A bike with an affordable drivetrain and suspension? It's perfect!
Over the years, I’ve
wasted invested thousands of dollars into top-end frames, components, and gear. You see pros, YouTubers, and your dentist all riding the latest S-Works frame, Dura-Ace drivetrain, or Factory Suspension. You begin to think you need it too.
But are top-of-the-line bikes really better than more budget-friendly options? If I’m 100% honest, it’s actually pretty hard to actually tell. The performance-to-price ratio for high-end cycling gear is pretty bad. Mid-range bikes and components can provide nearly the same performance, for a lot less. It’s probably where most “serious” cyclists should be spending their money.
Good gear does make a difference. It can make cycling easier and more enjoyable. But eventually, you reach a point of diminishing returns. Generally, that’s around the middle of the range for most bike and equipment manufacturers — the “mid-tier.”
Let me give you a few examples where I’ve discovered mid-tier options hold their own against top-spec goods…
Specialized Comp/Expert vs. S-Works Bikes
My Specialized Comp builds still satisfy my picky tastes.
Last year, I bought a Specialized Epic Evo Comp mountain bike. Then this year, I added a Specialized Aethos Comp to my quiver. Both of these bikes are among the best bikes that I have ever ridden. I absolutely love them, but should I be jealous of people who own the top-of-the-line S-Works Epic Evo or S-Works Aethos?
S-Works bikes cost thousands of dollars more, sometimes double their non-S-Works counterparts. S-Works frames use Specialized’s top-of-the-line carbon, which will shed a couple hundred grams over standard frames. Complete builds also come with top-end components that are significantly lighter (more on components later).
So is the difference between an S-Works frame and mine noticeable? Fortunately, I have had the opportunity to ride insanely nice S-Works versions of my own bikes at TPC. When picking bikes up in the parking lot, yes, the overall weight is super noticeable. But riding on the road or trail, it’s much more subtle, and once I get in the groove, I tend to forget about the extra weight.
The Specialized Bike Build Hierarchy:
I think Specialized’s mid-range Comp and Expert-level builds are the best value and more than good enough for most cyclists. If you need a reliable workhorse that can keep up with fancier competitors, Comp builds won’t hold you back. Since I like to upgrade to carbon wheels for a bit of extra performance, I’m the type who would be better off buying the Expert builds. S-Works is better reserved for professionals and riders who have money to burn.
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Shimano 105 vs. Dura-Ace / SRAM GX vs. X01/XX1
They both shift well, really well.
I bought a bike with a Shimano Dura-Ace R9000 drivetrain once, and it was glorious. The shifting felt simultaneously crisp and buttery. It was precise, quiet, and lightning-fast. I was convinced it was the best mechanical drivetrain ever made. Then I bought a new bike with a Shimano 105 R7000 drivetrain and it felt… exactly the same?
That’s right, modern drivetrains are fantastic and mid-tier options shift incredibly well. Higher-end groups generally weigh less, use more exotic materials (carbon, titanium, ceramic bearings, etc.), and have better finishes. But after a certain point, the actual shift feel doesn’t improve. If you want the best bang for your buck, mid-tier drivetrains weigh a bit more but often perform as well as their high-end siblings.
Mid-Tier Shimano & SRAM Drivetrains:
- Shimano 105 / 105 Di2
- Shimano GRX 600
- Shimano SLX
- SRAM Rival / Rival AXS
- SRAM GX Eagle / GX Eagle AXS
I rode the last generation 105, Ultegra, Dura-Ace, SLX, and Deore XT groups extensively. If I were blindfolded, I wouldn’t be able to tell any of them apart based on pure shift feel.
I’ve also ridden SRAM’s GX Eagle AXS group extensively, and likewise, there’s no discernible difference in feel when compared to the X01 or XX1 versions. In fact, GX AXS is the MTB group I recommend the most since it provides the same AXS shift precision at a fraction of the cost.
ENVE Foundation vs. SES
My bikes with ENVE SES (left) and Foundation wheels.
