Friday, January 06, 2012

Why I Don't Buy Expensive Bicycles

Over on his blog, my friend Jan Heine has a post where he asks and answers the question: Why Ride an Expensive Bicycle? Jan effectively presents several factors that make a higher end bike well worth their higher price tags and the fact that top builders have long wait lists of folks happy to buy such lovely machines attest to the validity of Jan's assertions. And I have ridden many, many miles with friends who are thrilled with their well-crafted machines or who are saving their pennies for their next dream machine and while that's all well and good, I have to confess that I don't foresee myself riding a custom Boxer any time soon or having Ira Ryan build the perfect bike for me. This has nothing to do with the skills of the builders (which are excellent) or the size of my bank account (which is less than excellent) but rather it has something to do with the way my brain works.

Folks who really know me will not be surprised by this. Years ago Jan and I were riding together and he said to me "I'm writing an article on the what makes an optimal randonneuring bicycle and I'm wondering if you'd like to write a contrasting side-bar?" Some might take umbrage at such a question, but I knew instantly what Jan was getting at and I wound up writing a short piece called "More Enemies Than Time" in which I noted that someone like Drew Buck might choose to ride PBP on a vintage Dursley Pedersen not because it is optimal, but because it is interesting. By the way, Jan has a way of speaking that rubs some people the wrong way but that I find delightful since retelling the conversations makes for great anecdotes. For example, once on a brevet Jan and I are riding up Snoqualmie Pass. He looks over at my bike and says, "Oh, I see you are riding those tires," (I was riding Specialized Armadillos at the time), "I rode those once," Jan continues, "and found them unacceptably slow. I'm sure they're fine for you, however." I'm pretty sure that could be taken as an insult, but my hide is about as tough as the tread of a Specialized Armadillo.

Years ago my dad had a great old truck, a 60s era Chevy that he'd use to go on hunting & fishing trips and to haul loads of logs from the back woods. It was beat-up and quirky & most of the time it got us where we needed to go and back again. But when the electrical system finally succumbed to something fatal, he got a replacement truck that to my mind was a little too new and a bit too nice and we stayed away from the really narrow roads where the branches would scrape along the doors and I guess things like that make an impression on a kid.

And so when Jan talks about the aesthetics of a bike and how a lovely bicycle is a joy to behold and will make me want to ride more, I know he's wrong for me. My first thought is about locking the bike up at a rack at the university and how my locking strategy of "lock next to a nicer looking bike" (aka "I'm not out-running the bear, I'm out-running you!") won't work any more. And when Grant Petersen waxes poetic about lugs and how they are so much prettier than a welded joint, I realize that I care about fine lug work just about as much as Stevie Wonder cares about high-definition television.

Jan's performance and durability arguments certainly have validity but like the aesthetic argument, they fall on a spectrum and I stop caring once I pass the point my brain identifies as "good enough." I'm sure that Jan and others have more refined sensibilities but my bike doesn't need a steel frame to be "real." I don't need a carbon fork or a 14-speed hub. I just need a bike I enjoy riding and it turns out I'm not a very fussy guy.

This is not sour grapes on my part, over the years I've given away many "good" bikes and turned down several custom "I'll build you what you want" offers. I like bicycles. I like building them up and I learn something from every bike I ride. I'll change stuff around because I like changing stuff around.

Of course "expensive" is a relative term. To my non-biking friends the idea of spending $500 on a Trek or a $400 on a Dahon is excessive while other friends "get by" with Ultegra components on their titanium "rain-bikes." For me, every bike I've had has been a bargain in terms of the time I've spent in the acquisition and enjoyment of the machine. And if a custom bike by a skilled builder will give you more pleasure than what you're riding, then that sure seems like something worth pursuing. And if that bike you picked up at the Trek shop down the street or the used bike you got at a flea market gets you down the street with a smile on your face, that's good too.

Keep 'em rolling,

Kent "Mountain Turtle" Peterson
Issaquah WA USA


David said...

IMHO, The most important thing about 'most any bike, other than it be in sound condition and fit the rider's body and be appropriate to the task (meaning the skinny-tire road bike won't do well on the MTB trail), is the rider. A rider who rides. I like my 300 dollar bike way better than my 1200 dollar bike.

Emily said...

I can understand the allure of a made to measure bike.

But my beloved Breezer does the job and is a far more capable bike than I am a capable rider. I can get it going up over 18-20mph on rare occasions, and that's when it starts getting slowed down by wind resistance. But I'm slow, and mostly I ride at a sedate 10mph or so. It's good on smooth city streets, and on dirt roads. Now that I've got studded tires for it, it's doing ok on ice.

