-known name brand. They need a file of glowing blog posts. They are looking for a punch list of must-have features in the current fashion. A local retailer who will stand behind the product and hold their hand. If you have to have all that of course it costs money. If you buy used you just have to be adventurous and that's not what most new riders are.

    Jan Heine has one part of the equation quite right: If you buy a used bike and it's just the wrong bike you can normally sell it for what you paid. That you were willing to pay x is an excellent indication there is someone somewhere who will pay x for it again.

    There are a lot of old guys like me who fix old bikes and pass them on. Find one. We aren't doing it to get rich. We don't want to see you on the wrong bike and we don't go near unsafe or worn out bikes.

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  47. Nice article, and s-o-o-o many comments. I got some flack from Bike Portland readers when I extolled 20K bikes. http://bikeportland.org/2011/05/25/interview-bikes-architecture-and-cycle-space-with-steven-fleming-52985
    Anti-consumerist cyclists were outraged :)
    Most cities have bike ecology centers (by various names). In my city it's this one: http://newcastlebikeecologycentre.blogspot.com/ I send my students to these for $50 bike to get started. Then I see little problem with run-out specials on cheap single-speed bikes from China: roughly tig-welded cro mo frames, not much to go wrong, and they give new riders a big revalation: "hey, I can cross town on this thing!" If bikes like these can get people into the habit of cycling, they might start properly researching more lovable steeds. Quality bikes shops that sell second-hand are the best!

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  48. Velouria, your third paragraph sums up very nicely what I learned--and how I changed--when I went from being an ex-racer bike shop rat to someone riding to work in a skirt and riding on weekends and other times simply for fun. Now I am happy simply to see people riding, whatever their mounts. For some people, the ultra-expensive bikes really don't make any sense; on the other hand, I understand that a person who has an unreliable bike with an unpleasant (however he or she defines that) won't continue riding. Understanding such things is one of the things that's kept me reading your blog.

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  49. @V - I did say "a little bit". We don't have the repair infrastructure that the Dutch have, and bicycles really are honest-to-gosh easy to work on. The internet helps, too. I remain amazed at the things that most people are not able/willing to fix. Unfortunately, that sometimes includes my own kids.

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  50. I love your blog, Velouria, but I find this particular discussion a little absurd. It's nobody's business how someone else spends their own hard-earned money.

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  51. Ah, I emailed Heine about my surly lht woes and he recommended going custom as well as explained the issues with smaller frames in production bicycles. I can't afford custom, but more and more, if I could even find a local builder I would be looking into a custom bike. I also have issues with my hands and my back from a car accident that would require some specialized design.
    I have been biking for most of my life on mostly crap bikes. 3 decades of kids bikes, bmx's, old school three speeds, several mountain bikes, a nasty cheap hybrid, back to vintage, and a very expensive to me surly. So, I can ride on a cheap bike, but it is usually not great or things get grim on long rides or I get miffed when I am passed by weekend summer cyclists on their $$$ barely used road bikes. Youthful energy will go far, but I am not that young anymore.:)
    The used market is an issue for smaller riders. While there are plenty of cute 3 speeds and mixtes, most are low end. They are great for commuters or short distances, but not good for long rides, touring etc.. For an average sized rider the used market is paradise. My husband just got a gorgeous, beautiful all campy custom built bianchi! I don't think I'd ever find anything close on CL. I have even spoken to some 'old guys who fix bikes' and say they don't have anything higher end for small riders. That said, a lower end vintage bicycle is still going to be a better bike than a new entry level bike.

    I am aiming to try find better quality vintage small bicyles or frames with reynolds 531 tubing or better. Not easy!
    I have an idea of what your Mercian probably cost, but no idea what the royal H mixte would have. Both offer you amazing rides. You also have experience with buying from a small company with limited runs like rivendell. It would be interesting if you could compare your various bikes on build, ride quality, ride satisfaction etc.. and see where you end up.

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  52. This might be good context for an American cycler:

    I work in automotive Marketing/PR. At events, I sometimes speak to 500+ people a day, without exaggeration. Some are industry insiders, press, media, brand fanatics, engineers or back yard gear heads: most are just people who will someday buy a car. Consequently, I interact with an unusually varied cross-section of consumers, because what’s more ubiquitous than the need for transportation?

    Things I’ve learned in this capacity:

    1) Every single person knows exactly what vehicle should exist, and with what features. Some find it, some don't, but everyone knows what clearly should be on the market.

    2) Every single person knows exactly what this vehicle should cost. Ergo, the auto industry is either giving them a great deal or screwing them, according to the value they’ve assigned. Industry and macroeconomic realities be darned: this is personal expertise, based on sound logic derived from comprehensive personal context. (*sigh*)

    3) Every single person who feels differently is either a) incomparable, or b) wrong. Flatly. Categorically. And obviously. Dur.

