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The Case For (AND Against) Buying an Entry-level Bicycle…

October 2020
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I own one of everything when it comes to road bikes; entry-level right up to opulent. Short of top-of-the-line, but I’ve got two girls about to head off to college. $8,000-$12,000 for a bicycle would be stupid on my salary. Besides, what I have is certainly enough bike for my needs – and that’s what’s most important.

I’m going to veer off, though, because this isn’t about a top-end bike. Top-end bikes are exactly what you’d expect shelling out that kind of cash for a machine that doesn’t have a motor. I want to talk about the entry-level steed. Most people, when they start thinking about getting into cycling, look at the upper end of the food-chain and wonder how someone could possibly want to spend $5,000 on a bicycle, let alone double that. They immediately head for the bargain rack and start looking at the alloy entry-level bikes. The Trek Emonda AL, Trek Checkpoint, etc. and the Specialized Allez or Diverge. When you’re looking at a bike ranging from $5,000 to $12,000, $1,000 doesn’t seem all that bad. Hold that thought.

My wife and I decided to buy gravel bikes a while back and that presented me with an interesting problem; I knew about the differences between a $3,000 gravel bike and a $1,000 bike and I wanted the $3,000 steed. The problem was, $2,000 was doable. $6,000, not so much and I had to buy two. We went with entry-level rigs:

Mine, on the left with Shimano Sora components, has been fantastic.  I had to do a lot to dial it in because the person who built it at the shop didn’t have the attention to detail I do, but with the time I put into it, it’s quite excellent and trustworthy – if heavy. 

Then there’s my wife’s.  Better paint job, but with Shimano Claris from 2016/17, one level of components below mine.  We’ve had the crankset warrantied twice and I just ordered a Shimano Sora drivetrain because I’m so sick of dealing with Shimano Claris I could scream.  Now, to be fair, the Claris setup on my wife’s bike is the previous generation.  I’ve heard from a few friends who have the new generation (2018 and newer), that it’s much more reliable.  Those bottom-of-the-line components, while they’re meant to work, often leave a lot to be desired if know how good “good” is supposed to be.

So let’s get down to where the rubber meets the road, to what really matters.  What will dictate your purchase is your intended riding style.  If you’re going to putter around, smelling the fresh air and enjoying being outside, an entry level bike is all you’ll ever need.  With a little bit of training and effort, you’ll be cranking out the big miles in no time.  I’d go with Shimano Sora or better, which will add some cost to that entry-level steed, but it’s well worth the nominal upcharge.  Also, while we’re at it, if we’re going for the easy riding entry-level bike, I’d go with a gravel bike over an alloy road bike.  The gravel bikes are versatile and spectacular.  Especially if you buy a second set of wheels (preferably lighter and more aerodynamic) for road use so you can put knobby tires on the original set of wheels and road tires on the lightweight wheels for road use.  Then you’ll have all of your bases covered.

On the other hand, if you’re picturing yourself rocketing down the road with a gaggle of friends, hands in the drops, banking into corners… well, that entry-level bike simply isn’t going to cut it.

It’s not to say one can’t keep up with the fast kids on an entry-level bike, because it is possible.  The problem is the rider has to be in tip-top shape in order to make up for the wattage required to make an entry-level bike do what a high-end bike does naturally.  People in cycling talk about “free speed” a lot.  Think of this as “expensive speed”.  “Expensive speed” is just like it sounds, and it is fantastic.  Having a fast and light bike won’t improve one’s fitness, but it does more with one’s fitness than an entry-level bike will.  Therefore, if you’re on an entry-level bike trying to box with the top-end bike crowd, you’ll have to work a lot harder to keep up with them.  It can be done, but it sucks.

For instance, using my 24 pound gravel bike as an example, with friends I can hang easily with on equally matched road bikes, I struggle to keep up with the same people who ride advanced gravel bikes (one friend’s is six pounds lighter, another is five…).  I can do it, but it ain’t easy.  There’s more to it than that – tires, tire pressure, gearing choices, etc., but this paints a fair picture.  Put simply, the faster one plans on riding, the more the bike matters.  

That’s not the end of the story, though.

