Cycling Equipment Is Expensive, but Not Expensive Enough

·7 min read
Photo credit: ullstein bild - Getty Images
Photo credit: ullstein bild - Getty Images

Cycling is expensive. Like, really expensive. But you knew that already. Michael Frank, my former boss when he was editor of Mountain Bike magazine (RIP), has a piece over at Gear Patrol that attempts to answer the eternal question: Why are bikes so expensive?

Doing a story like this presents a somewhat inescapable challenge: You’re asking the people whose business it is to sell expensive stuff why their stuff is so expensive. Guess what? They have polished and reasonable-sounding answers!

The overwhelming message in Frank’s story is the same one I’ve heard many times from many sources: “good” bikes are expensive because they’re expensive to make. There’s extensive engineering time, high-end materials, many hours of skilled hand labor, tight tolerances, the expectation of perfect finish and jewel-like details, and relatively low volumes.

I particularly liked this bit, “When [Chris] Cocalis shows someone one of Pivot’s $10,000 mountain bikes, he’ll hear some people scream, ‘I could buy a motorcycle for that!’ Which, he agrees, is true. ‘But does any motorcycle with a carbon frame, carbon wheels, and suspension components on a par with what comes on a high-end mountain bike even exist? Yes, it does. It’s called the Ducati Superleggera V4. It matches up quite well—and it costs about $100,000.’”

I own a motorcycle that costs as much as a bicycle: A Ducati Scrambler that carried a retail price of $8,495 when I purchased it in 2015. And when I get up close, the finish work looks like crap: inferior to a $1,200 bicycle. The Scrambler’s suspension technology is rudimentary compared to that of an $8,500 mountain bike. The controls on my Ducati are not as crisp or precise as the Shimano XTR or SRAM XX1 I’d expect to find on an $8,500 mountain bike. Not even close. An $8,500 bicycle is of undeniably higher quality and better made than an $8,500 motorcycle. Plus, a motorcycle has ongoing registration and insurance fees. A bicycle does not.

Still, I sympathize with the many (many) people I hear from when I write a review of a high-end bike because I often feel like I’m getting priced out of the sport I love. I’m not only a journalist—a profession not known for its high salaries—but a journalist in the bicycle industry, a sector notorious for low pay. My wife, who’s also a passionate cyclist, is a third-grade teacher at a public school in Colorado. That’s a low-paying profession in a state ranked last in the nation for wage competitiveness.

We’re doing okay and we’re not poor. But we’re also not in a position to buy high-end bikes without going dangerously into debt—and we don’t even have kids. We both enjoy riding road, mountain, gravel, ’cross, and getting around on a sweet townie. Equipping this household with a new fleet of “good” bikes could easily cost $50,000 or more. And that’s before factoring in apparel, helmets, eyewear, racks, tools, and all the other gear that surrounds this sport.

And then there are the sport’s unforeseen expenses. Cycling has risks, and everyone who participates will eventually hit the ground. A few years ago, my wife and I both sustained severe injuries in separate cycling accidents resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical bills. I had another bad crash in August 2020 that resulted in six broken ribs (one in two places), a bruised kidney, and a three-day hospital stay. Thankfully we both had insurance, but we still incurred high out-of-pocket costs. Our savings took a severe hit and set our retirement planning back several years. And something like that could very easily happen to one or both of us again.

So I understand the festering rage when we post story after story about new $10,000+ bikes. Who can afford this shit? Certainly not me.

But even as expensive as cycling is, I’m about to argue that it should be more expensive.

As I stated, the cycling industry is notorious for low pay. While many inside it could make more money in other industries, they willingly accept less to be part of something that makes them happy. But many can only do it so long before they’re forced to move on in order to secure their future or start a family. I know because I’ve met these people, and I’ve considered leaving the industry myself for the same reasons.

Bike shops in particular struggle to keep good employees, because margins on sales are so thin—even at full retail markup—and labor rates are forced so low that they can’t offer competitive wages or the benefits that encourage good people to stick around. In 2014, Fred Clements, executive director of the National Bicycle Dealers Association, wrote a post in which he cited bike shop salaries and seemed to reinforce the old joke, “How do you make a million dollars in the bicycle industry? Start with two million.”

According to Clements’s post, “A junior mechanic earns an average $15,336 per year, and a senior mechanic $27,606. Junior salespeople earn an average of just $15,000 per year, and senior salespeople $27,622. What about store managers? They earn $40,301 per year. The average bike shop owner earns $49,877 per year.”

I just wrapped up a review of a Pinarello Dogma F that carries a suggested retail price of $14,500. The bike costs almost as much as Clements’s estimated yearly pay of a junior mechanic.

The next time you’re bombing down a hill at close to 50 mph on a 16-pound road bike, wearing little more than underwear and a foam cooler on your head, about to haul on the brakes to scrub speed for an approaching corner, on roads you’re sharing with two-ton SUVs, think about this: Do you want the bike underneath you worked on by a transitional, minimum-wage employee? Or a seasoned professional who’s appropriately paid, trained, and certified to work on extremely lightweight and precision equipment?

Because, speaking as a former shop mechanic and service manager, there are a whole lot of the former and not enough of the latter. So please don’t grouse about labor rates or $120 tune-ups.

That’s just the front lines. Because cycling equipment—particularly carbon fiber parts—is so labor-intensive to make, a lot of cycling equipment is made in countries with low labor rates, some with questionable human rights records.

Joe Lindsey, a frequent Bicycling contributor, has an excellent piece (is there any other kind of Joe Lindsey piece?) in Outside magazine about the ongoing battle of outdoor apparel industries to ensure that factory workers are treated well and paid fairly. Executive summary: It’s very complicated. Even companies like Patagonia and Prana struggle—and these are companies that underscore the need for fair treatment of the workers who build their products.

At least in the outdoor industry, many players are actively talking about factory conditions and (seemingly) trying to do better. It’s hardly a conversation in the bike industry. Bring up the well-being of the factory workers building carbon frames in China, Indonesia, or Vietnam at a bike industry gathering, and the reaction you’re likely to see is a whole bunch of white dudes staring at the ground and awkwardly kicking dirt. It’s (probably) not that people in the bike industry don’t care—the sport is built on fun, happiness, and well-being—but because they know that any added layers, processes, or audits in the flow from raw material to finished product will make an already expensive sport even more expensive.

Am I confident that if people embrace higher prices, the money will flow where it should to improve the quality of life of the lowest paid and most vulnerable and not get hoovered up by executives and middlemen? No. I’m actually quite cynical—the bike industry has plenty of Gordon Gekkos. But, I’ve also seen that change is possible when the money exists to make change happen.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth: If we believe only suckers pay retail, if we always ask for a deal, if we always take our bike to the shop with the cheapest labor rates, then we’re hurting this sport. We’re driving away people who could make it better; we are prioritizing our desire to ride cool shit over the health and safety of fellow human beings. How much longer will we be okay with that?

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