Thursday, April 23, 2015

Bicycle Discussion Topic: Does Expensive Always Equate to Quality?

Currently, I am on the hunt for a bicycle (which shouldn't be horribly surprising). I've been paring down the herd over the last year or so and it seems the time has come to replace the group that has departed with one bike. I'm not in a hurry and I'm taking my time to make a decision about what the bike will be, but in all of the checking-things-out phase, it's been interesting to ponder the idea of expensive vs inexpensive, and equally interesting (at least to me), perceived quality vs sub-par quality.
*Image can be found here and downloaded as wallpaper.
There was a Jan Heine article a few years ago, followed by a kind of rebuttal by Kent Petersen that in many ways illustrates exactly the ideas running through my mind. I think both posts are valid and each provide a slightly different perspective with Jan discussing why an expensive bicycle is worth a riders money and Kent offering his ideas on why he won't buy a more costly bike.

The comments after each post offer additional feedback and information to ponder, but I think what has struck me most is the idea that expensive = quality while inexpensive = garbage. I do realize there is good reason for this belief as it is based on something that you and I call reality. It simply costs more to build a quality product than it does to build one of inferior structure.

A lot goes into choice of tubing. Then there are those who lug bikes, which requires another addition to price. Paint choice. Drive train. For heaven's sake, even a crank can make quite an impact to what a consumer pays for a bicycle. These choices all have direct influence on the costs involved in a product. However, the materials themselves are just one piece of the puzzle.

When evaluating a bicycle, the maker - the person who physically welds the frame - is also a factor. Many mass-produced frames are made in factories overseas and are never - or minimally - touched by human hands. Some are hand-brazed; some are welded by machine. In my view, there are potential negatives for both a handmade product and one constructed by machine. Whereas a machine is not subject to human error and is more likely to produce a more consistent product, a machine is also incapable of recognizing small differences that a human is more likely to spot.

Then, there are factors such as experience. It's just a reality that the more exposure and time an individual has with a given subject matter, the easier it is for the person to recognize potential problems.

In my early days as a recruiter, I often let both good and bad candidates slip right by me because I hadn't enough time in the field to understand signs and signals. I had solid innate instincts, which was a great starting skill, but it couldn't prepare me in the ways that "practicing" would do. The longer I spent screening candidates for positions, the quicker I started recognizing potential red flags. Which isn't to say that no one ever got by me, nor that I never passed up a perfectly good choice, but I started to recognize probability of success the more time I spent interviewing people.

The same could be said for frame builders. Having a natural gift is a great start, but the more time a builder has, the more likely it is that s/he will produce a quality product. Beyond the physical building process itself, there are other attributes that I have no doubt begin to take shape, particularly when it comes to customizing geometry or creating a standard that works for most people. Perhaps this is why we start to see some builders who specialize in women's geometry, who build specifically for brevets, racing-specific, or builders who specialize in frames for tall/short people.

As with many aspects of life, not everything is black and white. The many shades of grey that flow between two extremes offer a lot to the mix. Do only the most expensive bicycles provide a quality product? Do all inexpensive bicycles exhibit qualities of an inadequate or poor choice?

It becomes fairly easy to swing ones opinion in either direction depending on what we hear or read. I could point out multiple links online to individuals who have had his/her Surly frame break at various points in its life and for varying reasons. By doing so, I may lead some to believe that all Surly frames will end up in a landfill sooner or later (*Note: I'm not picking on Surly - we could easily fill-in-the-blank with any number of manufacturers. We've owned 4 Surly's in our home at various times and have enjoyed each of them).

I could just as easily point out the number of many satisfied Surly owners who have never had a single issue with his/her frame. These individuals will praise the quality/value and state that there is no reason to purchase anything more expensive. Does it then automatically mean that every Surly or mass-produced frame is of quality that will last a lifetime?

Sometimes the price of a frame is influenced by aesthetics. For some manufacturers, the number of frames made are used as a means to play with supply and demand, which is also likely to have an affect on price.

