Food for Thought - What Does an Expensive Cycle Mean?
After my recent piece on why I prefer an inexpensive bicycle, Mirza Saaib Beg shares an interesting rebuttal and an educational piece on what makes an expensive bicycle - expensive. If you've ever wondered why some bicycles cost more than a premium sedan in India - this is the answer.
For those who don't know - Mirza Saaib Beg was the Best Cyclist of the year 2016 and he is the premier voice of cycling in Mumbai and India. He is currently involved in organizing Saksham Cyclothon in Mumbai on 25 February, 2018.
Recently, I was asked a question:
I thought it would be ideal to pen down a response to this question for posterity because there are many assumptions that are at play here. In this post I’ve compiled the general assumptions and assertions and have provided my opinion, with links to international testing, published research wherever possible. (I just saw a similar thread on Facebook group Cyclop as well, so I added a few more points to address those themes also. This is a link to the thread.) This post is quite rough (Ed: It is succinct) as I have typed it out during my flight from Bangalore to Mumbai during my return from the Embassy Race - Pedal for Planet where I secured the 3rd rank yesterday. So let’s dive in.
What makes a bicycle ‘expensive’ - Caveat?
There are always certain cycles (referring to cycles from BMW, Mercedes, etc.) that are expensive and serve no visible purpose for the price that is paid for them. It would be apt to refer to Norwegian-American economist and sociologist, Veblen at this point. Veblen is famous for the idea of "conspicuous consumption". Conspicuous consumption, along with "conspicuous leisure", is performed to demonstrate wealth or mark social status. Consequently, such products do not conform to the commonly held economic belief that supply and demand will determine the price. Basically, there will always be products in the market that are meant to merely meet Veblen nature and these products may have no other tangible benefits but to give the user a feeling of exclusivity and display their stature/wealth. I am not dealing with Veblen concepts or a neo-Marxist critique of capitalism in this post, mostly because Veblen wasn’t a cyclist and so his anti-capitalistic rage is ill-equipped to appreciate our desires and needs. Let us look at ‘real’ cycles and see what we’re actually paying for.
One of the first things that makes a cycle expensive is the design. Design can be tweaked to make the ride optimal for cyclocross, endurance, compliance, or suited for sprinting, or better for climbing while making the bicycle frame more aerodynamic. In cycling, aerodynamics matters a lot. To give some empirical or semi-scientific idea on the real-world results of aerodynamics, watch the video in this link where the rider tests conventional (cheap) wheels versus ZIPP 808 wheels (around ₹ 2.2 lakh in India). Incidentally, the timing would have been even faster if he used an ultra-stiff disc wheel like the Mavic Cosmic Ultimate Disc wheel (around ₹ 3 Lakh for the rear wheel)
With conventional (cheap) wheels, he can ride 20 minutes at an average speed of 41.12 kmph, with an average power of 379 watts. With the Zipp 808 NSW aero wheels, he rides 51 minutes at an average speed of 41.13 kmph at a similar wattage. If he were to use Mavic Disc wheels, this number would go up by another 3-5 minutes.
That’s a HUGE gain. But you need to decide if gaining 30 minutes is worth Rs. 2-3 lakh for you. I am a racing enthusiast, so every second makes a difference and this question is a no-brainer for me. I’ll buy whatever makes me the fastest. I ride a Giant Propel Advanced SL 0 (Dura Ace 9100) for my road racing. The Propel is one of the world’s most aerodynamic frames and it saves me precious seconds in my sprints. Designing such frames takes thousands of man-hours in the wind tunnels, which are very expensive. So, getting aerodynamic equipment means spending big bucks. The silver lining is that this technology eventually trickles down to economical models. But if you want the latest aerodynamic advantages, you need to be prepared to pay the premium that is required to support its research and development.
Having a high end cycle doesn’t just mean that you get a carbon frame. Even the nuts and bolts are made of expensive materials like titanium. Or take for example the cabling - India-made cycles use steel for cabling and wiring, which costs around ₹ 20-100 per cable. A high end foreign cycle will come with Shimano or Jagwire cables which are friction-free and encased inside a polymer coating and cost upwards of ₹ 2000 subject to model. These cables are highly resistant to rust and corrosion. Such protection is not available in most cheaper Indian cycles and once the cables suffer, shifting and braking is sluggish, reducing the overall experience of the ride. If you use high end cables, when you click the shifter to change the gear, the shifting is almost instantaneous even at high speed. I use a dura ace 9100 groupset with Shimano cables on my Giant Propel Advanced SL and have personally benefitted in many races by being able to get into the right gear while sprinting at 55kmph+ speeds. If you try doing this on cheaper cycles with low end groupsets, you will break your rear derailleur/ hangar. Another example of innovative machinery I can give you is ‘flexible hangars’ (Ed: not to mention clutch actuated rear derailleurs). These are found in high end MTBs and prevent the rear hangar from snapping off when the bike lands from a jump.
These expensive materials can also add to the cost because of the design process. When creating a carbon bike, a company typically will spend hundreds of hours researching different compositions of carbon to achieve an optimal balance of stiffness, comfort, agility, and feedback. All carbon cycles are not the same. Some are stiff and heavy, some are light but flexible, some are stiff and yet light- it all depends on the quality and fabrication of carbon that is used. Giant, Trek, Specialised and Pinarello are known to use the highest grades of carbon in their cycles. If you make a bike stiff, there will be better power transfer as the frame will absorb less energy.
