The Ultimate Guide to Cost-Effective Road Cycling

The Ultimate Guide to Cost-Effective Road Cycling
12 min read

I’m a competitive road cyclist. Not one you’ll see in the pros or on TV but one that can hold his own locally and regionally. Over the last two years I’ve cycled 21,850 miles, designed and built 6 custom bikes from scratch, had the privilege and honor of doing a 204 mile ride with 3x Guinness record holder Amanda Coker and been involved in four wrecks, three of which involved being struck by an at-fault motorist (walked away from all four incidents).

The other day, I met an ultra-endurance athlete online who found great success in foot-based activities, achieving feats few in the world have accomplished. In chatting I learned he had also picked up open-water swimming and was doing quite well in that discipline, too. I proposed we meet over a bike ride; he accepted and, perhaps unsurprisingly, did exceptionally well. This athlete, having never ridden any significant amount, averaged 14 mph over 30 miles on a beater mountain bike with large, knobby tires.

That ride was a teaser that immediately increased his interest in the sport and helped anchor his overall idea of getting into triathlons. That interest came with many questions about what’s needed to get into cycling and upgrade from a beater mountain bike to something more conducive for serious cycling endeavors.

I decided to compile our conversation into a guide for getting into road cycling which aims to provide a no-nonsense, cost-optimized approach. This guide at times conflicts with cycling industry trends and preferences, favoring your wallet over what marketers, sponsors, and influencers say.

Comprehensive Bike Fit – $300

Recommended for all but not critical for those that spend a minimal amount of time on a bike, which I define as cycling less than 200 mi year. A professional bike fit is the starting point to begin looking for bikes which include accommodations for torso height, leg length, arm reach, back and joint flexibility, hip width, accommodations for existing injuries or handicaps, varus or valgus foot angulations, inward or outward toeing, and more. These, and other considerations your fitter will go over with you, all factor into a comprehensive bike fit.

Consider this scenario: you’re browsing for bikes and the bike shop/website/Craig’s List states a “medium” bike will fit anyone between 5’7” and 6’2”. You happen to be 5’10”. Isn’t that good enough? Doesn’t that mean the bike will fit? Perhaps. In very general terms it may, but you won’t know until you’ve dropped the money on a typically-non-refundable purchase. Just because you have ample saddle (the name of the seat on a road bike) height adjustment range doesn’t mean all the other factors are accommodated. The last thing you want to do is find out you purchased the wrong size or from a brand that favors a particular body geometry that isn’t yours. If you’re going to be spending a lot of time on the bike, ensure you’re:

  • going to be comfortable and the bike will accommodate your all-legs, all-arms and no-torso, or t-rex body shape
  • positioned to recruit the proper muscle groups and achieve optimal power output
  • positioned for long-term physiological health and injury avoidance (stay healthy, my friends)
  • taking full advantage of your unique body attributes to achieve the most aerodynamic position

A professional bike fit will help you achieve all of these. My personal fitter is Paul Williams of Paul’s Perfect Fit. His world-class expertise causes cyclists from all across the world to visit him and he just so happens to be in my backyard. No, this is not sponsored – he’s just good.

This video summarizes what to expect during your fitting experience.

Bike Purchase – $350 to $2500

You have your individual fit dimensions in hand from the fitter. Time to buy a bike. What’s involved and what can you expect to pay? The number one rule about buying bikes: it’s not the bike that’s fast or slow, it’s you.

As Eddy Merckx said:

With that important axiom out of the way, let’s start with a basic bike diagram:

cycling parts diagram

Bikes range from the Craig’s List $30 find to over $12,000. No, that’s not a typo. One can indeed buy a bling bike for over $12,000. The Pinarello Dogma F10 Dura-Ace Di2 is one such example. You can also buy decent used vehicle for that price. Don’t spend car money and walk out with a bike unless, by “bike,” you mean motorcycle.

There are two approaches to buying a bike: purchasing one that’s already assembled and building one from scratch. For reference, the Pinarello example is an already-assembled bike. If you intend to compete, the saying goes, “race what you can replace.” Keep this in mind when evaluating your long-term plans.

Custom Build – $2,500

If we put the ludicrously-priced bikes off to the side and climb one rung down the price ladder, you’ll find many used vehicles, oops I mean new bicycles, in the $8,000 to $10,000 range. If you want absolutely must have a high-end bike, then lose the name brands and logos. A bike comparable to an $8,000-$10,000 steed can be had for under $2,500. How does one lose the name brands and logos? Easy, but some context is required first…

Carbon bicycle frames are primarily manufactured in one of a handful of plants in Taiwan or China. Companies like Trek, Cannondale and Giant are no strangers to overseas manufacturing. How does manufacturing work? Bike companies spend R&D dollars to design and develop a mold for their frames. After these mold designs are patented the manufacturers produce frames from these molds. These patented molds are called closed-molds and yield patented frames. It’s important to note that anyone can design a frame mold. Molds that aren’t patented are called open-molds and yield generic frames that individuals and bike shops alike can purchase and build upon to create bicycles. The factories and laborers that manufacture closed-mold frames are the same factories and laborers that manufacture open-mold frames.

