Chris Curven avidly followed Lance Armstrong's seventh victory in the Tour de France this summer along with millions of other fans. But for the 34-year-old amateur racer and his cycling buddies in Walpole, N.H., the tour is more than just a sporting event. It's also a home shopping channel of sorts for superbikes: Yes, those ultra-pricey, high-tech machines ridden by Armstrong and his colleagues can be ordered from a specialty bike shop near you.
This year's tour had plenty to whet the appetite. Armstrong rode several new models from Trek Bicycle of Waterloo, Wis., designed on a supercomputer to combine maximum pedaling efficiency and minimum aerodynamic drag. Lorenzo Bernucci of the Fassa Bortolo team won Stage 6 aboard Pinarello's Dogma model that can sell for up to $16,500 at specialty shops. And the Phonak team relied on a new design from Swiss maker BMC that uses nanotechnology to lower the weight of the carbon frame without reducing its strength. When Curven saw Phonak's BMC bikes, which the company lists for more than $8,000, he had one immediate thought: "Why don't I have that?"
Sales of road bikes at specialty shops have doubled to $377 million since 2000, even as overall bike sales have remained flat, says the National Bicycle Dealers Assn. The gains are being led by a dramatic increase in the most expensive bikes, says marketing consultant Jay Townley.
By paying upwards of $10,000, serious riders get a machine that's lighter, more aerodynamic, and more efficient at turning a rider's effort into speed than lower-priced models. They also get a bike that handles better at high speeds down winding roads and absorbs more of the bumps from the road.
Bikes that Trek and others sell in the $1,000 to $3,000 range provide some of those benefits. With superbikes, you get only a marginal improvement in weight, but for some aficionados, that and other minor gains are worth the added costs. Pinarello's $4,100 Dogma frame weighs 2.8 lbs., vs. 3.1 lbs. for its Prince model that costs half as much. Adding wheels, gears, and the other components can push the full weight of a superbike up to 15 lbs., vs. 18 lbs. for a cheaper one.
The premium bikes also carry an undeniable cachet. Craig Calfee, who made the carbon fiber bike that Greg LeMond rode in the 1991 Tour, sells only about 100 of his handcrafted frames a year. The market's highest end is divided between longtime European companies such as Pinarello and Colnago, and American craftsmen like Calfee, based in La Selva Beach, Calif., titanium specialist Ben Serotta in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and Bob Parlee in Peabody, Mass. The bikes are sold mainly through local dealers, which are listed on each maker's Web site.
James Overall, an ad executive in Concord, Mass., has about a dozen bikes, mostly from similarly fastidious small designers. Each is different, with some handling rough pavement better and others more comfortable for long rides. "They reflect the idiosyncratic views of the builders," he says. The bikes are "half machines and half works of art."
The most basic question that confronts a high-end buyer is the choice of frame material. Once only made of steel, frames now use titanium, aluminum, carbon fiber, or some combination. Titanium and carbon are the most expensive and hence dominate the upper echelon. Both are stronger than steel, so a bike frame can be made lighter.
Carbon frames, made of the same material used in space shuttle parts, can be refined by manipulating the fibers into different patterns. The best combine stiffness and flexibility. Stiff parts translate more of a rider's energy into turning the pedals, while more flexible sections are designed to absorb bumps. Riding a well-crafted carbon frame brings a floating sensation because there's little wobble from the rider's efforts or the bumps. Stomping down on the pedals to go into a sprint produces a pleasingly quick, get-up-and-go sensation.
The latest frames combine several ingredients to further fine-tune the ride. Calfee added boron to strengthen his Dragonfly frame without increasing the weight. Trek's Madone SSLx bike, which Armstrong rode to victory this year, also mixed boron and carbon. Coming to a bike shop near you next year, it's likely to sell for even more than the $7,700 current issue, plain old carbon Madone SSL. One of the priciest bikes on the market, the $17,000 Pinarello Dogma Ego, uses magnesium alloy tubes. Lighter than aluminum or titanium, the material is almost impossible to bend or dent. Serotta, famous for his titanium frames, added carbon to two of the three central tubes in his $5,295, top-of-the-line Ottrott frame. The carbon is placed where bumps would jar the rider, while titanium tubes are positioned to maximize the rider's efforts.
Some of the larger bike shops lend out pricey models for local rides, so you can see how the frames work for you. A rider, for instance, may find that carbon bikes absorb too much road feel, so he or she might prefer titanium or a carbon-metal combo. Frames also vary in the angles at which the tubes come together. Some set-ups keep the rider tucked in closer to the bike for a more aerodynamic but less comfortable ride. Frames with a stretched-out geometry may be easier to control at high speed.
In addition to selecting a frame material, you must decide whether to buy a bike in a standard size or seek out one of a handful of manufacturers that can customize the dimensions for the rider. A good bike shop can do quite a bit to alter the fit of a bike by swapping out a few key parts or bringing the handlebars in or out from the rider. "A little tweaking here and there can work wonders for most people," says Matt Phillips, test director for Bicycling magazine. For those with unusual body types -- fewer than 10% of all riders, estimates Calfee -- a custom-made frame will provide more comfort.
The parts on a frame are almost as critical to ride quality. In cycling's version of Windows vs. Mac, riders are split between Shimano of Japan and Italy's Campagnolo for basic gears and parts. Shimano's top-of-the-line Dura-Ace and Campy's Record both would add about $1,500 to the price and weigh about the same. Shimano is for those who want to be like Lance. Campagnolo, which uses carbon in parts such as brake levers, is the choice of those favoring sharper looks. Carbon is becoming the material even for parts like water cages. Putting a plastic cage on a superbike "is like painting a mustache on the Mona Lisa," says Andrew Clarke, who shelled out $80 to avoid that fate on his Merckx MXM carbon bike. He probably shaved off a few grams of weight, too.
By Aaron Pressman