    Sound familiar?

    Forgive the sarcasm: it’s just that I’ve had hundreds of these virtually identical conversations. Also note that I work with luxury cars, starting around $30k. For some people, $30k is a down payment. For others, $30k buys four good used cars and a bike rack. Still others think, “$30k is an investment but it's doable, if I budget other lifestyle choices.” The same goes for the $15k and $75k price points, and on up from there.

    None of these people is wrong, or unilaterally right. There are compelling reasons to spend $30k on a car. They’re not equally so for everyone, nor ought they to be, but for some they are quite compelling indeed.

    I’m often asked, “Why would I buy this $30k car instead of ____ ($15k or $75k) car?” I used to engage on this topic about product and value, craftsmanship and engineering. I’d talk people through torque differential, compression ratio, carbon fiber drive shaft, Italian leather, industry-leading safety ratings, so they could see precisely what factors into the $30k price tag.

    Now I usually say, “If you have to ask, you probably wouldn’t buy this $30k car.”

    I mean no disrespect. Outside factors are at play, independent of a car’s objective quality or one’s subjective driving experience. In fact, we break down buyer motivation into categories: Safety/Reliability, Performance, Aesthetics, Comfort/Convenience, and Economics. These five factors motivate every car buyer to varying degrees, and they easily apply to cycling.

    If Velouria will let me use her as an example, I’d suggest (based on the blog – I do not know her personally) that her motivational hierarchy as a cyclist is: Safety, Comfort, Performance and Aesthetics at a current deadlock for supremacy, and Economics last of all. Not to imply that price doesn’t factor into her purchase decisions, but that she will compromise price for factors that are more important to her. This choice is valid and fits neatly, I imagine, with her other lifestyle choices: I bet no fact, argument, circumstance or whim could compel Velouria to purchase a $30k car.

    So I think a bicycle’s price is less the issue than its perceived value, and that price point contention stems from unmet expectations. Jan found a way to satisfy his cycling priorities, and he determined that he can do that for $5,000. I’m sure he’s not bound to spend $5,000 as much as he finds products at that price that fulfill criteria he personally values. I’m also sure that he adjusts other financial priorities as needed to accommodate the value he places on cycling. Kent found that he can satisfy his cycling priorities at $500. This does not make him cheap, unrefined or oblivious any more than Jan is elitist, shallow or fiscally foolish: it means simply that Kent’s particular set of cycling needs are met. He and Jan can then cycle off into a (clear 65®F, 5mph SW wind) sunset, the end.

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  53. In the words of our son, David (27):

    "Quality is inexpensive insurance. Let's just say that I have plenty of useless redundant cheap stuff in a box somewhere to remind me that cheap is too expensive."

    Everyone has their budget for bicycles and everyone has their idea of quality. But for us the idea of riding great, comfortable bikes (we have Pashleys and Bromptons - in Phoenix, no less), that we saved hard for and ride a lot is simply great. They're the kind of bikes I know will still be going strong long after we are gone.

    Great blog BTW. We always look forward to reading your latest thoughts.

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  54. Anon 7:31 - I agree with you entirely. Unfortunately this topic comes up quite often and I have found it impossible not to address.

    Heather - It would be difficult to compare these bikes, because they are very different. I think that almost any builder with a good reputation can make you what you want if (and this is a crucial if) you know what you want. The Mercian was my 2nd custom bike and I knew what I was doing a lot more than with the Royal H mixte. Both frames came out great, but there were nonetheless surprises. I will try to write a post about this!

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  55. Interesting discussion and post. I have not ridden a 5k bike, nor do I think my riding abilities would allow me to appreciate the nuances that such a bike could offer. I am astounded at the quality of ride on my vintage bike which has cost me around $500 to build up, there is no putting a dollar value on such a bike though, I am sure it would not fetch a lot if I tried to sell it but to me it is worth a lot.

    Also, the costs of bikes, both in purchase and repairs, is miniscule compared to cars, yet people seem to happily pay lots even for extras in cars, let alone the initial purchase cost, without blinking an eye. I think it is because a bike is often considered a toy or sporting good, rather than a transport option. I am amazed at some of the choices I see some friend make with bikes compared to other things they will spend money on.

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  56. Heather

    It depends what small is. If small is 52cm you will eventually find a low price 531 bike. If it means 49cm or smaller, no. The problem is that not many small bikes were sold new in the days of 531. Building 49 and smaller presented special problems with available tubes, lugs, headsets and most builders took a pass.

