Sunday, May 6, 2007

5/6/07 - What makes that bike cost so much?

Its not the question we get asked most frequently, but it is probably the one that people wonder the most about.

I saw an article in the 2003 Buyer's Guide from Bicycling magazine which attempted to answer the question by comparing a $2,000 bike to a $10,000 bike - and it did a horrible job, if I do say so my self; comparing only the ride characteristics of the bikes and saying nothing about the quality of the materials used or the resulting durability and ease or lack of maintenance. In my continuing pursuit of being your resource for all things cycling - I'll attempt to improve on their comparison.

I'm going to tear apart three bikes (figuratively, not literally) of three distinctly different price levels and tell you just what makes them cost what they do. Hopefully, from there you can choose whether that makes a difference to you - or whether it will require more personal investigation on your part. Which, we will be happy to help you with, of course.

A Guide:
First, to lay the ground work - here's how I'll conduct this comparison.
When we compare bikes in our stores, we look at them the same way a bicycle manufacturer looks at them - as an equation: Frame + Wheels + Components = Bike. This is a great way to look at different bicycles because it exposes areas that the company may have skimped on in order to hit a price point or that a bike is particularly well-balanced compared to it's competition or that it is a great value. By also looking at the elemental quality of these certain areas (not just the material the frame is constructed with, but the quality of that material; not just the particular wheels, but the craftsmanship and durability of the individual parts of that wheel; not just the shifters or rear derailleur in the component group, but it's entire make-up) we are able to see what a company is trying to hide or exploit. We've found this to be a particularly effective way of levelling the playing field and "un-spinning" the message of the marketing wizards to lay bare the actual value of a bicycle. Nothing can be swept under the rug.
Using the equation above can easilly allow you to evaluate the bikes you may be considering in a new purchase. For example: 5+2+3=10 but so does 3+3+4 as does 1+5+4. It is common for companies to have different approaches to the same price point. One will have a great frame, decent wheels, and good components. But another will know that most consumers buy based on components and so they'll use a lower cost/low quality frame, great components and good wheels while yet another company will use a balanced approach and deliver a good frame, wheels and components. Determine what is most important to you in the long run and look for a bike that emphasizes what you want to emphasize.
Some of the qualities of these areas are too expansive to cover here (not that there's not enough room on the internet - just that I'd be typing forever...and probably bore most of you to death.) If there is an area that you think I've "glossed-over", contact me for more information and I might just add your question and it's answer to this entry. We'll see. This might just become a living and changing document like the "Where was my bike made?" article on my store's website.

Prices listed are the MSRP found on the company's website for fair comparison.

Finally, I'll also include information on the sizing options of the bike. This is important because a bicycle with more size options is easier to find a correct and comfortable fit on for a variety of riders. This means it is easier to be comfortable.

The Bikes:
#1: Giant OCR-3
-Price: $650
-Frame Material: 6061 Aluminum Alloy
-Wheels: Conventional generic, Aluminum rim, stainless steel spokes, sealed ball-bearing aluminum hub.
-Components: Mostly Shimano Sora 8-speed (entry level), with Tektro long reach brake calipers, Sram PG-850 8 speed cassette, KMC Z72 chain, FSA Gossamer Triple Cranks, and generic aluminum handlebar, stem, and seatpost.
-Sizing: 5 sloping standard sizes + 2 unique women's sizes*
#2: Trek Madone 5.0
-Price: $2800
-Frame Material: Trek proprietary OCLV 120 GSM Carbon Fiber -Wheels: Bontrager Race, paired spoke pattern, aluminum rim, bladed stainless steel spokes, sealed cartridge bearing aluminum hub.
-Components: Mostly Shimano Ultegra 10-speed (working-class hero), with Shimano CN-HG 5600 chain, and Bontrager (house brand) aluminum handlebar, stem, and carbon seatpost.
-Sizing: 7 standard sizes + 4 unique women's sizes*

Bike #3: Seven Axiom SG
-Price: ~$7000 as pictured (custom options available)
-Frame Material: 3v/2.5al Custom Drawn Argen Butted Titanium -Wheels: Mavic Ksyrium ES, aluminum rim, proprietary aluminum alloy spokes, sealed cartridge bearing proprietary aluminum and carbon fiber hubs (pictured - other options available)
-Components: Entirely Shimano Dura Ace, and Seven aluminum handlebar, stem, and seatpost. (pictured - other options available) -Sizing: 28 sloping standard sizes in 1 cm increments + custom geometry.

