Bikes can get pretty expensive. While you can still pick up a basic bike at a department store for a couple hundred dollars, today’s fancy bikes can cost more than a car. So what do you get for your money? When pros spend tens of thousands of dollars on a bike, what are they looking for?
Expensive bikes, under the same circumstances, go faster than cheaper ones because they are lighter and of higher quality. However, to reach high speeds, the most important factor is for the rider to have an excellent fitness level.
Let’s dive into the specifics of bike pricing and discuss how much money you should spend on your next bicycle.
The Bottom Line – What’s The Difference Between Cheap And Expensive Bikes?
Before we get into the thick of it, it’s important to point out that bike pricing works the same as the price of just about everything else. You can break bikes down into three categories.
Cheap “Starter” Bikes
The first category is super cheap bikes that aren’t fun to ride.
Manufacturers cut costs by producing shoddy parts and leaving off critical components. This category is mostly made up of very inexpensive bikes made for department stores and discount online categories.
Don’t buy a bike from this category if you can avoid it.
Solid Starter Bikes
The second category is made up of solid starter bikes. By spending a bit more money, you’ll get a bike with a solid frame and acceptable design and engineering. You’ll start to get into this category with some of the better budget-friendly bikes available at big stores.
Rather than making sacrifices in durability and ride comfort, these bikes use heavier, less expensive materials and use basic components that get the job done.
While you technically can upgrade these bikes, it’s rare for serious riders to sink more money into bikes in this category. Instead, they usually prefer to get a nicer frame to serve as the platform for their custom bicycle.
Bike prices are very volatile right now and depend on your needs and region. In general, however, you can find bikes in category two for between $400 and $1500.
If the bike you’re considering is less than $400 or advertises much better features than other bikes with comparable prices, make sure to do some research. This way, you’ll ensure it’s actually a durable starter bike and not a poorly constructed waste of money.
Serious Hobbyist Bikes
The third category of bikes is for more serious enthusiasts who want to take their hobby to the next level. These bikes have better components, meaning wider gear ranges, snappier shifters, and more advanced suspension.
More importantly, however, these bikes have more aggressive geometry and lighter frames. In other words, these bikes are designed for you to pedal hard for long periods of time.
Since frames are probably the hardest part of your bike to switch out, it’s important to spend some time on cheaper bikes, figuring out what sort of geometry fits your body and riding style before you spring for something more expensive.
Bikes in category three can start as low as $700-800, depending on the style of riding you do, how much upgrading you’re willing to do, and where you live. There’s no real upper limit on price. It’s not unheard of for brand-name bicycles with good hardware out-of-the-box to retail for $5,000 to $10,000.
The important thing to realize in category three is that you start to get very sharp diminishing returns on money spent. There’s usually a big difference in how an $800 bike and a $1600 bike feel when you ride them. The $1600 bike will have better geometry, it’ll weigh a lot less, and it’ll have better components.
When you compare a $1600 bike to a $7,500 bike, however, the difference is a lot smaller. Sure, the $7,500 bike will probably weigh even less, and it’ll have top-of-the-line parts, but the difference in feel and speed will be quite small.
This means that while serious cyclists usually use bikes in this category, you shouldn’t feel like you have to get an expensive one. Instead, focus on getting a good frame, and upgrade your components over time to assemble your perfect bike.
What Makes A Bike Faster?
While it might sound cliche, the most important determinant of cycling speed is the rider. A fit rider who’s well-rested will run laps around an out-of-shape rider who’s tired. This holds true even if the fit rider is on the cheapest budget bike available and the out-of-shape rider is on a professional racing bike.
Fancy bikes can help narrow the gap between two riders, but they’re not going to beat hard work and physical fitness.
The gears on your bicycle can play a big role in changing how much of your power you can actually harness. Serious riders with lots of experience, power, and stamina will benefit from having a bike with a huge front chainring and some small cogs in the back.
More casual riders will want some smaller gears for tackling hills and maintaining their cadence at the end of a long ride. In most cases, the raw number of gears on your bike isn’t as important as matching your ability level with an appropriate setup.
