Be thankful for pedalling dentists, Tim Dawson

From The Sunday Times 12 July 2009

Wherever you turn your head these days, there seem to be sensational road bikes on offer. Lidl, the German discount retailer, is currently tempting customers with an £800 bike fitted with Shimano’s nearly top-flight Ultegra groupset (crank, gears, wheel hubs, brakes and chain). Halfords, normally serving the low-end market, has scored a goal with its race-quality Chris Boardman range, costing £500-£3,300. It has sold 10,000 of the cycles in the first year of sales.

Look at the very top of the road-bike market and something even more interesting is afoot. Trek’s current top-of-the-range Madone 6.9 retails for £5,000. The equivalent Giant, the TCR Advanced SL Team, is about £250 cheaper. Even the doughty Dawes Ultra Galaxy touring bike has a best-you-can-buy model for £3,000. When you compare those prices with what you might have paid a decade ago, it is evident there has been a step change in top-end models. If prices had risen in line with inflation (as defined by the retail prices index) the top of Giant’s range should cost around £3,000, Trek’s should be £2,800 and the best Dawes Galaxy would be £970.

Noting the large rises in prices is no criticism of the bike makers, for over the course of 10 years many aspects of bicycle design have changed almost beyond recognition. Carbon fibre and titanium have reduced weight and increased strength. The number and quality of gears have risen, and bikes are mechanically smarter.

This rapid upward force on upper-end bicycle prices shows something more profound than just improved engineering. Manufacturers have clearly discovered a core of cyclists who have very deep pockets.

And it isn’t just bikes. You can pay more than £400 for a cycling jacket, and one company has recently started advertising handmade leather shoes to fit bicycle cleats, at close to £150 a pair. It’s a far cry from the days when cyclists in threadbare club jerseys bragged about how little they spent building up their “all spare parts” machine.

The old guard don’t like it, of course. Cycling is the new golf, they complain, and not the inexpensive pastime of yore. Preening middle-aged men compete to spend more than each other on celebrity-endorsed products, and one particularly bitchy blogger decries Trek’s Madone as “the dentist’s bicycle”.

For me, the more people cycling, the better, whatever they spend. For every costly sportif, there are still a dozen similar Audax endurance events in which you can participate for pennies. More important, if it were not for the dentists who can afford thousands on top-flight bikes, stores such as Lidl and Halfords would not be tempting the rest of us with such amazing, high-tech bicycles for less than £1,000.

Tim Dawson

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