By Stefan Abram
Buying a bike on a budget is more feasible than ever with many high-quality bikes at affordable prices.
To put things in perspective, back in 2010 you were doing well to get an alloy frame with a carbon fork and a 10 speed drivetrain for under £1,000. Whereas now, fully carbon bikes with 11 speed drivetrains slide under that mark—which is even more impressive if you adjust for inflation.
But there are still pitfalls that can be run into, and it is easy to waste your money by spending in the wrong areas. Whether your budget is large or small, you are going to want to maximise what you are getting for your money.
Tips for buying a bike on a budget
Have a clear idea of its application
Most fundamental to ensuring you won't want to upgrade the bike a couple of months after you've bought it is ensuring that you're getting the right bike for the kind of riding that you want to do.
If you want a bike to commute to work on - no matter the weather - a dedicated road bike with narrow clearances and no frame mounts is likely to cause frustrations. Going for a bike that can fit wider tyres, mudguards and even the option for a pannier rack will be more likely to fulfil your needs.
>>>Read: Best bikes for commuting
Or if you’re dipping your toes into road cycling for the first time, opting for a bike with drop handlebars rather than a straight bar will put you in a far more efficient position for covering miles.
Or if you’re looking to enter a few road races, really making sure you’re getting a bike with the right geometry for fast steering and a low position will save any feelings of buyer’s regret a couple of months down the line.
>>>Read: Bike geometry explained
Focus on the frame
The nice thing about bikes is that there is always room for upgrades. You can buy a bike now and over time build it up into your dream steed. But with this, there is always the conundrum: whether to buy a bike with a good frame but worse components, or a bike with a worse frame and better components.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, you should go for the better frame and take a hit on the components. There are a couple of reasons for this, the first being that buying a frame on its own is surprisingly expensive, often not costing much more than a complete bike.
The second is that if you try and upgrade your frame later, you may well find that many of the components that are already on your bike are not cross compatible meaning you’ll have to replace them too.
>>> Read: Best road bikes
Your band-on front mech might need to be changed to a braze on mount. QR wheels may need to be changed to ones with thru axles. Your long drop rim brake calipers might need to be replaced with short drop ones... the list goes on.
If you buy a good frame and upgrade the equipment that it came with, there are no issues with cross compatibility as you can get the right model of each component.
Good aluminium is better than cheap carbon
Yes, carbon components can be made very light, very aerodynamic and dampen vibrations well. But these properties aren’t intrinsic to the material; they come from an extensive research and development along with a complex manufacturing process.
More material is placed where the frame needs to be stiff, while less is used where the frame should be allowed to flex and provide greater comfort.
Cheap carbon bikes cut corners here, so you can end up with a bike that doesn’t save weight and has a harsh ride quality. Aluminium is a cheaper material to work with, so for the same price you can get greater workmanship.
For instance, tubes which vary in thickness down their length and are an appropriate diameter for their purpose. These combine to produce a bike that is light, stiff and comfortable.
To give an idea of the price and weight difference, the Trek Émonda ALR frame weighs a claimed 1,112g in a size 56 with an RRP of £800, while the carbon Ribble Endurance SL frame comes in at 1150g and costs a pound under £1,200.
Something else to consider in addition to weight and comfort is the frame’s tolerances. Tight quality control costs money and is another of the things sacrificed for cheap frames.
An area where the results of this often show up is in a creaking bottom bracket. This happens when a carbon frame doesn’t exactly fit its PressFit bottom bracket, or alternatively, if the threaded aluminium sleeve isn’t bonded into the frame completely straight.
Check out 'in-house' brands
You can be sure that you are getting a good quality bike if you buy it from any of the big bike brands, such as Giant, Specialized or Cannondale, as they have their reputations to uphold. But, as these brands have such a degree of name recognition, you are paying for their name on the downtube as well.
Halford and Decathlon have their own in-house bike brands and can match the Specializeds and Treks of the world pretty closely for economics of scale, but without the added price of brand name cachet. Although significantly cheaper, many of these bikes are still really high quality, and their bikes have often impressed us when we’ve had them on review.
>>>Decathlon bikes: Van Rysel bike range, Triban bike range
Wait for the sales
It's an age-old trick covering all sectors, but its use cannot be underplayed: you really can grab a bargain in the sales.
A complete frame redesign takes a lot of time and investment from a bike brand and can’t be done every year. When a brand launches its next year bike, most of the time it will just be a new colour scheme and maybe a few component changes - essentially the same bike as the previous year, but now at a higher price.
Holding off buying your bike until the sales start is an effective way of maximising what you can get for your budget. Brands tend to start releasing new models in September, so that is a good time to on the lookout for bargains.
It’s possible to pick up some real bargains when buying second hand, but there’s also the risk of being ripped off. If you know your way around a bike - or have a friend who does - this can be a great way to get the most out of your budget.
We have a guide on how to buy a bike second hand, with all the advice you’ll need to get the best deal.
>>>Read: Tips for buying a second hand bike
Go for a bike fit
Fancy wheels and a top tier groupset are of little benefit if you get a bike that feels awful to ride because it’s the wrong size. When retailers put on large discounts to clear the last of their stock, it’s easy to be tempted to pick up an XXL for an incredible price. Likewise, for people who are at the extremes of the height spectrum, when trying to buy a second-hand bike it can feel like you have to compromise on the fit.
But this really is a false economy as you’ll soon be wishing you had a bike that properly fits and will likely have to buy again. Your position on the bike is a lot more fundamental to your riding than any of the components, and so this should really be your top priorities.
What gears to go for
It’s easy to get sucked into a 'higher numbers = better' mentality. But it helps to think objectively about what your requirements and whether the extra gear will actually help you, or if it’s an area where you can save some money.
An 11-speed cassette doesn’t make you 10% faster than a 10-speed cassette would. There are two benefits an extra gear can bring, the first is that you can have more closely spaced gears for the same gearing range. That means your top gear and bottom gear remain the same, but the jumps between gears are slightly smaller, and thus you are less likely to find yourself stuck between one that’s too hard and one that’s too easy.
Alternatively, you could use that extra gear to increase your gearing range and keep with the same gaps between the gears. This means you can have an easier bottom gear or a harder top gear, but the jumps between the gears will therefore remain the same.
If you’re fussy about large jumps between gears but don’t require a large range, or if you want a large range but aren’t fazed by slightly bigger jumps between gears, a 10 speed groupset could be all you need. Opting for a lower tier groupset can free up some more of your budget for getting a better frameset or wheels which can make a far larger impact on your rides.
Save some money for accessories
If you’re on a strict budget, make sure to factor in some money for the necessary accessories. If you have £1,000 to spend and get a bike for £999, you’re not going to have as good an experience as someone who saved some cash for proper cycling kit and tools.
Kit-wise, you’ll want at the very least a set of cycling specific shorts and a jersey along with a helmet. Getting some arm and leg warmers along with a rain jacket will greatly increase the range of conditions you’ll find it comfortable to cycle in.
The bare necessities when it comes to tools are a set of Allen keys, puncture repair kit, tyre levers, pump and spare inner tubes. Although getting a proper tool set might be a little large of an initial outlay, being able to repair your bike yourself will save you a lot of money in the long run over taking it to a bike shop.
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