Why We Recommend Expensive Shit
Namely, bikes. Just like any piece of cutting-edge technology, the best ones cost a lot. But there are always less expensive versions, and there’s actually a trend toward lower prices, thanks to direct-to-consumer sales
I’m sick of everyone complaining about how costly bikes have become. Yes, prices have risen a lot over the past decade, but so have performance, refinement, and options.
Think about road drivetrains. At the top of the ranges, Shimano, SRAM, and Campagnolo each have electronic and mechanical offerings, and it’s tough to recommend one over another because they all operate so flawlessly. That’s what you should expect from a group set that alone costs more than what many want to spend on a full bicycle. But here’s a tip: instead of fixating on the high costs of these premium products, watch how innovation trickles down. The Ultegra Di2 gruppo is as quick, accurate, and feature-rich as the Dura Ace Di2 gruppo, but for a small weight penalty, your cost is cut in half. Most riders would be perfectly served riding mechanical Ultegra, and today’s 105 group is better than Dura Ace was a decade ago.
None of those improvements to everyman’s gear happen without the developments at the top of the range. That’s why we often focus on the high end. As with cars (think: Tesla), cameras (pro DSLRs versus prosumer models), and pretty much any other piece of technology, innovation starts at the top. Nobody wants to read a review about an iPhone 5 today—no matter how good it is, nor how much less expensive—because it’s the iPhone 7 that’s breaking ground.
The cost of bikes hasn’t escalated as dramatically as people seem to believe, either. In 2006, our top mountain bike, the Ellsworth Epiphany, sold for $5,400 with second-tier components, while this year’s Gear of the Year winner, the Santa Cruz Tallboy, goes for $6,600, with comparable spec. That’s less than a 2 percent increase each year, which is lower than inflation. You better believe that today’s bikes (not just the Tallboy) outperform that decade-old model by a wider margin than the price increase. Sure, you can buy a top-of-the line Tallboy that’s $10,500. But you can also buy one that’s $2,600. It’s not going to be as light or as smooth as the one with a SRAM Eagle XX1 gruppo, Fox Float Kashima suspension, and Enve wheels, but it’s still a damn good ride. Think of it like a car: the base price gets you a good machine, but usually by the time you tack on the power windows, seat heaters, sunroof, a nice stereo, and all the other mark-ups, your price tag doesn’t remotely resemble the advertisements. And also like cars, you can buy that base model bike if that’s what you want and can afford.
I also think of the cost of a bike over its lifespan: a $6,600 road bike that you keep for three or four years, for instance, is $1,650 annually. That’s still a chunk of change for most people, but less than you probably spend on car repairs and gas over 12 months.
Right now, some prices are actually coming down, thanks to direct-to-consumer bike companies such as Evil, YT Industries, and—arriving in the U.S. in August—Canyon. By eliminating the middle men and their respective cuts, these companies are selling quality bikes for between 20 and 40 percent less than the major manufacturers.
Of course, I’m fully aware that bikes aren’t cheap. They can be damned expensive. What I am saying is that bikes are very good these days, from the bottom of the line to the top. Every year at our bike test, I remark that it’s increasingly difficult to find a bad model. There’s always one or two, but that’s a lot fewer than a decade ago when a half-dozen or more bikes were automatically ruled out for genuine flaws. Meanwhile, the premium models get more and more impressive, as downhill mountain bikes now out-pedal trail machines of a few years ago and production road models available to the public are at least 25 percent lighter than pro race bikes.
I often hear people disparage cyclists who spend big money on premium bikes like those 11-pound race machines and that blinged-out Tallboy, calling them pretenders with more money than sense. But what’s out-of-reach for one person might be petty cash for another. And besides, a high-end bike is pretty insignificant on the expense scale compared to, say, a speed boat, RV, or home entertainment system. How many people in the U.S. could save thousands on a small car versus the fully loaded SUVs or full-size pickups they buy to never drive off road? Or how about the average ski weekend for a family of four, on which people spend more than a quality bike for a few days of entertainment?
Buying an expensive bike can be a statement of priorities. Over the past decade, I’ve logged between 5,000 and 10,000 miles a year, raced a bunch, and spent lots of time in the backcountry on two wheels. I could have done it on inexpensive bikes, but nice ones enhance the experience. That goes for certain gear, too, such as high-end bib shorts or expensive shoes. For me, these things improve my experience so appreciably that I am willing to spend on them. Would everyone get the same benefits or satisfaction from costly gear? No. Personally I would never pay the mortgage for a big house nor invest in a luxury car because I wouldn’t find enough value in either, but I can understand how some people derive satisfaction from such things.
That’s the point: these are personal choices.
Finally, don’t let anyone tell you that a nice bike doesn’t make much of a difference. My road bike is an excellent but aging 2011 Cannondale CAAD10, a high-end aluminum frame with mid-range wheels and three-generation-old Dura Ace mechanical components. It weighs 16.1 pounds and cost $3,000 when it was new, and it still works great—it’s all the bike I need. Lately, though, I’ve been testing a Bianchi Oltre XR4 with SRAM eTap components and Zipp 404 Tubulars that weighs 15 pounds and costs an eye-watering $10,800. The shifting is laser sharp, the frame is race-stiff but incredibly compliant, and climbing, with the light supple wheels and minimal weight, feels like cheating. Switching from my bike to this tester is akin to trading in your Subaru WRX for a Ferrari 812 Superfast.
Would I buy this Oltre XR4? Unlikely, though I know people who would. If it were me, I’d consider the Oltre with Ultegra parts, which goes for a much more approachable $3,200. (Since I ride trails more often than roads, I’d put my finances into a nicer mountain bike.) But I appreciate our tester for what it is—the cutting edge of technology that is helping to advance the entire cycling experience.
We live in what feels like a Golden Age of cycling development. It’s hard to see how modern machines can get appreciably better, though if the past ten years are any indication, we’ll be riding even better bikes in another decade. So rather than moan over the expense, everyone should step back, pick a bike that fits their budget and needs, pedal the bejeezus out of it, and realize how good things have become.