A common reaction we hear from cycling newbies looking for their first new bike is “Wow, bikes are really expensive!”
We don’t disagree. Buying a bike for frequent cycling, be it training for endurance races or just staying in good shape, will cost a pretty penny. It is far from the days of our youth when buying a new kids bike at Kmart was $79.
So What Makes Bikes Cost So Much?
There are a few reasons why bikes can be expensive. One reason is that bikes are often made with high-quality materials, such as lightweight and durable alloys, which can add to their cost. Components are often quite intricate and require precision manufacturing, which is not inexpensive. Additionally, the design and engineering that goes into making a bike can also drive up the price. Finally, the cost of labor, particularly in countries where labor costs are high, can also contribute to the overall cost of a bike.
Bikes are typically made from a range of materials, including steel, aluminum, carbon fiber, and titanium. Of these, carbon fiber is generally considered the most expensive material. This is because carbon fiber is strong, lightweight, and durable, making it a popular choice for high-end bikes and nearly all road bikes – even some beginner road bikes — on the market these days. However, carbon fiber is also more difficult to work with and requires specialized manufacturing techniques, which can add to the cost.
In contrast, steel and aluminum are less expensive materials, but they are also heavier and not as strong as carbon fiber relative to the weight. Titanium is another high-end material that is both strong and lightweight, but it is even more expensive than carbon fiber. We are seeing titanium used a bit more in gravel bikes these days because it provides benefits on rough terrain.
Ultimately, the choice of material used to make a bike will depend on the intended use and the desired performance of the bike.
The components used on a bike can have a huge impact on the finished cost of the big. The question, then, becomes “which bike components are worth spending more on?”
Bike components, such as brakes, wheels, and chainrings, can be made from a variety of materials. The specific material used will depend on the intended use and performance of the component. For example, brake pads are often made from a composite material that provides a good balance of strength and durability, while brake rotors are typically made from steel or aluminum. Chainrings are typically made from steel, aluminum, or carbon fiber, with steel being the most affordable and carbon fiber being the most expensive.
A road bike wheel is typically made from a combination of materials, including the rim, spokes, and hub. The rim is the outer part of the wheel that holds the tire, and it is typically made from aluminum or carbon fiber. The spokes are the thin rods that connect the rim to the hub, and they are typically made from stainless steel. The hub is the center of the wheel that attaches to the bike frame, and it is typically made from aluminum or steel. In general, the material used to make a road bike wheel will be chosen for its strength, durability, and lightweight. Carbon fiber is a popular choice for high-end road bike wheels because it is strong, lightweight, and aerodynamic, but it is also more expensive than aluminum.
In general, the more expensive materials, such as carbon fiber, are used for high-end components because they are lighter, stronger, and more durable than less expensive materials. However, the cost of the component will also depend on factors such as the quality of the materials used, the design and engineering that goes into the component, and the cost of labor.
Bike Design and Engineering
The design and engineering of a bike can affect its cost in a few ways. For example, a bike with a more complex or innovative design may be more expensive because it requires more engineering and development. Additionally, a bike with high-quality components, such as a lightweight frame and high-performance tires, will also be more expensive. On the other hand, a bike with a simpler design and fewer high-end components will be less expensive.
Somewhat related is how large the bike manufacturer is. A large, mass-produced bike maker can spread design costs over many thousands of bikes. A smaller, boutique bike builder needs to account for their design costs in each bike they build.
Bike Manufacturing Location and Cost of Labor
The cost of labor can have a significant effect on the price of a bike. In general, bikes made in countries where labor costs are low will be less expensive than those made in countries where labor costs are high. This is because the cost of labor is a major component of the overall cost of producing a bike. For example, bikes made in countries like China and Taiwan, where labor costs are relatively low, may be less expensive than bikes made in the United States or Europe, where labor costs are higher.
The cost of labor can also vary within a country depending on factors such as the local cost of living and the availability of skilled workers. Overall, the cost of labor is an important factor to consider when determining the price of a bike.
Saving Money on a Bike
If you have looked at the cost of a bike and just cannot justify that cost of a new bike, consider a few money-saving alternatives.
Sales and Discounts
One way is to look for sales and discounts, which can sometimes offer significant savings on new and used bikes. This is an especially good strategy if you are content buying a previous year’s model, especially if the product line has changed (like buying a Salsa Journeyman now that the product line has switched to the Journeyer).
Another way is to consider buying a used bike, which can often be purchased at a fraction of the cost of a new bike. This doesn’t come without some risks, though, especially if you are not adept at inspecting a used bike.
We recommend the Pros Closet (find them here) for used bikes, because they inspect all the bikes they sell and don’t sell anything that has faulty parts or visible damage.
Additionally, you can also save money by choosing a bike with fewer high-end components, which can add to the cost of the bike but may not be necessary for your needs. You should focus your more expensive components on contact points (with your body) and moving parts.
Finally, you can also save money by buying a bike online, as online retailers often offer competitive prices and free shipping. Retailers like REI (here) have developed a good reputation for selling bikes online. Buying online also makes it easier to shop around and compare prices on like models. The downside, of course, is that you don’t get to buy a bike based on fit and feel, which is so, so important.
Jim is an accomplished triathlete and endurance cyclist, and has raced in more than 3 dozen USAT-certified races. He is also an avid trail runner and gravel bike rider.
His areas of expertise are in endurance training, cycling, triathlon technique, race direction, and training plans. In addition to writing extensively about the endurance world, he has managed gyms and fitness centers in the US. Jim is a longtime writer for Complete Tri, Compression Design, and his work can be found on the resource pages of many triathlon and cycling clubs in North America.