If I ever get to the point where the wind resistance thing is a genuine issue, maybe it'd be worth upgrading. Until then, I have a bike that has cheerfully done everything I ask of it.

The Velo Hobo said...

I don’t have any doubt that a custom built bike or even an ‘off the rack’ higher-end bike will out perform my ugly plane Jane all steel Surly. It’s just that I have no way to measure that performance. I don’t ride with a computer and I don’t keep track of time or distance traveled. Heck, I don’t even ride with a watch.

Some might argue that the more expensive bike ‘feels’ better (more nimble and responsive). Well that’s pretty subjective, and I’d have to ride one right after the other to notice the difference. Kind of like a wine tasting, you really can’t taste one, then a week later taste the other and compare the two.

That being said, I’m glad there are people willing to pay the price to keep small shop custom builders in business. It would be a shame if the art of building a bike were lost to the assembly line. But for me, I’m happy with the experience of riding bicycles more than the experience of riding any particular bicycle.

Great post, Jack

mimi torchia boothby watercolors said...

wonderful article. I also read Jan's article and wondered why he didn't tell us the brand name of the cheaper bike he wrote about. I agree, if it gets you down the road with a smile on your face, that's all the bike you need. Keep smiling and keep riding.

Zed said...

I started touring in the 70s on a Peugot with wheels which looked metallic but actually had rims of Playdough and spokes of glass. It was all I could afford and covered many miles but never in areas lacking a reliable bike shop where I could buy the latest bits necessary for repairing the machine.

Boy am I glad that I can now afford a Thorn! Its reluctance to break down opens up tours which were previously impossible. Who cares what the French is for rims when I'm riding a tourer which I can fight fully laden up Mont Ventoux without breaking anything.

Back home, it's a great shopping bike, happily hauling 10 kg of spuds, 4 litres of milk and whatever else I need, staying beautifully balanced in the process. The much cheaper Peugot couldn't do any of that.

Anonymous said...

I'd love to have the chance to really study whether I like my $6,000 hand-built bike better than my $1200 mass-produced bike with $1000 of aftermarket stuff bolted to it. Bring me that economy, please.

cycler said...

I definitely come down with you on this.

While I do think that the aesthetics and other less tangible elements of a bike are important, they are important mostly as they reflect the personality of the owner. Personally, I care about practicality, riding in my work clothes, having a place to put stuff, good brakes, and the overall bike looking balanced and classic. I'm kind of a broad strokes type, and am not going to notice the incremental variation of a SON hub vs a Shimano one, or the subtleties of tires (unless they flat a lot).

Someone else might value an absolutely silent bike, or a bike with off road capabilities, or a bike that weighs as little as possible. I think the important part is to figure out what YOU value, and pay what it takes to satisfy those needs. That may be a lot or a little, but it will be a "good value" if it responds to the things that are important to you.

Jesse said...

The "inexpensive" bike on the left in that post is a Salsa Cassaroll...not exactly Wal-Mart...

Anyway, I was actually writing to give a heartily "Hear-Hear!" to Kent's post. I've been riding my current recycled cycles steed for a while now and loving every pedal stroke. I did some upgrades for comfort (city bars and a Brooks being the primary ones) and a couple for safety (new stronger v-brakes and new shifters that actually work). But other than that it's a nearly 20 year old Trek. For my needs for the time being, it's perfect. I can lock it up at Seattle Central (with the seat covered) and feel confident that I'll be able to ride it home. I can head to the farmers market and load it down, and know it'll carry me and the bounty home again.

Works for me.


Dan said...

Another fantastic post, Kent. You've absolutely captured my feelings about bike ownership. I would be lying if I said I didn't lust over the gorgeous and perfect bespoke bicycles promoted by Jan and Grant, but the moment I imagine owning them I get the creeping feeling of worry and anxiety. I've owned a couple of what I consider nice bicycles (nothing to the level of a rivendell or a custom). Aside from the usual anxiety about theft and damage, your nicest bicycle is always the one you dream of upgrading in some way. Once you start investing in the nice wheels, shifters, etc, it's hard not to imagine that while your bike is really really nice, it could be that much nicer if you just spend a few hundred more dollars on the best whiz-bang gadgets available. As someone who does not ride competitively, I'm just not that interested in chasing the "perfect" performance bicycle. Personally, my favorite bike is my cheap cyclocross frame appointed with a mish-mash of tried and true old middle-of-the-road components. It's not as fast as my road bike, doesn't shift as well and certainly doesn't look good, but it's perfect for me. I tend to ride that bike harder and farther and I never worry about how well it's performing or how it compares to the other bikes around me. Just like your dad's old truck, I don't sweat the dings and scratches and in turn am willing to take it places it probably shouldn't go. And while I spend more time on this bike than any other, I almost never daydream about upgrades. For one thing, the slope is too slippery - new wheels lead to new derailleurs, shifters, tires, etc. For another, what's the use? It's already the bike I grab for pretty much everything. For me, whatever I lose by sticking with "good enough" is worth the anxiety, cost and effort not spent in search of "perfect."

