Where to Invest on a Bike

Some bike features aren’t worth the high price tag, while other areas benefit from investing a little more money.

Man leans against a blue shipping container, looking at his all-black bicycle
Photo: Shutterstock.com

There’s only one time Trevor Connor spent more than $1,500 on a new bike. After his first year at the National Center in Canada, he received $4,500 in sponsorship money and was hoping to upgrade his old $1,000 Fuji bike to something a little more high-end. He went to Swan Cycles where he asked multiple-time Masters National champion Glen Swan what he would buy with $4,500. “I was expecting him to show me these really nice bikes,” Connor remarks. “And he turns around to me and says, ‘I’d buy three $1,500 bikes.’”

Connor didn’t believe him at first, so he spent the money on a top-of-the-line Orbea and brought it back to the National Center where every month they time trialed a 10-minute climb to test their fitness. “I was fully expecting with this brand new Orbea I was going to crush my record; I was gonna be so much faster.” He was.

“I was one second faster. Forty-five hundred dollars bought me one second; basically negligible.” Since that moment, Connor has taken Glen’s words to heart, prioritizing other areas to invest in over the latest and greatest bike frame.

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But before we get into it—it’s important to note that $1,500 buys you a full bike, but there are some parts you’ll need to upgrade; and that’s true for almost any bike. These include the saddle, pedals, shoes, and wheels.

“You have to factor in all those expenses as well,” Connor explains. “So, if you say, ‘I have $3,000 to spend,’ and you spend $3,000 on a factory setup bike, well, you’re going to have another $1,000 on top of that.”

With that in mind, let’s look at the areas you can save on when buying a new bike, and where it’s okay to splurge a little.

Bike features that can drive up the price

It’s tempting to think that the more expensive something is, the better performance you’ll get out of it. From Connor’s own experience, it’s clear that isn’t always the case. If you’re looking to cut costs in the right areas, the bike frame is the first place to look.

“In terms of performance—until the UCI is willing to change the rules—we really hit the best a bike could perform 10 to 12 years ago,” Connor says. “And a lot of the upgrades since then are conveniences, but they’re not really that critical for performance.” For example, internal housing and integrated stems look great, but there’s no real evidence that they make the bike faster. Connor’s three current race bikes are 9-10 years behind the latest models, and he hasn’t noticed any loss of performance with them.

Carbon fiber frames tend to be a little pricier, but it’s possible to find an aluminum frame in the $500-$600 range that’s just as lightweight as carbon fiber. And as long as the bottom bracket is properly thought out, the “stiffness” of a carbon fiber frame isn’t something you’ll be sacrificing in the process: “You can’t feel the frame of the bike,” stresses Connor. “Studies have actually been done comparing frame materials, and you don’t feel the frame at all. So really all that matters is that the frame is lightweight.”

Electronic shifting is becoming more standard on bikes as well, which also drives up the price. Connor says he’s personally happy with mechanical shifting, but it’s possible to find last year’s deals for less if you’re set on an electronic shifter. “It is a little bit nicer but it’s not, in my opinion, a game changer,” he says. “At this point, the technology on the drivetrain has gotten so good, we’re past the days where you have to buy the top end.”

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Where to actually splurge on a bike

So you’ve pinched some pennies on the less important components in your setup—now it’s time to see where to get the most bang for your buck.

The biggest performance enhancement you can buy is in the wheels. Connor says there’s a huge difference between a $2,000 set of wheels and a $500 set. If you don’t have much to spend, prioritize quality wheels over a new frame. You will find more speed in the former.

Connor recommends replacing the saddle on a new bike as well. The saddle is a key point of contact for cyclists, and the ones that come from the bike manufacturer are usually pretty cheap and uncomfortable. Shoes and pedals are also important, with custom orthotic inserts. “I tend to buy in the three- to four-hundred-dollar range—you get top-end shoes. That said, I think, going 100 to 200, you’re gonna get a good set of shoes,” he says. “I wouldn’t personally buy cycling shoes under $80.”

Disc brakes are one innovation of the last decade that has really caught on and does make a bike safer and brake better. And at this point, a disc brake system doesn’t cost more than traditional rim brakes and they allow you to use wider tires. “If I was going to add one thing to my current bikes, it would be disc brakes,” says Connor. Just keep in mind that they still haven’t been standardized, so be careful of wheel compatibility problems if you buy new wheels.

Finally, a good bike fit will bring all the gear together. “You can have a $10,000 bike, and if you’re in the wrong position, you’re going to be chugging along at a super slow pace,” Connor explains. “You can have a pretty crappy bike, but put a good saddle on it, buy a decent set of wheels, and get in a good position—you’re gonna be pretty fast.”

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At the end of the day, it’s your bike

Your budget may dictate a lot of where you can invest on a bike, but if you’d rather spend a little more because you prefer the look of a carbon fiber frame or the convenience of electronic shifting, then feel free. It’s your build and you are the one who will be riding it. Just remember which areas are worth the investment, and which have negligible gains.

“You want to do it right: saddle, shoes, wheels, pedals, brakes, and bike fit,” says Connor. “I choose to go with a cheaper bike, which I think is gonna perform just fine—and make sure I have the money for those other things.”