Carbon wheels are not for everybody. But to me, ENVE’s SES carbon rims have always represented the pinnacle of bling and performance. When I got my first pair, I felt like they turned my aluminum road bike into a rocket ship.
A few years ago, ENVE released a “budget” model, its Foundation 45 and 65 wheels. They still aren’t cheap, but they slot nicely into what I’d consider a “mid-tier” category for American-made carbon wheels. I think you can see where this is going…
What do I ride now? ENVE Foundation wheels. I’ve used them on my last two road bikes. SES rims are a bit wider, a bit lighter, a bit more aero, and a bit more stable in cross winds, but according to the butt dyno, my Foundation wheels feel just as fast. I run ENVE’s mid-tier AM30 mountain bike wheels too. The performance differences between these wheels and top-of-the-line options are barely noticeable. But I definitely notice how much heavier my wallet is.
Want to save even more? TPC doesn’t carry them, but I’ve personally been extremely impressed with the quality of Light Bicycle carbon wheels. You can customize your wheels and it’s possible to get a great, high-performance wheelset for less than $1,000.
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RockShox Select+ vs. Ultimate suspension
I’m a nerd who thinks A LOT about suspension tuning and I don’t like to compromise on MTB suspension… until I did. Remember that Specialized Epic Evo Comp I bought? It came with a RockShox SID Select+ fork and Deluxe Select+ rear shock.
I was actually pretty impressed with the performance and feel. They felt supple, and still let me ride fast and push my limits. I did eventually upgrade to a Pike Ultimate fork (mostly for aesthetic reasons), but I could have happily ridden the stock SID Select+ fork forever. I don’t feel the need to swap the Deluxe Select+ shock in the rear. It feels as good as the Fox Factory DPS shock on my previous XC bike and I couldn't tell any difference when riding the Deluxe Ultimate shock on an S-Works loaner.
On the gravity end of the spectrum, where suspension probably matters most, I’ve also been super impressed with the feel and performance of Marzocchi’s budget-friendly Bomber Z1 and Z2 forks. While I still love the extra bling of a good Fox Factory or RockShox Ultimate fork, I’m fully aware that top-spec suspension is not going to help an average rider like me ride any faster.
Apparel and Accessories Too
Impressive mid-tier performance isn’t just limited to bikes and components. Recently, I went from POC’s top-of-the-line Ventral helmet to its mid-tier Omne Air. It fits just as well, and I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. I even think it looks better.
Specialized S-Works and Shimano S-Phyre shoes are crazy light and stiff, but I feel just as happy and ride just as well in a pair of Specialized Torch 3.0s or Recon 3.0s, or Shimano RC7 shoes.
Last year, I used Garmin’s $750 top-of-the-line Edge 1040 Solar. This year, I switched to the smaller and cheaper Edge 540 Solar. I’m able to go weeks without charging and can still navigate to the coffee shop.
When Does Spending More Money Make Sense?
Tires have the biggest effect on how your bike feels and performs. If you care about speed and traction, it’s the main place where I think it makes sense to buy top-spec, name-brand options. A super-supple Vittoria Corsa Pro tire will feel (and likely is) 100x faster than a Vittoria Zaffiro.
When I’m doing 100+ mile/5+ hour rides, wearing a bib short with a top-quality chamois provides a massive improvement in my comfort and happiness. I’ve noticed a huge difference between Pearl Izumi’s Expert vs. Pro bibs and Rapha’s Core vs. Pro bibs on super long rides. (I buy premium toilet paper too.) When I put my backside through tough situations, it needs to be pampered to perform at its best.
Recently, I also spent a lot on Specialized’s Power Pro Mirror saddle which uses a 3D-printed honeycomb material instead of foam. I still think it’s absurdly expensive for a saddle, but I seriously think nothing feels as comfortable as Specialized's Mirror or Fizik’s Adaptive foam tech. (As I said, I like pampering my backside.) I can’t wait until this tech comes down in price and we begin seeing this tech used on mid-tier saddles.
What do you think? When is it worth it to spend more for top-of-the-line bikes and gear? OR, could we all get away with spending even less? What dirt-cheap products perform as well as mid-tier options?