    A related problem is that you will probably have to unearth the bike yourself. Guys who recondition and recycle leave the small ones alone because they become dead inventory, or a bike that is talked and talked about and never purchased.

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  57. Today, there was quite a disturbance of the "force" in the cycling blog-o-sphere! I don't ever recall any topic in recent years spreading throughout several oft read cycling blogs as this topic on bicycle costs. For every person, regardless of experience, there are different values driving their choices. I appreciate the analogies Jean has shared from the automobile industry. I guess the best any of us can do is buy the best we can afford (however you define "best") and try to ride it (or them) in such a way as to get the most enjoyment from them.

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  58. Heather,

    True, it's not easy to find high quality used bicycles in smaller sizes. But it's not impossible. You may need to look for 650c wheel size, especially if you want traditional geometry. Here's a high end example of what can be found:

    http://www.jitensha.com/eng/saleitems.html

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  59. As it's been mentioned a few times before here, a newbie often doesn't really know what they ultimately will need or like from a bicycle until they've been riding for a little while, and have spent some additional time looking at how other bikes differ in feel and function from the one they're riding.

    The discussions of geometry, frame materials, and components may make sense to us here, but most people who are new to cycling really don't have an understanding of them, except for what they might read here ... which is great material, but is an understanding that isn't their own, and not obtained through their own experience.

    Based on that premise, it might make some sense for that newbie to start on the lower end of the price spectrum, while still choosing a bike that's at least comfortable. That shouldn't be too hard to do these days.

    After riding for a bit, trying other bikes to compare, and learning through all of the great information now available, the different options and frame/component styles will begin to make sense. THEN, it might be a better time to invest in a custom or semi-custom bike.

    Just my thoughts ...

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  60. No point at all to the discussion. If we were talking cars it wouldn't come up at all. Some of my driving friends own Porsches, Mercedes, and Beemers; some own Camrys and Buicks. One owns a Porsche and a Toyota van, for different purposes. (And also bicycles to work often enough.)

    However, cars wouldn't have become as popular as they did if they hadn't become associated with status, and it wasn't utility cars that created that association. "Luxury" bikes will be very healthy for the world of cycling because they will add status to the equation. Frankly, my dears, i don't give a damn for status myself--but the vast majority of the world's humans do. Rich folks riding fancy bikes will make cycling on decent-quality mass-produced velos (what I sometimes call "Corolla bikes") acceptable to the middle and working classes.

    Meanwhile, I've bought most of my bikes used, and I've had some damned fine ones--a Bridgestone RB-T, a Bridgestone 700, a Bottecchia Professional (my current ride, 45 years old and still bashing down our lousy LA roads)--and I'd have a custom made if I could afford it, not for fancy lugs but to get my personal design concepts under my butt. But if I never get it, I'll still be happy with my Bot and whatever else I dig up in the future. I've put 30,000 happy miles on that old Bot in the five years I've had it, and it's pretty enough that even non-cyclists ooh and ahh over it, but there's a couple of places where it could be better.

    Can't wait to ride it again though. Tomorrow, the sun comes up, and the wheels will turn, inshallah!

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  61. Richard - I agree with you. So why do you think it is that owning multiple bikes and/or "expensive" bikes tends to get people riled up? All of my bikes taken together cost less than my car did, but somehow it was considered normal for me to own the car.

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  62. I have a question: is the tendency for people to get "riled up" over multiple and/or expensive bicycles a newer phenomenon, or has it been around for a while? Specifically, did cyclists have these same reactions pre-recession? How about pre-cars-are-bad-for-the-environment-so-I-cycle-to-save-the-planet? The current economic recession has made conspicuous consumption unpopular, and as we all know that bicycles are just for fun and cars are for practical transportation, people could be responding negatively to the perceived flaunting of luxury goods. Alternately, the Cycling Solely to Save the World mentality carries with it an inherently minimalistic dogma, to which multiple or expensive bicycles could be a direct affront. Not that everyone who responds negatively necessarily subscribes to either of these schools of thought, but, well, us vs. them ideas are seductive and we all know how pervasive group-think can be. Sometimes you do it before you even know you've done it.

    I'm very new to the cycling world, so I don't have the context for this. I'd be interested to hear from long-time cyclist as to how this perception has evolved over time. Anyway, it’s a theory.

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  63. I'm not sure--and of course I know many, many people who love elaborate, highly-crafted "fancy" bikes. This is not new either--look at decades of Hetchinses! One of my friends, not a wealthy man either, owns fifty bikes; another owned three hundred till he thinned the herd down to a more manageable 85 or so.

