Monday, December 28, 2009

What price for an (old) bicycle? part 2

There has been significant growth in the market for old bicycles and parts over the past few years. Increasing environmental awareness and growing concerns about climate change has increased the profile of bicycles amongst the general public. The concept of the bicycle as a means of transport gains traction as we pass through a global financial crisis, watch the rise and fall of oil prices, and realise that we need to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels. Not to mention the health and social benefits.

Most people go to a bicycle shop to buy a new bicycle. And there’s clearly nothing wrong with that. It is still the best way to see what’s available, get a correct fit and establish a point of service. Some turn to the second-hand market in pursuit of a bargain or to be just that little bit different. In part this is a revolt against mass-produced sameness that pervades our everyday lives. Having an item that marks us as different (but not too different) from our neighbour seems entrenched in the human psyche. If you are into bicycles, then an old bicycle will accomplish this role rather nicely.

Jump on the bandwagon...

The seductive lure of (apparent) freedom typified by the bicycle messenger has been a major influence in the resurgence of the “retro look”. Steel bicycles and single speeds have become an object of desire drawing consumers into the market for second hand bicycles as well as modern “retro look” items. Helping to drive the market are trendy shops (real and virtual) with photo studios that generate amazing photographs of old bicycles.

From a marketing perspective, the interest in old bicycles have come a long way from Sheldon Brown’s (still excellent) webpage. Clever presentation of what are effectively obsolete bicycles and parts generates curiosity at one end of the scale and strong emotions at the other. Clever presentation is good marketing. And good marketing sells. What troubles me is that a well-presented item will often sell for more than a less-well-presented item of much greater rarity or quality. This suggests more a fashion trend pushing the market rather than enthusiasm based on knowledge of the market. Fashion trends are volatile and, on its own, cannot sustain market growth.

Enthusiasm for old and retro-style bicycles based on fashion trends will fade as a number of realities become apparent. Steel bicycles are heavy and they rust. Old componentry doesn’t work as well as the new stuff. And single speeds are hard to pedal.

What happens to the market of old bicycles and parts will depend on a number of factors. The current trend of old bicycles and bits as a fashion accessory cannot last for a number of reasons as I will outline below. To maintain public awareness and market growth requires an accessible, validated knowledge base from which to take reference. Excellent websites like and help a lot by networking interested parties and establishing a resource base. What sometimes happens within these forums is a sense of elitism and arrogance that can drive away potential newcomers (the same goes for any area of interest where a person assumes a mantle of knowledge to be a representation of their identity). A greater degree of openness with a temperance of individual opinion would welcome more people into our intoxicating world.

Here are some factors that I believe play an important role in the price of a bicycle:


Bicycles are a cheap means of transport. This is an entrenched and self-perpetuating belief which isn’t a bad thing. Our first wheels often comes in the form of a bicycle and no matter how pleasurable the experience we often want to move on to faster and more exciting means of transport. In the developing world the bicycle is a workhorse and transport vehicle and there’s no glamour in that either.

Inexpensive to build:

Bicycles can be made inexpensively and yet ride brilliantly. Most of the ride handling and basic geometry issues have been sorted out years ago. Beyond a certain degree of care/ expertise, the extra expense on fine workmanship appeals only on an aesthetic or emotive level. Many consumers don’t particularly care for this and those that do often don’t care enough to pay substantially more for it.

The glowing contradiction to this argument is peer pressure and marketing hype that drives much of the upper end of the market in modern production frames. These generate the largest markups for bicycle sellers as they have relatively low build costs. But fashion changes, technology improves and we move on. The vast majority of these bikes will fall by the wayside and their gimicky monikers forgotten.

Advancing technology:

In the main, bicycles are technology-based, functional items. As such they tend to improve over time (sure there’s the marketing hype that comes with the territory but the good bits tend to be passed on with the extraneous rubbish falling by the wayside). Bicycles have become lighter, they have more gears that are easier to use, and they have better brakes which provide greater control.

Overall the price of a bicycle has dropped for the quality of ride that it provides. I love my iconic 1960’s Cinelli Super Corsa but it’s the somewhat bland 2008 Cannondale Six13 (3) with mid-range components that gets regular use. The Cannondale is lighter, stiffer, faster, and safer to ride not to mention cheaper to purchase, easier to maintain, and [far] easier to replace. If I had one bike for use then it would have to be the Cannondale. If I have the luxury of amassing a collection of bicycles then I would like the indulgence of a 1960‘s Cinelli SC.

Sizing issue:

Humans come in many sizes and bicycles need to match these sizes. Bespoke bicycles do exactly that. They are made to order to fit one person - the original owner. Sometimes this is a necessity as the owner has certain morphological reasons that demand a custom build (eg really short or really tall people, those with specific back or knee problems). Other times the customer can fit a standard frame but is looking for a certain type of frame that suits his style - riding style, riding type, aesthetics, frame material predjudices etc. I am one of the latter and having recently been through the experience (see my frame building post) I am acutely aware why this privilege demands a significant premium.

The majority of consumers don’t require custom sizing (or don’t recognise the importance of it) and are presented with a range of standard sizes. This is certainly a cheaper option but presents a problem in the second hand market where a sought-after bicycle is not within a usable a size range for the potential buyer. Sizing and colour preferences result in the greatest fluctuation in market prices of out-of-production bicycles. The exception is the hyper-rare bicycle that isn’t going to be ridden anyway. Size is no longer a factor and if you don’t jump at the chance of purchase then you may never get the opportunity again.

Spoilt for choice:

Opinion of exclusivity is often a reasonable measure of one’s exposure and understanding of the field. Having said that, few enthusiast have the broad knowledge of what is available. Fewer still can spare the time to look for the somewhat-rare bicycle that fits all (or at least most) of their requirements. And again fewer still have the money to burn on what is essentially a hedonistic endeavour.

Having a limitless range of choices is great if you have the opportunity to go through the choices available, have the knowledge to know the difference, and have the means to purchase the item of your choice.

Globalisation and the internet influence:

As indicated in my previous post, the dissemination of knowledge and the bewildering array of choices now available has had confounding impact on the marketplace. Blockbusters and super-niche items continue to remain strong with a respective broad and deep reach. Middling items which compose the vast majority of old bicycle stock have not gained any ground and are relatively undervalued.

This may change. The growth of interest groups and internet forums have networked enthusiasts from around the world. An increase in collective wisdom generates a market by drawing in newcomers that are comforted by a satisfying depth of knowledge and experience. Nonetheless it remains a thin market with a paucity of reliable information (as opposed to hearsay, opinions, and popular misconceptions). This and the sometimes personal bickering amongst supposed experts further adds to price volatility. Hardly the environment for the somewhat committed.


Ultimately you have to push on them pedals. And this means work and yes, it sometimes hurts. Enough said.

There are probably many other factors that I haven’t yet considered. But when it’s all said and done it’s important to remember one thing: It’s only a bicycle...

you can't put a price on this...

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