The Comparison:
The frame is the foundation of the bicycle. Much like a house, if the foundation is not well-made from high-quality materials and is not square, level, and aligned properly; it does not matter what the rest of the house is made of - you've got a crappy house. Not all materials are created equal. There are high and low quality versions of all the materials used to make bike frames out of. The cost of the frame can be a good indication of the quality of the material - but may also be inflated by import costs such as tariffs or "middle-man" costs as a frame is now most commonly made by one company, sold to the brand, and then distributed by yet another company before it arrives at the dealer. Frames from manufacturers and not simply marketing or distribution companies are usually the best value.
Frame #1: Giant is the largest manufacturer of bicycles in the world. And, aluminum is the most prevalent material in the bicycle industry - so this is a pretty average bike. But, aluminum is very cost-effective to work with if your goal is to make an affordable light-weight bicycle. 6061 aluminum is a high-grade aircraft tubing and is more desireable for bicycles than the 7000 series aluminum tubing that many companies use in their entry level bicycles in the same price. So the Giant has a leg up on it's competition, but is pretty average none-the-less.
Frame #2: Trek is the largest manufacturer of carbon fiber bicycles and while they used to make all of their bicycle frames, they've now concentrated almost entirely on their OCLV (meaning Optimum Compaction, Low Void) carbon fiber technology and turned the manufacture of their other frames over to other companies - mostly Giant. Carbon fiber is exceptionally strong and light, making it very desireable to build bicycles out of. It also absorbs high-frequency vibration (like the little cracks, pebbles, and imperfections in the road or trail) better than most materials making it ride very smoothly - also a desireable quality. And, while the raw material is not very expensive, the process to turn it into a bicycle is quite labor intensive. So the cost of a carbon frame is not so much in the materials, but in the highly-skilled labor required to make the frame itself. Compared to other carbon frames on the market, the Trek is not necessarilly the gold-standard; but is the best selling, most consistently performing frame currently on the market.
Frame #3: Titanium has somewhat quietly built a reputation for being the ultimate frame material among true bicycle critics. It's expensive cost as a raw material and high cost of manufacture (titanium's "hardness" and strength wear out machine tools faster than other materials and the welding area must be enveloped in inert gas so as to avoid contamination) make it less desireable to large companies. It also shows errors and poor craftsmanship more easilly than other materials - so the workers are usually exceptionally skilled and have generally excelled in other industries before moving to the bicycle industry. It's superior strength, light weight, and smooth ride (with superior "big bump" absorbing qualities to any other material) make it ideal for people who are looking for a very long-lasting bicycle frame. Titanium will not rust or corrode and does not have to be painted so it is very low maintenance and tends to always look nice. You can almost universally be assured that any company working with titanium does quality work, so low cost is not generally an indicator of poor craftsmanship. However, be wary of "cheap" titanium frames as they're usually scrap material left over after other industries have chosen their materials or poorly refined material with a high occurance of flaws which create weak spots in the tubing. Seven is particularly meticulous in choosing and machining their tubing - and machine many of their tubes in house after they've already been drawn to their specifications in order to perfect the tube set to their client's needs and wants - the only company delivering that level of customization. Merlin Metalworks, Litespeed, Moots and Lynsky Designs are other high-quality and experienced titanium frame manufacturers.
(to be continued...)

*"Unique women's sizes": Not all women's bikes are distinctly designed specifically for women. A "unique" women's size in this article referrs to a size that is distinctly different than one of the standard or men's frame sizes.

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