    But to many people the energy efficiency of the bicycle--and it is more efficient than even walking!--has become conflated with fiscal restraint, with a lot of minimalist-oriented folks (as indeed I am) attracted to bikes in part because they make few financial demands on their owners, as well as few demands on the earth in terms of resource use, spatial requirements, etc.

    However, an expensive bike is as efficient in environmental terms as a cheap one, and perhaps more so, if it replaces (even if only part-time) the larger car more likely to be owned by a wealthy person.

    Also, in many milieux, bikes are beloved of populists and advocates for disadvantaged communities, where bikes can be lifesavers (or at least jobsavers) for poor people; if you perceive bikes as a badge of populism, you won't want to see them "co-opted" by the elites.

    That's an interpretation, and of course I haven't done any sociological research to see whether this is actually true; but it's the feeling I've gotten from participating in and reading many discussions on the subject.

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  64. Jean, pretty much.
    Riled up:

    Anything Jan says.
    Shit economy.
    Bikes as toys vs. transpo.
    Winter.
    Full moon.

    Other than that I can't think of a reason.

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  65. Ah, and finally we're getting to the REAL discussion! It's not about "inexpensive bikes vs. custom bikes". (Which, as I've said before, is nobody's damn business.) The REAL issue is "why do people have such strong feelings against expensive/multiple bikes and the people who ride them?"

    This is where things get very interesting!...

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  66. Aside from the fact that bicycles are considered unnecessary and therefore luxury goods, I also think it's the fact that bicycles are out there and visible, whereas other stuff (home electronics and expensive kitchen appliances, various collectables, etc) can at least be kept private. I also think that many cyclists feel guilty about their own spendings and want to justify it by pointing out how they are much more frugal than other cyclists. In any case, I think it is all unfortunate and kind of makes the "culture" implode in a way. I know cyclists who are of modest means and own numerous expensive bikes, but would never admit to it publicly let alone show pictures of them online precisely for these reasons. A shame, because sharing one's bike pictures and one's experiences with various bikes can be informative for everyone. Don't we all love seeing pictures of those beautiful Hetchinses and Peter Weigles? Well they wouldn't exist if people did not order them.

    Is there a full moon? I need to get out more at night.

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  67. Incidentally, a colleague told me that there has been some research showing that with the current recession it isn't so much that consumption has decreased, as that it has shifted. For instance, while there is less emphasis on expensive cars and large houses, the demand for classic collectables (watches, vintage cameras) has risen as have various expensive vintagey purchases on ebay. Purchases of high end food products and handmade furniture and such are on the rise as well. I think the current popularity of handbuilt bicycles is a part of this as well and doesn't just have to do with the rise of popularity of cycling.

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  68. The way I see vintagey stuff is it's more expensive now than at the dawn of ebay because it's vintageyer.

    All those things are more grounded, real things. People have figured out no amount of fine, Corinthian leather is going to improve the fact that driving sucks, in large part. And you can buy a lot of the good life by not going to Jean for a car.

    The full moon is exactly when you don't want to be out on a bike, BTW.

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  69. @Ground Round Jim - I actually totally agree. I enjoy my career and far be it for me to pass judgement on another person's personal choices, but in my private life my husband and I share one older car that we purchased well used and I ride my little folding bike to get around town. I strapped a bright pink file crate to the back rack so it's better suited for grocery runs. Ooh, and I just got my first "project bike" - vintage mixte off of Craigslist that seems to have done a whole lot of nothing for most of its life. I don't have a clue what I'm doing, but I've got a bike shop down the street and a Velo Orange wish list. It's beautiful! It's the color of black cherries! Sorry, I'm absurdly excited.

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  70. Look at completed listings on ebay. Look at what doesn't sell at all. Watch collectors trying to raise cash by bringing out real stuff, the prizes they were going to keep.

    It's in all categories. It's been late coming to vintage cycles and now it's here. I just sold an iconic atelier built Bernard Carre fully worthy of Jan Heine's stable for what the saddle alone would've brought two years back.

    There's always been a phenomenon in economic downturns where yacht collectors buy cars instead, car collectors buy motorcycles, motorcycle collectors buy bicycles, bicycle collectors buy ?roller skates?. This is not where it's at this time. For many many items there is simply no bid no market no price. Lower value items can't be stored and go to dumpster.

    In the bike world where precious few can look at, for example, a Panasonic built 80s Raleigh and spot that yes, it really is as well built as a 3Rensho of the same period, much better than current Toyo, all sorts of genuinely useful and beautiful bikes are going for scrap metal.

