First Time Buyer’s Sticker Shock & The Relative Costs of Cycling

Note: This is a slightly updated re-print of something I wrote back in 2004 as a way of addressing the never-ending strings of questions regarding the cost of tandems at one of the discussion forums I frequent.

For many recreational cyclists, just walking into a bicycle specialty shop that stocks high-end road bikes from Trek, Cannondale, Lemond, Klein, Cervelo, Specialized, Colnago, etc can be an eye-popping experience. Trek’s top-end racing bikes once selling for perhaps $2,000 back in the early 90’s, have been replaced by models like the $4,500 Madone 5.9 or Madone 6.9C that cost upwards of $8,600.

Similarly, most affordable tandems can often times cause first time tandem buyers to experience a serious case of sticker shock, particularly if their first encounter is with one of the tandem specialty brands, e.g., Santana, Co-Motion, and perhaps even Cannondale. At the big 2 tandem firms, entry-level tandems are priced anywhere from $3,000 to $3,500 that, to someone who has never spent half that much on a bicycle can seem outrageous. Moreover, prices for these premium brand tandems quickly rise to $5,000 for the mid-level models featuring Ultegra components and alloy frames and the sky’s the limit at the top-end where an all-carbon Calfee Tetra which ‘chi chi’ components will set you back about $9,000. Of course, what some buyers may or may not realize is that these tandem-specialty brands might be better called entry-level for “enthusiasts” as their peers in the 1/2 bike world are machines that cost, interestingly enough, about 1/2 as much. Or, looked at the other way around, a tandem will usually cost about twice as much as a personal bike of similar quality and componentry. Yes, there are $500 tandems on the market, in much the same way that there are very affordable $250 all-terrain or comfort bikes and they serve their intended purpose quite well. However, the target buyer for the $500 tandem is quite different from the buyer that a firm like Co-Motion is targeting with its 29.4 lb $8,390 Robusta aluminum racing tandem.

What Is Your Objective and What Are Your Constraints

Therefore, part of the first time buyer’s challenge is to establish:
1. How much discretionary income are they willing to commit to a first tandem.
2. What quality and price range would they be shopping for if they were in the market for a new personal road or off-road bike?
3. Taking into consideration the answer to questions #1 & #2 above, is the amount of money ear marked for the tandem enough to buy two new personal bikes of an acceptable level of quality? If it’s not, then you may have some false expectations for what kind of new tandem you’ll end up with in terms of the tandem’s overall quality, finish, performance and the intangibles (yes, vanity is one of those).

Speaking as a connoisseur of fine bicycles, my belief is that if you regularly ride a Campy Record-equipped Colnago and are shopping for a tandem, chances are you’re not going to be all that happy with a true entry-level tandem or — for that matter — one of the entry-level enthusiast tandems. That is, unless you plan to step into a completely different cycling mode to use the tandem, e.g., slowing down to smell the roses with your spouse or introducing a child to the joys of cycling via the back-end of a tandem. Conversely, if you’re a pragmatic cyclist who is well-served by a trusty 20 year-old Gios or perhaps a newer $700 sport / racing bike, then many of the entry-level or enthusiast entry-level tandems will most likely meet or exceed your expectations for a first tandem. And, so it goes. The point being, where you’re headed with regard to the purchase of a first tandem has a lot to do with your budget, your expectations about bicycles, and what you intend to do on the tandem. There’s no shame in wanting to stay “on the cheap” with a first tandem either, regardless of why. However, at the same time, buyers shouldn’t kid themselves into believing that they can expect a $1,500 tandem to “turn you on” if they are riding a road bike that cost $2,000 it just ain’t gonna happen. Now, you could certainly guard against wanting a better tandem IF you never test rode another, higher-end model as, the more experienced you become on a tandem the more you’ll be able to recognize the differences.