If the best you can afford is an entry-level bike and you discover that you too would like to go fast, there’s light at the end of the tunnel and it isn’t a train (or the A Group with headlights).  Your salvation is upgrades.  Being fair, it’s rare to be able to afford a $7,000 bicycle.  That’s a lot of cash.  However, if you wanted to do it like I did, it’s a little more expensive in the long run but you get the benefit of spreading the cost out over time.  Upgrade your way out of your entry-level bike.

Wheels, wheels, wheels…

There is no better way to make an entry-level bike faster than by upgrading the wheels.  You’ll lose upwards of a pound (or more) and improve your aerodynamics in one upgrade.  I went from 23-mm alloy wheels, to 38-mm carbon fiber, to 50-mm carbon fiber wheels.  The original wheels that came on the bike were around 2,000 grams.  The 50-mm wheels are 1,470 – I dropped more than a pound on the wheels and they’re vastly more aerodynamic at the same time.  Even the 38’s were a huge improvement over the  23-mm alloy wheels.  If you’re on a budget, as I was, I recommend Ican wheels.  They’re fantastic, reliable and affordable.

Next would be drivetrain upgrades.  Going from, say, Shimano Sora to Ultegra will mean more gears and a significant drop in weight as well as a decent performance improvement.  Don’t forget, when you upgrade the shifters and derailleur(s), adding gears, you’ll also have to change out the chainrings, cassette and chain.  Choose wisely because this isn’t a cheap upgrade.

Finally, for pure weight gains we can upgrade the crankset.  Cranks, especially on the low end, are notoriously heavy and typically require a lot of maintenance.  Changing the crankset out for something higher on the food chain can save considerable weight.  I dropped almost three-quarters of a pound upgrading from an FSA crank to S-Works.

To put a nice, big bow on this post, entry-level road bikes have their place, there’s no doubt.  Depending on what you want out of cycling, there’s no need to blow thousands of Dollars on a bicycle if you’re just looking to explore the countryside at a leisurely pace.  Don’t get me wrong, they’re very nice, but they’re not a necessity.  Also, if your budget prohibits a high-end bike, you can always buy the best you can afford and upgrade as you can afford it. 

The main rule has always been, ride hard.  The rest tends to work itself out in the wash.

One final note, going back to my entry-level gravel bike… Other than swapping saddles with the saddle I had on my tandem and swapping the shallow drop bar for a classic drop bar I had in the spare part shed, I haven’t upgraded a thing on the bike that would make it “faster”.  I didn’t buy the bike to ride fast, so I haven’t bothered with upgrades.  An entry-level bike has its place in the stable, even for the avid enthusiast.


5 Comments

  1. unironedman says:

    Few entry level riders will be ploughing money into a frame, but if I had to do it all again, I’d go for a great frame and build the bike around it as I could afford it. But when are starting out, we want all the shiny shiny, so that’s why we end up with Claris or Sora. I was lucky: I was able to get mine on a bike-to-work scheme so could get 105 on a decent frame.

    But yep, you still have to sit on top and pedal, apparently! 😉

  2. Brent says:

    Another way to get a good intro bike is to buy used, which will get you a level of components one or two notches above what the entry bike would have cost. Take advantage of the rapid changes in technology over the last few years, which means two year old bikes are worth less than half of what they cost new. I was planning on spending about $3,000 on a mountain bike, when my mechanic sold one of his — a 3-year-old S-Works Enduro custom built up from the frame. I paid $3,000, the amount that I planned to pay for a new low-to-mid-range bike, but the used cost is about 1/4 of what it would have cost to duplicate that setup new at retail. Now I have a mountain bike that’s better than I will ever be as a rider. Yeah, top of the line everything is a little more expensive to fix but I don’t break as much as on a cheap bike. And the odds that I’ll have to upgrade it are small.

    One caveat about buying used is making sure that you buy a bike that fits you. That’s absolutely essential.

  3. Claris! 🤮😜 Actually I started my road cycling journey on 8-speed (3×8) before Shimano rebranded it Claris. It was pretty bombproof back then.

    • bgddyjim says:

      The stuff on my wife’s bike is horrible. I can’t remember the name for it, but it was just the number, like 1700 or 1800 or something. I know the stuff you’re talking about.

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