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  71. Why I can understand perfectly why someone would want a $5000 bike I can only agree with Heine's durability arguments up to a certain level (I agree on performance and aesthetics). Frame failures is not something I expect to see more in a cheap bike. The manufacturer making a cheap bike will simply make the frame a bit heavier. The steel and aluminium alloys used for bike tubing are not expensive, thicker tubing should be easier to weld which translates into work cost savings.
    I don't expect the welds to break either, however the finish of the welds will be different. A custom maker can of course make a bike to fit. For some people this alone makes it worth it, for those with standard dimensions this is a non issue as production bikes fit like a glove. Apart from the frame and maybe the fork a lot of parts on the bike are going to come from group-sets from the standard manufacturers. I have seen few people argue that a Dura-Ace group would be more durable than say a Tiagra group. Actually I am pretty sure the cassette on the Tiagra group would last much longer than the Dura Ace cassette, while the seals on the Dura-Ace hubs might be a bit better. The Dura Ace group would weigh less though, and the finish is superior. The wheels are a different issue. I doubt there would be material failure with the cheap parts, however the cheap wheels will be heavier and might benefit from a bit of tensioning (which you could pay your lbs mechaninc to do if you can't do it yourself). The tires are actually the part I wouldn't skimp on, but there is very little custom about good tires and you can get very good tires for just a little bit extra.
    So in the end what you do get should be a better (durability and stiffness)/weight ratio, custom dimensions which may be very important, or a moot point depending on the cyclist, and a higher level of finish.
    With bikes like many other things there is very much a level of diminishing returns and you don't have to spend that much more to get a very high degree of durability. The main factors with regards to durability will be the care the bike receives and not the manufacturing.
    Regarding what other people think of owning several or very expensive bikes vs owning one rather cheap bike, it is the usual difference between the hobbyist and people just using the item as a practical tool. People with lots of cameras, watches, guns, knives, tools, shoes or handbags get similar reactions. For the hobbyist it isn't a question of what is practical and cost effective, while for the non-hobbyists it is.

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  72. @V - In my case, I have four bikes, with costs (pre-customization/repair) of $0, $150 (1985 dollars), $200, and $2000 (list -- pre-fenders, pre-chaincase, pre-Rohloff, cha-ching!). The Honda car was a good deal used at $3000 11 years ago, before it lost its AC, power steering, and speedometer, and part of its body to rust. If I had a new car, I'd be terrified of it getting damaged; might as well go buy a $20,000 hunk of art and tape it to the hood of my Honda.

    What the $3500 bike does, is it goes. In the dark, in the weather, if I am wearing nice clothes, if I have to carry cargo, even as much as 200 lbs. What this does for me is I ride it; if I try an experiment (platform pedals, no clips or cleats or anything) and discover that I ride the bike more, then that is a win. Not sure what I would get out of a custom frame; I'm pretty happy on most of my bikes most of the time, and to the extent that I'm not, it's usually something stupid like picking a stem that is too long.

    I've been experimenting with the $0 bike to see how capable it can be made for much less money (now has lights and a front frame rack; the 3-speed hub is flaky in the lowest gear) but the lhs cottered crank sometimes snags my pants cuff, and I don't think they make snow tires in the old Raleigh size, and to me "1-3/8" is still a skinny tire. And the parts (good tires, new front wheel, nice saddle, taller stem, frame lock, frame rack) do add up pretty fast.

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  73. This is very interesting, and is really about so much more than expensive vs inexpensive. Way up top, commenter David Lewis touched on what to me starts to get into the crux of the matter, especially going forward into a future of peak oil and other scarcities: when will we start making bicycles again here in the U.S.? I know all the reasons it "can't" work, but at some point it will have to work.

    Richard Risemberg makes another interesting point about status. I just snatched "Trading Up: The New American Luxury" from my library discard pile. It came out in 2003 and has wonderful chapters like Increased Home Values and Equity; Reduced Cost of Living and More Discretionary Income; A BMW in Every Driveway? and many more. Not sure the status thing will be with us much longer, at least in relation to consumer goods.

    But with regard to that viewpoint, back in April 1994, I did a special Commuter Issue in my magazine, In Traffic, The Metro Cycling Journal. One feature was a review of commuter bikes at various price points. Here's the final bike review:

    "And now, ladies and gentlemen, if you will pardon the analogy, the Cadillac of commuter bikes, the Cannodale C2000. Direct, live from the press release: 'Cannondale has unveiled an innovative, accessory-laden bicycle that provides an alternative to the automobile for around-town transportation and commuting...[the] 21-speed C2000 comes fully loaded with a rear carrier rack, waterbottle cages, kickstand, bell, lights--and most notably--biodegradable wooden fenders. More than a novelty, the wooden fenders offer protection against spray and dirt, while also making a reasoned statement about environmental priorities. Priced at $1,699.000, the C2000 brings mountain bike technology to the urban jungle in the form of an adjustable, shock-absorbing Headshok-CMT...'

