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Many factors and decisions are in play when it comes to determining what is a good bicycle. What is it needed for? How long does the discerning cyclist plan to have it? Does a good bicycle mean buying from a good brand? How will it be looked after, cared for? Who are you buying it for? We’ll look at the range of factors involved, from Craigslist to Cannondale.
We can’t look at all of the factors involved in buying second-hand but we will cover some essentials. Starting with the first one. If something looks too good to be true, that’s probably because it usually is.
How Much Does a Good Bike Cost?
We have to try and narrow down what good means first. Is it: Reliable, fast, low-maintenance, future-proofed, how old is the person it is being bought for? Is there a good, dependable, easy to reach network of dealers, or could you do all repairs yourself? Why, even build it yourself?
So much to consider. A reasonable place to start would be forums, statistics and reviews, to see what is being said about the bicycle you are considering buying.
The research company Mintel found that the average price of a new bicycle in the UK was £233 (~$313) in 2014. In September 2020, The Bicycle Association reported this figure to be £365 (~$490).
This is only a starting point. It only covers new bicycle sales. Inflation will have played a part in the average price going up. Demand for bicycles has shot up in the UK in the last two year – a great thing but when demand goes up, so do prices generally.
The simple design of the bicycle means it is simple to manufacture, which can also mean getting the cost down and down and this might mean compromise.
The first thing I would look for in a good bicycle is trustworthy components. This means not prone to rusting, seizing, breaking or yielding their mechanical integrity when needed. The consequences of failure might be an incalculable cost to the owner.
Trusted manufacturers bring new and updated components to the market all the time. Think about how much quality control, R&D, testing and longevity studies have gone into a new bicycle which you rely on for safety, comfort and reliability.
An entry-level bicycle which can be relied on to do what is needed after 18 months and not require annoying replacement parts so soon after purchase should rightly cost more than a cheap one.
There are plenty of good, reliable, trusted bicycles available at somewhere between £325 and £450 (~$400 to $600). If you want lighter, pay a little more. If you want faster, pay a little more. If you want higher-end branding, pay a little bit more again.
How Much Should I Spend on a Casual Bike?
Assume you are not using the bicycle everyday, nor for participation in cycling as a sport. You should be thinking about enjoyment. Knowing you can get up and go for a ride, not being weighed down by the machine. Weight versus price is a significant factor in how much should be spent on a casual bicycle.
Steel is cheap to produce and is strong, but boy, is it heavy and cumbersome when going uphill in the summer. Lighter, alloyed steel is strong too and helps you ride a little more sprightlier. A good casual bicycle might have lighter components and also be less prone to rust.
A casual bicycle can be found in the second-hand markets but remember our earlier rule. Do your research, ask the seller lots of questions about reliability, how they used it, arrange an external inspection. Have a test run. See if you can borrow it for a couple of hours to see how it feels and sounds.
Have a look for signs of wear and bad treatment, heavy scratches, a damaged frame, worn tyres and brakes, damaged chains in poor condition. Chances are, the internals will be just as bad, the things unseen without a mechanic. Better still, ask a mechanic to take a look.
The money and time spent in research will be worth it if you can walk away. Better this than shelling out for replacements and repairs within the first two weeks. Or worse, consigning it to the shed or garage as a coat-hanger, or to gather dust.
Are Cheap Bikes Worth It?
Bicycle forums are packed with mechanics bemoaning cheap machines, which cost their riders more in replacement parts and servicing than the original bicycle. If you are a competent mechanic who has the tools, equipment and time for regular maintenance and servicing, you might see more value than most.
If you don’t have the kit and knowledge and need to visit a local bike shop, a full service could cost £150 (~$200) or more before having to pay for replacement parts. And remember that bicycles are designed so that their parts must be replaced. If your cheap bicycle has lots of worn or wearing bits, please add the cost of replacements to budgeting.
If buying cheap, it would be very sensible to buy the most simple design possible. That way, any repairs and maintenance will be as straightforward as possible. What does that mean in real terms? Try to stay away from disc brakes as they cost more to service and have more moving parts. Try to stay away from suspension for the same reason.
A cheap bicycle could be a sensible choice for someone trying out cycling for the first time or returning to it. They might not yet be ready for a bigger investment. But remember the enjoyment factor of a slightly lighter machine – easier to steer, a little bit easier to go up hills and sprightly to move around on.