Pondero said...

Great points, Kent. I tend toward the pretty (and costly), but long to be more pragmatic. So thanks for the balance and encouragement.

I love the delightful and pleasant tension between Jan's perspective and Kent's. It makes the bicycling life so much more rich.

Jan Heine said...

I think the difference between Kent and I (Jan) is simple: I don't have the time to work on my bikes all the time, and I don't have the money to buy bikes frequently.

In 14 years I have known Kent, I have ridden two bikes, and just got a third. Kent has had at least a dozen, if not more. My bikes may have cost more each (one was used, though), but when counting all expenses on the bikes we ride, I would not be surprised if Kent outspent me by a good margin. My bikes generally require little except chains and tires.

I understand Kent's approach, but for me, a bike must be ready to go, without requiring constant care and feeding.

Bryan Willman said...

A slight counter point...

I like Really Nice Bikes. But unlike Kent, I'm rather over big, and so things like a very good fit and Very Very Wide Range Gears and Just The Right tires are a huge big deal to me. Bearings matter. Getting enough air pressure matters.

And I find that Nice Bikes, Very Nice Bikes, and Really Nice Bikes, all last a Very Long Time.

And believe me, there are worse vices....

But Kent's point is super strong, and I'll add this to the post about "more than 1 pair of shoes" which I point people to.

Small Adventures said...

Kent: Here,here and thank you,sir! :)

Steve in VA

Kirk Ahlberg said...

I used to ride with a co-worker who was a gearhead and always talking about how he needed to strip a few ounces off his frame here, a few ounces off his shoes there. Meanwhile, this gentleman was easily 30 pounds overweight. How 'about trimming some pounds off your body, instead?

Conrad said...

I agree with Jan about the benefit of a well designed real world high performance bicycle: integrated lights, racks, fenders, and clearance for useful tires. An expensive proposition but worth it!

That being said, most of my miles go on a Bianchi Volpe that I bought used 13 years ago. It has a generator light, fenders, 35mm tires, and a rack on the front. I use it for everything but racing. I don't hesitate to use it for 100 or 200 mile rides if darkness or wetness are in the forecast. Its not as nice as Jan's ideal setup. My racing teammates cringe when I show up for training rides on it. But it gets the job done, I enjoy riding it, and I've never been dropped while riding this bike (I don't use it for races!). I wouldn't hate myself if it was stolen while I was running errands. So while agreeing with Jan's philosophy on a well designed bicycle, in practice I would fall in line more with Kent.
Probably just because I couldn't convince the wife to let me drop that much money on a bike, even though I think it would be money well spent.

Iron Rider said...

Well said. I'd also like to disagree with Jan's idea that a $1200 "inexpensive" bike, needs constant care and feeding. My Surly Long Haul Trucker has seen me through thousands of miles of riding in all weather conditions with only basic maintenance.
Bottom line - Ride what makes you happy.

Doug Walsh said...

"For me, every bike I've had has been a bargain in terms of the time I've spent in the acquisition and enjoyment of the machine"


From my budget "Scattante" road bike purchased on clearance at Performance Bike to my Moots 29er softtail I custom ordered, the hours of enjoyment I've gotten from my bikes has far exceeded the money I spent.

Hobbes said...

Great post Kent! Me, my 85 Stumpjumper, Surly Longhaul trucker and a whole fleet of old Raleigh 3 speeds all give you a big "Ahem Kent!" I also greatly appreciate and admire the many hand built and high end bicycles that are available today. (especially from Grant Peterson's company.) But my humble fleet of bicycles are quite capable of putting a big smile on my face every time I take one for a ride.

Joe P said...

Most excellent post, Kent.

I have some really nice bikes in the garage, but I don't think for a minute that a $100 Craigslist find wouldn't be good enough to ride across the country.

I was just playing with a beautiful Schwinn Voyageur from the late '70's or early '80's. It is a wonderful bike. It was $35.

If one wants a new bike, let's not pretend a Cross Check wouldn't get the job done. I mean, seriously.

One will know if they NEED a better bike than that because their sponsor will give them one.

