What makes a cheap bike, cheap?

by M

bikes-pump-trackPhoto: Will Vanlue

People who don’t know much about bicycles but who do know that I like them often ask me incredibly stressful, open-ended questions like “What road bike would you buy for £600?”

[TSP note: I've picked this number because it's roughly the minimum amount of money (at normal retail pricing) you can spend and get a road bike that isn't, for want of a better word, shit.]

The problem is that my own personal answer and the answer that would actually be useful to them are completely different from one another. Given a budget of £600 I would scrimp and scrounge for a decent frame and some used groupset parts, likely aiming only to buy a chain, cassette, cables and bar tape new. I’d also build my own wheels and find uses for the some of the random assortment of parts that litter my flat.

This approach is not an option for someone lacking the time, tools or mechanical nous to build their own bike, and it’s a complete non-starter if high street bike shops are your only resource for parts. So what does £600 buy you in a bike shop? Let’s look at an example.

[TSP note: I'll write something cutting and hilaire in a minute, stop putting your coats on and sit your asses down.]

Exhibit A – The Trek 1.1

trek11-640Photo: Trek

There’s a lot to like here. Ok, the paintjob on this particular model is decidedly meh (the more expensive 1.2 and 1.5 are somewhat nicer) but for £600 you can leave the shop with a reasonably capable road bike with a sensible range of gears, geometry that will work for most people, mudguard compatibility, a carbon-legged fork and Trek’s lifetime frame warranty.

So why don’t we all ride these?

Well, aside from being aesthetically underwhelming, there are a number of ways that Trek keeps the price down. Although the 8 speed Claris groupset benefits (in a distinctly diluted manner) from the trickle-down that started many moons ago with the flagship Dura Ace 7800, you’re actually only getting the shifters and mechs from it. The rest is a mixture of bog-standard generic parts including a weighty square taper chainset and bottom bracket combination, and some indifferent unbranded brake calipers.

The wheels are heavy and basic too, with primitively sealed cup and cone hubs that the average Trek 1.1 buyer will neglect, and likely kill, before the rims have reached the end of their natural life from brake wear.

Digging a little deeper, we can see from the spec that the headset features “semi-cartridge bearings”. This rather mealy-mouthed term actually denotes low-grade caged bearings hidden under a basic seal – they aren’t cartridge bearings at all and they are not particularly resistant to a harsh operating environment like, say, winter.

In a similar vein, entry level bikes like this are often sold with with very cheap cables, including non-stainless inners that quickly fall victim to corrosion, leading to poor shifting and sluggish brakes.

And that, essentially, is what makes a cheap bike cheap. It’s not a matter of snobbery – a bike like the 1.1 is not fundamentally bad, and the frames are good enough quality that you could quite reasonably take the approach of gradually replacing parts as they wear out or seize up; but it’s important to understand when shopping for a bike that the differences between a £1200 bike and a £600 one are rather more nuanced than just the number of gears, or a few grammes here and there.

To show I’m not picking on Trek (they just happen to be a brand with which I’m intimately familiar) let’s take a look at…

Exhibit B – the Trek Madone 2.3

madone23-640Photo: Trek

 Ok, so it’s twice the price of the 1.1. So it must be half the weight and twice as fast, right?

[TSP note: As it turns out, this topic is not the rich seam of comedy I'd imagined and I'm starting to depress myself. For some light relief, check out this product manual that Trek hilariously still keeps on their website. It's funny because LIES. ALL LIES.]

Well, no.

But in addition to a lighter, more pretend-aero frame with a snazzy tapered headtube, you do get almost a whole 105 groupset (the cranks are non-series, but still decent). Compared to Claris, 105 gets you two more cogs at the back, hidden shifter cables and parts that are considerably harder wearing and more resistant to corrosion over time. With the 2.3 you also get gen-yoo-wine catridge bearings in your hubs and your headset, and a carbon seatpost.

So, in conclusion, the answer to the original question is that the bike you should buy for £600 costs just £1200.

You’re welcome.