First, most of us have started cycling with the hope we’d find the mother of all deals and get started with a $400 race bike that would have us keeping up with the cool kids. I was mistaken when I hoped for exactly that. My $400 race bike was from 1992, a Cannondale aluminum bike with a steel fork. It was, being generous, very stiff and came with down tube shifters and the original wheels… there was no way that was going to work (though it was a lot faster than my mountain bike – and enough to get me hooked on road bikes).
As we grow in the sport, we learn that no, down tube shifters aren’t good enough to hang with the A Group (or B Group for that matter). Carbon fiber deep section wheels are spectacular and worth every penny. As frames go, steel is still pretty cool, titanium is great, aluminum isn’t all that bad (with the right wheels and tires) and carbon fiber is every bit as glorious as you’d think (no matter what the neigh sayers try to claim).
And so we buy something a little better. In my case, a used Trek 5200. The Trek was fantastic and I rode it hard for years (it still pulls winter trainer, rain bike, and cooler spring cycling.
Then I saw the bike that ticked all of the boxes for me… and it was expensive (or at least my approximation of expensive); $3,100 out the door. The component groupset was legit, but bottom of the line for a race bike (Shimano 105). The wheels were horrendous and heavy while the crankset was… well, not very good and quite heavy (anything that requires a wavy washer for pre-load on the bottom bracket bearings, I don’t like – that wavy washer lets dirt into the system).
Fast forward eight years and upgrading almost every part on the bike (going around the horn, wheels, rims, wheels, wheels, crankset, front derailleur, rear derailleur, brake calipers, seatpost, saddle, spacer stack, stem – then back to the original stem, handlebar, shifters, bar tape, cages, cages, cages, cages… and that about does it. I figure I’ve got a little more than $6,000 into the bike and it is/was/ever shall be, without question, worth EVERY penny:
So, to the question of the day! How do you know when it’s time to drop the big bucks on a bike? For me, it was easy; love at first sight. Once I found cycling, though, it was really a matter of picking road cycling or mountain biking. I picked road because I loved riding in a group and the speed of it. Mountain bikes are great, no question, but my Venge is a rocket ship next to my Rockhopper. With that decision out of the way (God help you if you can’t decide and go for both), the real question is how fast do you want to go. If you want to get every last bit of speed out of your bike, don’t dawdle. If you want a solid commuter that’ll last you years, don’t hesitate. If you want to hang with the fast kids, you’ll need a decent bike to do it (there’s a reason they all have expensive bikes… that they’re fun to look at is only small percentage of it).
Here’s the done of it, though; if cycling is going to be your main fitness outlet and you’re serious about it and have the money*, dropping major coin on a nice bike is worth it. It’s not entirely necessary, of course, available cash should always be top of the list when the debate begins.
*IF YOU HAVE THE MONEY… means if, and only if. Don’t ever hurt your family or yourself with a purchase you can’t afford. In the end, you may have a cool whip, but you can’t eat carbon fiber and it makes a lousy frame for a tent. Just sayin’.
UPDATE: The Unironedman says, “Every cyclist should have a steel frame bike with down-tube shifters. That way, you can appreciate the fancy-pants bar shifters and super slick gear changes on your fancy bike.”
I do agree.