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Home » Cycling » The Difference Between Entry-level, Mid-range, and the Expensive High-end Road Bikes; Why the Fast Kids All Ride Expensive Bikes

The Difference Between Entry-level, Mid-range, and the Expensive High-end Road Bikes; Why the Fast Kids All Ride Expensive Bikes

March 2019
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Show up to a club ride with multiple fitness levels represented and you’ll notice the fastest riders will be, but for the rare exception, riding fairly expensive, usually carbon fiber, road bikes. There will be one or two who manage on upgraded entry-level bikes, but you’ll rarely see a seasoned cyclist on an entry-level bike in the fast group. For those new to cycling, the question is often why? Actually, that “why” would come shortly after an “are you kidding me?” when that noob learns of the price some are willing to pay for a bicycle, but let’s not get lost in the woods. Yet.

I’ll be the first to admit, a high-end race bike won’t make a cyclist much faster. There’s a bit of nuance required in that statement, though, so let’s not get too indignant. Some loud voices who are looking for attention will tell you that you’re going to be just as fast on a Sora equipped aluminum bike as long as you eat your beans and greens. There’s some truth to that, but there’s a lot more hot air in the notion.

So what gives? Why all the carbon fiber and high-strength alloys on a bicycle that costs more per pound than a Ferrari?

The knee-jerk uninitiated will often slough off the outrageous expense to some kind of egotistical satiation. Those who would think that would be wrong. Almost entirely (I’m sure there are a few out there who buy expensive bikes to satiate their ego). However, if what I wrote earlier is true, that a high-end bike won’t make a cyclist much faster, then why would a person spend that much on a road bike?!

The easiest way to explain this is that the expensive bike makes being fast easier. In other words, if I am already fit enough to be exceptionally fast on a road bike a high-end road bike makes riding at ridiculous speeds just a little easier.

As an illustration, I can ride my Trek 5200 just as fast as I can the Specialized. In fact, until recently some of my fastest miles ever ridden were on the Trek. Without question, though, on the Specialized, the same “fast” takes less effort.

If I’m buying a super-cycle thinking it’ll finally get me over that hump to the next faster group, it’ll likely be disheartening when I find I still can’t quite keep up. I’ll be closer, maybe I get an extra five or ten miles further with the group, but it won’t quite make up the difference.

In the simplest terms, there won’t be a magical jump that takes me from riding with the B Group to a century with the A Group at 25-mph. If I can ride 85 miles with the A Group at that pace on an upgraded entry-level bike, though, that super-steed will get me over the finish line. And that’s why.

So, is the cost worth it?

To me it is, but I don’t have a pile of expenses, either. I don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t overeat, don’t go on exotic vacations and I live in a humble home. Spending some cheese on a bike isn’t such a big deal. On the other hand, if I did any of those, maybe cycling wouldn’t be so important. In that case, I’d simply have to train with a little more “want to” if I wanted to keep up.

Of course, that Specialized sure looks awesome…

UPDATE: Please check out Brent’s comment below. He makes some great points that I didn’t cover.

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8 Comments

  1. unironedman says:

    No need to explain it really: afficionados will get it, the rest… not so much. To me, as well, the higher end bike (or anything, really – my drug of choice is guitars) is just better engineered. Better quality parts, put together in a better way. It’s not so easy to see in a bike (the difference between 500 quid and 5 grand) but when you ask someone can they tell the difference between the entry-level Ford and the high-end Porsche, they usually get it.

  2. Brent says:

    The other thing to note is that a higher-end (not necessarily the highest-end) bike will give you a much more satisfying overall experience. My road bike is mid-range (list price was a bit, but not much, more than your Venge). It costs less than half what some of the bikes people in my club ride.

    I never expected that it would make me faster — I’m 170 pounds less than I weighed 15 years ago but still not exactly skinny, so I never expected to be able to roll out with the big kids. I do 14-16 miles per hour on New England roads (which are a lot hillier than where you live).

    But the nice bike gives me two things that I didn’t have on my cheapo $500 Trek 614 road bike that I bought in 1980: a high quality experience and a lot of reliability. When my road bike is tuned perfectly (it usually is), there is absolutely no sound other than the rubber against the pavement. No gear train noises, nothing. No clank from the headset. No chain noise. Nothing. And the geometry is perfect for my riding style — slack angles and 38mm road tires mean I can fly down pothole-ridden descents from the ridge lines down into the valleys at 40 mph without fear. Hydraulic discs mean I can stop on a dime when I need to.

    The second thing is reliability: 4,000 miles on this thing without any mechanical failures other than a worn rear derailleur cable, which I fixed before it broke. Only one flat tire and I’ve never had to call to get bailed out for a mechanical. And that reliability is impressive given that I tip the scales at 240-265 pounds.

    SO I can go longer distances more comfortably, enjoy each minute more, and I can expect that my bike will be there for me when I need it. Even if I’m not fast enough to “deserve” this bike, it’s worth every penny.

    • bgddyjim says:

      I used to make that clarification regularly, about our relatively flat roads, and you’re absolutely right… we get to post fast averages because in 30 miles, we might only have 300′ of ascent. You also pointed out another minor flaw in my post… Aero bikes are more suited to speed. A bike’s expense is closer to what you describe. Nice comment, man. I’ll keep a better eye on what I write in the future.

  3. I own nice bikes not so much because they make me faster, but because I just love awesome bikes. I love riding them, I love tinkering with them, looking at them when I go to the garage for some other reason. And hey, what else am I going to spend my money on? 😆

  4. Fatsiclist says:

    Like most things in life, confidence is a big part of performance (and I’m talking real world performance here, not just the elite athlete stuff). When I started cycling again I bought a hybrid. It had 28mm tyres on it and carbon front forks so at the road-y end of the hybrid spectrum. After I found I actually really enjoyed cycling, I decided to upgrade to a road bike. I bought a drop bar bike with an ally frame and carbon front forks – not much difference really. What I was really surprised by was that it gave me an immediate 1-1.5mph increase in speed for the same effort. Similarly, a few years later I upgraded to a carbon road bike and gained something similar. It never really made sense because the obvious equation that springs to mind is X kg (me) + Y kg (old bike) compared to X kg (me) + Y-1 kg (new bike) doesn’t make much difference. real world experience suggests my maths is wrong in concept and it’s actually some form of X x Y calculation where that small difference in one factor multiplies up to a significant number at the end of the sum. Having experienced this I believe that the new bikes make me a less poor cyclist. It means I can get better at this; I can go further without tiring and go less slowly up the hills. Believing that makes a difference.

  5. OmniRunner says:

    Similar to nice shoes won’t make you faster but crappy shoes will make it more difficult to be fast.

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