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Photo by Hannah Morvay.

Mountain biking is expensive. There’s no way around it.

While we can appreciate the simplicity of sports like basketball, running, and boxing, where the buy-in is minimal and the industry doesn’t shove technological breakthroughs down their athlete’s throats quite as much as they do in our sport, we’re all hooked anyway.

Most of us would sell our cars before we sold our bikes. The cost is just something we bear.

If you missed the first part of this two-part series that focuses on the costs of mountain biking, check it out here.

In the first story, I tried to find out why exactly mass-market bikes don’t hold up over time. I spoke with B Vivit from the United Bicycle Institute in Ashland, Oregon, Andrew Thomas, a service manager from a non-profit bicycle organization in Denver, Colorado, and Arnold Kamler, the CEO of Kent and Bicycle Corporation of America, two mass-market bike brands that assemble bikes in the U.S.

What I found is that while mass-market bikes will of course fall apart more quickly than a premium bike, they’d last much longer if they were assembled properly and regularly maintained. Kind of a no-brainer, right? The problem is that mass-market bikes are mostly bought as “toys” and consumers don’t find an incentive to maintain them.

For this story, I tried to learn about the costs that go into building premium mountain bikes.

I spoke with Matt Giaraffa and Will Montague from American mountain bike manufacturer Guerrilla Gravity, Nick Murdick, the product manager for Shimano’s mountain bike line, and Arnold Kamler again from Kent Bicycle and Bicycle Corporation of America (BCA).

My investigation quickly ran down a rabbit hole. Strength-to-weight ratios, research and development, profitability, and price-point settings determine how mountain bikes are priced.

Then Murdick pointed me to another field altogether, pockmarked with new rabbit holes. Price-points get deeper, retail prices are marked up numerous times in the journey from manufacturer to consumer, and there are different models that bike brands use to spec their bikes with build kits.

However, I did emerge with a few big takeaways, so let’s start there.

You could buy a motorcycle for that much

Most of us have heard it before. A friend or family member who doesn’t ride finds out how much a good mountain bike costs, and quickly tells you that you should have bought something with a motor.

Matt Giaraffa’s decision to get into mountain bike racing was guided by research into this debate. Giaraffa, now the chief engineer at Denver, Colorado based mountain bike company Guerrilla Gravity, looked at what it takes to build a competitive mountain bike versus a competitive motorcycle.

“Price comparisons between high end mountain bikes and motorcycles happen often, but usually compare a very high end, race-ready mountain bike to a base-level, standard motorcycle and say they are the same price,” says Giaraffa.

Although a motorcycle might have a motor and cost the same as a premium mountain bike off the sales floor, the performance doesn’t translate. Someone can race a $5,000 enduro or cross-country mountain bike and be competitive, whereas a competitively built motorcycle could cost three times as much.

A stack of chainstays for Guerrilla Gravity bikes.

Then there’s scale and volume. Motorcycle companies are able to save money by producing at a mass volume.

“Something like a motorcycle is built on a much larger scale than a mountain bike,” says Montague.

Finding the right scale has been key for Guerrilla Gravity to nail the price point it wants for its bikes. Guerrilla Gravity brought a CNC machine and all production and manufacturing under one roof this year. Doing this allowed them to drop the price on all of their bikes by $200.

“When you get to a certain volume it just makes sense to do it in house,” says Giaraffa.

Montague explained that outsourcing didn’t make sense for them or the brand’s long-term goals. The third party becomes concerned with volume and meeting demand and focuses on pushing out product. The hiring brand needs to take the time to ensure that quality assurance is being met on the other end.

Will Montague (left) and Matt Giaraffa (right) at the brand’s headquarters.

Guerrilla Gravity is also able to run a lean manufacturing operation, and rather than build in anticipation of sales and end up with a surplus, they match to demand. The downside is a seasonal wait time for consumers, but the upside is a savings in operational costs. This way, Guerrilla Gravity doesn’t end up with a room full of bikes that didn’t sell at the time of a certain trend or demand.

Bicycle Corporation of America, a mass-market brand sold in departments stores, moved their assembly operations from overseas to a factory in Manning, South Carolina not only for better quality assurance, but because labor and real estate prices in China have risen and will continue to, Arnold Kamler predicts.

