The Cost Vs. Value Equation of Buying Mountain Bikes

What are good mountain bike products worth to you?

My mom didn’t understand the difference between the pearly $300 Haro BMX bike I wanted at the local bike shop when I was 13, and the hand-me-down 10-speed Magna mountain bike my grandpa gave me. For context, I didn’t care about mountain bikes and I didn’t want a Magna. Dave Mirra and Ryan Nyquist rode Haros in the X-Games and I wanted to BMX and I wanted what I wanted.

And honestly, $300 wasn’t bad. It was a lower-specced build, though to be fair, that’s more like $550 in today’s dollars. The bike I wanted only had single-wall rims and one-piece cranks. Hell, I’d still have upgrades to make. After months of hauling around newspapers before dawn, earning meager paychecks, and cashing in my savings bonds to my grandparents’ disappointment, I strolled down to the bike shop one day and threw all of my hard-earned cash on the counter. It was more than I ever imagined spending on a bike up to to that point of my short existence, especially since my first car a few years later only cost $200 more.

After I gained a few years, my perspective grew too. Bicycles were freedom, but cars were also freedom and I couldn’t take homecoming dates to dinner on my bike. As time went on, I left my bike in the rain more and I left it unattended in front of a store one too many times, when another boy decided he wanted it more than I did.

After spending too much money on cars and motorcycles for years, and after being influenced by a friend who had started mountain biking, I sold my motorcycle and used about a third of what I made from the sell to buy a mountain bike, trumping the amount of money I spent on a bike when I was 13 by a whole lot. Ten years later, I’ve spent more and more on mountain bikes. I won’t call these sound financial decisions necessarily. Spending money on depreciating products doesn’t ever feel sound, but it’s part of life and what’s life without a little fun.

Now as a mountain bike journalist, I not only get to see how much new bikes cost when they’re released and the available build kits at different prices, I often get to examine them in-depth for reviews and see how that price makes a difference in the quality of the product.

From a bike review two years ago.

Softening the blow to readers and why bikes don’t always have to be accessible

As I laid a test bike down beside a friend after a recent ride, we glazed it with our eyes, looking over its glossy carbon frame and wheels, World Cup-ready suspension, and brand new electronic drivetrain. He asked how much the bike retailed for.

“Can’t remember off the top of my head,” I replied. “Probably over $9,000. Definitely more than I can afford on my bike journalist salary,” I chuckled. Thank goodness for industry discounts.

If you read a lot of mountain bike reviews, you’ll notice that journalists often list “price” as one of the downsides in a review. It’s interesting to see the differences in a bike review versus a car review when price is discussed. A lot of auto journalists seem to talk about value; the bang-for-your buck, and how it compares to competition before they bash the price, whereas a lot of us bike journos see a bike with a big price tag and go straight into bashing the cost. I’m guilty too.

To prod my perspective a bit, I examined a bunch of luxury and sports cars reviews too—Lexus’s, Lincolns, BMWs, Bentleys, etc. Is there price discussion? Yes. Have I found price listed as a downside on a Ferrari review? Not explicitly. Maybe the greater population recognizes that some vehicles are forever out of reach for some people, and listing price as a con on a $400,000 Ferrari that does 0-60 in 3.3 seconds when you could get a Tesla that does it faster at a quarter of the price just doesn’t speak to why some people buy what they do.

I think the dichotomy comes down to the innate belief that because a bicycle is a bicycle and doesn’t have an internal combustion motor or Italian leather, it shouldn’t cost more than whatever we believe a bike should cost. But when has that ever been true? Similar to motorsports, mountain bike athletes require higher-performing products that not every enthusiast wants or needs. On the flip side, there are a lot of people in high-paying professions that can afford a $12,000 bike and don’t need everything it offers.

Some might say it’s what makes our country or economy awful, but I’d argue that what makes it great is the availability of different product price points which are driven by demand. Just because X-brand makes a $12,000 bike doesn’t mean you can’t buy their $4,000 bike. Usually, it just means you can’t buy their $12,000 bike or don’t see the value in it.

