The (Hidden, Spiraling) Cost of Bike Maintenance

Bikes cost more than they used to. Duh. Of course, they do. First, you’ve got baseline inflation, then you’ve got the assimilation of new technologies, the increased cost of trans-oceanic shipping, and the new supply-chain pressures exposed by the pandemic, not the least of which is a workforce who is less healthy and simultaneously demanding higher wages.

A little over a decade ago, when I got into the industry selling custom bikes, one of the big sales challenges we faced was explaining to consumers why they should spend more on a custom bike than they would on a production bike. Then production bike prices shot through the roof, and that whole line of argument became moot. It’s easy to spend $5-10k or more on a bike that only offers a few sizes now.

There’s a much larger, distinct conversation to be had about what bikes SHOULD cost, but that’s for another time. Today, I just want to think about what it costs to fix bikes, how I expect those costs to rise significantly, and why.

I talk with a lot of shop owners in my day-to-day life. Many are friends, and they’re candid with me about their economic challenges. There seem to be two major drivers in the rise of service costs, and the first is an increasing reliance on service income. There was a time when shops were much less focused on their service departments as profit centers. Service was a vehicle for selling replacement and upgrade parts. It was a way to get customers through the door, and the general feeling was that, if you could break even at service, that was a reasonable driver for component and bike sales.

But then suppliers started pulling back from retail. Actually, not so much pulling back as going around. Direct-to-consumer sites proliferated, and they could sell the same products online without a brick-and-mortar rent. First the suppliers empowered online retailers with volume discounts. Then they got into the D2C game themselves. And this trend started with easy to ship products like tubes and accessories, which were high volume, high margin products for shops, and now extends deep into complete bikes at all price points.

As it turns out, consumers like not going to bike shops. They like buying discounted products on-line and having them delivered to their door. Suppliers like keeping more margin and gaining direct access to their end-users. Capitalism craves efficiency. Let’s hold our value judgments about that for now.

Faced with declining product sales revenue, shops have rethought their service departments. Maintenance and repairs, after all, can’t be performed online. Most riders still depend on a shop for service.

This brings us to the second major driver of increased service costs, technology.

Even as they circumvent retail, bike makers continue to make bikes more and more technologically complicated. It takes longer to bleed disc brakes than it does to change rim brake pads. It takes longer to set up tubeless tires than it does to load up a set of tubes. Increasingly, hoses and wiring are run internally, so it takes longer to assemble bikes, AND then to service them. A basic tune-up takes longer now. Virtually everything about the bike is harder to work on than it used to be, and that has fueled an increase in riders depending on a shop rather than doing their own work at home. I’m one of them.

Increased demand drives higher prices.

Most shop owners sharpened their pencils and did the math on service, realizing they need to get $100 or more per hour to make any money at it. As bike tech has become more complex, the mechanic’s job has become more specialized, and it has become much more difficult to retain the good ones.

Society does business online, and that’s where people want to work, not in retail.

We have written before, countless times, about the dangers of proprietary technology and a failure to support bicycle retail, but the trends we see in bike world mirror the trends in the world at large. Purchasing continues to move online. Retails margins continue to erode. Many bikes shops are becoming, in effect, delivery and service centers, and that means service will have to be a reasonable profit center.

So expect to pay more for all the work you need done on your bike, and if you’ve gone all in technologically, expect to pay an absolute premium and to wait longer and longer for that work to be done.

Join the conversation
  1. PK says

    ***Grant Petersen enters the chat***

    1. Emlyn Lewis says

      @PK – That’s funny.

  2. khal spencer says

    First, shopping online. I didn’t want to buy my last bike online, but Litespeed ‘s closest retail store is in Colorado Springs, a good five to six hours from home on a good day. Don’t ask about a bad day or “is my size in stock?”. So I read Nick Legan’s review of their gravel bike in Adventure Cyclist, looked at the frame sizes and angles on their web page, compared them to my existing fleet, talked with my friend Patrick O’Grady, who like Nick did road tests for Adventure Cycling, and pulled the trigger. Worked out well and I got a nice titanium bike on sale for just short of three grand, albeit with Shimano’s 400 series GRX. But it works great and the phone conversations with Litespeed were helpful. If I were all thumbs I would not try the “bike in a box” but a lifetime of wrenching my own stuff, as well as having a well equipped garage, made it possible. For many, “some assembly required, you might goof up so don’t try this at home” or whatever is appropriate.

    Now about the technology. I never had to stare at a front derailleur as long as I had to stare at that GRX derailleur in order to properly adjust the damn thing but I did finally figure it all out after a half hour of turning screws the wrong way, misaligning little white lines, and cussing up a storm. It seemed counter-intuitive. So I can see paying shop mechanics more if they have it down as I didn’t bill myself for the learning curve, just the lost half hour of riding.

    I had no idea the market was now 100 bucks an hour. Gah, that is close to what I pay my motorcycle shop for service.

    I did buy the Park inflation blaster for my tubeless tires as I discovered the hard way that you really need to take out the valve core and blast them to get the bead to seat and usually, things go wrong after shop hours.

    So much of the current technological craze seems to be to get marginally better performance at outrageous costs and more headaches. Shit, my old fashioned rim brakes still work fine as do tubes, albeit the new stuff is pretty nice. And I don’t need internal cables.

    1. Seanandmysteed5341 says

      I too, have the GRX 400 front and rear derailleur on my steel gravel bike (old Waterford steel frame). It’s a dastardly thing to install, let alone index or route (setting that top cable in a precise curve, with that top black seat thingy you have to align to those white marks requires a Master in Engineering, seriously. Also what’s with Shimanos new sticky backing plate thingy for clamp on derailleurs?!

  3. Tom says

    Sadly, I’ve got this warm feeling that, like TV sets, computers, etc., bikes of all types will become “throw away” consumer items, i.e. cheaper to buy a replacement than having it repaired.

    The Big Box bikes have already achieved that state.

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