I believe that there are benefits to spending less on a bicycle. I also believe these benefits are particularly present when a person is just starting to ride. It is incredibly difficult to know what one needs and how one will ride in early stages. Goodness knows that over time I have changed dramatically in the way I ride and what I ride. In truth, I couldn't have known from the start what would be in front of me. Spending thousands on a bike frame early on would likely have been in complete vain.

Still, others will point out that had I owned such a bicycle early on, perhaps the need to adjust and change what I rode may have been unnecessary. If the quality and geometry had been present with my early choice, perhaps I'd be riding the same today.

I tend to disagree with this latter possibility, as I needed time to figure out what I like and dislike about the way a bicycle rides and feels; and for me specifically, I hadn't the desire to ride in the manner I do today when my adult cycling began. However, there could be some truth to the idea that spending to obtain a quality, well-designed product initially may result in fewer bike switches down the road.

But, this brings me back to the initial thought regarding quality and price. Do they necessarily go hand-in-hand? In some respects, I do think quality necessitates a higher price tag. It is challenging, to say the least, to offer a product of substance when the ticket price is bare-bones. Yet, I don't think that spending the most automatically provides a bike of quality.

It is my belief that this is when thoughtful research, analytic-ability and personal preferences come into play. With so much information at our fingertips, it is challenging to determine B.S. or opinion from fact, as quite often these are equally presented as credible information. In addition, if you are someone like myself who enjoys absorbing and reading as much as possible about bicycles, it can provide a great wealth of knowledge. However, with that familiarity comes the nearly unavoidable confusion when conflict of source information arises.

What has been your experience with the cost vs quality conundrum? Has your experience led you to believe that there is no correlation, or have you found that paying more has afforded a more enjoyable riding experience and/or a higher quality product? Additionally, do you research companies or individuals before buying a frame or bicycle? Have you found conflicting information, and if so, are you able to separate fact from fiction?


  1. I always enjoy reading this particular type of article; as much for the author's preferences, viewpoint, and reasoning, as for those of the readers whose comments it elicits. Having said that, I'd like to offer one of mine: Once we get past the frame, the equally large issue is of components and accessories -- the parts, their integration, and their assembly. All too often, I've seen people choose them (or have chosen for them) as if they were in a Chinese restaurant, picking "one from Column A, and two from Column B". It might work that way, but rarely successfully (or as successfully as it could work). Just me, "stirring the pot." I look forward to others' comments, and future articles on this subject.

    1. I don't view this as stirring the pot at all. I would agree that components are yet another part of the puzzle that bring together the entire package. Certainly, the wrong choices can lend to horrible ride quality/feel/etc. Although I think it's possible to get varied pieces to work together as a whole, it may not be the best combination of parts which might create a poor feel on a frame that would otherwise be great.

      This could take us down another path of discussion as well. Do you let someone else (bike shop, spouse, etc) choose your parts, or do you select for yourself? There are so many variables in this as well, such as personal likes/dislikes, possible pre-existing injuries or sensitivities. Do we, as an individual, have the experience to make these decisions on our own, do we need guidance, do we share our thoughts but look for guidance or suggestions from someone considered an expert? Then we have to define who an expert is as well. It's easy to point to bike shop employees, but I know from personal experience that there are many working in such places that have less knowledge than myself (and I am by no means an expert).

      Interesting ideas here that are sparking potentially varying/diverse conversation paths.

    2. If this isn't something you want to talk about, feel free to delete. I was just wondering how things were going with the newer custom bike? Did it not work out well for you? Is it one of the ones being passed on?