BCA produces a massive scale of bikes every year and can’t afford to screw up any part of their process.

“We sell about three million bikes a year. For us, there’s no such thing as a small mistake,” Kamler says.

BCA, like other mass-market bike manufacturers, keep their frame tubing thick so that its bikes don’t break. Consumers get a heavier, but more durable frame.

Strong and light

The strength-to-weight ratio may be the biggest factor in the expense of a premium mountain bike and it’s driven by consumers.

“Mountain bikes are incredibly difficult in the first place for this,” says Giaraffa. “You need everything to be super light like you would in aerospace, but it needs to be much cheaper to produce. Without a doubt it’s the most difficult industry I’ve worked in, having worked in a handful.”

Consumers of course want the lightest bike possible in the strongest package. Mountain biking sends stress loads throughout the entire frame and development is a game of learning where it’s possible to shave weight and where it’s necessary to keep it for strength.

A stack of down tubes at Guerrilla Gravity’s warehouse.

“If you look at our CNC-machined parts, we spend quite a bit of time whittling out the aluminum to save 3g over here and 5g over here,” said Giaraffa. “If you said screw it, let’s just make it a bit cheaper, you could do that but then your frame would be ten pounds,” Giaraffa says.

Guerrilla Gravity says that manufacturing — the cutting, shaping, machining, and welding of the tubes — is its biggest expense.  The next largest expense is the component package.

For carbon fiber bike manufacturing, it works similarly. Brands like Yeti and Santa Cruz now offer different grades of carbon fiber in their frames for different price points. A premium frame is lighter, but costs more. Both are said to be equally strong.

The molding to build a carbon fiber frame can also add up quickly. The molds are usually CNC machined from a solid block of metal and each frame size needs its own mold. A mold for one frame model in one size can range in the tens of thousands to over a hundred-thousand dollars.

The same considerations are given to mountain bike components. Although the performance may not be that much different between a mid-tier brake and a premium brake, the premium may only see a different finish and titanium or carbon hardware, rather than aluminum or steel.

Take the TRP G-Spec Quadiem brake for example. It is exactly the same brake as the Quadiem, but with a polished finish rather than painted. This raises the price by $50.

The same goes for XTR. The laser etchings and anodizing process “makes a big difference in the finishing price,” says Nick Murdick of Shimano.

Murdick explained the processes of building a brake for the top-level XTR line versus a more entry level brake like the SLX.

An XTR brake caliper is machined from one piece of aluminum or magnesium whereas another brake in their line might be made from two pieces of forged aluminum. It’s more costly and time consuming to machine something from one piece, rather than cut it in two and then forge it, but it is lighter.

Expenses

In the most primal form, bicycles and components start from a raw piece of metal.

Unfortunately, Guerrilla Gravity couldn’t reveal their raw materials costs before the aluminum tubes are turned into a frame.

A few assembled frames and front triangles at Guerrilla Gravity.

Kamler with BCA estimated that the raw cost of materials to build a 27.5-inch steel mountain bike frame is around five or six dollars. Kamler then noted that the manufacturing, cutting, and bending quickly makes it more labor and cost intensive.

The most painstaking process for BCA is deciding on a component kit to spec their bikes with to get it to a certain price point, as each model often comes in just one size, paint scheme, and build kit.

Guerrilla Gravity and Shimano both said that they set a target price for a product first, and then figure out how to get there. Murdick says that there’s been plenty of projects that have been axed due to manufacturing costs.

For Shimano the most expensive part is taking a product from prototyping to production. This has been such a complex process for them, that Shimano now has a full-time production team.

The new Shimano XTR 12-speed derailleur. Photo by Matt Miller.

“It’s crazy expensive — our prototyping and coming to production process,” says Murdick.

When Shimano introduced hollow forged crank arms it required a completely new bonding process to get two pieces perfectly aligned and allow gasses to escape during the forge.

The target retail price is determined before production happens, but that doesn’t mean unexpected expenses don’t happen along the way.

“Our team in Japan will hint at it, like, if you needed to put a price on it, that derailleur would cost $10,000 because it’s been so many man hours just to build the thing on the computer,” said Murdick.

