Friday Group Ride #367

Friday Group Ride #367

The American department store of the 1970s no longer exists. Big names like Montgomery Ward have closed. Others, like Sears, are in such advanced states of entropy that they are more like self-contained ghost towns.

In their heyday, America’s proto retailers were the shiny face of advanced capitalism, row upon row of shiny merchandise, great cavernous echo chambers of consumption. They set the bar for our daily consumption, and none of us (well, almost none of us) could imagine the buying of things could be made better.

Back then, it was a normal and rational thing to walk the aisles of bicycles and pick one out, likely based on color, pay for it, and maybe ride it home. $100 was a lot of money to spend on a bike, but in the Taj Mahal of shopping, we could stretch to three figures and justify it to ourselves.

It’s all crazy when you think back on it. The captains of industry and distribution have since turned the whole thing upside down like a kid’s piggy bank, shaking it for loose change, the price of goods going up, while the cost to sell them goes down.

Still, the memory of ’70s bike consumption persists, and so many of the Baby Boomers and their Gen X progeny remember that a bike should cost $100, maybe, adjusted for inflation, $200. How many times have I heard a neighbor, just back from the bike shop, marvel that you can spend $500 on a bicycle. “I remember when a good bike was $100,” they say.

Of course, that was a different bike, and this is a different world. The bicycle has moved on, the paradigm shifting 2-3 times since, depending on how you count. Aluminum, titanium, carbon fiber. Manufacturing has moved a few times, too, farther and farther removed from our shores for the most part. Shipping costs have increased. Taxes, duties and tariffs, oh my!

Euphoric recall is problem. The department store bikes of yesteryear weren’t good bikes. We didn’t ride them very far. They mostly hung in the garage to rust, because they were all chromoly steel. But it can be awfully hard to digest everything that’s changed in the meantime and come up with a new and realistic sense of value. We used to pay ten cents to make a payphone call, and now we pay hundreds of dollars a month to send text messages to each other’s pockets.

This week’s Group Ride asks the odd but obvious question, how much should a good bike cost?

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  1. TomInAlbany

    You looking for an actual number?

    For a kid starting $200. For a kid that likes/loves it, $500. After that, you’re choosing by spec and function.

    and, recycle those bikes to other kids. Bad for industry sales. Good for families and kids.

  2. David Feldman

    My first adult bike, in 1964–an Austrian made 3 speed from Sears, $39.99 I think my parents paid for it! Anyone else remember some of the high-quality bikes that snuck into dept. stores in the early 70’s bike boom? Motobecane Team Champions badged as “Hawthorne” bikes at Penneys in West LA!

  3. Steve Courtright

    I recently bought a “coffee bike” for my partner for about $350. It’s perfect for her and our 10-20 mile “coffee rides.” Aluminum, so it won’t rust. Fits perfectly. The gear mech and brakes work as well as the expensive stuff. The wheels are alloy, round, straight and tight. It’s not heavy. It’s amazing they can sell such a good bike for that price. So, that is my bar. $350 Seriously, it seems a little self-indulgent that I have spent about that much on a handlebar.

  4. Lyford

    It’d be great if you could get solid, reliable transportation for $500 or less.

    What do “city bikes” cost in the European countries where they’re a common mode of basic transportation?

    The Buffalo that World Bcycle Relief uses might be a good benchmark. It is by most accounts a good bike for its intended use, and the reported cost is approximately $150.

    Which leads us to the “‘good’ for what?” and “what is quality?” type of questions….

    Living in northern New England, something reliable and fun to ride in hilly terrain for $1000 or less would seem like good value.

    And euphoric recall …I’ve had great times on what my current self would call crappy bikes. When you’re a kid you don’t know any better — you’ve got wheels and freedom, and the fact that it’s iron pipe with steel rims doesn’t matter a bit. Even now I’ve rented real clunkers when traveling and had a great time on them because of what I saw and who I met.

  5. Stephen Barner

    You can go down to any big box store and buy a basic lawnmower for $140, maybe as low as $99 on sale. It will have a complex internal combustion engine, built to much higher precision than a bicycle, and it will provide at least three years of trouble-free service, even if left out in the yard its entire life. Put it away in the garage and take care of it and it could last a decade. Why should a beginner’s bicycle be much different than a lawnmower? It has more individual parts, to be sure, but if manufacturers stuck to the basics in terms of design, and instead focused on providing good quality at the lowest possible price, it should be possible to offer a quality $200 bicycle. I rode my ’84 Bianchi 40 miles today, because the weather is rainy and it has fenders, and you know what? It’s a damn good ride. I’ve put over 12,000 miles on that bike over the years. The bicycle doesn’t need much improvement from where it was 30 years ago in order to provide excellent service. What it needs is quality and efficient manufacturing and distribution at the bottom end.