There could be an argument, certainly in big cities, for using £50 to hire a bicycle for a month or so and then if you enjoy it, make a slightly bigger commitment than originally planned. The amount paid for the hire might be offset against part of a monthly railcard, or bus pass, or car parking fees.
Researching your seller is a good idea too. It’s always best to walk into an outlet or visit their website with some honest expectations and correctly calibrated mindset.
Bicycle department stores offer some good value bikes. Once again, adding up the number of moving parts and then the fixed cost of building it and getting it to the showroom all need to be built into the price you see on the ticket.
Bicycles can be cheap to manufacture in a global economy and of course the department stores will drive suppliers into making deals. That’s fine and of course, safety standards mean corners should and will not be cut.
However, when the price comes down so much, compromises are inevitable. That’s just an economic fact, as it is for cars, TVs, mobile phones, any consumer product.
Have a look and see if you get a warranty for the frame – is it for life? Have a look at the second-hand sites – are there lots of less than six month old models of the machine you are looking at for sale – then ask why that might be?
Then have a look at what your local bike shop or authorised dealer can offer. Remember if you buy second-hand, there is usually no warranty on the frame and your rights are not always the same as if you buy new.
Is An Expensive Bike Worth It?
Our rule is we are not using the bicycle for competition. Do you get what you pay for with an expensive bicycle? Many enthusiasts ride mutant machines made up from discounted parts that are of high quality but one season out of date. An expensive ‘anything’ usually costs more to maintain and service.
Your author has spoken to a rider who has had his road bike for eight years. It was a third-tier frame from a major manufacturer with second-tier components. It has covered enough kilometres to circle the globe more than once. Almost everything apart from the frame has been replaced, serviced, upgraded or remodelled.
It goes to the dealer for all of its servicing. He says he has never felt unstable or lacked faith in the bicycle because of the reliability and trust in the system, the people, the R&D of a major manufacturer and their work. More fool him, you might say, but I think each has profited over the years.
Difference Between Cheap and Expensive Bikes
The major differences between cheap and expensive bicycles are no different to the differences between any cheap and expensive consumer product.
On the practical side we’re talking about build quality, reliability, quality of use, better all-round performance, tighter components, design that works for your cycling discipline, warranty length and free servicing in the first three months.
On the economic side we’re talking about different marketing costs, research and development costs, more or less exclusivity, branding and endorsement from the stars, more or less trusted dealership networks and authorised repairers, branding (deliberately entered twice), competition, demand and supply.
On the human side, we’re talking about repairs for free from an authorised dealer because you trust each other or no repairs because the machine is so cheap that sometimes replacing it is a better option.
Trust in the experience of the work from someone who probably owns a similar machine and has been trained by the manufacturer versus someone who has not.
Because so many people are being encouraged to return to cycling or to try it out for the first time, a lot of inquisitive buyers are meeting a lot of hungry sellers at the cheaper end.
Because the sport and pastime is reaching newer and bigger and healthier audiences, entering more and more weekend races and events and access to the professionals’ playgrounds are extending all over Europe, we are seeing more participation at the expensive end of the marketplace.
So…How Much Should I Spend on a New Bike?
There is a place for everything in the world of cycling. We’ve talked about its beauty and simplicity and the availability in most developed parts of the world.
Discerning Cyclist has posted about trading off the cost of a bicycle against gym membership, season tickets, car parking. The physical and mental health benefits add sand to our egg-timer and we’re supporting active travel in a world that tells us when it needs us to do our bit.
It’s not unreasonable to work out the cost of a new bicycle and some clothes, security and lights to travel regularly and safely to where you want to be and then work out the cost of owning and using a car, or a bus, tram or train pass.
Comparing the two might be as good a place to start as any when it comes to how much you want to spend. Getting value for money and keeping things simple in terms of design and comfort are sensible too.
Spend what can be afforded, remember that servicing, replacement and maintenance are standard for all bicycles and set some reasonable parameters.
Have a look around and see what is on offer. Go in with some reasonable expectations of your use, your fitness and your commitment. Ask for advice. Ask local bike shops if they earn more commission for selling bicycle brand A over bicycle brand B.
Selling at a price of £250 (~$335) for a reliable, comfortable, trusted, long-lasting mode of transport, a retailer could never be accused of not squeezing every last penny of value from suppliers, frame-builders, component manufacturers and retail staff.
Selling at a price of £450 (~$600) introduces more elements of quality, durability, investment in frame-building standards, quality control and this will reflect in the standard of the ride.
And so it goes on.