      I've never ordered a custom bike. If you get one made just for you and it doesn't work out, that would be hugely depressing for me. :(

    3. I have to apologize, as I had no intention of causing any undo sadness for anyone. I am re-reading some of this and realizing how it could come across as a way of saying that the custom is on the outs. I probably could've worded some things a little differently so that those were not the ideas picked up from this. I think I was just more focused on the idea of expensive frames automatically equating to quality in the minds of some that I didn't think about the reality that some might think I'm saying my custom isn't acceptable. I still have the custom (though, currently we are going through an adjustment phase with some things that I'm sure I'll be writing about sooner or later).

      This particular hunt for a bicycle is for one that will perform different duties than a standard road bike.

    4. No worries! I kinda envy you your ability to go from bike to bike to bike, while at the same time being a tiny bit puzzled by it. (Note: the puzzlement is my own, you don't have to justify ANYTHING!) I have one main bike (a Novara from REI) that I bought about 4 years ago. I have a Brompton that a got about 3 years ago. And I have a Trek and a Cannondale that I bought 20+ years ago. So I don't cycle through (heh) lots of different bikes. I actually still like the old Trek hybrid, but it's starting to need some serious parts replacement/repair and I don't know if I want to put $$ into it, or save for a new bike instead.

      Some days I think I'd like a step-through frame with a fairly upright position. I mostly just need a bike with a pannier or some other carrier setup, and gearing low enough for me to get to and from where I need to go. I don't really ride for sport these days, just for transportation.

      So I'll live vicariously through you and your bike explorations, if that's ok. :)

    5. Janice, I don't mind explaining (or expanding upon) the bike situation. I am envious of those who have a bike (or bikes) that they've had for years and that work well for them. I always hope to be one of those people and it just never seems to work out that way. Other than the Hillborne, I think a year seems to be about the longevity of a bike with me. It happens for various reasons, but ultimately most of them have left due to fit issues (though some it has been purely to be able to afford whatever idea struck me as the "ultimate"). Oddly, the Hillborne has fit issues too, but for some reason I seem to be able to make that one work. I think it's because the pedal position is excellent and I tolerate the far-too-long-for-me top tube.

      Even knowing the fit side of it, I have to admit the financial side is challenging and exhausting. It's frustrating to constantly see the turnover and know that I'm going to lose money every single time I need to sell a bike. I definitely do not recommend the high turnover route to anyone. One of the main reasons I've had the opportunity to have so much turnaround is because Sam is quite content with just about anything he rides and even though he goes through his own turnover (usually mountain bikes), they tend to be far less costly because he buys second hand and only supreme bargains, and he tends to end up making money on the sale of his ill-fitting or performing bikes.

      Ultimately, I think the bike exchanges have been good for experimenting, but horrible for the pocket book. At some point, I do hope that it all settles in and I won't have these shorter term tests.

      And, of course, I am completely fine with you living vicariously through my shenanigans. :O)

  2. Interesting post. I think it really depends on the context, which is a kind of obvious point to make but a valid one nevertheless. I would say a really really cheap bike is almost never a good idea ... There could be issues with longevity of components, there could be a harsh ride that puts people off riding, even possibly safety issues with really cheap bikes. Also, if you are used to better quality bikes it may be hard to feel comfortable about a very cheap one. Middle-of - the -road bikes, in my opinion, are fine. I lot of people on bike forums bash Giant bikes, for example, but the one I owned was perfectly comfortable and reliable, and a fun ride too. It was no custom bike, but I was happy with it and it had good quality components on it ... Not the best, but more than enough for my purposes. I was gutted when it was stolen and I sometimes still dream about it ... Literally so! I am not sure that spending far more on a bike of the same type would have made that much difference to my enjoyment, although to be fair I have never owned a really expensive bike so I can't really tell. I replaced it with a slightly more expensive bike which I adore, and again I am perfectly happy with this new ride. I find it hard to see how anything much more expensive would be significantly better, but again probably it is just a case of ignorance is bliss :)

    1. Another good point. Can we go back once we have something that is of higher quality? I know I've attempted to recapture feelings of riding a particular bike by finding it again and then realizing that it just didn't have the same qualities that I recalled from prior ownership. Whether this is just growing used to something else or getting accustomed to something of perceived higher quality, I'm not sure.