Back to the question: how does one lose the name brands and logos? Buy an open-mold frame and build a bike from it. I personally ride the VB-R-077 (sometimes referred to as the LTK-118) and logged well over 10,000 miles on it.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning a frame purchase is the beginning of building a bike from scratch. Research will be required unless you decide to outsource the build design and assembly to a local bike shop. Bear in mind, soliciting your local bike shop to assist in your design and build may not go over well and they may say: “no.” Chances are they won’t be keen on generic carbon as it detracts from their bike sales and they won’t have legal recourse/protection for building a bike upon such a frame. Bike shops that have more of a garage look and feel and less of retail layout with pristine aesthetics, bikes on shelves, and floor stands full of retail products will typically be open to building a generic bike if you bring all the parts and ask nicely.

Here’s the build list and a photo of my primary bike for reference. Similar to generic carbon frames, the same principle applies to generic carbon wheels. Estimate a flat “bike assembly” fee of $200 should you decide to enlist the services of a bike shop or individual.

cycling build list
all prices inclusive of tax and shipping, in USD

If you’re doing homework on open-mold frames you’ll likely encounter articles on mainstream cycling websites and forums suggesting generic carbon parts are a dangerous and risky proposition.

While it is true some open-mold frames are the first of their kind, there are other, heavily-peer-reviewed frames that have many data points speaking to their safety and longevity. Stick with these frames and you’ll be just fine.

Here’s an example: in 2015, “CyclingWeekly” published a print article and, in 2016, an online article that attempted to undermine buyer confidence in generic carbon parts. In 2017, RibbleCycles, a UK-based bike shop, released their top-end bike: Ribble SL – a white-label bike built from the VB-R-077 open-mold frame with some logos and paint added. CyclingWeekly subsequently took the bike for a spin in Scotland and stated it’s “a frame that’s built to fly.

Fleet Bike – $350

Suppose you don’t want a high-end carbon fiber bike or prefer to have something already built that you can grab and go (after having your bike fitter dial it in to your individual specs). In opting for a fleet bike you avoid the customization options and complexities, sourcing logistics, and can pay far less than $2,500 to have something competitive.

So what is a fleet bike? A fleet bike is a rental [road] bike. Rentals are generally aluminium-framed bikes as aluminum can handle the abuse and negligence of renters better than a carbon. All things equal, expect an aluminum-framed bike to weigh about 2-4 lb more than a carbon-framed bike. To put this in perspective, an aluminum bike will weigh between 18-22 lb, a carbon bike about 14-18 lb, and a department store bike about 32-36 lb or more.

Some bike shops generate significant revenue from rentals while others have no rentals whatsoever. Poke around on Google and give a few shops a ring to identify those that have rentals. Of those that do, let them know you’d like to buy a road bike from their rental fleet. You’ll know it’ll have been professionally and regularly serviced and maintained. Expect to pay around $300-400. Of course, before purchasing be sure to identify the brand and model and consult with your bike fitter to determine whether the bike size and geometry will fit your measurements.

Necessary Extras – $300

No matter how you buy a bike or what you buy, a few essentials above and beyond the actual bike are needed. What kind of essentials? Let’s take a look…

Helmet – $40

For starters, if you don’t have a helmet, get one. No one plans to wreck, but accidents happen. Walmart has them for $40. All helmets these days are equally good at protecting your head in a wreck provided it’s properly adjusted to fit snug. On a properly-fit helmet, there should be enough space between the bottom of your jaw and the strap for you to insert two fingers. NHTSA has an informative PDF with images. I prefer this diagram instead.

The difference in helmet prices are due to clip/adjustment mechanisms, aero fanciness and the ability to have more than the single-color option found on Bell helmets at your local Walmart. I personally use a cyclocross helmet – a fancy way of saying “a helmet with a small removable visor on it.” The road cycling purists may scoff, but that little visor does a superb job of keeping the sun off my forehead, nose and eyes. My future self will thank me for the skin protection. Your future self will too.

Shoes – $100

During your bike fit, ask your fitter for shoe recommendations and styles then hop online to pick up a pair. Not sure what size to get? Many retailers offer free returns on clothing articles. This makes ordering three sizes in a single transaction then sending two back a non-issue. Some retailers even encourage trying other brands, upping your purchase to six or nine articles in a single order. There are economies of scale when it comes to the cost of return shipping.

Pedals – $80

Bikes are typically sold without pedals. Yes, even the $12,000 bike requires a pedal purchase. Why? Unlike department store bikes that have platform pedals that can be ridden with any or no footwear, road bikes have special pedals called “clipless pedals” that enable them to snap to special shoes; your feet are locked in place. A gentle but deliberate twist of the ankle frees your foot. Having anchored feet is a requisite for a bike fit and improves your cycling efficiency.

There are many different standards in use to snap shoes to pedals: each with pros, cons, and neutral differences. The most prevalent standard in road cycling is the “SPD-SL”, a three-bolt system. Check with your fitter to ensure the pedals you’re about to purchase are compatible with your shoe selection.