    Ah, back up a second there fellas. Did you say $1,699.00? You did... You know what kind of shock absorbers I need right now. Sticker shock absorbers. (Still, it is under $1,700.00)
    Actually, the feeling here is that the Cannondale C2000 is a great idea. If we're going to take the bicycle as a serious means of transportation, the more price ranges the better. The day that Wall Streeters are trying to top one another with who rode in on the fancier bike..."

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  74. Both those articles are great. I am used to basic bikes and follow Kent's model more, myself, but I also understand Jan's point of view.

    It's too bad the used bike market doesn't have lots of ready to go transport bikes, because used bikes can last and be very good value. About the best you can do is a mountain bike with a rack, that you can add fenders to - or an old 3-speed that you can relace into an aluminum rim, and possibly some of your other upgrade options. That isn't so bad at least for commutes under five miles.

    I wince at price tags as much as anyone, but really, it's not so sad that $500 can't necessarily get you a bike for transportation, given that inexpensive cars that border on novelty items are twenty times that amount. As you have noted before, people may need to shift priorities. Likely, if someone adds to their bike budget any of the amounts to be saved by cutting out: cable TV, or internet, or eating out, or the new iPhone, or another non-necessity - for just a year - or god forbid a car - they could get the better bike.

    Too much to ask for a means of transportation and so much more?

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  75. lot's of POV on this subject already, but why not throw in my thoughts as well....
    i do believe the world would be better if more folks biked -- and i hope it happens.
    i wish inexpensive/practical bikes were easily available to all who want them -- it is possible, but requires some searching and experience.
    after 30 years of riding only used and cobbled together bikes, i'm in the process of buying my first custom, mainly for the fit and because i've finally got it out of my system all of the things i'm not :) i also made a choice to go through a lengthy fitting process and let the builder design the bike. this will be my 'car' not my precious baby so all decisions were about efficiency, practicality, and durability. i didn't scrimp on components, though i'm poor.
    i don't think 'looks' should have much to do with this process of deciding on a bike, whether inexpensive or expensive.
    i don't mind folks having expensive bikes -- or expensive anything for that matter -- but i do get 'riled' up when they show them off. it's the attitude. if one needs to tell the world they've got something special, or that they're special, it can diminish the joy of being around that person. i get a lot of pleasure seeing something well used and extra pleasure scrapping off the dirt and finding quality materials and craftsmanship underneath.
    sometimes, reading these blogs, one can get easily overwhelmed by all the discussion and options and begin to think that any choice one makes may be the wrong choice b/c there may just be something 'more perfect' or appropriate out there. . . .self doubt can haunt and paralyze. . . .one becomes hyper-sensitive to the slightest variation in this or that b/c of what they just read, and on and on. it makes me wonder whether these can be part of the problem or part of the solution .... some folks just find a bike to get around and then get around on that bike. they're practical, non-judgemental types and don't sweat the smallest of details with regard to their transportation or others. they just want it to work properly and be reasonably comfortable and they happily go about their day.
    if one is a newbie to using a bike for transportation i think it's important to know as best as one can the type of daily riding they'll do and the conditions they might expect.....a transportation bike does not necessarily mean a upright, igh, fat tired bike. buy the best quality you can afford, recognizing that it just may be a used bike, from a quality shop or person. sometimes a couple bikes or variations on the one bike are needed. learn how to care for it, whether that means doing your own work or just how everything fits together and works. keep it simple.

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  76. Jean - I got back into cycling after a 10 year post college break when I made the decision to give up owning a car.

    With all the money saved giving up a car and all the related costs - insurance, gas, maintenance, parking - getting a custom does not seem all that extravagent. I like the fact a person I met and spoke with made part of his living building my bike.

    I did recently sell one bike to bring me to a bike I ride every day and a bike I ride for pure recreation. The decision to sell had a lot more to do with me thinking about moving to a smaller, more centrally located apartment than being against materialism.

    Most of the one less car cyclists I know in Chicago have multiple bikes, some bordering on obssessively so.

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  77. This is definitely one of those "no right answer" discussions. A $5,000+ custom job is certainly nice to have, and worth every penny if you've got the money, but some people can suit their needs on a $100 beater with a good tuneup, it depends on the situation.
    I didn't actually get the impression that Jan was trying to say "everyone needs a custom bike," he was just saying "they're nice and worth the expense," a statement I wholeheartedly support, even though I can't afford such a thing at the moment.

