What is the Difference between a Cheap and an Expensive Bike?

  • 9 minutes

Why do some bikes cost so much and how their prices are justified can spark a seemingly endless debate, especially since bikes continue to evolve annually. The price of a bike is the sum of the price of the individual parts. Simply put, bicycles are expensive because of the materials, manufacturing costs, and research and development that go into them. There are limits though. Demand and market economics leverage some influence over pricing, and bike companies do their research to determine maximum price points. The goal is to produce bikes with specific features based on rider demands and make them profitable. That’s the simplified version at least, the mountain of details that go into producing a bike can increase its price. Here we talk about some of those details that make the difference between a cheap and an expensive bike.

How are bikes designed 

A bike’s intended purpose will influence its design, as will cycling’s global governing body, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), which regulates bikes for competition. A bike that’s designed to perform at the top level of the sport balances weight, shape, geometry, and the limits of technical processes, and it must obey the rules that govern these characteristics. At the highest end, a rider can supply his or her unique biomechanical measurements and riding style, as well as desired performance characteristics to achieve a bike that’s singularly designed around the rider. The extraordinary manufacturing advantages of carbon fiber make this possible. This type of bespoke bike will fetch a price from $12,700 on up for a complete bike. When budget is a factor, a cheaper bike will feature more economical frame materials, modestly priced components, and manufacturing processes that allow for quantities of standard-sized frames to be made quickly and cheaply.

What are bikes made of 

Bikes are generally made from:
-Carbon fiber
-Steel
-Aluminum
-Titanium
-Wood or bamboo

How does design, manufacturing process and material affect cost 

“It’s not easy to separate these three things for a given part – frame or component. The design engineer has the material and manufacturing process in mind from the start, and the final design will be optimized for those.  From there it’s a ‘strong, light, cheap - pick two’ game.” – Keith Bontrager

Design

More than 30 years ago, Keith Bontrager established a following as a steel frame designer, which he grew into his own Bontrager Cycles brand. Bontrager Cycles was acquired by TREK Bikes in 1995; Keith went with it and has remained with TREK as a lead engineer dedicated to designing products for TREK’s professional racers and teams. What makes his perspective on the topic of cheap vs. expensive bikes unique is how he’s parlayed his experience with building frames from more economical steel into designing high-end carbon fiber frames and parts.

“In general, high-end parts have to be made with materials and processes that are more expensive than those at lower price points,” he said. “The additional cost shows up in a variety of ways.”

The design of a bike or a component must obey the technological limits of its manufacturing process and material. Keith added that high strength materials are typically necessary to make a lightweight part, and they are expensive. Very high strength carbon fiber materials are hard to make and in high demand. High strength aluminum alloys have always cost more than more common alloys. These materials are often more difficult to work with too, so that adds to the cost.

Manufacturing Process

“A high-end part’s shape needs to be relatively complex in order to minimize weight and maintain adequate strength and stiffness,” he remarked. “By shape I mean the external shape, the (variable) thickness of the part, and any functional features on the part.”

As the price point drops for a given part, Keith added that the designer has to consider factors like how a complex shape is manufactured and how tight the tolerances are as measures for cost savings.

Giant Bicycles, considered the world’s largest bike manufacturer, controls many – if not all – of its design and manufacturing processes at its Taiwan factory. This allows Giant to include expensive processes, like horizontal machining, which results in ultra tight tolerances for its suspension forks. This ability to control the process also allows Giant to moderate the price of the fork.

Material

Handlebars are a good example for demonstrating how materials affect prices. A very light carbon bar and a mid-priced 6061 T6 aluminum bar have very similar external shapes. But the carbon bar has a much different distribution of material, and a much more expensive manufacturing process. The carbon fiber that goes into the bar is also much more expensive than the aluminum.

What type of component or bike parts tend to affect the price of a bike more

The price of a bike is the sum of the price of the individual parts. 

Frames are at the top of the list. Cranks and wheels are up there too. Electronic shifting systems change the design and manufacturing process, as well as material selection.

The groupset is the most highly engineered part of the bike because it must work flawlessly with the single purpose of optimizing the rider’s pedaling and braking force. This means that shifting must be crisp, precise, and reliable without causing the rider to lose any momentum. Successful groupsets have evolved from mechanical shifting with levers and cables to electronic shifting with cables to wireless shifting. The extraordinary cost of these state-of-the-art groupsets can largely be pinned to the research and development that goes into them (but not entirely).

