Saturday, October 20, 2012

Bike Talk: Build vs Buy

Dean H. Saxe (@n3rd1ty from twitter) asks:

When is it better to build a bike vs. buy complete? Advantages/disadvantages to either?

This is, at its core, a bike geek question. Only folks who geek out on details and like to think about each little part of the bike even think about building a bike. And by build, in general, we're not talking about building completely from scratch, like the guy who built a toaster and wrote a book about it, we're talking about getting a frame from some place, a nice set of wheels from somewhere else, a seatpost, deraillers, shifters, cables, etc and putting it all together. If you really like to geek out, you can build your own frame and lace up your own wheels.

Here, as I see it, are the advantages to "building" your own bike:

You'll get to spend A LOT of time and effort doing it. If you find this kind of stuff fun, you'll have A LOT of fun. You'll get to talk to A LOT of folks about it. You will learn A LOT. Do you know about seatpost diameters and setback? Do you understand the relationship of seat tube angle to front shifting performance? Do you understand what the chain wrap capacity is of various derailleurs? Do you understand the relationships of bottom bracket spindle length and crankset design? These and a few thousand other questions will be asked and answered as you build your bike.

You will stimulate the economy. You will learn by experience and unless you are very, very good, very, very experienced, or very, very lucky, you'll guess wrong and buy some stuff twice. And if you are very, very experienced, you're well past the point of asking if this is a good idea.

The biggest theoretical advantage of building your own bike is that you get exactly what you want. In practice, your bike, like any real object in the real world is constrained by budget, time, and the laws of physics and mechanics.

Despite my pessimistic tone in the past few paragraphs, if you're a true bike geek, you're going to go for it. If that's you, go for it, you'll have a ball.

But here's the other side of the coin and the route I recommend:

Buy something off the shelf with something wrong with it. This is astoundingly easy to do because everything has something wrong with it. And by wrong I mean it has some feature you don't like or that doesn't work for you. Buy the flawed thing and fix the flaw. Or even better, try the flawed thing and see if the flaw really messes up the bike for you. It might not and you might be surprised.

Here are some of the advantages of buying off the shelf:

You can test ride. The bike is right there, you can ride it. You can feel how smooth or rough the shifting is, you can see how tight the brakes feel, and see how the bike handles a corner.

You take advantages of the economies of scale. Guess what? When Trek or Specialized buy a derailleur from Shimano, it costs them less than it costs you or me. Because they buy thousands of them at a time and they put them on thousands of bikes. If you buy one frame and one rear derailleur and one seatpost and so on, you'll spend a lot more money than you would if you buy a whole bike from the big guys who buy in volume.

By the way, those folks at Trek, Specialized, Giant or whomever? They've got a lot of experience figuring out what components work on what bikes. Yeah, they want to hit a price point and that may be why the bike doesn't have component X that you wish it had. So buy the bike and change out component X.

If you want to find a good deal on a bike, find last year's bike on close out. If it was a good bike then, it is still a good bike now even if something newer is out. And your local bike shop is motivated to move it.

The best way to buy a bike's worth of components is to get a whole bike. I once bought an entire bike that was completely the wrong size for me, transferred wheels, drive-train, etc to a proper sized frame and then sold the big frame and came out money ahead on the deal. I bought an entire bike at a thrift store once just to get the pair of Phil Wood CHP pedals that were on it. I came out ahead on that deal as well.

In the end, I think every bike is a bit of mix of build vs. buy. We buy when like the bike more than we like the money it'll cost to buy it. And I think we really make the bike our own not in the buying, but in the ways we tweak it to make it our own and make it last.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA
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