Why Are Bikes So Expensive?

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With every passing year, it seems as though bike prices are pushing further into the stratosphere.

The new Colnago V4RS was released recently at a frankly ludicrous €15,260 (£13,430, $16,890) – but these days we hardly flinch when a new pro-standard bike is announced with a five-figure price tag.

And surging prices aren’t just restricted to blue-chip bikes either. The likely price tag for a bike marketed as anything beyond “entry-level” has pushed into the thousands, and it’s left cyclists wondering:

Why are bikes so expensive these days?

We’ll be digging deeper into the subject, covering:

  • Bang For Buck: What’s The Difference Between Cheap and Expensive Bikes?
  • Are Bikes Really Getting More Expensive?
  • Why Are Bikes So Expensive In The First Place?
  • How Can I Get Value For Money When Buying A Bike?

Let’s dive in!

Why Are Bikes So Expensive?: Title Image

Bang For Buck: What’s The Difference Between Cheap and Expensive Bikes?

Budget Bikes

All marketing and sales spiel aside, the difference between a high-end racer and an entry-level bike is vast.

The cheapest brand-new road or mountain bikes you’ll find are likely to cost around the $500 (£400) mark at a bare minimum.

For this price, you’ll likely get something rideable, even if it’s unlikely to provoke much envy among the lycra-clad club riders when they pull up alongside at the lights.

Expect a mass-produced aluminum frame, sturdy (heavy) alloy wheels with rim brakes, and a functional but basic groupset from a lesser-known manufacturer.

For a casual cyclist just starting out or looking for a ride around town, it’ll absolutely do the job – but you won’t be winning the Tour de France on it any time soon.

A high-end TIME bike is being cycled on an asphalt road.

High-End Bikes

For a bike someone actually might win the Tour de France on, you’re unlikely to be paying less than $10,000.

These so-called “halo bikes” are top-of-the-range offerings from their respective manufacturers, and are the models that any team they sponsor in the pro peloton is likely to ride at the Grand Tours.

Popular examples seen at the 2022 Tour de France include the Trek Madone SLR, Specialized S-Works Tarmac SL7, Cannondale SuperSix EVO, and Canyon Aeroad CFR.

Any racing bike in this bracket is likely to feature a featherweight carbon fiber frame with cutting-edge aerodynamics, beautifully-engineered electronic groupsets, a high-end carbon fiber wheelset, and state-of-the-art hydraulic disc brakes.

Research suggests a high-end racing bike is likely to be 10-15% faster than an entry-level equivalent under the same rider.

That might not sound like much, but for serious bike racers, it’s night and day. For context, the dreaded Tour de France time cut (the time riders have to finish within to avoid elimination from the Tour) can be as little as 4% of the winner’s time.

So, a 15% disadvantage from the bike alone could mean almost four times the difference between Tour de France glory and being booted out of the race altogether for being too slow.

With such fine margins, it becomes a little easier to see why such astronomical amounts of money are spent at the top level to find every 0.001% of performance.

Close-up of the rear wheel of a blue mountain bike.

Diminishing Returns

Of course, the vast majority of us can only ever dream of owning a bike worth a third of the national average income – but might be serious enough about cycling to want to upgrade beyond entry-level performance.

So, what bang-for-buck do you get between the two?

A cliche that is often bandied about in cycling circles is diminishing returns. In other words, as you move higher and higher up the bicycle food chain, the performance improvements per dollar become ever smaller.

So, the difference between an entry-level $500 bike and a $2000 dollar bike is likely far greater than the difference between a $2000 dollar bike and a $15,000 halo bike.

A cyclist climbs a steep mountain pass on a white road bike.

Are Bikes Really Getting More Expensive?

In short: Yes.

As an example, take the S-Works Tarmac SL-series, the halo range from Specialized. In 2009, the latest model (the Tarmac SL2 Dura-Ace) typically cost around $8500.

By contrast, the present-day equivalent (the Tarmac SL7 Dura-Ace Di2) is on offer on the Specialized website for a whopping $14,250. Even adjusting for inflation, this is a hefty price hike of around 20% in just over a decade.

The effect is especially pronounced for cyclists based in the UK, due to the decreased strength of the pound combined with the fact that most bikes are manufactured overseas. For British bikers, the post-inflation price increase for high-end bikes can be as high as 50%.

A group of cyclists out on a social ride on country lanes.

What About Cheaper Bikes?

As we step down from the cutting edge of bike tech, the story becomes a little murkier.