(Ed. Do you lose energy with less stiff frames? Global Cycling Network GCN does some research)
But making bikes stiffer means adding more carbon, which translates to adding weight. Furthermore, making a cycle aero also means adding more carbon. So getting a lightweight and stiff frame which is also aerodynamic is going to be very difficult to produce. The good news is that many brands make different models of the same geometry. So you can get the aerodynamic advantage in lower-end models also. The Giant Propel Advanced Disc range consists of four bikes, starting at around Rs. 1.8 Lakh and topping out at Rs. 12 Lakh. The higher the price tag, the lighter the components and greater the aerodynamic integration. Most brands like Giant, Specialised and Pinarello spend a lot of money and time on research and testing, often taking years of research and in-field testing with their sponsored riders. All this adds to the cost of the final product. The link below gives a lot of data on the big cycling brands including frame + fork weight and stiffness ratio.
Click on this link to see the stiffest frame in the world in a review by cycling tips. The link also contains data on frame weight and other numerics that you may find interesting. All the cycles compared in the review are world-class and the test was conducted using the protocols established by Germany’s Tour magazine. Giant did this with the actual fork in place, whereas others often do it with a steel bar instead. The results indicate that the Trek Madone, which is a world-tour race-winning bike, comes in at a frame stiffness : weight ratio of 45, the propel advanced SL is at 53, Specialised venge vias is at 57.7, the Canyon aero road is at 60.6 and the propel advanced SL Disc comes in at 10 ration points higher, at a frame stiffness : weight ratio of 71.1.
On the other hand, a cheaper carbon bike will probably have a frame stiffness : weight ratio in the early 30s because a bargain has to be made between lightweight and stiffness. Unless you use high-end materials, you can’t have the best of both worlds and make your frame lightweight as well as stiff.
Government Affairs (India Specific)
Design, manufacturing materials, componentry and labour costs are just the tip of the iceberg. If you are talking specifically about the India market, the real culprit for making cycles expensive is the heavy tax that is levied on them. There is no impetus from the Government to make cycling popular or incentivised. Quite the opposite, the government has no qualms about levying heavy taxes on cycles, going as far as calling them ‘luxury’ items. If you really want to get cycles at affordable, cheaper rates, this is where you should focus your energy - getting taxation on cycles reduced or abolished altogether.
Most Indian brands make generic/standard sizes like S, M, L. Some brands have a standard crank-arm also of 172.5/175mm, but if a short rider were to buy these cycles, he will probably suffer a knee injury or even a slip-disc injury because such a large crank-arm may be ill-suited for him. Foreign brands make road bikes in almost every size - 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54 and so on. On the other side of the spectrum, in MTB bikes, it has been observed that out of the available wheel sizes of 26, 27.5 and 29, the fastest was the 29 size. It even gave better handling and was faster as well. However cheaper brands sell their cycles only in a standard 26 size. You can check out this video where a test was done of wheel sizes vis a vis speed.
Promotion & Support
Finally, I want to discuss one important point related to costs, though this may not be related directly to the costs of your bicycles. Promotion and support to sustain cycling - If you see any bike brand or shop in your neighbourhood, try to analyse what that shop is doing to promote cycling. Merely bringing in expensive models into an Indian market is not ‘promoting’ cycling because this is only being done for a personal or a business venture. Does your local shop support community events, races, a local cycling team? If they do any of these things, you should consider helping them grow. Specialized Bicycles sponsored a cycling team in Bangalore a few years ago called kynkyny. Today Bangalore is one of the leading Indian cities in cycling culture and I'm sure the presence of a sponsored team in Bangalore so early has contributed towards the development of the cycling culture there. Naturally, this expenditure is borne by Specialized to promote their brand, but it is a symbiotic relationship as these initiatives also help the sport grow and the worthy cyclists get some much-needed financial help. Cycling is an expensive sport and without assistance from cycling shops/brands, it is difficult to make ends meet to even travel and participate. So, I’m quite thankful to all those cycling brands and stores that have helped our community grow by actually investing in cyclists and not just in selling their cycles. Montra sponsored the Desert 500 race and the recently concluded Pedal for the Planet Bangalore Embassy Race; KOR ITT was sponsored by Amdavad Crankmeisters - AC; Giant & Starkenn. Starkenn Bikes has been sponsoring the annual Nashik Peloton for a few years now and has also been sponsoring the MTB National Championship for the last few years now and the MTB Himachal, in addition to the recently concluded TCC Crit race in Chennai and they have supported Indian cycling stars like Deborah Herold (world rank 4) and Naveen John for his training in Australia taking their talent all the way till the UCI events and covering the costs of talented cyclists at the Asian games also. In fact they even sponsored Indian cyclist Rujuta Satpure for her training in Belgium, making her the first Indian female elite-cyclist to race in Belgium. Without such support, having the first Indian female elite cyclist in Belgium would have remained a dream. (If you are interested in Long Distance rides, you can even check this out- GIANT Starkenn Discovery Ride PUNE to GOA 2017; a similar one is going to be conducted for Mumbai also (get updates by joining the Mumbai page). Similarly, in Mumbai, Prostar Bikes sponsored the Mumbai Championship race last year and Veloraid is being organised by Haybern. Such investments are meant to help the sport grow, which is beneficial for the store, as well as for the cyclist. Cycling in India is a relatively small market, so economies of scale can't work their magic on production cost. But if the investor gains no tangible benefit, it makes no sense to invest and the ultimate loss is for the cyclist. You’ll be surprised and saddened to know that Mumbai’s flagship race, one of the oldest races in the country- the 160km Mumbai-Pune race has not even taken place this year because there is no sponsor for the race. The loss is only to the cyclist.
So, if you have a bike store in your locality that is also making such investments to help the sport grow, you should definitely consider doing your bit by supporting the store. Paying for a higher-end cycle is not just about paying for a “premium” sticker.
This article first appeared on @thevelominati . It has been edited by Bharat Singh Bhadwal and reproduced here with due permission from the author - Mirza Saaib Beg. You can follow Mirza Saaib Beg at @thevelominati.