For many people a bicycle is an everyday commodity used for transportation or leisure. Shopping for one typically involves going to the closest big-box or sports store and choosing from a limited selection of bikes which have basic, sometimes outdated, components. This is the de facto choice if you seldom ride but for anyone more serious about their bike there are many compelling reasons to skip the big chains and go to a local bike shop (LBS).
A local bike shop is a business that specializes in – take a guess – bikes. They are usually small stores but contain a variety of bicycles to fit all needs and most budgets. Bike aficionados walk around, masquerading as the staff. At a LBS you can get product advice, go on test rides, shop for accessories, and also get your bike serviced. You can draw an overwhelming number of parallels between the role of a LBS and a boutique shop for any category: clothing, jewellery, electronics, board games, etc. On top of that, manufacturers sometimes treat LBSes as their dealer network and may sell their products at exclusive locations.
Reasons To Buy From a LBS
To compile this list I performed a simple online shopping exercise where I visited several websites and checked out their mountain bike offerings. In one category I grouped 2 big-box stores and 1 national sports store chain, and in the other were 3 LBSes I’ve personally visited.
Big-box LBS Supercycle, CCM, Schwinn, Huffy, Wicked, Kent, Diadora, GT, Nakamura, Orbea Rocky Mountain, Norco, Felt, Specialized, Devinci, Trek, Miele, Giant, Scott, GT, Kona, Marin, Louis Garneau, Diamondback, Raleigh
Right off the bat we can see the disparity between the number of brands: 10 for the big-box stores and 15 for the LBSes. Looking at the list in more detail reveals some extremely questionable options on the left list as 4 of the 10 brands do not even have a website! Only a single brand, GT, appears in both columns.
In the world of mountain biking every single company shown in the right column is instantly recognizable. Some of the companies on the left are also recognizable… but for an entirely different reason (hint: it’s not for great quality). Note that, if I repeated this step with road bikes the rift would increase substantially as big-box stores don’t normally carry road bikes yet there are many more brands you would find in a LBS.
“You get what you pay for” is readily apparent when you compare the components that go on the big-box and LBS bikes. The big-box store still sells mountain bikes with 26″ wheels, rim brakes, and steel frames. These are woefully outdated parts which you’ll never see at a LBS today. 27.5″ or 29″ wheels, hydraulic disc brakes, and aluminum-alloy or carbon frames are all but standard in the mountain bike world right now. The drivetrain (chain, derailleurs, cassettes) quality and durability will be significantly better on anything sold at the LBS which is why so many big-box bikes have issues with shifting and pedalling after even one month.
The LBS not only has more brands to choose from but also a much larger selection. If they don’t have a bike on hand one can usually be ordered direct from the manufacturer. This will allow you to see how bikes differ from one company to another and can help form an opinion about the component manufacturers too. If you’re looking to buy a road bike you’ll be disappointed with the lacklustre choices at the big-box store. Lastly: more colours to pick from!
Bicycle shopping is similar to buying a new car. You’re spending a good chunk of money and you want to get something that you can really enjoy. When I was looking to purchase a full-suspension mountain bike I test rode 8 different machines! I spent a solid 20 minutes with each bike testing the handling and figuring out which characteristics I preferred. This was worthwhile as I am happy with my decision and don’t have a nagging voice in the back of my head that’s asking “well, what if bike X was even better”. Test rides are common at a LBS but I’ve never seen them offered at a big-box store.
Many people don’t know that bikes are not shipped fully assembled – the packaging would just be too big. Some components may be fitted to the frame but others need to be added and tuned. That second bit is crucially important because putting a bike together isn’t all that difficult, but getting it to work properly can be quite tough. Your LBS will have professional mechanics with lots of experience but I’m not sure I can vouch for the guy at your big-box store. If you’re lucky you’ll get someone who knows what they’re doing but far too often (as evidenced by online reviews) loose nuts and bolts need to be tightened and adjusted before even going riding.
YMMV from store-to-store but, generally speaking, LBSes offer better warranties on their bikes than their big-box counterparts. My Specialized Rockhopper included 5 years of free maintenance. I paid an extra $200 when I bought my Trek for lifetime tune-ups and a 10% discount on all bike accessories. An additional $80 landed me 5 years’ worth of tune-ups for my Miele road bike as well as a free fitting. Big-box stores don’t have bike servicing departments so they can’t include that in the offer. Considering that you will have to tune your big-box bike many times to keep it in good running order these costs aren’t as extravagant as they may initially seem.
Let’s take a look at some real examples to drive the point home, and hopefully convince you that this entire post isn’t just (L)BS.
The Issue: Cost
Cost is the first argument most people are inclined to raise when suggesting a bike purchase from a LBS. Yes, it’s true that you can empty your wallet, max out a credit card and still have to sell a kidney to pay off the high end five-, ten-, and sometimes even $15,000
works of art bicycles but that does not mean this is the norm. Decent examples exist at the $500 and $600 points but clearance sales can drive those prices down further. With all the benefits of a LBS listed above the value proposition can be much greater than simply saving some money on the initial purchase at a big-box store.
I imagined 4 different scenarios that can easily play out in real life.
|Scenario||Description: “Visiting a…”|
|1||Big-box store and purchasing a big-box brand bike|
|2||Sports store and purchasing a cheaper bike|
|3||Sports store and purchasing a more expensive bike|
|4||LBS and purchasing a name-brand bike|
Scenario 1 describes a typical visit to a big-box store where you might find yourself looking to buy a bike because it’s convenient. In scenarios 2 and 3 you visit the same sports store which sells big-box brand competitors alongside better ones. Lastly, scenario 4 is a visit to your LBS. I used the same big-box stores, sports store, and 3 LBSes as with the list above.
