The Price of Performance

The Price of Performance

Why do high-end bikes and components cost so much more than budget offerings? Both racing bikes in the photo above are made from carbon fiber. Both are equipped with multi-speed drivetrains and Shimano STI shifters. Both have narrow 700C tires. One may be a little lighter, but does that justify charging so much more? Both are fine bikes, so what do you get when you pay so much more in a bike?
If you look at it from the perspective of buying cars (or washing machines, or furniture), the pricing of bikes does indeed seem odd. When you buy a more expensive car from the same maker, you usually get a larger car, with a bigger engine. More money buys more car.

Many car buyers would be surprised to learn that a larger car (or refrigerator) does not cost more to make. The steel, aluminum and plastic that goes into a car makes up only a small fraction of the price you pay. It’s insignificant, really. Yet car makers charge significantly more for bigger cars, because they can. And they push their larger models, because their profits are so much higher.
In the bike world, it rarely makes sense to promise you “more” in return for a higher price. Imagine the salesperson telling you: “For just $250 extra, I can put you on a 62 cm frame instead of the 60 you are looking at now.” Instead, more money usually buys you a product with better performance.
How do you get more performance?
In a car, you can increase performance simply by increasing the engine size. A 3-litre engine has more power than a 2-litre engine, all things being equal. On a bicycle, the engine size cannot be changed: You are the engine!
Bicycles are like race cars. In race cars, the rules restrict engine capacity and power output. The only way to obtain extra performance in a race car comes through optimizing every component. Of course, that costs much more than boring larger holes into the engine block to increase the cylinder size and thus get more horsepower.
Small race cars are no less expensive than large ones. A competitive race car easily can cost ten times the price of a similar production model. The two Subarus below ostensibly were the same car, both with a 2.0 liter turbo engine. Yet they shared few components, and the race-prepared car cost ten times as much as the production model.

With bicycles, it’s similar, albeit usually not as extreme. You can buy a mass-produced steel touring bike with triple cranks, cantilever brakes and racks for $1500. Why does a custom-made steel randonneur bike cost four times as much?
Like the racing car, the custom-made randonneur bike has every component optimized for performance. A good builder also tends to have more know-how than the “production managers” who spec production bikes, and the bike’s design can be adapted to your needs and desires. So the custom bike already is a better machine for you before it even leaves the drawing board. When it comes to making the bike, the builder starts with better raw materials. He or she uses more expensive processes and much more hand-work to arrive at a final product that performs much better.
How much better? Everybody will notice things like the shock absorption of the fork and the better ride of more supple tires. Other details become more important the harder you ride. When you approach the cornering limit, you really appreciate a bike that has predictable, precise handling. When you ride fast over indifferent roads, you don’t want things to rattle and shake loose. When you ride at night, you notice if your light is mounted so it illuminates the road without blinding you. The harder you pedal, the more you appreciate a frame that gets in sync with your pedal strokes. And the more you ride, the more you will appreciate the increased longevity and safety that comes with higher-quality bikes.
There is no denying that some bicycle companies charge more just because the market will bear it. The Campagnolo Super Record cranks (above left) are by all reasonable measures identical to the Record ones (above right), yet cost significantly more. However, my experience shows that budget parts and bikes rarely work as well as high-end ones. The difference often is in small details, like the effort required to shift gears, or the quality of the bearings. The reduced weight of the high-end components is less important the extra enjoyment they provide while you ride.
My conclusion: You can have fun on any bike, and skill and fitness will make more of a difference than an expensive bike. Often, good enough is just that: good enough. (For example, I’d be perfectly happy with the production Subaru that cost £18,000.) That said, more expensive, better bikes often are more fun to ride, and if you ride a lot, they can be worth the extra money. However, that $ 11,000 Trek seems overpriced for a production bike.

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Comments (99)

  • tony dadson

    I doubt you can build a frame that “syncs” with the pedal strokes of each customer. If such a feature exists, it is an unmeasurable quantity and as such, the luck of the draw.

    September 3, 2013 at 12:07 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      It can be done, and it can be measured. See this blog post about our double-blind study of frame stiffness. Whether it works for everybody, and whether we know enough to design bikes that do this for different pedal strokes is another issue, but even that can be measured and tested. Nobody has done it, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be done.

      September 3, 2013 at 7:35 pm
      • tony dadson

        I’ve read the blog about frame stiffness. and of course it wont work for everybody as everybody has innumerable combinations of physicality, energy, preferences, abilities, experience etc etc. The permutations and combinations are endless and for that reason the chances of “syncing” with each customer are slim to none and impossibly time consuming. Nobody has done it and therefore it cannot be used to justify high prices for custom frames.

        September 3, 2013 at 7:58 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          You are right about the difficulty of customizing frames to rider’s pedal strokes. Fortunately, many of us are more similar than we realize. The fact that two riders in our test preferred the same frames tells you something… A custom builder (hopefully) has the know-how that will result in a frame that stands a good chance at performing optimally.

          September 3, 2013 at 9:39 pm
          • tony dadson

            Two guys with a common interest in a particular style of riding like the same bike. That is a far cry from designing a new OPTIMUM bike from scratch for a stranger. HOPEFULLY a custom buIlder stands a CHANCE of performing this task??? That isn’t a huge selling point for custom frames in my book.

            September 3, 2013 at 10:34 pm
    • Tobin

      I think you’re exaggerating these differences. We’re all just spinning pedals in a circle, after all. Weight and intended use matter, certainly, but these things are not so complicated that they can’t be summed up in a short paragraph to the builder.

      September 4, 2013 at 10:27 am
      • tony dadson

        My point exactly. the differences are so small that there will be a production bike for each preference. I dont buy the idea that a custom builder’s high prices are justified to tailor a frame to “sync” with a customer. I realize there are plenty of other reasons to buy a custom frame, I just dont buy this one!

        September 4, 2013 at 11:23 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          You misunderstand… My original point was that for many riders, most current production bikes are too stiff. This means that to get the frame flex you want, you may need a custom bike.
          Another issue is that a superlight bike requires a lot of care in brazing, aligning, etc., otherwise, you may get serious shimmy issues or even premature failure. In an assembly-line setting, this care often is lacking. For steel, it’s usually overheating tubes and alignment issues. With carbon, you get warped frames/forks that haven’t cured long enough, or not enough material in critical spots.

          September 4, 2013 at 11:33 am
          • tony dadson

            “Most” doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. If there is a large enough market for them, someone will service that market. and if there isn’t, then youre right , you’ll have to go custom. But that still doesnt provide a reason why the rest of the market can’t be satisfied with a production frame at far less cost. And a properly set up production line can guarantee repeatability of alignment and joint temperatures as well as a custom builder.

            September 4, 2013 at 11:48 am
          • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

            In theory, all this can be done. Cars show us what economies can be achieved when things are mass-produced on a large scale. You probably could make a lightweight randonneur bike, fully integrated and ready to go, that sells for $ 1000, if you make 100,000 a year. (I guess that would be 100,000 in each frame size… but with a choice of 5 colors.) Like a modern car, it wouldn’t be superb, but “good enough” for most riders. These economies also are the reason why most small car makers have vanished, and those who still exist cannot compete.
            In the bike world, the closest to this model was the Raleigh factory in Britain, but that was a long time ago. Today, annual production numbers are by the hundreds or thousands for a given model. No maker has a dedicated assembly line for just a single model.