Although products like XTR obviously have the most bling and the heftiest price tag, that’s not where Shimano makes its money. Murdick explained that the most expensive products usually have the lowest profit margins. Part of this is due to scale, since premium products aren’t generally manufactured in high volumes.

A Shimano XTR brake lever. Photo by Matt Miller.

“Cheaper stuff is really simple, because everybody just doubles the price and re-sells it,” he says. “The default thing for bike shops on service items is you just double the price, kind of for simplicity’s sake.”

The nuts and bolts of mountain bike hardware makes its way from Shimano to distributors, and then often more distributors before landing at a retailer. For components there are suggested retail prices, but not for service items.

What doesn’t cost Shimano a lot, Murdick said, are sponsorships.

“If you actually did the math, I would expect it to drop the price of a component by a penny or two, if [we] stopped all sponsorships.”

Evolution

Lastly, mountain bikes may be expensive, just because they have become more advanced. Technology has progressed, bikes come with more than they used to, and for the sport as a whole, that’s a good thing.

This isn’t to say that everything is more expensive, because as time goes on, brands like Shimano develop technology on the XTR line so that some of it can trickle down to its more affordable SLX line. New technology becomes more affordable and in the past few years, brands have made strides by providing affordable dropper posts and 1×11 and 1×12 drivetrains.

“If you just look at the bikes we were riding in 2005, flat tires were way too prolific, they would crumble at the pace we ride them at now, the brakes were awful, the suspension was junk, there were no dropper posts, the drivetrain was crap,” said Giaraffa of Guerrilla Gravity.

If we looked at a 2008 Yeti Cycles 575, the price reflects the available technology at the time. The 575 had an aluminum frame with a carbon rear triangle, a 27-speed Shimano XTR drivetrain, Fox suspension, and bits from Chris King and Thomson. It was the top layer of Yeti cake and it sold for about $5,000, or roughly $6,000 in 2018 dollars.

A 2008 carbon-framed Specialized S Works Epic with Shimano XTR sold for under $7,000, or right about $8,000 in 2018’s value. It’s safe to say that today you’d pay around $2-3,000 more for a high end 2018 Yeti or Specialized model.

But, while prices have increased in unison with technology, brands still look to set price according to value, and consumers buy with the same intent. 
We’ll pay for what we want, but we’re still going to pay. Is there any other choice?
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# Comments

  • rajflyboy

    Great article but I think it’s more about supply/demand vs cost of materials. Development costs are also a big part of it. More Honda CRF 450’s being sold than full squish Santa Cruz bicycles. The engineering costs are more per unit on the mountain bike.

    In my opinion Motorcycle racing has more to do with rider than it does with machine. Pro rider can still race well with a mostly stock bike.

    • Matt Miller

      Thanks, supply and demand would definitely explain why motorcycles are made at scale.

    • Chris Fehr

      Pro level motorcycle racing on a stock bike, um nope! You can get surprisingly far up the field in US Motocross or offroad but you aren’t going to be a true pro, ie earning a living on a nearly stock bike. To get near the front you are getting bikes directly from the manufactures and about the only think original is the crankcase and frame per the rule book. I’d argue the difference between my a true professional mountain biker and what I can buy out of a shop is much smaller. Aside from a few prototypes being tested you can buy anything they have, not always possible in the motorcycle world.

      You might want to track down a former Canondale executive and ask how much more engineering it is to build a motorcycle to compete at the front vs a mountain bike.

  • Brian Gerow

    This is a really informative piece, Matt. I appreciate that you chatted with a smaller local company, and one of the largest, to create the comparison.

    I also really appreciated the note about sponsorship. I have the feeling that some people, including folks in the industry, have a fairly uninformed way of thinking about that element of marketing cost.

    • Matt Miller

      Thanks, Brian. I know a few of us wonder if we’re just “paying for the pros to race.”