I can’t speak for others, but when I have designated price as a con, I am doing a few things: making it known to some readers that I know the bike we just reviewed is expensive and I empathize with their price constraints. It’s also a preemptive way to de-escalate comment sections where it is basically guaranteed someone will write “Bahh, $7,500 for a bike! This is why I sold mine and bought a motorcycle.” Well, maybe you also like motorcycles more than you do mountain bikes.

I usually try to explain the cost of good mountain bikes to someone who doesn’t ride in the terms of cost versus value. Yes, they cost a lot, but I value the way it rides compared to other bikes and I don’t blame you for not wanting to spend that much money on something you’re not all that interested in. But there’s no reason to shame people who do want to drop some cash down on a fresh rig. Mountain bikes may be getting more expensive than ever, with the advent of electronic suspension and drivetrains and glossy carbon frames, but there are likely more affordable bike options than ever on the market too.

Photo: Matt Miller

The problem with scale

Somewhere in the miles of internet I’ve consumed in the past few weeks, on Reddit or in a meme, someone asked, “what business would have worked out if people had bought more of the product?”

It reminded me of one of the earlier features I wrote for Singletracks in 2018 where we spoke with different bike brands about why mountain bikes cost as much or more than some motorcycles. It largely comes down to scale. Motorcycles and cars are more widely used than mountain bikes and you get a less expensive product when more of them are made. People need cars to get to work to make money to feed their families or to take their children to soccer practice. People don’t need mountain bikes for that kinda stuff, but if they did, they’d probably be cheaper.

There is a very good episode of The World According to Jeff Goldblum on Disney+ where he visits the Specialized headquarters in California and talks with a lead engineer. Sometimes it’s hard to see the forest through the trees, but the engineer explained to Goldblum the special engineering it takes to create a self-powered vehicle that is light, efficient, and durable. So sure, a good mountain bike is just a bike in the same way that an iPhone is just a phone, like an old rotary dial. For more context, the original iPhone with a 2MP camera and 4GB of storage cost $500 when it was released in 2007. Adjusted for inflation, that’s $728. Today, an $800 iPhone has a much better camera and 128GB of storage, so they must be scaling wisely.

Money, status, and diminishing returns

If money was not an object and you could own a Kia or a Cadillac, which would you choose? What if they cost the same price? Not your brands of choice? Pick a value brand and a premium brand, like Hyundai and Toyota, or Pearl Izumi and Rapha or Canyon and Yeti.

Brand names often become an important choice to mountain bikers, though I’d argue you’re never just paying for a brand name and it’s usually apples to oranges, even if it’s mountain bikes to mountain bikes.

A direct-to-consumer brand and a dealer-supported brand operate much differently from one another, as do any two brands. One might make different grades of carbon, use a more complex suspension design, or because of their dealer-affiliated nature, ultimately help employ more people by way of their sales channel. But a lot of mountain bikers do care about the brand of their bike and what it says about them, whether or not it makes them faster.

Both the men’s and women’s overall downhill World Cup season winners last year rode aluminum bikes from a direct-to-consumer brand, so just because you buy that carbon bike and bluetooth bits to spec, it doesn’t necessarily make anyone faster. I’d argue there are diminishing returns and the performance difference between a $7,000 bike and a $10,000 bike is probably negligible.

We’re all dead in the end, anyway

I think about money a lot. As a working professional, a husband, someone who wants to have more of it than their family did as a child and someone who wants to retire someday. To some people, sound financial decisions mean they’re hanging on to their bikes until the bearings are shot and a new generation of standards has come and gone, and I think that’s a smart idea.

Others will sell their bikes after a year or two to buy the latest and greatest. Sometimes they’re riding so often that the bike should be replaced after that period, but it’s apparent they want to have the latest and greatest, because new bikes tend to be better than old ones. Why not optimize every ride? It’s not a bad way of thinking either.

I’ve always been a little picky about my gear and usually when I’m pickier, I’m happier with it, especially when I spend a few more bucks. One of my favorite uncomfortably true sayings that applies to most hobbies is “the cheap man pays twice.”

In the end, no one wants to pay more than they have to, and most of our financial end goals are to have more money in our pockets than not, so unjustly forking over more money than necessary never feels right. But what’s worse is trying to save money on a product only to find it doesn’t suit your needs and you should have paid more for the higher-priced piece in the first place. After all, time is money and sometimes you’ve got to make the call to save both by spending more up front.