            September 4, 2013 at 2:11 pm
    • Tobin

      You seem to be simultaneously overcomplicating and oversimplifying the matter. If you buy a custom bike, the builder can take your weight and use into consideration and build you a bike of appropriate sitffness. The production bike does not know you, and must for safety and liability reasons err on the side of stiffness.
      One of these will make you happier than the other…it’s really not so controversial.

      September 4, 2013 at 2:11 pm
      • tony dadson

        There are production frames that offer low trail, small diameter tube, lightweight flexible frames for those who want them. They may not be quite as fancy as a full on custom but will be one heck of a lot cheaper and will perform every bit as well for the vast majority of customers who are not interested in the slight advantages (at high cost) offered by the custom frame. The law of diminishing returns.

        September 4, 2013 at 2:38 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Where the returns diminish depends on how you ride. For me, in the middle of the night on a mountain pass, it’s very important that my rack doesn’t shake loose, that my light gives an optimized beam pattern, that my bike tracks straight, etc… That means I want an integrated bike with everything just right, not a frame built up with parts that may or may not fit well. Since I tend to ride my bikes for a decade or more, the extra cost is well worth it.
          Of course, your preferences may be different.

          September 4, 2013 at 3:02 pm
    • Tobin

      The only one I’m familiar with is Boulder, and calling a superlight spec Boulder a ‘production frame’ is a bit of an odd stretch. I don’t believe the Rawland nor the BDP bikes use particularly light tubing. Frankly, applying this sort of ‘reasoning’ to any of these super-small, limited production run bikes seems purely argumentative to me.
      If the Soma bike performs, we will perhaps have an example of a true production randonneur bike. I’m not particularly hopeful, given the braze-ons present on the pre-production frames I’ve seen.
      Maybe there are tons out there I just don’t know about. Maybe I’ll drop by the bike mega store on the way home and see if Trek or Cannondale or Specialized has gotten into the rando game without me noticing…

      September 5, 2013 at 11:47 am
      • tony dadson

        whether they are small runs or large runs has nothing to do with it. the rawland stag claims to be a lightweight , lo trail 650b frame and it is certainly a LOT cheaper than a custom frame.

        September 5, 2013 at 12:46 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          The Rawland Stag sounds like a neat frame. However, for the price, you cannot expect the quality of a hand-made bicycle. And of course, being a frame/fork, it’s far from a fully integrated bike.
          If we were to test a Rawland, it wouldn’t be fair to compare it to a fully integrated constructeur bike that costs several times as much. We’d compare it to what else you can get for that money, and I suspect it would fare very well.

          September 5, 2013 at 3:03 pm
          • tony dadson

            The Rawland Stag sounds like a neat frame. However, for the price, you cannot expect the quality of a hand-made bicycle. And of course, being a frame/fork, it’s far from a fully integrated bike.
            exactly my point about diminishing returns. a neat frame for the 99.99% of us who enjoy our bikes and biking every bit as much as you do for a fraction of the cost. i do not agree with your previous implications that we would enjoy the pastime of cycling even more as we advanced in our techniques and acquired high end custom bikes to enable further progression. and as far as quality, in the things that count to me, I certainly do expect them to be functionally equal.

            September 5, 2013 at 3:33 pm
          • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

            It’s a bit like comparing a Ford Mustang with a top-of-the-line Porsche or Ferrari costing 3-5 times as much. Or a meal at a five-star restaurant with one of the “healthy fast food” places. What amazes me is that even though I can’t afford the Porsche or Ferrari, now the five-star meals on a regular basis, I can ride a top-of-the-line bicycle daily on a very limited budget.

            September 5, 2013 at 5:39 pm
          • tony dadson

            It’s a bit like comparing a Ford Mustang with a top-of-the-line Porsche or Ferrari costing 3-5 times as much. Or a meal at a five-star restaurant with one of the “healthy fast food” places. What amazes me is that even though I can’t afford the Porsche or Ferrari, now the five-star meals on a regular basis, I can ride a top-of-the-line bicycle daily on a very limited budget.
            I realize that is important to you. What you seem unable to understand is that is not what is important to the vast majority , who, as I said enjoy bicycle riding every bit as much as you do. perhaps for different reasons, but every bit as much.

            September 5, 2013 at 5:44 pm
          • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

            I am sorry if you are under the impression that I am trying to say that you can only enjoy cycling on a top-of-the-line bicycle. Of course not. Some of my most wonderful memories are from rides on a pretty crummy Peugeot 10-speed.

            September 5, 2013 at 6:23 pm
      • somervillebikes

        Rawland specs the Stag with 7/4/7 top tube and 8/5/8 down tube in the smaller sizes, and all 8/5/8 in the larger sizes, so they do spec bikes with lightweight tubing. I just bought one in their largest size, but haven’t ridden it enough to give a definitive judgment. I can say that it blows away my previous 650B bike, a conversion of an 80s Japanese touring rig.
        Jan, it seems that you’re pre-emptively dismissing production bikes (and in this case small production runs of “craft” bikes like Boulder, Soma, Rawland, Ocean Air, etc) as never being able to have the “quality” of a hand-made bike (but you still haven’t articulated a good definition of “quality”: ability to maximize a rider’s power output? To keep a rider comfortable through a day in the saddle? Aesthetic details and finish quality? Durability? “Quality” as you’ve referred to several times is simply too vague a term).
        I think a fantastic idea for a future feature in BQ would be to round up every production 650B, low trail, lightweight randonneuring bike frame for a comparative review. Since these are sold as frame sets, that provides a platform for BQ to spec them all with identical component builds. Then the frames can be compared directly against each other and then you might be better able to directly compare their qualities against hand-built equivalents.
        You’re comment about the Stag being sold as only a frameset and not a complete bike and therefore “far from a fully integrated bike” is kind of silly. On the contrary, the buyer isn’t wasting his money on components that he didn’t spec himself. By your logic, every custom frame ever built is “far from a fully integrated bike”.

        September 5, 2013 at 5:52 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          I am not dismissing production bikes. The Rawland sounds like an awesome frame, for the money. As so often, you roughly get what you pay for. Your Japanese touring rig probably cost a lot less even than the Rawland frame. It’s not surprising that the Rawland performs better. However, it’s also not surprising that a Boulder Bicycle, with a hand-made frame that is made to measure, will perform even better. And a Peter Weigle custom will be one step above that yet. That doesn’t mean any of these bikes is bad, or that you cannot have fun on them. Which provides the best value for you depends on your priorities.

          September 5, 2013 at 6:43 pm
      • Paul Ahart

        I don’t know about Trek and Cannondale, but as a Specialized dealer, I can say that the company seems to edging tentatively into the “performance, all-roads” kind of bike with their TriCross models, and the newest, the AWOL, which in the high-priced model, is built with high-end Reynolds steel tubing. We shall see how they pan out. I’d love to see them market a lightweight 650b bike, but that may be asking for too much.