  • Bryan DeHart

    Marketing 101. Make a product that maximizes what the consumer is willing to spend. All businesses are trying to find that sweet spot. My first bike was a Specialized Rockhopper hardtail without a shock back in 1990. I rode the piss out of that thing, even raced it a few times. I went through 3 forks and new rear derailleur in 2 years. The bike was $500 which is a lot of money for a college kid working part time at Olive Garden. But it’s what I was willing to spend. As my income level increased, I switched to a $1,700 Kona Dawg and now a $3,000 Giant Trance 2. That’s all I’m willing to spend…and I still

  • Manwell

    A lot o insight here.
    Whenever I ride the geared full squish, I’m often amazed at the tech and precision I’ve got under me.
    Is it really better? I guess it is if speeds your thing.
    Although we’ve come a long way I still like the feel of an old school rigid SS. Clearly, progress isn’t everything and is often dictated by what the pros want which causes constant redesigns and features that add to the price.

  • budgetbiker

    A lot of good info here, and thanks for the effort in reaching out to the sources and incorporating that first-hand insider knowledge!

    Just a note on the costs of carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is actually incredibly cheap — about $10-40 per frame in raw materials. That said, the price difference in types of fiber (Toray 700, 800, 1000, or 1100) is nearly negligible, rather premium models cost more due to more exquisite layups. The expense is mostly in the labor, but also the design, the mold, and the funds for warranty. Molds cost about $5000 for a front+rear triangle hardtail, and $3000 for a front triangle hardtail, about $7000 for a full-suspension setup, and $3000 for a rear triangle on full-suspension. I don’t know where people get the $100,000+ mark for a mold, but that’s practically impossible, and I’ve talked to a lot of factory agents directly. It’s hard to break from this price as the bike mold CNC machining operation is monopolized in China. It’s very hard for a carbon frame to ever cost more than $500 in labor and material from the factory when ordered in bulk (20+ frames), but there are so many layers to the bike industry (factory > agents > brands > dealers > customers) and frames are where most brands will make their largest profits.

    I think the future will be more and more factory-direct, and local outlets will develop much more direct ties with the factory. Think of brands like Eleven and 9zero7 that are doing just this. R&D is slowly moving to the factories, after all.

    Sources: Direct correspondence by email and/or skype with three factory agents in China and Taiwan.

    • Matt Miller

      Thanks for the comments! Interesting on the molds, I’ve had someone in manufacturing give me a quote for theirs that was around the 50k mark before. Will definitely have to check with a few other people to see what theirs ran.

  • Sam James

    I’ve never understood the “you could buy a car for that!” or “you could buy a motorbike for that!” arguments. Well, yeah you could, but for one thing it wouldn’t be a very good car/motorbike, and the automobile industry has a MUCH larger scale on it’s side.

    I for one appreciate the costs of modern bikes. When you work in the industry, you see how much goes on behind the scenes and what costs are involved.
    For example – As a workshop mechanic I charge $80NZD per hour for my services. Sounds like a lot, but not when you break it down. From that, I the business has to pay my wages, rent, rates, bills, tools, consumables, marketing and all manner of other things.
    Not to mention the fact that any work done on a customer’s bike is often only a fraction of the time spent dealing with that customer. You have to speak to the customer, book their bike in, organise the calendar accordingly, take details, analyse the problem, order parts and a bunch of other admin tasks before you can even THINK about fixing the bike.

    Modern bicycles are approximately a million times (this may not be accurate) better than they were 20 years ago. When you take into account inflation (which many people conveniently forget to do), we’re riding some amazing bikes for the money these days.

  • lewisb

    Good info Matt, I have this conversation with my friend “mtb vs moto”. He is a long time moto guy but loves mtb as well. He always says “there is no way a bike should cost 5k-8K”. I found a KTM article that addressed the issue https://www.mbr.co.uk/news/mountain-bikes-cost-motorbikes-371321 – basically, it boils down to comparing very high-end mountain bikes to low-end motos. The bikes we can buy are the SAME bikes world class racer use, whereas the true race motos are not available to the public. The KTM mentioned an 8K-10k mtb would be a 100K+ moto. So I thought about the actual question. “why are mountain bikes so expensive”, my response now is “they are not, go to Walmart, you will find numerous bikes for under $500, have fun.”

  • MikeyO

    2 Points!!
    1st – you are always paying for the R&D for anything. The Piece cost to produce is tiny, but paying 3 engineers, testing time, molds, prototypes, etc. for 2 years to design something new, lighter and stronger is expensive. This is why brands promote, to get you to pay more to cover those costs, and yes the per unit cost is much higher due to the smaller MTB industry vs. Moto.