A pro on a budget 3×7 will probably run out of gears and won’t be able to pedal down hills, while a novice on a 2×9 might find that going up hills is quite difficult, even on the lowest gear.
In terms of other components on the bicycle, weight can affect your speed in a big way. Lightweight components, fancy materials (like titanium or carbon fiber), and removing unnecessary stuff will make a bike faster.
Cutting weight tends to be super expensive, so expect to pay a big premium if you’re trying to have the lightest bike on the block.
As far as raw speed goes, remember that your bike’s wheels have to turn for your bike to go fast. Thick wheels and underinflated tires will slow your bike down. This means that your mountain bike has much more rolling resistance than your road bike on city streets and will be harder to pedal at high speeds.
On more rebellious terrain, however, the road bike will be difficult to ride and quite fragile, so it’ll lose any speed contest. Make sure your bike is suited for the job at hand.
Your suspension works similarly – while a suspension fork and a rear shock will make your bike more pleasant to ride, they’ll also waste some of your pedal power and cause you to go slower. Just like with thick wheels, these aren’t things to avoid in a vacuum. They’re only a downside if your sole goal is trying to go fast on paved roads.
Finally, road cyclists spend a lot of time talking about aerodynamics. The wind can have a big impact on how fast your bike goes. Some bike parts are designed to help your bike present a smaller profile to the wind, while some bikes are designed to help keep your body in an aerodynamic position.
Aerodynamics matters a lot more when you’re already riding fast, so don’t pay too much attention to aerodynamics when you’re starting out. When you gain experience, and you find yourself doing long, fast rides, you can think about aerodynamics for your next big bike upgrade.
What is the Difference Between Cheap and Expensive Bikes?
The biggest difference between cheap and expensive bikes is weight. Titanium and carbon fiber are much more expensive and harder to work with than aluminum. Shaving a few grams off of brakes, shifters, levers, and wheels requires complex design choices and carefully manufactured parts, meaning you’ll pay a lot of money for a few pounds in weight savings.
Below a certain price threshold, you’ll sometimes see bike manufacturers make some very questionable decisions to make their bikes cheaper.
If a bike is less than $300-500, take some time to research the manufacturer and the exact model to ensure that no corners are being cut during the process of making the bike. Some cheap bikes utilize less durable materials, less precise construction, and bad design choices to reduce costs.
More expensive bikes sometimes make design choices that cater to experienced cyclists. You don’t usually see budget-friendly bikes that ask their rider to use an aggressive, aerodynamic riding position. You’ll also often see more expensive bikes sold without pedals, as the manufacturer assumes that you’ll already have a set of shoes and clipless pedals that you like.
Finally, more expensive bikes can have more complex components. Modern road bikes have combination controls that work as both brake levers and gear shifters, for example, and high-end bikes in all categories are beginning to use wireless shifters to eliminate cabling.
Higher-end derailleurs have advanced clutches that keep chains from bouncing around. Suspension can be pretty expensive on its own, but higher-end bikes have suspension that’s much more effective at doing its job and much better able to handle big impacts like drops or jumps.
Why Do Cheaper Bikes Have 21 Gears?
The 3×7 (or 21-speed) drivetrain is popular among budget bikes for a few reasons, but the biggest one is the easy availability of cheap components.
The Shimano Tourney family of bike components is durable, performs spectacularly, and is very cheap. It’s also a 3×7 groupset. Since bike makers can buy this gear setup very inexpensively, there’s a lot of incentive to design bikes around it.
Going up to 8 gears on the rear cassette is a bit more expensive, but you’ll see some entry-level bikes make the jump. 9 gears is where things start to get hairy.
Bikes with 9 or more speeds on the rear cog need special chains that must be carefully matched with the rear derailleur and cassette. These gearing setups can get pretty expensive, too, with a high-end groupset retailing for more than the price of a cheap bike.
As far as the chainring goes, 3×7 setups get away with fewer gears in the back by putting more in the front. More expensive setups usually have more gears in the back, so they don’t need to do this. This means that you’ll see a lot more 2x and 1x bikes when you’re looking at pricier bikes.