        September 6, 2013 at 1:01 pm
  • GuitarSlinger

    On the discussion about car prices I agree completely ( though not even close on what it takes to create higher performance in an automobile ) When it comes to hand made vs mass production prices … again we’re in complete agreement . But when a bicycle manufacture is passing off what is in essence a ‘ production ‘ line CF racing bicycle and then charging its customers ( because it can ) $10,000 or more for said bike … that is truly a step too far . Fact is for any bike … hand made or not to cost as much if not more than many an exotic high performance motorcycle is in fact ludicrous and absurd .
    IMO the current prices being demanded ( and at present received ) for high end racing bikes is in fact Potemkin Village .. or the Emperor’s New Cloths if you prefer .. exemplified . My only question being …. how much longer can this ruse be continued before it finally implodes on itself ?

    September 3, 2013 at 12:10 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I wonder which bike is more profitable – the low-end or the high-end one. My gut feeling is the high-end one, but when you look at the numbers made, investment in molds, etc., it may well be the other way around. I know for sure that you make more money if you import a container of TIG-welded bike frames from Taiwan than if you make high-end custom bikes by hand.

      September 3, 2013 at 12:22 pm
      • GuitarSlinger

        Thats a real good question Jan … and probably worth exploring further . I’d think though .. in light of the excessively high prices vs what it doe cost to manufacture cf on a fairly large scale ( its not expensive at all ) …. well I’ll hazard a guess and say the high end mass produced ( major manufactures ) bikes like Trek , Pinerello , Cannondale , Cervelo , BMC etc are more profitable . With the smaller brands such as Cyfac , Serotta etc though …. it may be the other way around . I’d be curious though to hear what the actual answer is .

        September 3, 2013 at 1:58 pm
    • Bruce

      Your analogy comparing custom bicycles and custom/high end motorcycles is the absurd one. Custom motos whose builders yak the same painstaking measures to ensure proper fit and alignment cost >$100,000. Especially if not a stock frame.
      While many custom builders charge just at what the market bears instead of what it’s “worth” generally they are worth it long term.

      September 4, 2013 at 3:58 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        One of the amazing things in bicycles is that custom-built, top-of-the-line machines are relatively affordable. For what many people spend on the options package of their car, you can go from a production bike to a nice custom bike. Most of the people I know who ride very nice bikes are far from rich. They just allocate their resources to a bike.
        The main reason why custom bikes cost so little, compared to high-end products in other areas, is that most custom builders make very little money and have close to zero overhead.

        September 4, 2013 at 4:21 pm
  • Patrick Moore

    There is also the factor of one-off or small-run unit costs which are always much greater than unit costs for bulk goods. Further, if the maker of the one-off or small run is an American or European or anyone else expecting American- or European-level wages and benefits, and if the geographical location of the manufacture is a high-cost area like Europe or America, the premium due to the absence of mass production savings will be even greater. For you could theoretically mass produce a Peter Weigle rando bike (for example) with almost identical materials and parts, in China, and so bring the cost down hugely while leaving all or at least most of the benefits of his design.
    So, in addition to better design and materials (including parts), factors of scale and location of manufacture (that determine wages and other production costs) make a huge difference.
    Still, I can’t see paying $11 grand for a factory made bike, even with Super Record. I might well approve of an $11K bike designed and built as a one off for a real person’s real needs.

    September 3, 2013 at 12:10 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      For you could theoretically mass produce a Peter Weigle rando bike (for example) with almost identical materials and parts, in China, and so bring the cost down hugely while leaving all or at least most of the benefits of his design.

      You could, in theory. In practice, I am surprised time and again how bike companies copy each other, rather than try and make a better product. But if you are a “product manager,” it’s the easy way, and nobody will blame you if it goes wrong.
      The Peter Weigle has a lot of thought and analysis that takes real time, skill and intelligence, and none of those are free. (Yes, you could hire Peter to supervise the production in China, and thus maintain most of the features that make his bikes special.)

      September 3, 2013 at 12:27 pm
      • MSRW

        There’s another factor that works in favor or production bikes: most of them have been through cycles of refinement/improvement, while custom bikes tend to be closer to prototypes. I’ve never had a custom racing bike that outperformed the best production racing bikes; and my custom tandem didn’t perform as well as the production tandem I’m riding currently. I would agree with Mr. Dadson that there probably isn’t a huge difference in the needs of most serious cyclists within any particular type of riding, and production bikes don’t necessarily provide a less complete or less refined experience, at least in talking about higher end production bikes. Top of the line production bikes are use all the same components and hardware as top of the line custom bikes. Fenders don’t rattle, bolts don’t fall off and the lights are equally well-aimed on both.

        September 5, 2013 at 6:38 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          Top of the line production bikes are use all the same components and hardware as top of the line custom bikes. Fenders don’t rattle, bolts don’t fall off and the lights are equally well-aimed on both.

          I am not aware of any top-of-the-line production bikes with fenders or lights…

          September 5, 2013 at 6:40 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          There’s another factor that works in favor or production bikes: most of them have been through cycles of refinement/improvement, while custom bikes tend to be closer to prototypes.

          I totally agree – see our article “The Case Against the All-Out Custom Bicycle” in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 7, No. 4.
          The best builders have features that have been fine-tuned over many bikes. When I researched our René Herse book, I was surprise how little of these “custom” bikes were specified by the customer. Basically, Herse suggested the size you needed, you got to pick the wheel size and tire width, which racks you wanted, and a few other personal details like handlebar shape and saddle. You also got to pick the color of course. The rest was up to him. You didn’t pick the brakes or even the derailleurs. As one rider said: “You had to be very sure of yourself to argue those details with Herse.” By 1950, Herse had made about 1500-2000 bikes, and the final product was incredibly refined in every detail.
          So while I think hand-made bicycles that are made to the highest standards are great, I don’t really like the idea of a “custom” bike where the customer specs every detail.

          September 5, 2013 at 6:52 pm
    • Tobin

      “For you could theoretically mass produce a Peter Weigle rando bike (for example) with almost identical materials and parts, in China, and so bring the cost down hugely while leaving all or at least most of the benefits of his design.”
      I guess that’s close to what Soma Fabrications is hoping to achieve with their Mike Kone designed ‘Grand Randonneur’ frameset.

      September 3, 2013 at 12:50 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        The Soma sounds interesting – we hope to test one – but remember that Peter Weigle is a complete bike, not just a frameset.

        September 3, 2013 at 1:00 pm
  • Greg

    I think that we need to keep in mind here than pricing does not occur in a vacuum. Some products are even priced well below their cost to manufacture. (Chevy Volt, any one?). Yes, an $11,000 ‘production’ Trek sounds a bit ludicrous (to me, anyways – I think a $5000 disposable bike is silly, as I don’t buy bikes as fashion statements or status symbols, but hey, that’s just me…), but then again so does a $1,000,000 or a $2,000,000 car. I would never purchase either one of those products even in the (extremely unlikely!) circumstance of being able to do so.
    Cost of manufacture is only one component (of many) in the pricing decision. Also, if you want to build pretty much any product without compromising one iota on the design, materials, features, quality, durability, serviceability, build location, etc., then your costs are going to be (usually significantly) higher than if you compromised on one or more of those parameters. Everything built by humans is a compromise in one or more ways. Some things are just far more compromised than others….

