TCI Friday

Earlier in the week, when I was cogitating on what I wanted to ask you this week, I thought maybe I’d talk about bikes you wished you’d had, the ones that got away, or weren’t attainable at the point you would have wanted to attain them. My own entry in this category was going to be a BMX freestyle bike a friend of mine had. It was chromed, feather-light, and it really begged to be endo’d and tail-whipped. Envy is a bad look, I realize, but when it comes to a bike like that, what can you do?

Then I got to thinking what a bike like that would cost now, notwithstanding the fact that bikes like that simply aren’t made anymore. It would be $2000 to start probably. Nice things cost money.

In 1985, though, it probably cost $350. Maybe less.

I have worked in the industry a fair time now. I’ve seen what things cost at the manufacturer’s level. I know what shipping costs. I understand how distribution works and why it adds the costs it does. I don’t see many (maybe a few) companies who are charging significantly more than their costs would suggest they should.

So what’s happened?

In part, the industry of the 1980s was wedded to the idea, at least in the U.S., that most people buying a bike were hobbyists. They weren’t “serious” riders, however you want to define that. And so, what was made here and/or imported were entry-level bikes. This created the false impression that bikes were relatively cheap. Actually, what was available were cheap bikes.

At some point in the late ’80s the bike buying public started to tip over from hobbyist to enthusiast (more nebulous terms, but stick with me). We got obsessed with weight. We began to race more, and yearn for more and better, and the industry responded with better and better products. Costs went up. So when we compare what the nicest ride cost in 1980 to what it costs in 2021, we are not comparing apples to apples. We are comparing apples to foie gras.

Don’t eat foie gras, by the way. It’s bad for you, and it’s bad for the goose. Yes. I know it’s delicious.

Okay. So if we accept that bike prices remain in line with manufacturing and distribution costs (accepting that efficiencies are always still available), and that the major differential between then and now is in the quality of the products the marketplace is demanding, what do we think about the value of the bikes on the market now?

It’s only fair to mention inflation, too. As Padraig pointed out to me helpfully as we talked about this very issue, a jar of peanut butter used to cost $0.79 and now it’s $6.99. And the peanut butter weighs exactly the same as it ever did. What do they take us for, fools?

This week’s TCIF asks, are bikes too expensive? Are riders, by and large, being sold nicer bikes than they need? Or is our perception of value simply skewed by false memories of what a bike was in the ’70s and ’80s?

Listen, we can’t squander our food budget on throwback BMX parts eBay’d out of mid-Western basements unless you support TCI. Just think of all those mag wheels gathering dust in Peoria.

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  1. Jeff vdD says

    The only bike that’s too expensive is one you can’t afford.

    I bought my least expensive bike (a 3-speed beach cruiser) used from the MIT police auction for $49. I bought my most expensive bike (Ti adventure bike) from an iconic Watertown builder for IfIdieIhopeMYpartnerDOESNTsellTHATbikeFORwhatItoldHERIpaidFORit. (That’s not fair at all–she knows exactly what I paid for it and she’s totally supportive … in fact, her $49 gift [that’s Seven x Seven, get it?] got me started down the Ti path.)

    State Bicycle Company has a broad line-up of sub-$1k bikes. Are they good bikes? Good enough bikes? I don’t really know–I’ve only got one bike from them, and I bought it used for $80 from the MIT police auction.

    Citizen Bike makes a good (or at least good enough) folding bike starting for sub-$300.

    How about the Giant Revolt 2 adventure bike for $1,000?

    I could go on (but thankfully for all of us, won’t). There’s a price for every price range. Include used in your search parameters and the low end (at least in normal times) expands dramatically. Just don’t buy more than you can afford.

  2. bluezurich says

    What’s expensive and egregious? The label ‘Vintage’ being slapped on anything over 10 years old and thus inflating the going rate by 300%. Case in point, Try to build up an early to mid 90’s road bike and a good condition component will go for the very same price it was originally sold for upon launch. Used, a bit scratched, logos faded, various parts and materials aged and worn, possibly degraded over time….who cares? It’s Vintage! It’s Classic!

  3. DaveinME says

    I have been astounded to see the rise in bike prices since I first began riding and wrenching in the 80s. When I started, you could get a nice steel road bike with Suntour or Campag components for less than a grand. As bluezurich mentioned above, trying to recreate that bike with the proper component spec today would easily cost twice as much.

    I don’t know if new bikes are too expensive now since they are flying out of shops. Cyclists are most certainly being sold nicer bikes than they need. Some of the bikes I see when I am out riding are World Tour level and the folks riding them are just tooling around on them. They have the money and want nothing but the best.

    On the flip side, we have a local non-profit LBS that only takes in donated bikes, restores them, and sells them cheaply. I know lots of people who have begun cycling with bikes from that shop.

    “Or is our perception of value simply skewed by false memories of what a bike was in the ’70s and ’80s?” This is a great question that I am not sure how to answer btw.

  4. papogi says

    Here’s an example. In 1987, I bought a Grandis SLX frame and built the bike with full Campagnolo C-Record. In total, I probably spent a little under $2300. I still have it, and it’s still my main ride. It was expensive, but you could get a Tour DeFrance grade bike for under $2500! Not true in the world of cars in Formula 1, but in bikes, you could get what the pros rode for under $2500. Inflate that to today’s dollars (inflation in the US), and you get a shade over $5000. With most Tour bikes costing at least twice that, it shows how much more a person has to pay now to get the cream of the crop. Sure, a modern bike has more capabilities than a bike from 1987, and it’s quite a bit lighter, and that has to cost something. But buying the best in the past was a smaller percentage of your money than buying the best now.

  5. Dan Murphy says

    Well, expensive bikes are pretty expensive, especially the highest end, but you can get a helluva bike for $2500 today. And if you get a year-end deal, even better. But, don’t listen to me, I spent way too much and bought a Seven Evergreen in ’16.

    And no, that peanut butter jar has shrunk over the years, a marketing ploy to charge the same price for a jar. I don’t care, the stuff is worth its weight in gold.

  6. Ramona d'Viola says

    I know a guy…

  7. khal spencer says

    I bought a Cannondale SR 300 for a shade under 400 bucks in 1985, According to the inflation calculator, that bike would cost about 960 bucks now. My guess is based on the components and frame, you could do as well or better nowadays at $960 than I did in ’85 for $399 or so.

    The real thing I kick myself for was back then I though stiffer was better, but I had fewer fillings to fall out. I turned down a used but immaculate Italian bike in CrMo with similar Suntour components for the SR 300 Boneshaker. That eye-talian bike is the one that got away.

    Patrick O’Grady has reviewed some fine bikes for under a grand in Adventure Cycling that would probably be as good, inflation adjusted, as anything I bought back in the eighties. I just wish there were more good choices now for folks not trying to have champagne tastes on a beer budget.

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