I’ve tried to put myself into the customer’s shoes – a familiar place. Below is a set of criteria which define a bicycle that I can purchase in any one of the above scenarios. This list represents a typical, modern, entry-level mountain bike. Bikes with components that don’t meet these requirements will not offer anywhere near the same performance on a trail and will suffer reliability issues.
- Hardtail mountain bike (front suspension only)
- Aluminum/alloy frame (not steel)
- Click-style shifters (not twist-style)
- Disc brakes (hydraulic or cable)
- 27.5″ or 29″ wheels
My goal is to find similar bikes from each store at the best price and compare them to determine where you’ll get the best bang for your buck!
|Scenario:||1 (Big-box)||2 (Sports, cheap)||3 (Sports, expensive)||4 (LBS)|
|Price Range ($)||600*||315 – 420||490 – 1120||550 – 2800|
|# Comparable Bike Models||1||4||7||Too many to count|
|Component Notes||29″ wheels, Suntour fork, 21-speed, 9mm quick-release||27.5″ wheels, entry-level fork, 21 and 27-speed, 9 mm quick-release||27.5″ and 29″ wheels, Suntour and RockShox fork, 21-, 20-, and 11-speed, hydraulic brakes, 9 and 15 mm axle||Everything|
|Warranty/Extras||1 year major parts||Frame by manufacturer, 1 year major parts and tune-up||Min. 1 year tune-up, add more @ cost|
* Reviews online claim a previous sale price of $300 but mention needing a tune-up as soon as they took it out-the-door.
Pro tip: more gears does not a better bike make, necessarily. The difference between a 21 and a 20-speed bike is just one gear but they use completely different drivetrain components. The 21 will have an older 3×7 layout whereas the 20 will use a more modern 2×10.
First of all – what?! I expected the big-box store to take the win in the price category but the majority of bikes they sell are so outdated they don’t have good enough components to even be considered in the test. I had to select the only model that fit the bill: a CCM. Under no circumstances should you pay the full $600 for this bike! Assuming you could buy it on sale and tacking on an extra $100 for a full tune-up, your purchase price can be $400 before taxes for an off-brand bike.
When we walk into the sports store and look at their cheaper options we have a greater selection than in the big-box store but not by much. The no-name brands (Diadora and Nakamura) have questionable parts, and the bike at the top end of the price range is from a reputable manufacturer – GT – but contains bargain bin Shimano components. For occasional and light trail riding this may be a good choice. You too can be a proud owner of a beginner trail bike for just $420 with taxes on top.
Across the aisle the more expensive bikes stare at you. They look tempting with uprated components such as hydraulic brakes for added stopping power and better front suspension. There are 7 options now and the two top models boast 2×10 (Orbea) and 1×11 drivetrains (GT), but at this point we’re punching above the thousand dollar mark. Perhaps you’re interested in the one for $490 which gives you the best value per dollar. None of the bikes in the sports store are a bad deal and my recommendation would be to spend proportionally to how much riding you’ll be doing.
By the time you’re done with going through the options at your 3 LBSes you’ll be inundated with bicycles. This problem is known as the paradox of choice but fortunately you can solve it with a few test rides! A great first mountain bike can be either the Rocky Mountain or Felt with intro-level components on sale at $550. The options begin to open up with a budget of $650 – $1000; there are at least 20 bikes in this price range.
Anyone looking to spend even more money than that has no choice but to shop at the LBS. The most expensive hardtail I found with an aluminum frame was roughly $2800; if you include carbon frames you can hit the $10k mark.
Conclusion – Not So Black & White
I’ll be honest: I didn’t quite get the strong win I was hoping for. One thing, however, is very clear – you should never purchase a bike from a big-box store. If you want something remotely competitive you will have just one or two options, and even then it’ll have the most basic components, lack proper assembly, and be expensive! Cheaper bikes leave you stranded with seriously old tech that is not worth the savings. Sadly consumers will continue to buy from these stores because of convenience, appealing ‘sale’ prices, and an absence of knowledge about what they’re purchasing. If your budget is extremely tight you are still better off buying a used bike from a well-known manufacturer than a cheap one from a big-box store.
We’ve narrowed it down to two, but how do you choose between them?
And Then There Were Two: Sports Store vs LBS
Just a few months ago a friend wanted to buy her first mountain bike and asked me to help. The first thing I did was hop onto the sports store website and take a look. Sure enough, a bike befitting her skill level was on clearance with a massive price cut. At a smidge under $400 I knew a LBS would have a hard time beating this value.
The sports store puts up a good fight and actually has decent products at good prices. Budget-conscious shoppers have several nice options and I think the sweet spot is right up to the $500 mark. Anything more and you’re treading on the territory of the LBSes who have a much larger selection. If you do find a more valuable bike at an attractive price just do a thorough comparison with what the LBSes are selling and take into consideration the extras: warranty, tune-ups, discount on accessories.
Last but not least – the LBS. An interesting statistic is that all LBSes in the United States combined sold only 13% of all bikes in 2015 but took in 49% of all dollars. The average sale was $753. This exemplifies the typical scenario I described above. The LBS has the better value proposition for someone who wants a solid bike and the same level of service to go along with it. Another common trait I see when looking at expensive bikes are huge discounts. You may have to keep your eyes peeled but it’s not uncommon to see prices slashed by $500 or more. The MSRP for my Trek was $3800 but I managed to scoop it up for just $2600.
Consider why you want to purchase a bike. Is it “just because”, or will it get you to work? Will you go on a leisurely ride once a month or use it every weekend to help get into shape? A cheap bike will function cheaply. If you have the budget or can consider delaying the purchase until you save more, do it. You won’t regret owning a quality and problem-free machine. Happy shopping!