The two “randonneur” bikes above look roughly similar. Both have a front rack and both have gears. Yet the one on the right would cost more than five times as much as the one on the left, if you ordered one today.
Of course, there are obvious differences: One already is equipped with lighting and fenders, the other isn’t. But even if we add $500 for those parts to the bike on the left, we still have a remarkable difference in price. Why is the bike on the right so much more expensive?
The bike on the left is a mass-produced machine, whereas the bike on the right was hand-made by a small constructeur. The “cachet” of a handmade product is nice and well, but what do you get with the hand-made machine that the mass-produced bike does not offer?
The production bike is a fine machine that will make many cyclists happy. So what does the hand-made high-end bike offer that justifies its price? From my experience, the extra money buys you improvements in three areas:
1. Performance: The high-end bike has a geometry carefully conceived for its intended purpose. (The production bike typically is a standard “road” bike, to which a rack has been added.) For the custom bike, the tubing was chosen to offer the ultimate performance for its rider. The fork blades are thin and absorb shock better. The rack sits lower and is stiffer, so the load works in unison with the steering. The fenders attach to precisely located bridges without spacers, so they are less likely to rattle or resonate.
The high-end components work flawlessly. The cranks offer narrow tread and exactly the chainring choices the rider needs. The end result is a bike that handles better, climbs better, descends better and is less fatiguing to ride.
2. Durability: The hand-made bike has each tube carefully mitered. The best hand-made bikes are brazed by master craftsmen who knows their craft. You can be sure that there is braze in every joint, and that the frame will not fail prematurely. The bearings of the components are precision-ground, so they will last multiple times as long as those of a less expensive bike. The cranks are forged and thus stronger and more durable. Even the paint is more durable, because it has been applied over a primer coat, and then been baked and cured.
On the inexpensive production bike, the quality of construction simply is not the same. Every part of the bike is spec’d to the lowest cost, rather than the highest quality. This starts with the tubing, and continues to even the smallest screw. Depending on how much you ride, the production bike can be adequate, or it can be frustrating as parts wear out and have to be replaced.
3. Aesthetics: The careful construction of the handmade bike also shows in its appearance. The fork has a gentle curve rather than a dog-leg bend in the middle. The lugs are crisply filed. The rack sits in exactly the right place on top of the front wheel. The fenders follow the curve of the wheels. The components are polished rather than powdercoated. A bike like this is a joy to behold, and it will age well.
Do you deserve a better bike?
The question for most riders is whether all this makes enough of a difference to warrant the extra expense. I believe this depends on how much you plan to ride the bike. If the bike is to serve for occasional rides, then the production bike may be all you need. But if you plan to ride more often and longer distances, you soon will appreciate the performance and durability of an excellent bicycle. Even the appearance is important: A beautiful bike will beckon you to ride more often.
The initial investment may seem high, but the better bike will be less expensive in the long run. Not only will its quality components last longer and require less maintenance, but you also will be less tempted to upgrade to a “better” bike.
In the end, every cyclist chooses for him/herself where they are willing to make compromises. Some don’t care much about aesthetics, others don’t need speed. Knowing what the trade-offs are allows you to make an informed choice.