    2nd – no one here should feel bad for investing $5K in a bike. Golf in is 3 times more costly. I have so many co-workers here in Michigan that golf and you are talking $1,500 for clubs + new driver ($500) each year + $50 to $100 for greens fees 1-2 times a week. How expensive is horseback riding($2-$5K + food + lodging + trailer)? What about being a sports fan ($500+ for 1 football game, $150+ a month for Cable, $150 for Jersey). What about water skiing ($1000’s multiple times over). Hobbies cost money. Mountain biking is probably one of the cheaper ones and you get exercise.

  • stonebite

    hello Matt, the aforementioned explanations why mountain bikes or components are so expensive, are very interesting. I notice that in this report, I do not angry it, many issues are touched on and with usual arguments is trying to justify high prices. Unfortunately, such topics are not really advancing in depth.
    I see the whole range of price and quality topics from different perspectives, because I have come across many branches of industry in my professional career, starting with mechanical engineering, tool making, international and national automobile racing, armaments industry, aerospace etc. For 10 years I have been sharing me with my business partner a professional, small and fine bicycle shop which specializes more and more on repairs and almost no sale of bikes. No more selling bikes, like the biggest American manufacturer and most other brands around the world. No more selling bikes – why? Quite simply – and there begins the debate why the price / quality scissors in the bicycle business.

    I always try to see the whole thing holistically with all its advantages and disadvantages.

    Capitalism:
    We know we are all engaged in our capitalist system. everyone is going to work so that we can live. as long as we owe money, borrow and pay interest, current capitalism is the driving force behind the economy, which always has to be reinvented, even though there is (almost) nothing to reinvent (bike industry)

    Media:
    our media have become instruments of power and make use of scientific psychology.
    Media or even bike manufacturers tell us what we have to buy by awakening with their marketing, “emotions” in us.
    nobody talks about quality anymore.
    When we were still selling TREK mountain bikes, I noticed on our TREK sales force staff, why do you make new colors and new components on your bikes every year and change this guy every 2-3 years – his answer was – the customers want that. I had to laugh and asked him – ok, what was chicken first or egg? I told him – and he did not like it – you always do something new and the customers should then buy. as an example the story with 27.5 and 29 inch wheels. or have thousands of customers come to you begging for new wheel sizes?

    Planned Obsolescence:
    difficult to prove, but it exists!
    If you yourself are in front of our sales shop like us, you will see how the customers come to us with a lot of cheap scrap (I mean medium to high price segment bikes) and through the thousands of repairs they see how new products are created and how reliable they are. then you get over time a picture of how the industry is ticking.

    New technologies, new developments:
    I can not read it anymore and hear how almost every year the new products come out and new technologies etc. are integrated into the product.
    Quite open – sure to give designers or rather wild guys without really something of the thing to understand at bike manufacturers greatest effort to present a new bike as “the” new development. in many cases we see in our workshop that carbon frames are produced, just so that the bike snoch can be sold – who wants a bike with an aluminum or steel frame?
    Do not let people fool you with the phrases of the bike manufacturers, pay attention to real quality and do not let a bear untie you

    Prices for components:
    I would just like to mention that, for example, Shimano XTR brake handles are manufactured in either low pressure die casting or forging.
    Dioe’s basic form of braking grip body is usually the same or slightly different for XT and SLX. Look closely and you will see that manufacturers certainly make a lot of effort with the development, but this can not be a supreme argument that an XTR justifiable may cost much more than a SLX brake.
    Compare the price of Hope and Trickstuff brake with those of Shimano, SRAM and co. people, manufacturers who handle the brake handles from the full material are the ones you should support. make the effort and look right.

    Is there a chance:
    yes they exist – we can only bring the manufacturers and the current capitalism to reason, if we think about it, and maybe not always buy the very next expensive scrap, but do not skip, or check exactly whether perhaps small manufacturers do not offer good products maybe a bit more expensive, but the quality is there.