    There can be a lot of good options for the bike-buyer on a budget, if they're saavy or have help from someone who is, including looking for a bike with a quality frame and mediocre parts, and upgrading gradually as they wear, buying used or buying vintage (although in my experience that can be a bit of a minefield, many vintage bikes have... um "quirks" and nonstandard components that can create headaches for the novice when the time comes to fix or replace parts).

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  78. From Sheldon Brown's website:

    Le beau est aussi utile que l'utile -- Victor Hugo
    (The beautiful is as useful as the useful)

    -Theresa

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  79. Quite simple for me. The cost is whatever I can afford.
    The fundamental requirement is comfort. Then its just a question of fitness for purpose.

    All jolly good fun and a great investment at any price, particulary in comparison with most transport alternatives.

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  80. A friend and I went bike shopping recently. Lots of shops only had bikes starting at about the $900 (minimum) range. It's a false idea one cannot get a good bike for around $500. KHS and Kona for example make really good beginner/intermediate bikes with decent components. Guess who had the best selection, my local LBS. Not the big shops.

    I understand about more expensive bikes. I went from a used $500 bike to a $1,100 bike years ago - after I put many, many miles on the less expensive one (I had it for 5 years before I upgraded) and saved up for the new one. While I'd like to convince more people to buy the more expensive bike straight away, lots of people don't have the financial ability to say "Hey! I need a bike, and I have $1,500 to spend!" Good bikes are important and I think you come around to that conclusion in your post, but it started out rough...leaving the impression that a $500 bike can only be junk.

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  81. one thought i had was most people, including the ones commenting here, have probably never ridden a custom bike designed specifically for their bodies and designed as an integrated unit (fenders, lighting etc. all fitting together). Not having that experience makes it hard to comment on Jan's position. He's saying something is so great, but if I have never experienced it how can I know if it is as good or worth it as he says...?

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  82. @Anonymous at 10:28 said: "Likely, if someone adds to their bike budget any of the amounts to be saved by cutting out: cable TV, or internet, or eating out, or the new iPhone, or another non-necessity - for just a year - or god forbid a car - they could get the better bike."

    What if you would rather have a bike AND any or all of the things you mention? Who said owning a bike should require sacrifice? I understand that for some biking is a cause, but for most people riding a bike is just fun.

    if you have $500 would you suggest that you forego riding until you can save up $1,000-$2,000 or should you start where you can?

    I don't doubt that riding a custom bike gives a smoother ride than an inexpensive one. But whether it is 10x better is questionable

    It seems that people who have $1500 bikes are also always trading them in for something new and something better. People are sometimes disappointed with their custom ride as well. Maybe because at that price people are looking for that perfect ride. Maybe there is no perfection.

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  83. Anonymous @1:59, I certainly have never ridden a custom bike designed for myself, but as a shop mechanic, I've gotten to ride on a lot of other folks custom bikes while doing tuneups.
    Not helpful by means of comparison, for the most part, but I can add that we have a few customers in my size range (over 6 feet and north of 250lbs) who have custom or high end road bikes. Having a frame designed from the ground up for long tubes under high stress is definitely hard to beat, especially while going uphill!

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  84. If you look at galleries such as at at Bruce Gordon, you'll notice that a majority of the custom market are for people who require a geometry different from average. Especially today, which most large manufacturers of bicycles don't care about anyone over 6 feet tall. However in the process of ordering a custom bike, I learned more than ever, and the price for a Saso frame with Columbus, Tange & TT tubing, lugs & fillet brazing, built by a famous frame builder with 35 years under his belt, for $1600 I got frame, fork, headset, stem & seatpost. Hardly a high price considering. Breezer's new Venturi steel racing bike costs more (relatively, as it's a complete bike).

    As far as aesthetics, I disagree with Kent's idea that once a nice bike is acquired that one will be too careful with it. While there's always people who think their bike is more of an art piece than a riding machine, most aren't concerned with scratches. Good scratches tell stories, and besides, since the frame builder often also does the painting, re-paints aren't as expensive as they would be otherwise.

    The fear of it being stolen is also overplayed, I think. The nice thing about an expensive bike is that it's normally insured through a homeowner or renters policy. The only painful part is the wait time for another custom.

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  85. Here's an angle Kent, Jan, Velouria and none of the commenters seem to have covered. In March 2008 I bought a new bike for AU$399 base price, and optioned it up with rear rack, pump, muguards/fenders, bell & blinkie to a total of AU$513. I could have spent half that on a chain store bike, and what I bought was at the lower end of the medium price range. Given the near parity of the US and AU dollar over the past few years I guess the prices are pretty comparable.

    Over almost 4 years problems were one flat tyre and one allen screw getting loose - both easy fixes. The wheels are still true, the gears and brakes work perfectly. I have replaced one set of brake blocks and just bought two new tyres for $100. I have a chain breaker and some other tools so can do some of my own maintenance.