(Devil’s Advocate) But, hey, you’re still talking about a HUGE chunk of money for these tandems I mean, these Santana, Co-Motion, Bushnell, Calfee, Seven, Litespeed, and other odd-ball named tandems can REALLY get up there on price. I can’t conceive of spending $5,000 for a bicycle, even if it does seat two riders instead of one.

Again, cost is relative. I would agree that it is a bit of a risk to dump a ton of money into something like a $4,000 – $6,000 tandem if you won’t have a regular partner to share it with or if you don’t think you’ll use it that much. Thankfully, Cannondale, Trek and even KHS offer some very nice mass-produced entry-level tandems for under $2,000 and there are a lot of really nice premium tandems available as second-hand that can cut down your initial acquisition cost. Yes, you may still be looking at between $1,800 – $3,000 for a second-hand premium tandem with a few hundred miles of use but, in the big scheme of things, if you’re a serious cyclist is $1,800 – $3,000 a lot of money over the long-haul? Moreover, if you decide tandem is not your thing, you can usually re-sell the tandem without taking a large hit on depreciation. However, if you do find you enjoy the sport/activity, you can use the second-hand tandem to help figure out what you might change if you decided to upgrade and then, if you do upgrade, re-sell it to help defray the costs of a newer tandem… something of an installment plan if you will.

The Costs of Serious Cycling

Let’s take a notional look at what the real costs are associated with what I would refer to as “serious cycling” by the folks who spend some evenings, most weekends, 1/2 their holidays, and a lot of their vacation with their partner on a tandem. In fact, the real hardcore teams can usually be found heading off with a few other couples for week-long self-guided tours, spending 3-day weekends at tandem rallies with 50 – 500 other couples or families, or perhaps taking at least one week or two-week long tandem tour each year.

Disclaimer: The dollars for each item noted is intended to be a mid-range. Bargain shoppers can most certainly find the items listed for less and I can assure you there are certainly items on the market that cost more than the higher numbers presented below.

Cycling Gear For the Body  The Basics

1 pr Shoes   $60 – $200
1 Helmet   $60 – $150
1 pr Shorts/Bibs   $50 – $130
1 Jersey   $45 – $89 (Short Sleeve)
1 pr Eyewear   $35 – $125
1 pr Socks   $ 8 – $ 8

    $258 – $702 per person
    $516 – $1,404 per couple

Over time, most teams will end up with multiple pairs of riding shorts/bibs and jerseys and several pair of socks for any number of many reasons, e.g., multiple day events, club kit, event premiums, etc.  So, you can easily see how the investment in basic apparel can grow rather quickly.

Cycling Gear For the Body  The All Season Gear

Winter/Mud Shoes   $60 – $200
Head Gear / Helmuffs   $10 – $15
Knickers or Knee Warmers   $20 – $30
Tights or Leg Warmers   $35 – $150
Tights  Heavy Weight.   $60 – $150
Long Sleeve Jersey   $55 – $89
Winter Weight Jersey   $75 – $115
Wind Vest or Jacket   $55 – $95
Winter Weight Jacket   $95 – $150
Rain Jacket   $35 – $85
Shoe Covers   $25 – $40
Winter Weight Socks   $10 – $10

    $535 – $1,129 per person
    $1,170 – $2,258 per couple

Again, similar to warm weather gear, many teams will end up with multiple pairs of tights, long-sleeve jerseys, and different types of outerwear for different conditions.

Combined with the Basics, you’re talking about having perhaps $1,678 – $3,662 invested in cycling apparel to support a very-active riding habit. So, as you can see, it doesn’t take long to find that the investment in “gear you wear” can quickly begin to equal or exceed the cost of the “gear you ride”.