    September 3, 2013 at 12:56 pm
  • Greg

    Also, please keep in mind that life-cycle cost is more important than initial cost. Often, the more initially-expensive option, if bought for the right reasons, will be cheaper to own over the life of the product. (Yes, you read that correctly). A Fifty-Dollar pair of shoes that lasts three years is far cheaper than a Twenty-Dollar pair that lasts six months and falls apart, for example. People that buy everything on the basis of lowest initial cost often fail to understand this fact. Anyone want a new Yugo? They were ‘only’ $3995!
    For something like automobiles, what really matters the most is your cost per mile or per Km. during the time that you own the vehicle. Being a geek, I track such things, and in the past I’ve had cars that cost me as little as seven cents per mile to operate. That was, of course, when energy was nearly free, here in the USA, so those days are gone, but we recently sold a vehicle that we had owned for eleven years and 175,000 miles. The total cost to operate it was thirty-nine cents per mile, which is pretty good, these days….

    September 3, 2013 at 1:11 pm
  • somervillebikes

    Where does this leave small-time bike designers like Soma, Rawland, Rivendell, etc, who design bikes around specific philosophies, giving very careful and informed consideration to tubing, geometry, etc, but contract with factories in Taiwan to build the frames to their spec? These frames then go on to be sold as framesets to individuals (usually competent individuals who have a very good sense of how they want their frames built up). The final bikes embody the vision of the original designer and of the owner, but aren’t custom.
    In other words, an educated buyer of a Rivendell or Rawland frame can hand-pick parts for a thoughtfully designed bicycle for about half that of a full custom. Provided the sizing and geometry work out favorably to the buyer, I think that’s a great deal (I for one went this route with a Rawland).
    This type of frame sort of gets at Patrick Moore’s question above. So I wonder where this type of bike falls within your evaluation of two bike industry extremes?
    and FWIW– I’ve also seen a lot of high-end custom frames get built up with a mash-up of mediocre and incongruous parts, making for a bike that ends up inferior to a well-thought out production bike.

    September 3, 2013 at 1:14 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I was heavily involved in spec’ing one of the first of these frames, the Kogswell P/R. Yes, it was a cut-rate low-trail 650B bike. It was great for people to find out whether 650B and low-trail really was what they wanted. Many people had a lot of fun on theirs. But nobody would claim it approached a Peter Weigle.
      I don’t think a high-end bike is for everyone – it all depends on how you ride. The more you ride and the more you demand of your bike, the more you appreciate a great bike, and the less it costs you per mile.

      September 3, 2013 at 1:53 pm
    • Patrick Moore

      “In other words, an educated buyer of a Rivendell or Rawland frame can hand-pick parts for a thoughtfully designed bicycle for about half that of a full custom. Provided the sizing and geometry work out favorably to the buyer, I think that’s a great deal (I for one went this route with a Rawland).”
      I agree with Jan that the more you ride and the more particular your riding preferences, the more likely you will benefit from the ultimately vanishingly small improvements of a pure custom over a production machine. Most of us can get by quite well with the strategy you describe — even if even we can discover small flaws in our production models, as I do in my on the whole excellent Fargo — “excellent” now that I have build it up more exactly to my particular use and likes. On the other hand, we all know people who ride mega-miles yearly, regular brevets and P-B-P included, on production bikes and seem to lack no enjoyment — I have two acquaintances who do just this.
      “and FWIW– I’ve also seen a lot of high-end custom frames get built up with a mash-up of mediocre and incongruous parts, making for a bike that ends up inferior to a well-thought out production bike.”
      My favorite: the tout DI2 Specialized Roubaix with elastomer built with plastic platform pedals and a no-stay rack with rack trunk clamped to the carbon fiber seatpost. (To be fair, the owner received the bike in donation from an acquaintance and says he “loves it”.)

      September 3, 2013 at 2:29 pm
  • Gert

    I would never buy the 11K bike, because to much of the price of the expensive parts is only because they are lighter, but not necessarily of better quality.
    As an example tests have shown that the campagnolo veloce chain has a longer lifetime than the 10 speed record chain, which is a few grams lighter but at a 20% higher price.
    The big problem is finding where quality is also better
    Are the TA Specialites Horus/Syrius chainrings of better quality than the Vento/Zephyr or are they only lighter?
    For Campagnolo shifters Ultra-shift is much better than Power-shift. And will I pay double for old chorus 10 speed ergopower brakes/shifters over veloce 10 speed ergopower, because I think I get double quality.
    I have just bought a TA Specialites VORTEX crankset at almost double the price of Campagnolo Athena. Because i could get them in 185mm length (and by the way they appear to be JIS and not ISO, as TA Specialites say they are)
    To sum it up. It is extremely difficult to tell where You get quality for Your money and where You just get a very little less weight.

    September 3, 2013 at 1:17 pm
  • somervillebikes

    Following up on my own comment, I should have added that for this discussion to be truly meaningful, we have to disambiguate between complete bikes and framesets.

    September 3, 2013 at 1:22 pm
    • Steve Palincsar

      Especially since there’s such a huge price disparity between the cost of identical bike components purchased in quantity by a manufacturer vs purchased retail by a customer. There’s just no way around it: build up a custom and you are going to pay much more for what could be the identical parts. And if you have your LBS build up the frame set, you’re going to pay a much higher labor charge than the manufacturer for labor.

      September 4, 2013 at 5:59 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        You are right, and that is why production bikes are comparatively inexpensive.
        Unfortunately for me, rarely does a manufacturer spec the bike the way I want it. As an example, if I were to buy a Surly Long-Haul Trucker, I’d swap out the handlebars for a set that is more comfortable. I’d replace the cranks with a set that has lower tread (Q factor). The tires would have to be replaced for supple tires that improve comfort and feel. I’d set of hand-built wheels, so I don’t need to worry about breaking spokes. I’d also have to add racks. By now, the price of the bike would almost have doubled, and I still wouldn’t have the bike I want. So for me, the choice is either to ride the production bike as is, or go the custom route.

        September 4, 2013 at 7:16 am
        • tony dadson

          I can’t help but notice you ignored the option of buying a production frame.

          September 4, 2013 at 8:08 am
  • robertkerner

    Your commentary is spot-on as usual but I bet most of the people who read your blog already understand this. The people who do not are probably not visiting this site in the first place! I think the concept of fit is also related to cost, in the sense that many consumers do not understand the significance of a bike properly fit to the rider. I have co-workers who want to ride with me and ask where to buy a bike, and I tell them “at the shop that will spend at least 30 minutes making sure it fits properly, even if it’s an $800 bike.” If they do not or cannot understand that concept, there’s no way they can understand why people spend $10k for a bespoke bike that will outlast its owner.
    At the end of the day, I cannot put a dollar value on the joy my bike brings me and the great places I can go on it. So the price tag is almost meaningless at this point in my life.

    September 3, 2013 at 3:20 pm
  • Larry T.