We've got a pond.
A pond and a pool.
Pond 'be good for you. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Seems to me that tire remark was a complement.
As in Jan couldn't keep up with folks if he used those "slow" tires, but since you are so fast and strong you can use em and still keep up. te he

Anonymous said...

Great post, Kent; thanks.

I also read Jan's post. His mentioning the durability/quality of components (e.g., "precision ground bearings", etc.) got me thinking about the parts I've had to replace on my bikes, which originally cost in the range of $500 - $1000....

Kent, do you keep track of your maintenance costs? If so would you mind discussing these costs you encounter over a span of, say, a year? Given the amount and type of riding you do, this would be interesting to hear about.

In any event, I’m with you, I like *not* having the fanciest bike locked to the rack. That's a valuable “feature” :)


Ἀντισθένης said...

I really like Jan Heine's blog, and this one, and appreciate what both are saying, but in the end, I'm down with Kent. You know what? So is the research that Bicycle Quarterly (Heine's baby) did on the bikes that complete Paris-Brest-Paris!

Some may argue my interpretation, but it seems you do not need Jan Heine's type of bike to finish a 1200km ride in four days, which is a fine test indeed. My summary:

"The most telling information is in the DNF section. The ideal bike for a long course, based primarily on their results and my opinion of value for money, has:
- a steel frame with geometry you like
- fenders front and rear
- battery powered lights with lithium AA or AAA cells
- a leather 'hammock' saddle, such as a Brooks
- baggage that keeps the weight as low and centred as possible, with as little extra weight of racks as possible: handlebar bags*, saddle bags, frame bags...
- tires neither too thin nor too wide from a midpoint of 26mm, with a supple casing.

Here is what surprisingly doesn't matter too much, and can be left to preference:
- bike weight difference of a pound or two
- the height of the bars
- the trail of the fork
- the length of the chainstays
- the number of spokes"

kfg said...

OK, yeah, I've got a Rivendell. In my defense I'll say that it's the cheapest and most interesting Rivendell.

But out in the yard, I've got a couple of 60's welded "tanks" that needed getting out of a barn. Once set to working order they have a "get on it and ride" reliability factor measured in decades and, quite frankly, they're also fun, even if they do have tires so "slow" that they ought to be "impossible" to ride.

And while a 3 speed Schwinn might not be my first choice to ride across the country, it would be interesting.

Might even turn out to be fun.

Raymond Parker said...

I am not a bike geek.

This claim is a hard sell to those who know and ride with me (and note the number of bikes in my collection).

However, I'm not even that fond of working on bikes; I'm just too cheap (poor) to pay someone else to do it.

I'm particularly uninterested in the minutia of bike paraphernalia tests and comparisons, and rarely read them on blogs and in magazines. In fact I rarely read anything solely focussed on bicycle mechanics (though I produce such content and make exception for this great blog :-)

The thing that's so great about bikes is where you can take your mind on one ... which is hopefully beyond the mundane details of its components.

In the meantime,as someone who appreciates the art of bicycle building and the freedom-from-tinkering quality affords, I'm dreaming of a custom-built 650b bike.

Velouria said...

"while other friends "get by" with Ultegra components on their titanium "rain-bikes."

Love this : )
Especially since I've overheard more than one sincere discussion that was not dissimilar.

Erik Sandblom said...

I used to always get the cheapest tyres. Once I wanted a pair with a reflective strip and ended up with Schwalbe Marathons. Wow, what a difference! They were noticeably faster and smoother, both at the same time. Now I pay more attention to tyres and some other components too, and I've found other tyres I like even more than the Marathons.

So I won't dismiss Jan's opinions until I've tried the kind of bikes he's talking about.

Robert Linthicum said...

Great article, Kent.

I also liked your "rain-bike" comment, because I have also seen this in blogs (but never heard it spoken, not in my tribe).

It rains almost every day here, so I suppose every bike is a "rain bike".

There are pages of bike porn on Flickr and the like showing highly polished, lugged beauties with mudguards (fenders), which I assume are there for looks, as I doubt most of these immaculate beauties have ever seen rain.

Robert Linthicum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
kfg said...

Campy Nuovo Record is the only thing to have on a titanium rain bike. Shifts lousy forever, and beyond!

OK, yeah. I have been known to whine about letting my Teledyne go, because it was the ultimate rain bike.

My only excuse is that, well, it was. It's not titanium's fault that it has the right properties and it's expensive.

Scott said...

I fall on both sides of the issue. I rode a Schwinn Le Tour for almost 20 years and would probably be riding it to this day, but I wanted to start driving less--way less--and figured a folding bike would make that easier because I could take it onto a bus or a train when necessary.

