Moto vs. MTB. Which is More Affordable?
Not a month goes by that we don’t get questions from riders asking why new bikes cost so much. The truth is that there have never been so many affordable, high-quality production mountain bikes to choose from as there are right now. Mountain bikes selling for between $800 and $1000 deliver great bang for the buck. These entry-level machines now offer features that just 10 years ago were only available on the highest-end bikes or didn’t even exist at all.
But, we understand. This is not what you are asking. You are comparing the cost of an elite-level mountain bike to, say, a motocross bike or good used car and asking how that can be. How can a mountain bike that weighs less than 30 pounds, is made of metal and plastic, and doesn’t even come with a motor bolted to it cost so much? We’ve fielded enough of these questions and asked enough of the manufacturers to know at least some of the answers. Now, we know what you’re probably thinking—the product managers and designers are biased, and you’re probably right; however, these guys are not just stuffed shirts who are trying to squeeze every penny out of you so they can go play on their yachts.
These are riders, just like you. They want to provide the best bikes possible, and this is what they’ve told us about why bikes cost what they do.
Basically, every bike manufacturer offers affordable, entry-level and mid-priced models in addition to its $10,000 “halo” bikes. So, the question we are asked most frequently is, why would some- body willingly shell out so much on a two-wheeled, pedal-driven, very simple machine? Is there really enough demand for $10,000 mountain bikes? Well, the short answer is yes. Just like there is a market for economy cars, there is a market for entry-level bikes. And just like there is a market for exotic cars, there is also a market for high-end, exotic bikes. High-end bikes are great show- pieces, but if they didn’t sell, bike companies wouldn’t be building them. Surprisingly, several of the manufacturers we talked to said their halo bikes are among the first to sell out each year. That’s not to say they are making as many of them as their the mid-and entry-level versions. It’s not even close; however, these companies have figured out that “if you build it, they will come.” More important, in the long run, today’s $10,000 technology will be tomorrow’s standard technology. Every year a bit of high-end technology trickles down to lower-priced bikes.
Companies refer to these mega-expensive machines as “halo” bikes, because they help build a brand impression but don’t necessarily help them keep the lights on at the factory. The engineering, design and mold costs that go into a $10,000 bike are rarely recouped by the end of the product’s life cycle. But, because these bikes are the flagship of the brand and are often the bikes the top competitors race on, companies continue to build and promote them. While most riders can’t afford premium bikes, many aspire to own even a fraction of their performance, hence the reason some people buy the $2500 version of the same series of bicycle. Sure, the bike you bought for a quarter of the cost of the top-end model won’t be as light or tricked out as the halo version, but it will still have much of the same technology built in, albeit with a much more value-focused build.
Olympic gold medalist Nino Schurter and his $10,000, 20.5-pound Scott Spark RC 900 World Cup.
WHERE DOES THE MONEY GO?
To produce a high-end bike, companies spend a lot of money up front to save a tiny amount of weight or add performance to the finished product. A big factor in the pricing is the cost of the composite molds. Remember, each size (often five or six sizes) requires a unique mold. Each mold is a hand-cut, high-tolerance tool that can often exceed $75,000 in cost—not to mention the manual labor it takes to build these intricate machines. From start to finish, it can take over 15 hours to build a composite full-suspension frame, not including assembly. As you can see, all these pricey steps and materials add up to an expensive frameset. Add the cost of top-of-the-line components and it may become easier to understand why bike companies must charge such a high price.
Moreover, the last bit of weight savings is usually achieved with very costly materials. For example, a company may offer its frames at two different price points. While these options may look identical, they are not. The more expensive frames use the highest-grade composites, labor-intensive layups and the lightest hardware avail-
able to shave precious grams. The more affordable versions typically use more basic materials that may not be as resilient and stiff as the higher-end stuff. As a result, the companies must add more material to make the bike stiff enough, durable and safe. The result is a frame that’s heavier but less expensive. Also, first-generation technology is costly, and these halo bikes are almost always on the cutting edge, using the newest technologies available.