Clothing – $50 per kit

It doesn’t matter what one wears when riding a bike, as long as you’re wearing something and it isn’t see through. However, there are material (no pun intended) advantages in electing to wear cycling-specific pants and shirt (jersey). First off, cycling pants have padding built in called a chamois (pronounced “shammy”). This makes sitting on a skinny and hard long wedge between your legs tolerable for durations greater than 30 minutes. Cycling pants and jerseys are also form fitting – properly fitting road cycling attire doesn’t flap in the wind. Each flap of your clothes is energy lost to turbulence, an element of wind resistance – the greatest form of drag a cyclist experiences when riding above 12mph on flat ground. Wind resistance increases with the cube of your speed, meaning it takes 3x the effort to ride at 24mph than 12mph. By being aero[dynamic] you can ride faster for the same amount of effort.

As with generic carbon, generic clothing comes with significant cost benefits over the name brands without a sacrifice in quality. For awareness, popular mid-range and high-end clothing brands include PearlIzumi, Rapha, ASSOS and Castelli. A single name-brand kit (1 shirt and 1 set of pants) can run upwards of $300 or more. Pick up a race-fitting jersey and matching pair of pants on Amazon for under $50, shipped. If you have Prime, it’ll arrive in two days or less. I have 6 [identical] kits in my rotation as that number aligns well with my cycling habits and laundry cycle.

Track (tire) pump – $30

Road bike tires of the kind mentioned in this guide (clincher) are typically inflated between 90-120 PSI. Get a pump that’s capable of inflating to 160 PSI or higher. Pumps rated for 140 PSI or less will require more, and sometimes significantly more, physical effort to achieve 90-120 PSI. Skip the digital screens, stainless construction and accompanying $60-100 price tag of “premium” pumps. Pumps are considered consumable items (good luck finding replacement seals and being able to open/service your existing pump). Purchase accordingly.

Also worth noting, make sure the pump supports presta valves. Presta valves are what you’ll find in the cycling scene, not to be confused with Schrader valves – the kind found on department store bikes and motor vehicle tires.

For what it’s worth, I personally pump my 25c tires to 90 PSI, let them drift to about 75-80 over the course of a week, then re-inflate to 90.

Maintenance – $200/yr + one-time cost of $85

Maintenance costs are proportional to usage provided you keep your bike sheltered and out of the rain when not in use. In 2018 I logged about 8800 miles and incurred a total maintenance bill of $191. This included 4 chains, some shift cables, a new rear tire and tube, and batteries for the HR monitor, power/cadence meter and RFLKT screen. The batteries are arguably not related to the bike and its operation, so let’s say costs are comfortably under $200.

Expect the following for life expectancy and maintenance cost:

cycling maintenance list
all prices inclusive of tax and shipping, in USD

One time cost: $85

Road bikes are simple machines. They have few moving parts: no cooling system, no electrical system or electronics, no hydraulics, no suspension, no fuel or exhaust system, no combustion system, no ignition system, no climate control system and no sound system.

Learning to do your own maintenance is a valuable endeavor with a low barrier to entry and low risk. It allows you to save on labor costs, it’s convenient (no scheduling service appointments and lugging your bike in your vehicle through traffic only to be told to come back tomorrow) and you pick up new, transferable skills along the way. Need to replace the chain? Do it over lunch and be done with it.

An inexpensive bike toolkit for $40 on Amazon, a set of high-quality metric hex keys for $15 (don’t skimp on these), and the Park Tool CM 5.2 for $30 will allow you to tackle the majority of maintenance activities: degrease, lube, and replace chain, easily change tires and tubes, and remove, install or adjust most components on your bike.

There are many well-put-together videos on YouTube that educate and demonstrate virtually any bike maintenance activity that exists. The Global Cycling Network is a YouTube channel I’ve found particularly helpful. In my opinion their videos are easy to understand, time-effective, and entertaining.

Summary

Road bikes are long-lasting machines. The technology in bike mechanics is at a point where only slow, incremental changes are happening. Short of revolutionary manufacturing techniques or new material discovery, decades will go by without any significant advancements. In 20 years you may eventually upgrade your bike, but it’ll be to scratch an itch to get something new or different rather than out of loss of utility from your current steed.

Whether you build a custom bike or purchase a fleet bike, expect the bike to last decades with basic maintenance.

Because of the longevity of bikes, manufacturers are getting creative to generate the perception of obsolescence to drive sales. Consider a relatively recent trend in road bikes: hydraulic disc brakes. I won’t get into the pros and cons of different bicycle braking systems – the main takeaway is there will always be a shiny new feature that, at the end of the day, won’t make a material difference in usefulness or performance of a bicycle. Remember, “Don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades.” Ignore the hype and ride your bike.

Expect first-year total costs to be about $1,200. This includes a comprehensive bike fit, bike, necessary extras, one-time investment in maintenance tools and one year of consumable parts (assumes riding 9,000 miles/year).

cycling first-year cost summary
all prices inclusive of tax and shipping, in USD

I hope you found this guide useful and entertaining. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.