Brakes also matter, both in pricing and in life. Less-expensive mechanical brakes connect levers to calipers with a steel cable while costlier hydraulic brakes use a sealed fluid (hydraulic) system to actuate braking force. The stopping power of hydraulic brakes is superior to mechanical brakes, but they are more involved when it comes to maintenance. Still, the higher cost of hydraulic brakes is a non-issue when one’s career (or life) depends on the ability to stop.

Bike companies can play with component specifications a little to adjust the bike’s final price. For example, a very high-end bike with lower spec wheels isn’t uncommon and it will trim the price a bit. On the other hand, adding a prominent, higher price point component to make a bike stand out is common as well.

What advantage(s) do expensive bikes offer over cheap ones

Someone once remarked that if you go into a bike shop and say you’re looking for a bike, if the next sentence doesn’t start with, “Well that depends…” try another shop. For an engineer like Keith (or anyone who indulges in details), this is a complicated question because an advantage to one rider can be less important to another.

“Bikes are novel in a few respects,” Keith said. “The best road bikes are the cycling equivalent to an F1 racer. But, unlike the F1 hotrod, anyone who can afford that bike can buy one and ride it out the door and on the roads in their town. That’s kind of cool. They are very nice to ride too.”

But the differences in performance between the very best bikes and the next one a few rungs down are much smaller than most people would guess. There are differences but if you timed a rider around a specific route and managed to hold all else constant, the elapsed time differences would be marginal. 

Relative durability is more complex to sort out. Drivetrains and rolling element bearings on the best bikes will usually last longer. But Keith pointed out that the life of those parts is affected much more by regular maintenance than by design differences – it pays to keep your chain clean and properly oiled. This is true whether you have an expensive or a cheap bike.

There are lots of angles you can take with this analysis. For example, a very high-end bike can be a burden for riding around town, especially if you live in an area where bikes are stolen often. In that case, a simple, inexpensive bike that is set up to fit, with decent wheels, tires, and brakes without attracting attention is a good solution.

The main question that Keith posed is, “What do you want to do with the bike? What attributes will make it work better for that?”

Why are certain bike types more expensive 

To some this may seem like comparing apples to oranges to ask why, for instance, a kids’ bike costs under $500 while a top-of-the-line triathlon bike soars into the five-digit range. But why would two similar mountain bikes from the same brand differ by $3,000 or more?

Mountain biking’s subjectivity has to account for riding terrain and rider preferences, which often evolve faster than a brand’s ability to develop solutions. Obsessively-engineered mountain bikes see to the minutiae that’s aimed at delivering a premium ride experience yet “mountain biking” isn’t one size fits all. Suspension is a perfect example of how to increase the performance (and value) of a mountain bike, given its engineering, manufacturing, and rapid technological evolution.

We’ve already learned that a bike’s intended use, its design, frame material, manufacturing process, and components all have an impact on price. Then there’s demand and market economics. A triathlete dedicated to improving his or her results will scout out the equipment capable of delivering performance…no matter the cost. Someone looking for a commuter bike has less need for a highly engineered bike to get from A to B, which would be reflected in the bike’s lower price.

Kids’ bikes continue to inhabit the toy category and are generally manufactured at a price that parents are willing to pay. Unfortunately, these cheaply made bikes compromise on quality and can weigh as much as 1/2 to 2/3’s of the rider’s weight. Brands dedicated to making bikes for kids are designing lighter, more sophisticated bikes with kid-specific frames and components, though at a higher price than an average kids’ bike.

How are price differences important between bike types 

Brand names also factor into a bike’s price because in the wake of name recognition, there trails research and development, manufacturing, marketing, administration, legal and any other expense that serves to support the brand’s bike sales. Large brands like Giant, TREK, and Specialized produce all types of bikes, each of which may share characteristics across the brands but may have radically different prices due to the volume of variables that each brand puts into producing every single bike.

The final word

Bike prices are of course relative, because a cheap bike for one might be an expensive bike for another. There’s a LOT that goes into a bike and therefore lots that affect the bike’s price. How much is too much for a bike? Well that depends on what you want it for so it helps to take responsibility and know what you’re looking for in a bike. Your answers to these questions will help you decide how much you are willing to invest in your new ride!