  3. More money doesn't always buy you better quality, but there is definitely a threshold. I've never bought a truly expensive bike, but I paid a lot more for my commuter last year than I ever thought I would spend on a bike.

    I had been riding to work long enough to know exactly what I did and didn't want. I wanted a steel step-through frame and the standard transportation bike stuff like fenders, a chain guard, and a rack. But I also wanted some specialized things like an IGH to let me downshift at red lights. I have a lot of stop-and-go traffic along my commute, so it's not uncommon to think I'm going to get through a light only to have to stop a the last minute when I'm still in my big gear. I definitely did not want rim brakes. I ride in all kinds of weather, and the slipping of brake pads on wet rims made me really nervous. And I wanted a dyno hub because I wanted my bike to be like my car -- get in it and go and the lights come on all by themselves.

    I looked everywhere to find the bike that had everything and didn't cost (what seemed to me) an arm and a leg. I'd find bikes for a few hundred less, but one or another of those elements would be missing (usually the brakes or the dyno). Whenever I priced out adding those after market, I ended up right back at the price I ultimately ended up paying.

    Now I've done it again! I just put down a deposit on a road bike that cost almost as much as my commuter. "How can I pay that for a bike that's just for fun?!" My frugal mid-western inner voice kept nagging at me. "Your very sensible hybrid is just fine," that voice insisted. That voice was there on the commuter too, but shut up quick when she realized how truly awesome the bike is and how practical to have a bike that will last the rest of my life instead of a car that will have to be replaced. I imagine that voice will eventually shut up about the road bike too, probably the first time I push my way up a hill that would have killed me on the hybrid!

    1. I suppose "expensive" is a relative term as well. I know even in our household we have very different ideas at times about what is costly for a particular item - bicycles often being one of those items (You can guess which of us is the more cost-conscious). :O)

      Despite being the more ready-to-spend in our relationship, I really do agonize over bicycle purchases - be they frame or complete builds. It's easy to start second-guessing decisions and if things go wrong quickly, it doesn't help matters (and also tends to make me more leery with future purchase decisions).

      I think (hope) that spending on a road bike will be a "good" expense for you, Kendra. I think it can be difficult to make those decisions to spend, particularly when a bike that is useful is already in the bike fold. However, I also think that having the right tool for the right job is very beneficial. Sometimes it's difficult when we are unsure (such as when test-riding isn't possible), but I know that I always hope for the best... and I wish the same for you.

  4. Bike stuff is so expensive, way more than it needs to be in a just and fair universe...

    For the most part, there is a curve that plots expense to functional quality. There is a point on that curve (for every component) that marks a "decent" quality -- below that which is kindof crappy. Then, as expense continues to rise, the corresponding increase in functional quality starts to flatten out. Classic "diminishing returns". So bike stuff is about one's personal decisions about where you want to be on that curve.

    Sometime the expense of bike stuff gets so stupid I can hardly stand it. For example, one online retailer-blogger sells made-in-Japan steel water bottle cages -- from $60 to $150 bucks, each. Get outta here!

    1. I think your statement is very much in line with my personal experiences. There is a point at which the quality improvement seems negligible with an increase in price, and it becomes more about personal preference, aesthetics, and so on.

      I cannot imagine spending $150 on a bottle cage (I can't imagine spending $40 on a bottle cage) - but I'm sure there are individuals who would/do. I think the middle ground is generally a decent place to be/buy.

  5. As much as I want a Rivendell, I can't justify the expense when I own less costly and very adequate and and dependable bicycles. And yes, I do think it's all relative, just like owning a reliable Honda versus a BMW.

    1. I love my Riv, but it's taken a lot of work to get it to a place that it's functional for me (but I think it's been worth it). I believe having something that works for the rider is far more important than the name on the tubes.


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