After a lot of research, I bought a Brompton with a Schlumpf Mountain Drive and spent more on it than I'd spent on the Le Tour in 20 years. I'm ecstatic to this day. Shortly after I bought the folder, I sold my car for several times what I paid for the Brompton, and I save more annually in car expenses than I paid for the Brompton. It rides well, it's convenient, and I don't worry about whether someone will make off with it because I take it wherever I go.

After that brush with extravagance, I'm back on Kent's side. I've upgraded a few things, but only for practical reasons--a better dynamo-powered headlight, a more comfortable saddle, Ergon grips--and I can easily imagine riding this bike for another 20 years.

scottg said...

Will no one defend cheap bikes ?
Where are the NEXT, Magna and
Flying Pigeon owners ?
A Breezer is to a Eastman Roadster
as a Rolls is to Yugo.
With a Breezer you never have the joy
of pounding in cotter pins with a rock, the sheer terror of rain on chrome rims, you are not experiencing cycling as adventure.

Matt said...

It sounds to me - and I'm not at all surprised by this - that you're an advocate of a variation of the 80/20 rule which I subscribe to: 80% of the real-world performance is usually available for less than 20% of the cost of the best available.

Anonymous said...

Wait a sec, Jan. Kent has owned not one but two Monocogs and other single speed steel bikes. Failed pawls on the GDR aside (shoulda had a flipflop), those bikes might outlive us all, and with little tinkering.

Kent's bike flipping doesn't have much to do with dependability. He's just promiscuous. He's not into cyclomonogamy.

Bicycle Specialists said...

Right on! The investment on a bike, no matter how much it costs, will be well worth it if the two-wheeled machine is well-enjoyed by the buyer or owner. Excellent post!

Glenn said...

It's interesting that I enjoy reading both Jan & Kent. I find Jan's technical insight fascinating and buy into the wider tires & flexible frame & forks, etc (sorry to over simplify Jan), but I'm not so concerned with aesthetics, nor am likely to buy a $6k custom any time soon. Ideally, I'd like to have a beater bike with wide, smooth rolling tires, a wispy front fork and front load carrying ability. Still working on it.

Anonymous said...

It's All About The Ride!

I started riding in the late 70's on a used Gitane "Tour De France" bike that was already almost a decade old. At that time, it was a great bike. Especially for me - a newbie. It was all about the ride!

In the mid 80s, I was able to purchase a custom made - Campagnolo frame with all the bells and whistles. Great Bike! Still is and I have stripped it down, repainted and rebuilt with slightly newer wheels. Same shifters, derailleur, brakes, cinelli bars, etc. the bike in 85 cost - $900. Still - All about the ride!

Fast forward, almost 3 decades later, recently purchased a low end road bike, costing $400. Sure, I can feel a difference. But guess what - It's All About The Ride. You can have a $20,000 bike that sits in a corner all year but occasionally comes out - just to impress others. To that person - It's not about the ride. It, like so much these days, is all about - Hey, look at me - aren't you impressed with they way I look.

No, I am not!!!! Sorry, but when I blow by you on my cheap road bike - guess what - HEY LOOK AT ME LEAVE YOU BEHIND AND IT"S ALL ABOUT THE RIDE. My point - It's all about the ride. So, Punish The Road! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I'm probably a displaced Luddite, but I take great satisfaction in keeping my seventies-era French bikes not only alive, but . . . . gulp . . . . upgraded. I could care less about collector value. What my UO8 lacks in paint it makes up in character. It helps to be one's own mechanic.Thank you, Sheldon Brown and Harris Cyclery!

I have a spiffy Tarmac Comp, and, boy, is it fast and jittery! If you like to feel the road surface, this is the bike for you. My oldies get fresh air much more often than the poor Specialized does.

I'm getting ready to rebuild a Gitane Grande Sport Deluxe I found on the street with a "trash" sign hanging from the top bar. The frame and calipers are good, the rest is worthless. With what I'll put into the rebuild, I could buy a nice eBay beater and be done with it. But there's magic in these gas-pipe frames from the Disco era. It's all about the ride, as another poster wrote. It truly is.

Mark said...

I agree, it's all about what makes you happy. Dura Ace doesn't make me happier than 105, but if it did I'd go with it. I guess I'm just an average 105 kinda guy.

Sam J said...

Why don't I ride expensive bicycles? Because no matter how much I spend, I can imagine a bicycle that costs way more than that. And that imaginary bike, unlike the machines I buy, clearly represents an insane expenditure--and an amount equally unlikely to be added to my savings account.

P.S. Jan's nuts: Armadillo--the name screams speed.