I bought my first road bike, a (very) entry-level B’Twin Triban 3, for roughly £300 in 2013. It had a not-particularly-refined aluminium frame, Microshift components, and distinctly unimpressive Weinmann alloy wheels.

Though basic, it was functional enough, and acted as a faithful servant on casual commutes for years before I finally caught the cycling bug and upgraded to something shinier.

A decade on, the present-day equivalent with comparable specifications – the Triban RC 120 – sells for around £400. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a price increase of only a few percent.

Though that’s just one case study, it’s a broadly similar story across the board for beginner bikes.

For mid-level bikes, the comparison is a little more difficult. Typically, the updated version of the same bike is more expensive (perhaps by 20% or so after inflation), but the picture is distorted by the fact that they now tend to come with more impressive specs.

For example, the 2023 version of the same mid-range bike might now feature disc brakes, an aerodynamic frame, improved geometry, and even (at the higher end) electronic shifting.

So, while the “same” model of mid-tier bike might be more expensive than its predecessor a decade ago, for a bike with specifications that more closely match an earlier equivalent the gap will likely be much smaller.

A cyclist racing on a high-end turquoise road bike.

Why Are Bikes So Expensive In The First Place?

Materials and Manufacturing

Good-quality bikes use high-tech materials – and they come at a price.

Carbon fiber is now well-established as the material of choice for everything from frames to wheel rims to some groupset parts due to its fantastic strength-to-weight ratio.

Shaving off grams comes at a cost though, as carbon fiber is very expensive both to produce and to manufacture into bikes.

The aluminum you’re more likely to find on mid-range or entry-level bikes is cheaper, but still not exactly cheap – it’s the same stuff used to build aeroplanes with, and the process of crafting it into bike components is expensive and very energy-consuming.

Even steel – the bike material of choice for almost the entire twentieth century – was never especially cheap. The masterfully-machined butted tubes of Reynolds 531 or Columbus SLX were lightyears ahead of the bog-standard steel you might find at your local hardware store.

There’s also the complexity of the components to consider. With so many moving parts, each individual piece has to be crafted and assembled perfectly or the whole component becomes defective. Precision engineering comes at a price.

Close-up of a carbon fiber sheet.

Advancing Technology

Modern bikes are objectively faster than their predecessors.

That doesn’t necessarily mean “better” for every cyclist – we’ll let the “steel is real” purists fight it out with the gear junkies over that one – but even the most romantic vintage-bike lover would be hard pressed to argue their beautiful relic is faster than a modern halo bike in a straight race.

Technological advances such as aerodynamic frames, electronic shifting, 12-speed groupsets, bike computers, hydraulic disc brakes, and deep aero rims (we could go on) all give riders a competitive edge, while adding a zero or two to the final bill.

The fact these advances are more prevalent for high-end bikes means the performance gap between halo racers and beginner bargains is wider than ever.

This arguably goes some way to explain why price increases have been more exaggerated at the top end of the bike market than the bottom.

Supply and Demand

To state the obvious: supply and demand have a massive effect on the prices of bikes.

The effect on bike prices has been particularly pronounced recently though, in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Being stuck indoors for months left people desperate to throw themselves back into the great outdoors, increasing demand for bicycles.

At the same time, the pandemic kept workers at home and created difficulties in international trade, creating a pinch in the supply of bikes (and their components).

A road cyclist pedals down a wet road on a black bicycle.

How Can I Get Value For Money When Buying A Bike?

Finding a good deal on a bike requires patience and research.

When buying a new bike, it’s somewhat rare (but not impossible) to find a deal that’s significantly cheaper than the competition for the same bike.

That said, there are plenty of bad deals out there too – rogue vendors hoping you’ll impulse buy without checking out the competition first!

For those on a tight budget, opting for a used bike can provide great value. If you opt for a fairly recent model, you won’t be missing out on much in the way of technology advancement, but you’ll be knocking off a massive premium for being the bike’s first owner.

There are plenty of pitfalls to be aware of, so it’s vital to do your research and check the condition of the bike you’re buying thoroughly. If you don’t feel particularly knowledgeable, bring along a cyclist friend to help you out when viewing the bike.

Found this “Why Are Bikes So Expensive” Guide Helpful? Check out more from the BikeTips Experts below!

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As a UESCA-certified cycling coach, Rory loves cycling in all its forms, but is a road cyclist at heart. He clocked early on that he had much more of a talent for coaching and writing about bikes than he ever did racing them. In recent years, the focus of Rory's love affair with cycling has shifted to bikepacking - a discipline he found well-suited to his "enthusiasm-over-talent" approach.

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