    It’s tough to take inflation out of the discussion, after all, back-in-the-day a Schwinn Paramount with all the top level components on it was listed at $325. An $11K bike 50 years later might be a bargain in comparison? But the thing that will always be great about cycling is no matter how much you pay, the thing only goes as fast as you can pedal it!

    September 3, 2013 at 3:22 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      the thing that will always be great about cycling is no matter how much you pay, the thing only goes as fast as you can pedal it!

      Very true, but in our double-blind tests, we found that we could pedal some bikes faster than others…

      September 3, 2013 at 6:17 pm
      • Larry T.

        Uh, how can one do a double-blind test unless you’re riding blindfolded? Did you never look at the bike you were riding? I read the series of posts and sort of know what you’re driving at, but “we could pedal some bikes faster than others” smacks of the BS peddled by the brands who put their names on bikes used in the big pro races. My point was Chris Froome’s gonna kick my ass in a race no matter what I ride (unless it has an engine) and the same thing would happen if we swapped bikes and raced again. That’s the beauty of cycling for me, when it comes to PERFORMANCE, it’s really “not about the bike” to borrow a phrase from a certain punk from Texas. No matter how much you spent on it, if you don’t have the legs…you aren’t gonna beat up on someone with a lower-cost machine. Same as it ever was. I smile when someone marvels at my steel bicycle, asking why I don’t ride something lighter? My response is usually that my bicycles are optimized for DESCENDING rather than climbing, since that’s my favorite part of cycling. I still remember Andy Hampsten’s quote about the only thing worse than NOT having a superlight bike for racing uphill was HAVING one when it came time to race downhill!

        September 4, 2013 at 5:02 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          A double-blind test requires that neither rider nor test administrator know which bike they are riding. If you look at the photo, you can see that all bikes looked exactly alike. Two had the same frame tubes, one had different tubes with heavier walls. Small weights in the bottom bracket equalized the weight.
          You are right that if you don’t have the legs, no bike will make you into Chris Froome (this year’s Tour de France winner). But if you do have the legs, some bikes will work better than others. The quote you mention is from Greg LeMond, and he was talking about his TVT bikes that had issues other than frame flex.
          I have ridden Andy Hampsten’s bike on which he won the Giro (it’s in our book The Competition Bicycle, so I had it for a few days of photography). It’s made from superlight Tange Prestige tubing, yet it descended like any other bike, even at very high speeds. And when we descend around here, it’s pretty demanding on bike and rider – see the photo at the top of the blog.
          What we found is that descending, front-end geometry matters much more than frame stiffness.

          September 4, 2013 at 5:26 pm
      • Larry T.

        Andy Hampsten said this shortly after his ’88 Giro win, while I believe LeMond was still looking for a team and ended up in 1989 on ADR, riding something with Bottecchia stickers on it. Perhaps that was a TVT? I remember Andy’s bike well, photos I took of it at the TdF in 1988 revealed that it was not the product of Ben Serotta, but of John Slawta…something Serotta was not too happy about when he got a copy of the photos. My wife has a Landshark almost identical to it and I’ll agree with you on the descending qualities – she flies down hills on that bike as well as any other – though it’s far from “stiff” in the conventional sense. Overall I like your take on things – poking some holes in the marketing BS that’s all too prevalent out there when it comes to selling bicycles.

        September 6, 2013 at 1:38 pm
      • Larry T.

        And I must admit forgetting about the “HUFFY” branded bikes LeMond rode..some of those were probably TVT products – so perhaps Hampsten merely borrowed the phrase from LeMond since those pre-date his 1988 Giro exploits?

        September 8, 2013 at 10:39 am
  • Duran

    When we’re talking about the price of performance I think that one thing you have to consider is the point in which spending more begins to lead to diminishing returns. At certain price points the increase in spending leads to a massive jump in quality. For example, going from a 300 dollar Walmart bike to a 600 dollar REI bike will net you a bike that’s much, much, more reliable. Or switching from a 600 dollar bike to a 1600 “performance” race bike will likely to a significant increase in speed. But eventually spending more buys you less and less. What really is the difference between a 4,000 dollar bike to a 6,000 bike? Is someone much faster on an 8,000 dollar bike vs. a bike that’s “only” 3,500? Since humans act as the engines I feel as though the drop-off in what additional spending buys you in a bike is much more severe than with cars or motorcycles.

    September 3, 2013 at 4:46 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You make a good point. It all depends on how you ride. For many riders, working on their fitness and skills will net the biggest improvements. Once you’ve done that, then you’ll continually bump into the limits of even a very good bike. At that point, a truly great bike will be the logical next step, and the returns will be significant. But if you gave that bike to a rider who still has a hard time bending their elbows while riding, they might not benefit much when compared to a bike that costs half as much.

      September 3, 2013 at 6:20 pm
  • Antoine

    I quite agree that value vs cost is a personal thing. However, price vs cost of production is not. Most businesses know their production costs, be it fixed, marginal or average costs. Now the question is, are high-end bikes similar in production costs to lower end ones (the price difference being mostly a marketing thing) ? I have no inside information on that. Still, I tend to think that if, say, Trek were to manufacture just the 11K bike, they might be able to spread their costs and sell them close to 2.5K to all those who would have bought either the 11K or the 2K bike.
    But Trek does not do that. My guess : they make more money as it is.
    There is one good thing about that : boutique / custom builders can make a living since they compete against the 11K Trek…

    September 3, 2013 at 5:54 pm
  • bostonbybike

    You should also mention that sometimes more expensive components are worse than the less expensive (but not the cheapest!) ones. It’s a tradeoff between the performance and longevity. Race components may be lighter and perform better but may not survive more than just one race season.
    It is kind of like the Formula One engines. They perform extremely well but are short-lived. They are being rebuilt multiple times during the season.

    September 3, 2013 at 6:03 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      There are some components where lighter and more expensive is less durable. Carbon handlebars are an example. But in many cases, the more expensive components will be more durable. Better materials and tighter tolerances make bearings last longer, for example. Same for chainrings… and lightweight forged parts usually last longer than heavy cast ones.

      September 3, 2013 at 6:51 pm
  • Eric Daume

    Jan, I really wish you would stop dragging out this “big cars are no more expensive” analogy. I work in the auto industry, I’ve seen the numbers: big cars are more expensive. Yes, they are (generally) more profitable, but more features, more technology (especially new technology–someone has to pay for my R&D salary), and yes, more material, all add up fast. And adding power isn’t just a matter of boring it out–you need to strengthen every component that power goes through, if you want your more powerful car to be as durable as your base model.
    Bikes and cars often show the same trickle down effect–the early adapters of high end stuff pay the extra margin that allow the masses to afford it on their mid priced race bike/sedan a few years later. In cars, this shows up on the high end, bigger, luxury models. On bikes, it’s on their top end race bikes.

    September 3, 2013 at 6:33 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      I think there is a misunderstanding. I understand that big cars often have more features, and thus cost more to make. (In fact, makers put in the features to justify the higher price.) The same applies to cars the same size, when you compare a base-model BMW 3-series with the M3 performance model… You don’t pay for the extra sheetmetal, but for the R&D and features.
      My point is that if you took a basic small car, say a Nissan Versa, and made it the size of a Cadillac without adding features, just upscaling the sheetmetal, it wouldn’t cost much more than the original car. Just like a 63 cm frame doesn’t cost more than a 53 cm frame…
      I used the Chevrolets in the illustration for a reason – few people will argue that a Malibu has more R&D, better features, or better materials than a Cruze… yet the Malibu costs almost 50% more just for being bigger.