    1. Padraig

      For the most part, I stay out of the FGR, but in this instance, I think it’w worthwhile to step in and point out a few relevant realities. Beginner’s bikes are more expensive than a lawnmower for a number of reasons. The first is simple: nearly every homeowner needs a lawnmower. Nothing approaching everyone buys a bicycle. Because so many lawnmowers are sold, the tooling cost is easily recouped and what a manufacturer needs to clear as profit on each unit isn’t that high because they are selling gajillions of them. With bikes, the tooling is relatively more expensive as even cheap bikes offer many more features than when I was selling them. It might be crappy suspension and it might be crappy indexed shifting and it might be a crappy 8-speed drivetrain, but those things are all relatively new features on cheap bikes. Lawnmowers are still mostly 2-stroke affairs that haven’t changed much since my dad bought one in 1974. Also, I would suggest that only a small portion of that lawnmower is built to a higher level of precision than the bicycle. Big chunks of your average Sears mower are crap. Finally, many of the materials used in bikes are just flat-out more expensive than the low-grade steel from which much of a lawnmower is made. Based on my experience, I have to say that quality and efficient manufacturing and distribution are happening in the bicycle industry. Could prices be lower? Sure. But the only way that would happen is if every existing cyclist bought a new bike every year or if all the people who are too terrified to ride a bike on streets infected with people texting their BFF suddenly weren’t so terrified and started buying bikes.

    2. Stephen Barner

      I’d have to ask the local big box store what the percentage of low-end lawnmowers to bikes is that they sell, if they’d tell me. I confess that I don’t get in there very often, but I don’t think it’s an automatic that the numbers are astoundingly different. It’s true that the precision components are all in the engine, but then there’s not much else to the thing but some stampings and wheels and the latter are designed to be cheaply replaced when they wear out. I don’t think there are any 2-stroke lawnmowers still on the market. They were killed off by emissions rules and people getting the oil-gas mix wrong. The engines on lawnmowers today use technology that goes back long before anyone reading this blog was born.
      It’s that longevity and simplicity that I think would allow bikes to be more affordable for beginners and casual riders. For some reason many people don’t really care that their new push lawnmower is basically the same as the one they were stuck behind as a 12 year old. If they’re buying the cheapest model, they want it to last at least 3-5 years and actually cut the grass. Most will spend more to get a quieter engine and a bit more quality. From there it will go up to those who spend the price of a new car to get a commercial, zero-radius turn machine to mow their 1/2 acre ranch. Sounds like bicycle customers to me!
      My dream is that component and bicycle manufacturers get together to nail down the generic lawnmower equivalent to the low-end bicycle–a modern version of the Raleigh Tourist. That bike, with it’s 28″ wheels and rod brakes was a staple of much of the world for many decades and is probably still being made somewhere in the world. It was a terribly antiquated design whose one redeeming value was that its parts were universally available. I’m envisioning something like WBR’s Buffalo, but designed for an American market. It would have a TIG welded CroMo or 6000 series aluminum frame and fork, 32-spoke hubs along the line of the excellent and inexpensive Formula, preferably with standard and easily replaceable cartridge bearings, decent alloy 650B rims, Tektro class V-brakes, upright bars, thumb or twist-grip shifter, 7-spd cassette on a 135mm hub to increase rear wheel strength and a low-end Shimano derailleur. Hubs would be nutted and a spanner included with the bike. Options could include a double front chainring, drop bars with indexed stem shifters, and mechanical disk brakes. Crank would be alloy with steel chainring and BB would be square taper with a sealed BB. Pedals would be flat, but decent quality–no ball bearings that you can see exposed! The bike should be designed so that the weight is under 28 lbs and available in at least 2″ increments from 16″ – 24″ with top tube lengths proportional to frame size. Geometry would provide quick but stable handling without toe overlap. The bikes must be designed to easily mount fenders and a rear rack and include at least one set of water bottle bosses. Cable routing would not be an afterthought and no zip ties or clips would be used. Mounting provisions for front and rear lights would be included, as they were 50 years ago on British bikes. Oh, and a removable kickstand could be attached to a welded-on mount.
      The key to such a bike would be that it is designed with established and proven technology that is already standardized and thus tooling costs are largely amortized. The longer such a bike is in production, the better the profit margin should be, while keeping the cost to the consumer low enough that it remains a good value. This bicycle would be a commodity item, like a basic appliance, with brand differences being largely limited to paint, graphics, saddle, grips and included accessories. While the bicycle manufacturing and merchandising ecosystem has largely abandoned standardization, I suspect that a market for such a reliable, serviceable machine could be created and the associated bicycles would provide better service for many riders than current low-end bikes. Henry Ford did exactly this starting with the Model T until the onset of WW2. It wasn’t until the Japanese takeover of the auto industry in the late 1970s that consumers abandoned the expectation of relative standardization in auto parts. This spilled over into most manufactured items to the point where we have almost no expectation that replacement parts will be in stock or even available. This has lead to our acceptance of disposable products, perhaps highlighted by the computers that cost $1,000 or more and get tossed after three years.
      As someone who got into the bike business over 45 years ago, I think this concept of a quality, inexpensive, generic, standardized bicycle is reasonable. Anyone agree?

    1. FullSpeed

      Patrick, 2-stroke lawnmowers are for sale in your area? Where do you live? Paraguay?