Speaking of the “gear you ride”, there’s more to the cost of a bike than the bike itself:

Cycling Gear For the Bike  The Basics

Clipless Pedals   $60 – $140 (two sets for a tandem)
Frame Pump   $15 – $30
Seat pack   $15 – $30
Tools & Spares   $25 – $45
Computer   $25 – $45
Water Bottle Cages   $10 – $36 (2 per person)
Water Bottles   $12 – $24 (2 per person)

    $162 – $350 per person
    $244 – $550 per couple

If you do loaded touring then you can quickly double these numbers for racks and panniers. If you want to race, special wheelsets are often times a prudent investment as are aerobars and other types of “speed” equipment. Of course, if the riders are somewhat serious about improving their levels of fitness a heart rate monitor is just about the most valuable tool you can have. The “really nice” HRMs with bicycle computer functionality that can be downloaded to a computer for post-ride analysis retail for $400+ but can be found on Ebay for about 65% of that amount. If you ride before the sun comes up or after it does down, then a headlight is a must and they range in price from AA battery-powered models @ $18 to the mega run-time, L-Ion HID lights @ $400.

(Devil’s Advocate) Come on, you really don’t “need” all of this fancy stuff just to ride a bicycle. Tennis shoes, shorts, and a t-shirt are more than adequate for me.

Everyone has different levels of “need” which can easily become blurred by “wants”. When it comes to cycling apparel, “need” is really defined by where your ride, when you ride, the way your ride, and how far you ride. For cyclists who head out for 30 – 100 non-stop mile rides at a fast clip, long-lasting, properly designed, and properly fitted cycling shoes and shorts are necessary, not just nice to have items. For tooling around on the bike path or “fun rides” at moderate speeds with lots of breaks, the benefits to be derived from high-performance cycling gear may not justify the expenses. So, again, it’s all about matching up how you decide to spend discretionary income to meet individual needs and expectations.


So, the point of all this is cost IS relative. For those who have decided that tandem cycling is “their thing” the investment in top-notch gear is something that is done for many reasons, most of them practical and some of them are not. Good cycling shorts will pay for themselves over time, as will just about any of the better quality apparel items. If you ride when it’s 40 degrees out and there’s a chance of rain, outerwear made for cycling is not just nice, it’s just about a necessity if you’re pushing your tandem along at 20mph for 3 or 4 hours. The same can be said for the machines. The more miles per year you log and the more demands that are placed on the equipment, the more apparent the differences become in frame design and component selection. Also, at this level cycling becomes a passion for both riders and that’s where the intangibles come in to play. The things that makes a fine French wine, a 100-year-old single malt scotch, or a Cuban cigar more appealing to those who can appreciate what makes them different and costly are quite similar to the things that make high-end bicycles and tandems appealing to some enthusiasts.

In closing, there is more than enough room in the world for tandems that cost less than $1,000 and those that are 10 times as expensive. Both provide their owners with the ability to enjoy a ride across town or across the state, regardless if they wear tennis shoes, volleyball shorts, and a t-shirt versus $250 worth of cycling apparel. Ride what you like, and like what you ride but by all means get out and ride.


About TG

I've been around a bit and done a few things, have a couple kids and a few grandkids. I tend to be curmudgeonly, matter-of-fact and not predisposed to self-serving chit-chat. Thankfully, my wife's as nice as can be otherwise we'd have no friends. My interests are somewhat eclectic, but whose aren't?
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One Response to First Time Buyer’s Sticker Shock & The Relative Costs of Cycling

  1. This is a very well thought out article. As long as folks are riding bicycles they are drinking from the Fountain of Youth. Premium bicycles are not necessarily luxury bikes, which do exist as well.

    Premium bikes and accessories cost more and perform better. This is the definition of premium. Luxury items cost more but don’t necessarily perform better.

    There is a point in one’s life where time becomes more precious and the experience of riding a premium bicycle has much more value. Exercising is an expensive endeavor, time wise. One is not making money, typically and may not be with family. Tandems are a unique exception, but the fact is, many folks find that a premium bicycle is more than worth the extra expense up front.

    The benefits are on the back end: longer useful life, more enjoyment which translates to more use.

    Remember, the most expensive bicycle in the world is the one that wastes away in the garage, unused and unappreciated.

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