      September 3, 2013 at 7:30 pm
      • Eric Daume

        It’s actually nowhere near 50% more. I don’t know my Chevys too well, but a quick check of the web site shows:
        Cruze: $17k starting MSRP vs. $22k for the Malibu (Malibu is 29% higher)
        Cruze: 1.8l vs 2.5l for the Malibu (39% bigger engine)
        Cruze: LxW = ~11k in2 vs. ~14k in2 (27% bigger)
        So the dimensions actually scale pretty close to the price difference. Plus the Malibu probably has more standard features… my point is, no car maker is wringing their hands while laughing evilly at the sick profits they make off those fools who buy their bigger cars which cost the same as the smaller cars… because they don’t.

        September 5, 2013 at 6:05 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          So the dimensions actually scale pretty close to the price difference.

          If that reasoning was sound, you’d pay 20% more for a 62 cm frame than for a 52 cm frame… yet they cost the same. It’s a well-known fact that compact cars aren’t very profitable, because they don’t cost significantly less to make than bigger ones, yet you cannot charge the same price.

          September 5, 2013 at 6:28 pm
    • Matthew J

      Eric – Are you saying GM tries out the high tech on the Traverse first before popping it into the Volt or Corvette?

      September 4, 2013 at 7:54 am
      • Eric Daume

        Exactly the opposite: look at Mercedes, for example. Most of the advance three letter acronym safety systems show up on the $100k S class first, then the E, then C… That way, the customers who are least price sensitive end up paying for a lot of the development for the new systems.

        September 5, 2013 at 5:55 pm
  • Erik

    Sometimes we tend to forget that the journey is more important than the bike. As long as you feel comfortable on a bike and can ride it for, say 150 km, without pain or annoyances the bike is good enough. I’ve seen three wheels with bearings beyond repair in my whole life. Everything else was perfectly usable as long as it was well maintained.
    I just mean to say: “to me it appeals more to explore the world on a $ 25 wreck, then to stand in admiration in your garage for a $ +1000 bike that never rides.”

    September 4, 2013 at 2:59 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      “to me it appeals more to explore the world on a $ 25 wreck, then to stand in admiration in your garage for a $ +1000 bike that never rides.”

      I totally agree – the best bike is the one that gets ridden a lot. However, having ridden more than 50 Bicycle Quarterly test bikes, I can tell you that on some, a long, challenging ride will be much more fun than on others.
      So to me, the $ 8000 bike that gets ridden 8000 miles a year, while the rider enjoys every minute of it, is a better deal than the $ 500 bike that gets ridden 200 miles a year, and the rider endures the ride without having much fun.

      September 4, 2013 at 7:10 am
  • Bob Zeidler

    Maybe the bicycle mfg’s have learned from Porsche who charge you more when giving you less😃
    Based on the test in BQ, I bought a Calfee’s tetra adventure frame set and had my LBD build it up. The total cost was staggering (relatively)! I love it and so bought another, more road oriented. I have wheel sets from 26″ to 29″ , incl 650b for the adventure. Subsequently I have sold all but one of my Riv’s, etc and come out in the plus column. These bikes make me want to ride more often and are more enjoyable when I do.
    With regards to the cost, as my doctor has often said, “Hey it’s less than a week in the hospital!”

    September 4, 2013 at 3:28 am
  • Mr. Palomar

    Great post as always – thank you, Jan. If I could add, there is something to be said for outdated technology too – i.e. one can find a great 20 year old frame (an RB-1 for example) & add the components you like – tailoring this to your own ergonomics and taste. I know this conversation is more about current production bikes but to be honest I have a hunch you could build two amazing bikes for the price of one amazing new bike by going this route. This said – great to have this type of conversation – quality is Job 1.

    September 4, 2013 at 10:51 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Used products usually are less expensive. I drive a 21-year-old car that cost me very little, yet with less than 90,000 miles it has lots of life left. In some cases, technology makes quantum leaps – I wouldn’t want to ride with a 21-year-old bicycle headlight, but much of that can be retrofitted.
      I rode an Alex Singer for a long time that I bought used. While not inexpensive, it was much less than a new one. That said, I really enjoy my own custom bike, since it incorporates features like ultralight tubing and wide 650B tires that are almost impossible to find in the used market in that combination.

      September 4, 2013 at 11:16 am
      • Mr. Palomar

        Always great to hear about 21 year old autos with many miles left in them – I have a hunch that this is a very well maintained car and it was manufactured to a high level of quality to start with.
        For those of us with a love for outdated technology (LED lights aside) if I could ask – what price points are we talking about i.e. a Seven vs a Johnny Coast vs the 11k Trek above?
        And, are you saying that a ‘production bike’ is anything not tailored and specifically built (to the fraction of a mm) for the buyer? – i.e. the frame is made specifically for the buyer and isn’t simply ordered as a size.
        If I could ask, aren’t the mid-range bikes (say in the 4 – 7k range) outstanding as well? I would think many bespoke lines with standard frame sizes – Rivendell or Boulder Bicycle for example, with hand built frames made in Waterford, WI, are also the cat’s pajamas.
        Maybe the 11k Trek above is a bit like Superbike or Formula 1 as one previous post mentioned. Very few riders/drivers get to the level of handling this type of steed. It is of course a beautiful thing to see, it’s exciting and this technology filters down to make better production bikes/cars – or in this case bicycles. All good.

        September 5, 2013 at 6:08 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          I would never get that Trek… If I was to get a modern racing bike, I’d probably go for either a superlight steel frame (say a René Herse), or a nice custom carbon from Crumpton or Calfee, or a titanium one from Seven or Lynskey. Put on Campagnolo Chorus or Record Ergopower (I haven’t tried Chorus, so I don’t know whether it’s as good as Record), a nice set of handbuilt wheels, and a great set of tires, and you’d have something that probably performs better than the Trek at 1/2 to 2/3 the price.
          I have such an “ordinary” body that I don’t even need custom sizing, except that I like a more stretched-out position than most modern bikes allow. You are right, a Boulder Bicycle offers 90% of the function of a full custom René Herse at 50% of the price. It lacks the ultimate in beauty and finish, plus a few nice features, but you could live with either and never regret your purchasing decision. If you are after function alone, there is absolutely no need to spend $ 11k, but the improvements you get when you go from $ 2k to, say, $ 6k are huge.

          September 5, 2013 at 6:50 am
  • TimJ

    A terrific post, thanks! Indeed, what do we ever purchase where the more we spend, the “less” we get? I cannot even think of anything else we buy in this manner, maybe firearms (I wouldn’t know) or laptop computers?

