Whether you are a lapsed cyclist who wants to get back into cycling or if you have an older bike and fancy a change, the bike industry would like you to believe that a new bike will turn you into the next Bradley Wiggins. Now is the time of the year when bicycle retailers want to shift their remaining 2023 stock to make room for the 2024 models they ordered in February. Bargains are to be had: should you pick one up?
Unsurprisingly, the short answer to this question is, "it depends..." A quality bicycle can last 50 years or more, with a bit of care and regular maintenance. The bike industry tells us about all those fantastic innovations available now: 1x ("1 by") drivetrains with 13 speed cassettes, hydraulic disc brakes, superlight carbon frames and wheels, tubeless wheels that never punctures (not!) - are those enought to make you ditch your old bike?
The photo above is of my Peugeot UO8. It was manufactured some time in the mid 1970s and I acquired it in a very sad state in 1983. I rebuilt it with spares I had on hand as a touring bike. Over the intervening years it has gone through two sets of wheels, one fork, two stems, two handlebars, two saddles, two seatposts, two freewheels, several chains, a couple of bottom brackets, and a non-driveside crankarm. I lost count of the number of brake pads, tyres and tubes. The only original part is the steel main frame. The bike looks beat-up and it's not worth much so I can leave it at the train station and not worry about it being stolen.
Why do I persevere with the two-wheeled equivalent of your grandmother's broom? It comes down to "it's not what you ride, it's how you ride it." You still have to push the pedals to keep any bike moving - unless you buy an e-bike, of course. Innovation in the bicycle industry has been fairly contained over the past 30 years. The major changes in my opinion were index shifting and disc brakes. Everything else was marketing- or manufacturing-driven.
Let's investigate the latest, greatest must-have items in the second paragraph above and look at whether they are compelling enough to ditch your old bike:
1 by drivetrains: supposedly lighter weight, but that is negated by the pizza-sized cassettes required to replicate the gear range (but not the close ratios) provided by a double or triple crank set.
Disc brakes: yes, their wet braking is definitely better than rim brakes. However, unless installed and adjusted properly they have a tendency to squeal. Bleeding hydraulic disc brake systems is not something for an inexperienced home mechanic. Well-adjusted rim brakes with alloy rims will stop almost as well as hydraulic discs in the dry, and in the wet most riders never use the full stopping power of their disc brakes anyway as they are afraid of locking up the front wheel and crashing.
Carbon frames: they are lighter than steel or aluminium frames but the manufacturing quality of cheap carbon frames and forks can be suspect. What no manufacturer or bike shop will ever tell you is that they are a nightmare in terms of sustainability: they cannot be recycled when they break and end up in landfill. A good quality steel or aluminium frame will be more sustainable and as nice if not better to ride. Carbon wheels can be a minefield: there are a lot of Chinese wheels that look great but have serious manufacturing deficiencies. Stick to well-known manufacturers with a UK distributor.
While we are on the subject of wheels, tubeless wheels and tyres can be an absolute nightmare, both in terms of compatibility and ease (or difficulty) of installation, particularly when it comes to hookless rims. What nobody tells you is that the sealant only lasts six months and then has to be replaced, which is quite messy. Oh, and you have to top it up in between as well. Decent tyres with Kevlar puncture protection and inner tubes work well and are a lot less hassle.
If you have a bike that's been sitting in your shed unused for a few years it probably needs recommissioning. Be realistic: if it is a good quality elderly bicycle such as a Dawes Super Galaxy, the components on it will respond well to a bit of cleaning and lubrication. However, a Carrera that cost £200 when new will cost the same to fix up but the components will have gone rusty, and its bearings will be shot. Make a list of what needs work (tyres/inner tubes/chain/bar tape/broken compontents) and price them up, then add a bit for labour to get an idea of whether it is worth fixing up your bike.
What should you do when you find out it will cost £150 to fix a £200 Halfords Special That depends on your budget. For £500-£600 you can get a good quality new bike from your local bike shop. If you don't know much about bikes, the LBS will guide you in the right direction and importantly, will provide after-sales service and a free 30-day check-up. From August onwards bike retailers are very keen to shift stock as the new model year will be delivered to them soon, so discounts are available for many brands and models.
If you know a little about bikes, or you know someone who does and who can come with you to inspect a potential purchase, you can buy a second-band bike of significantly better quality for the same amount of money. For a couple of hundred quid you can pick up a decent bike off Facebook Market place that may need a bit of work. The downside with any used bike is that you do not get a warranty.
But there are new sub-£200 bikes available from Halfords and Argos, I hear you say. Bicycle pricing works something like this: let's assume a bike shop sells a bike for £1,000 which was purchased from the distributor for £500-£600. The UK distributor received the bike from the manufacturer in Taiwan for £300. The manufacturer's cost was probably £150. (NB: I have disregarded shipping here). That implies that the cheap new £150 bicycle was manufactured for £25-£30, if not less. That's for the frame and fork, wheels and tyres, drive train, handlebars, seat, cables etc.
Let that sink in for a minute. If you go into Halfords to buy a single Schwalbe tyre (a good brand) for the bike I linked, you'll be charged £15 for that single tyre! I'm not picking on Halfords here, I only want to illustrate that there is a compromise involved with buying a very cheap new bike, namely quality suffers. You do mostly get what you pay for when it comes to bicycles. Those cheap bikes are not worth fixing once something breaks because they have been built to a price and the quality of the components reflects the available manufacturing budget.
Finally, before you do decide to purchase a new or pre-loved bicycle, give some thought to how you will use the bike. If you want pootle around Bangor to meet friends for a coffee down at the marina, you don't need a Tour de France road bike that you can ride down an Alpine pass at 50mph. You want something that's comfortable with gearing that gets you up Gray's Hill without huffing and puffing, perhaps a hybrid, preferably with mudguards. Depending on your level of fitness, also consider an e-bike.