  • Marco Gallina

    Bike manufacturers need to increase the length of the life cycle of their products. How many of us have spent a big chunk of money on a bike only to have the bike maker change the bike design for the next season. The changes are usually a bottom bracket that is 3 mm lower. Or maybe they tell us that they have a new tubeset that is 5% stronger than the previous year’s frame. It goes on and on. They make such minor changes and sell them to us as a major break through. Such minor changes that none of us would be able to tell the difference. The only thing that this very short life cycle does is it depreciates our purchase very quickly and it also keeps the manufacturer’s cost very high which in turn means we pay more. When you look at automotive (cars and motorcycles) the product life cycle, depending on the vehicle, can be anywhere from 3-7 years. In this time, changes may occur but they are usually cosmetic and there isn’t much change in pricing (except for inflation). Why can’t the bike companies offer us these life cycles. Please tell me what is wrong with a bike company offering the same bike for 2-3 riding seasons or longer? I drive a 2017 Nissan NV3500. This van first came out in 2012 and has been virtually unchanged for 7 years (2019 model year is very similar to the 2012). The resale value on these vans is excellent – why – nothing has changed. I purchased a Trek Stache 9 (29+) and the following year it was changed and if I was to sell my $4000 bike I would be lucky to get $2000 for it the following year. I don’t see any value in how the bike industry operates. New designs every year. Price increases every year (or no decrease in price because they have to pay for new moulds or R&D). High rates of depreciation for our bikes. Doesn’t make sense. Start offering bikes with a 3-5 year life cycle and you will see prices drop quickly.

  • MikeyO

    I will say that if you look at the 10 year industry cycles, you can get a lot for your money. my first bike was a Univega in 1990ish, ~$400. This was back in the Klein Attitude days, and I have to tel you their wasn’t even a front suspension fork. what a rattling ride down Mount Diablo (in Cali, bay area). And the old cantilever brakes suck cheese. in 2005 I purchased an Iron horse from Dicks Sporting for $300, less weight and it had manual disc brakes (Hayes) and Rockshox suspension fork. This lasted me until 2 years ago, after multiple fixes and upgrades but a lot better ride. Then 2 years ago i decided, well I only have a few good years in my body so i will go full suspension. Spent $2K on a Cube Stereo, Fox 34 Fork, Fox Rear Suspension (both 160mm), Rockshox Stealth dropper post, XT components, and I upgraded to a single chaining.. So now I see how everyone can go so fast downhill. This thing just rolls over everything. I am never going to spend $8-10K, but for $3k and below there are some awesome options.

    Keep in mind, from a tech side you have to give credit for a few items:

    –Large stanchion forks 34mm+ (I am even looking to go 36mm)
    –Dropper post (has completely changed MTB)
    — 1 X 11/12 gearing(I always hated changing from derailleur)
    –Carbon / Wide ID Rims (so stiff you can stick corners that were impossible, just 5 years ago)
    –Lightweight hydraulic brakes with massive rotors

    Someone has to pay the cost over time to bring these technologies forward forward but it is worth it.
    I paid 7 times the cost of my prior bike, but the ride quality and fun level is well worth it, and significantly better in 1990.

  • plasticsguy

    I work in the plastics industry and we use a lot of carbon fiber. So I give no argument as to what the raw material cost is for a frame. ( about 100 to 200 dollars) but the molds are some what more costly then some have said and there are different types of molds. Most carbon frames are done in a “lay up style” and then set into a mold where air is injected in to fill any voids, to compress the resin and force out any bubbles. This process is labor intensive and there’s a lot of trial and error before they perfect it and yet they still get a number of rejects. All this is factored into the cost. But when it’s all said and done the difference between a carbon frame and a aluminum frame is marginal. It’s within a 100 dollars or so. And to do this on a mass scale hasn’t been perfected yet either. Bringing the molding back here or to Europe and the cost would probably go up 5 times or more and there is a skill in how these frames are put together. Still the markup from 500 to 1,500 for a frame is not out of the norm. I’m not against people making money but if you can cut out just one middle man you might save as much as 500 dollars per frame. I just bought a new bike and I’m thinking it’ll probably be the last one I ever buy so I splurged and bought an 8K bike. Now if you ride 2 times a week and ride every weekend or 2 times a week that works out to over 75 dollars a ride for a year now say you ride it for 5 years it works out to about 15 dollars a ride, still cheaper than most outdoor activities, add back in the stuff you’ll need to replace due to wear and tear and I think you’d still be around 20 bucks a ride, that’s worth it to me but still not what I’d call cheap.

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