    September 4, 2013 at 1:31 pm
  • David Pearce

    I see your post was tagged in Testing and Tech, so I guess this is as good a place as anywhere to ask the following two questions:
    1. I don’t see any specific Category in the drop down menu for shifting or shifters, and didn’t see any shifting posts after only a quick scan–I’m sure you must have addressed this topic. Since you are discussing high end and fancy bikes here, can you give your take on the e-shifting systems from Shmano & Campagnolo, versus manual shifting? Is it worth being able to shift all the way up or down the cassette in one go, and for whom? Only professionals, or randonneurs too? Besides being bulky and new and another thing to learn how to set up, I kind of like that the bike I’m building is mostly mechanical, but see #2 below. If you could, would you like to weigh in on the whole “this one goes to eleven” on 11-gear cassettes, pros & cons?
    2. I wonder (I really mean I hope) if you are planning a new generator hub test comparing and contrasting Shutter Precision hubs versus SON hubs. I was convinced by the SP website and their own demonstrations, but only time will tell. Anyway, it’s now laced up (by me!) with Sapim X-Ray aero spokes and a VO Diagonale 650b rim. Only the riding will show whether I made the right decision! And when I wire up my lights, I’m going to use your good looking post on wiring to do it! Thanks!

    September 4, 2013 at 2:45 pm
  • Bubba

    Jan, do you consider your Rene Herse to be a fully integrated bike? If so, who integrated it? You certainly didn’t buy it as a complete bike. Nobody else sold it to you. There was no master craftsperson designing it for you. Dozens of craftspeople worked on parts of it, most of whom had no clue that the parts they were making would end up on your bike. Where did the integration occur? I think you cast yourself in the role of constructeur. Correct? Pay yourself $20 an hour for the time you spent on your bike. Treat it like an attorney’s billable hours. What’s the real price tag of your Rene Herse, taking that into account? $20,000? More?

    September 5, 2013 at 5:29 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      My René Herse is a special case. I’d have to say that I was the constructeur, who integrated the bike. You are right, if I billed myself, it would be very expensive. Like many enjoyable things, you cannot really count the hours. Otherwise, every home-cooked meal and every bike ride would be quite expensive. I just rode the bike today, after having spent a few weeks on a test bike. The joy I get from my bike is worth every minute I spent building it.
      However, you could get virtually all of the performance and function in a “normal” René Herse, which you can order for less than the $ 11,000 production Trek.

      September 5, 2013 at 5:46 pm
      • Bubba

        But if I order a “normal” Rene Herse frame, am I on my own to try to achieve “full integration”, just like you were? Am I the constructeur if I buy a Rene Herse?

        September 5, 2013 at 8:09 pm
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          We tested a René Herse that was one of the best bikes we’ve ridden. As I said, my bike was special. It was a prototype for a lot of things that I and René Herse Bicycles wanted to try. However, you don’t order a René Herse frame, but a complete bicycle…

          September 5, 2013 at 8:33 pm
  • Steve Palincsar

    “However, you could get virtually all of the performance and function in a “normal” René Herse, which you can order for less than the $ 11,000 production Trek.” So let’s say that “normal” Rene Herse is around $6,000 for the frame. What would the “as built” price be if you spec’d it with a comparable group to the Trek? I assume the Trek has a Dura Ace DI2 group, and probably a wheel set worth a couple of thousand dollars. Sure, those might not be aesthetically compatible with the Herse frame, but if you did it, I think you’d be in the same ballpark as that Trek.

    September 5, 2013 at 7:02 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      Sure, but I know which one I’d rather have!

      September 5, 2013 at 8:35 pm
    • Bubba

      From the Rene Herse website today: Frame, Fork, Rack, Decaleur, Stem, Internal wiring for your light, plus the assembly charge adds up to $10,150 with no components at all.

      September 5, 2013 at 9:35 pm
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        I was thinking of a René Herse racing bike that was comparable to the Trek. You cannot compare a stripped-down racing bike with a bike that is fully equipped…

        September 6, 2013 at 7:07 am
  • Adam in Indiana

    Jan, what are your thoughts on rider weight, tube butting, and planing? Supposing they’re both fairly experienced riders with roughly the same power output, do you think a 200 lb rider would feel the same effect on a .9/.6./.9 tubeset that a 150 lb rider would on a .7/.4/.7? Standard diameter verses oversized comes into the picture as well; you mention that most production frames are made too stiff, does this correlate with the wide use of oversized tubing, do you think? If a person had the option, should even a heavier rider (200 lbs, give or take) go with standard diameter?
    I suppose there are an enormous amount of factors that should dictate that choice, and everyone’s preference will no doubt be different, but I would like to hear your opinions on it.

    September 6, 2013 at 4:11 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      There are many factors involved, as you say. When my friend Ryan (who is 6’4″ tall) got his Boulder Bicycle, we considered all those factors in the discussions with the builder. He chose .7/.4/.7 tubing, but oversize. The result works extremely well for him. We featured that bike in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 10, No. 3. Experienced builders usually have made quite a few bikes for different riders, and the feedback enables them to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

      September 6, 2013 at 7:10 am
  • Robert

    Missing from this discussion is any notion of sustainability and simplicity–core ideals for many cyclists, and a refreshing antidote to rampant consumerism and commodity fetishism. I have never owned a new bicycle, but have always ridden hand me downs or used bikes reclaimed from ebay, craigslist, and even dumpsters. And these bikes include great marques like Colnago, Follis, Merckx, Motobecane, and Kessels, most of which I built with used parts I spec’d myself. None of my bikes have ever been a limiter to my performance. The only limiter is myself. Convinced by Heine’s publications, I converted my Follis 472, which is relatively low trail, to a beautiful randonneur sportif. It lacked an integrated light and other bespoke features. No problem. I simply fashioned them with my own skill and know-how, another pleasure that would be lost to me if I sent a wish list to a builder for a fully spec’d bike. I will never be Peter Weigle, but I love looking at his shop photos and seeing what approximations I can come up with in my humble basement bike den. I would never give this up for buying an integrated machine, no matter the cost. These pleasures are worth far more to me than any slight gain in performance from a custom machine built by someone else.

    September 6, 2013 at 6:32 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      You make a good point – there is a lot of beauty in something you have created yourself. From a sustainability perspective, getting one locally crafted bike with excellent components that will last a very long time has a much smaller impact on the environment than getting a mass-produced bike that is replaced every five years. My Alex Singer will be 40 years old next year, and it’s finally semi-retired after having been ridden maybe 200,000 km (125,000 miles).
      My most expensive bike per mile (both in money and environmental impact) was my Peugeot 10-speed that I got in high-school.

      September 6, 2013 at 7:13 am
      • Mr. Palomar

        Well noted, Robert, from a fellow fan of ‘outdated’ technology (most of my bikes are vintage lugged steel frames with 20-30 year old components). However, I think it is very important for riders to support (and wonderful to have the opportunity to purchase) a custom one of one bespoke bicycle. At the core of this discussion has been the idea of quality. Whether building your own bike – from starting with a great frame that has some patina on it & finding quality components – to ordering a Seven or Boulder Bicycle or a Rene Herse. It’s all good fun. I think one can do expensive well and inexpensive well but not cheap well. I knew a seasoned carpenter that used to say ‘It only costs a nickel more to go first class.’ I think there is a lot of truth in this (his meaning being that sacrificing quality will cost you in the long run). I think this is at the core of this great discussion – thanks again, Jan, for the opportunity to have this type of forum and for all the hard work you put into this site and Bicycle Quarterly!