  6. Marc-Andre

    The high/end top level price has raised way too much. 9 to 15k$ for a top level bike or 6k$ for an Ultegra equipped bike just dosen’t makes sense to me. A 4k$ frameset is completely crazy

    If I take road bike with components level I think it should be pretty much as follow:

    Pro tour Level : Approx. 6k$
    Dura Ace/Record/Red Electronic : 5-6k$
    Dura Ace/Record/Red mech or Chorus elec : 4-5k$
    Ultegra/Potenza/Force elec : 2.5-3.5k$
    Ultegra/Potenza/Force mech : 1.8-2.5k$
    105/Veloce/Rival : 1.5-1.8k$

    Mountain bike should be very close to that too.

    My feeling is the industry is pushing too much things that consumers don’t need or is not really an improvement,

    The only real improvment that’s been brought to bike in my view are clipless pedals, brifters and hydraulics brakes to mountain bikes. The rest is just refinement or evolution and it doesn’t justify the inflation we’ve seen in the past 25 years.

  7. Bruce Mackey

    In 1978 my wife bought me a $100.00 bike from J.C. Penny. I was in school and she said I needed a “hobby” to help with the stress. After a few months I went into our local bike shop in Monterey, CA and told the owner I wanted to change some components. He told me to “ride the bike till the pedals fell off” then come see him. It took about nine months. I bought my next bike for over $200.00 (!!!) and rode it for about five years.
    That $100.00 bike started a hobby that lasts to this day and also resulted in a dream job, (Bicycle and Pedestrian Safety Officer for Nevada) and over ten wonderful trips as a Traveling Road Marshal to top professional races. As much as I love my current bike, a custom Waterford, I still remember the thrill of jumping on my J.C. Penny special for a soul cleansing ride.

  8. John Kopp

    In the mid 70’s I bought a $100 ten speed. I enjoyed it but it had steel wheels and iron pipe frame. A few years Later I started riding with a group, who shamed me into upgrading. Bought a Trek for $400, and what a difference. Then in early 80’s, I got a custom Columbus tubing frame from Trek for $400, and components another $400. My favorite bike. So adjusted for inflation, entry level bike should be $500, a good bike about $1,500, and a custom bike about $2,500 or more. I think a good custom bike today would be at least $4,000.

  9. Aar

    Good, basic transportation – $500, equip it for commuting, add $100

    A good “enthusiast” bike the will reliably do 3-5 “vigorous” rides per week year round, $3,000

  10. Pat O'Brien

    What would I pay for a really good bike, mountain or road? For the last 15 years it has been around $2K. But it must be clearly marked where it is made. Otherwise they can keep it.

  11. Quentin

    About 3 years ago I got my daughter her first 26″ wheel mountain bike at a shop for $300. It was functional enough for how she used it. She outgrew it this year and I don’t think she’ll grow too much more, so I spent $450 from an online retailer for a bigger mountain bike with 27.5″ wheels. It has hydraulic disc brakes and is quite impressive for the price. This is enough bike for her as long as she’s only using it for transportation. When I took up cycling in the 1980s I bought a used Trek for about $250. I just ran that through an inflation calculator and it says that’s about $560 now. Sounds about right. I’d say anyone considering cycling as a sport can probably find something adequate for $500-600 as their first bike. If after a year you’ve put more miles on it than you spent dollars on it, you’re allowed to think about spending real money on an upgrade.

  12. Milton F

    A good bike? What one might classify as “good” may not be analogous to what I find as “good”.

    A bike should cost exactly the amount that both the seller and buy feel as though they have benefited from the transaction.
    The manufacturers have figured this out and it’s precisely why we see such a wide range of pricing. To maximize their potential customer base, they have found sweet spots of “good” bike prices.

    I think complaints come when some want the best, but aren’t willing to pay for it. They find the pricing ludicrous mostly because they don’t see the whole picture of the bike selling industry. They forget that investors require a certain percentage return on the investment or they will send money elsewhere. Without investors we won’t have new things like carbon and dura-ace or anyone to build the factories that make these things.

    I do see some changes coming in direct sales that might completely eliminate the middle man (the LBS). Good or bad, this will likely drive prices down. I still like my LBS and I don’t want to let go of that relationship, but these businesses are going to need to find a way to make it in the changing world of internet bike sales.

    So – a bike should cost what one is willing to pay and the free market will dictate quality and pricing on it’s own.

  13. Dave

    Stephen Barner, I agree completely. I’m also a bike retail lifer–started in high school in 1971, full time five years later, and believe that the current cutting-edge fashions in cycle equipment dance on the line between excessive marketing and out and out consumer fraud. Your bike spec sounds wonderful for a “standard American bike” and would be nice to see a sort of truce between manufacurers to let it be built. Maybe a town version with flat bars and a sport version with drop bars and down tube shifters which, like square taper bottom brackets are only obsolete in the minds of social parasites with marketing degrees. Something has to give to keep price from being a barrier to entry–2K wheel sets and $1000 rear shocks are probably not good for either the activity or business in the long term.

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