    The new bike was a result of my previous ride being stolen - a second hand 12 speed steel frame which I had been using almost daily for 16 years.

    I have a short commute. It is quicker to cycle than to drive so I ride almost every day. Car parking where I work is $8 per day, $2.50 if you win a spot in the monthly ballot for one of the places in the basement. Bicycle parking is free, secure, in the basement.

    At say 200 working days a year, over almost 4 years parking would cost about $6000 if I won a basement spot a few times. That does not count cost of petrol / gasoline, and wear & tear on the car. My saving on parking alone is around $5,350.

    On this I could have bought something a lot "better" at triple the price and still come out thousands to the good. If I were doing brevets, touring etc it would be justified but I'm not. I'm riding to work and round to the local shopping centre for milk and bread.

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  86. The government of the UK today announced plans to build a new railway for trains reaching 350 km/h, High Speed 2 (after HS1, the train track to Paris). I like both trains and bicycles and I find the same skepticism about fast trains as about expensive bicycles. Lots of people can't stomach it because real men drive.

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  87. In the spirit of full disclosure, I work for a bicycle manufacturer.

    When anyone asks me, personally, which bike is best, I impart one piece of advice: buy the best frame that you can afford. Don't get hung up on derailleurs, shifters, or wheels - focus on the ride characteristics of the frame. You can upgrade everything BUT not how a frame rides.

    Go to a bike shop that lets you take long (1/2 hour or more) test rides. Ride your dream bike. Ride a bike slightly higher priced than your budget. Ride the bike in your budget. You should be able to tell the difference in ride quality - acceleration, climbing, descending, cornering, compliance - by taking each bike on the same route, one after another.

    At that point, you have a decision to make. Accept your budget limitations, save a little more, look for a used bike, or save a lot more.

    Almost as important as choosing the best frame for your budget is working with a bike shop that knows how to fit you properly on the bike you have chosen. If you fit comfortably for your riding style (fitness level, flexibility, unique measurements), you will enjoy riding your bike more, regardless of whether it is your ideal bike.

    The more you ride, the more you'll know how "dialed in" of a bike you'll desire. With a new dream, you can find ways to save for your next upgrade or a custom-built model.

    In the meantime, get out and ride and don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good!

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  88. Don't disparage cheap bikes! But if you buy cheap bikes, keep it somple.

    I've probably owned 20 bikes in my life, from a 1940s transport to touring and racing bikes. One of my favourite bikes at the moment is a single speed that I bought new for $270. The components are not great, and the bike may not last forever, but it looks fine, handles wonderfully and got me to love single speeds again.

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  89. Okay, this is what I want to know (long question:) First, I'm a bike industry lifer, hobbyist framebuilder, and for an American, ride quite a lot. My wife and I have 9 bikes between us. One of hers used to be a Bianchi Milano. Great bike--aluminum frame, 7 speed internal hub, good everything. Not real fancy by enthusiast standards maybe but a really excellent job of putting a useful AND enjoyable machine together right out of the box. I have a shop, work on everything from Walmart crap to Campy 11 speed equipped fantasy fulfillment objects. Why does a department store bike in the US have to be a cheap, very very bad copy of an expensive bike store bike? I know what parts and frames cost wholesale. I have a more than vague idea of what frames cost OEM out of China or Taiwan. Why on earth can't Walmart's bike buyer do a $250 knockoff of wifey's old Milano--it could have an aluminum frame, 3 speed coaster brake hub, front rim or disc brake, maybe some nice fenders, AND THE BLOODY THING WOULD ACTUALLY BE A USEFUL TRANSPORTATION DEVICE as well as if designed by a non-moron, handle well enough to be enjoyable enough to ride. Why can't/won't they? Are they wilfully defrauding their bike customers or are they just ignorant?

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  90. There is a sweet spot when it comes to buying a bike. I think it's around $1,500. That's the point at which you can get a decent frame and decent components. I wouldn't want to go any lower than Tiagra or Apex on a road bike-- I'm unfamiliar with mountain bike or hybrid bike components, though I have Shimano X9 shifters/derailleurs on my recumbent. I don't mean to imply that spending $2K or more is a waste, as you can get great features by spending more $$$, but at $1,500 you know you have a decent bike that will give you years of reliable service.

    If you spend much less, you make noticeable trade-offs, but a savvy buyer can probably get a decent bike on sale for $1,000 or so (but might be happier with a $2K bike picked up for $1,500!).

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  91. Hey do you have any comments on http://www.criticalcycles.com/, I'm thinking on the 7 speed step-thru

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