        September 6, 2013 at 8:10 am
  • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

    I realize that some readers are under the impression that I am trying to say that you need a very expensive bike to have fun. I apologize for this misunderstanding – you can have fun on any bike, and depending on your priorities, good enough often is good enough. What I wanted to explore is what you get if you do spend more and get a high-end bike, rather than dismiss the lower-end machine. I edited the original post to clarify this.

    September 6, 2013 at 7:15 am
    • David Pearce

      Good comment. I have paid more than I ever intended on my bikes, but still, when compared to my car, I can see an end to the large outlays for the bike. One avenue to explore is the relatively easy and inexpensive upkeep on the bike of your choice after the initial investment.
      First, my whole Brompton Experience. I bought the highly optioned bike, the bags, SON dynamo, upgraded the pedals and tires to my liking, and it was expensive, I’m sure over $2,000. But upkeep is pretty much just cleaning & lubrication, and it’s my go-to-market city bike, complete with fenders and shopping cart already attached.
      Now, with this randonneur project, same thing. I’ll tell you, the NEXT bike I build will have some economy of scale, but Model #1 is expensive (to me), when considering investment in bike tools. Still, what I’ve learned about lacing wheels and everything has been satisfying to me. This bike will surely top $2,000 in parts, an amount that makes me gulp, with my labor gratis on top of that. Still, once it’s built, upkeep is really just maintenance and cleaning. Still my rep around the neighborhood as the bicycle superman makes me feel it was worth it.
      Compare that to the cost in parts and labor for my 2000 Volvo v70 wagon. I have basically rebuilt the suspension & brakes on this used car that had 90,000 miles when I bought it, with just about every suspension/brake part offered by IPD ( I just spent $1,500 replacing the swaybar endlinks AGAIN, and installing (labor only) 4 new springs and tune-up services, now that it has 140,000 miles on it.
      Driving on the cratered streets and highways of our nation’s capitol will keep car repair workers employed for the foreseeable future, and of course, I can’t do the work, either. My lift is a bicycle stand.

      September 6, 2013 at 8:32 am
      • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

        You make a good point. Apart from wear-and-tear items like chains, tires and the occasional brake pad, my bikes are almost maintenance- and repair-free.

        September 6, 2013 at 8:42 am
  • Shu-Sin

    It seems to me that the assumption is that a custom bicycle made to a customer’s spec will always be without flaws. The assumption is made stronger by the fact that most customers aren’t as knowledgeable as someone like Jan, Somerville, or any number of readers of this blog and therefore trust is placed with the ‘master’. It’s also assumed that Peter Weigle is infallible.
    Most builders aren’t like Peter. Peter has honed his skills and accumulated innumerous hours perfecting the geometry of his bicycles and spec’ing components that he knows will function and be aesthetically coherent. Many other builders try to please a wide range of customers, or have a wide range of interests themselves… they’ll build cross bicycles, track, fat tired, bmx, etc. Which is all wonderful. However, s/he will lack the level of knowledge for any given geometry to be able to produce a machine that fits the customer’s needs perfectly.
    I recently helped a friend add some components to a semi-custom rando bicycle made by a reputable local builder. When trying to install fenders and racks, we found that good alignment was impossible to achieve because some basic principles of integration were overlooked, such as the distance of the fender eyelets from the seat-stay and chain-stay bridges.

    September 6, 2013 at 9:41 am
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      We wrote about “Choosing a Builder for Your Next Bike” in Bicycle Quarterly Vol. 7, No. 4. It’s important to choose a builder who understands what you want, and who has experience building it.

      September 6, 2013 at 10:48 am
      • tony dadson

        On the other hand, you could choose a production frame manufacturer who produces what you want at a fraction of the cost.

        September 6, 2013 at 10:53 am
        • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

          If you are lucky enough to find a manufacturer who offers just what you want, with the quality you want, then that makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, for all my bikes, that hasn’t been the case, and so even my Urban Bike I use for riding around town had to be custom-made (although it is based on a “production” frame with set tubing and angles).

          September 6, 2013 at 11:41 am
          • tony dadson

            I will settle for finding a manufacturer who offers close to what I want with ‘good enough” quality within the price range I am willing to pay for a bicycle knowing full well that I will be willing and able to adapt myself to the bike. And I will love riding it. And I am far from alone in this regard.

            September 6, 2013 at 12:10 pm
  • David Pearce

    I can see Le Vélo vs. L’Auto all over again! Good thing we’re not discussing Dreyfus! 🙂 I can imagine this paper breaking into the Dreyfusards and the Anti-Dreyfusards right here. Though I couldn’t tell you whose side is whose!

    September 6, 2013 at 2:51 pm
    • Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

      David is alluding to the “Dreyfus Affair”, which shook France at the turn of the 20th century. Pierre Giffard, the editor of Le Petit Journal, took the side of Dreyfus. History proved him right, but at the time, many industrialists weren’t happy, so they financed a competing paper, L’Auto, that eventually drove Le Petit Journal out of business. Henri Desgrange, the editor of L’Auto, also became the organizer of the Tour de France… As an industry stooge, he was vehemently against multiple gears, since the bike industry wanted to promote simple-to-make single-speed bikes. Vélocio, the editor of Le Cycliste, had realized that for efficient riding in the mountains, you needed gears. Desgrange and Vélocio often locked horns… It’s a fascinating history. To promote gear changers, friends of Vélocio’s organized a hilly race, the Poly de Chanteloup, which provided a proving ground for gear changers, and eventually led to the early adoption of derailleurs over other gear changers in France.

      September 6, 2013 at 4:24 pm
  • Harry Harrison

    I realise this may make me appear shallow, but have we considered the ‘show off factor’ or if you prefer, the ‘cachet’ factor of having a rare and expensive bicycle ? Laying myself bare, I have to admit to preferring my vintage mechanical Longines wrist watch over my vastly more accurate Casio. I am fortunate to own a 1963 ‘real’ (there, I said it !) Rene’ Herse, however I have no desire for the modern version whatsoever. If I were to spent north of $8000 on a new bicycle it would have an emotional element, Alex Singer and a year long wait perhaps.

    September 7, 2013 at 12:08 am
  • ddsheehan2013

    I think the best rational for spending the money on a custom frame and components is that you get exactly what you want, both in terms of fit and function. I’m thrilled with my 2007 Somerville Independent Fabrication every time I get on it – it fits me and my riding style perfectly (thanks to a great shop here). I have a custom build of a Surly Cross Check and while it is a very nice bike and a very good fit for me, the fit and function aren’t exactly perfect.
    Regarding production frames like the Rawland, I had the chance to take a built up Rawland Nordavinden for a 45 mile test ride on familiar roads. The bike had 650b Hetres, which were new to me, and the fit was imperfect but close enough, nearly as close as my Surly. I enjoyed the chance to try a short trail 650b bicycle and came away feeling that the Rawland would be a much smarter entry into the randonneuring design rather than getting a custom bike first. But custom, when you can afford it and when you know what you want and you know you will be riding a lot, is the way to go.

    September 10, 2013 at 8:39 pm

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