Finally, advanced materials, such as carbon fiber in components, hike the price even further. Parts that were traditionally alloy in the past (such as cranks, rims, saddle rails and handlebars) are now car- bon. These parts are very expensive but offer significant weight savings. A 5- to 6-inch-travel bike now weighs just 25–27 pounds. High-end suspension components, adjustable seatposts and frames with 100-percent hydroformed tubing all add
to the expense. And, components, such as Shimano XTR and SRAM Eagle, with their machining and titanium bits save the most weight for racers and people wanting the Ferrari of bikes, but none of this comes cheap.
IS IT ACTUALLY THAT MUCH BETTER?
A halo bike can cost up to 20 times more than an entry-level mountain bike from the same manufacturer. So, that begs the question, are these superbikes really that much better? In all seriousness, you could buy a fleet of bikes for your friends for the cost of one halo bike, and then you’d have more riding buddies to go hit the trails with. But, the truth is, the really expensive bikes do ride better and are more fun. Let’s take, for example, a $450 bike versus a $4500 bike. It’s 10 times the price, but would a dedicated rider enjoy it 10 times more? We’d emphatically say yes. In fact, we’ll go out on a limb and say that it would be 100 times more fun. Now, does that make the $450 hardtail any less of a bike? Absolutely not. It’s a great value and the perfect bike for the person just starting to venture off paved roads. That bike offers tons of performance for the price, and it would never have been possible were it not for the work put in years ago on the high-end mountain bikes of the time.
THE MOTO COMPARISON
People often compare the price of mountain bikes to that of motocross bikes. While it seems like a fair comparison on the surface, there’s much to understand before you label a high-end mountain bike as too expensive because it doesn’t have a motor.
First off, stock motorcycles are made from cheaper steel materials and use relatively simple construction methods. The motors may be super impressive, but in other areas they use relatively cheap materials to keep costs under control, such as very simple rims and hubs. There is also a decent amount of parts sharing, which allows the motorcycle manufacturers to take advantage of economies of scale to further reduce the retail price.
Mountain bike manufacturers also have to focus more on saving weight, so they are forced to use more expensive materials. If a motorcycle were built with all the aluminum, magnesium and carbon fiber that mountain bike manufacturers use, motorcycles would be ridiculously expensive—and super cool! The closest thing might be a Supercross race bike ridden by a factory-sponsored racer. Eli Tomac’s $50,000 “works” Kawasaki certainly has a few features that are not on production motorcycles. Also, motorcycles tend to be built with more in-house products than a mountain bike. Mountain bike manufacturers rely on outside suppliers for the suspension, tires and other components.
Another interesting point is that you cannot buy or build anything close to Tomac’s motorcycle. But, now that SRAM is offering the XX Grip Shift, you can have the exact same bike Jaroslav Kulhavy raced in the last UCI World Championship. And with the exception of some of the Black Box parts on the racers’ bikes, you can truly buy and ride a full-factory bike if you want to. Finally, mountain bike development moves at a much faster pace than motorcycle development. Motorcycles tend to stay the same for longer with smaller incremental tweaks each year. All this mountain bike development is expensive, but it is one thing that makes the sport fun. If you don’t want to take out a second mortgage on your house to buy a mountain bike, you certainly don’t have to. As we’ve mentioned before, there are many affordable bikes out there that would have been considered top-of-the- line only a few short years ago. Want to ride the latest and greatest technology for less? That’s easy. Just wait a couple of years. We promise you the technology will trickle down to the lower price points. It always does.
THERE ARE SO MANY WAYS TO GET MOUNTAIN BIKE ACTION
Mountain Bike Action is a monthly magazine devoted to all things mountain biking (yes, that’s 12 times a year because we never take a month off of mountain biking). It has been around since 1986 and we’re still having fun. Start a subscription by clicking here or calling (800) 767-0345.
Contact us via email at [email protected]