"It's not about the bike," according to the title of Lance Armstrong's autobiography. Except, perhaps, when the bike costs half a million dollars.
A few months after last year's Tour de France, the Trek Madone road bike Armstrong had ridden down the Champs d'Elysee in the final stage of the 21-day race was auctioned in a Sotheby's cancer benefit. Besides having been graced by the legs of the world's only seven-time Tour winner, the carbon fiber cycle was designed by artist Damien Hirst and adorned with hundreds of real, shimmering butterfly wings clear-coated to the frame.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called the work a "horrific barbarity." But a few wealthy bike lovers didn't seem to mind: The "Butterfly" Madone sold to an anonymous bidder for $500,000, crowning it as perhaps the most expensive bicycle in history.
The Tour de France has long been more than just a chance to admire one of the planet's most impressive duets of man and machine: It's also an opportunity to ogle those finely tuned and uncannily efficient machines themselves. After all, the world's top cycling teams use the Tour and other major races to pioneer subtle variations on frame styles, components and even jersey fabrics that shave seconds off riders' times--tricks that often make their way into the world of amateur cycling and production bikes.
"It's like F1 racing for cyclists," says Devin Walton, a member of the marketing team at bike component manufacturer Shimano. "Teams prototype technology at outrageous costs, and eventually it trickles down to consumers."
This year's Tour, for instance, is the first in which several entire teams are riding with Shimano's Di2 electronic shifting system, a battery-powered transmission that allows cyclists to shift from any position and automatically adjusts derailleurs to prevent rubbing. That system, which was only introduced in the 2007 Tour and is used by teams such as HTC Columbia and Garmin Transitions, is now available to the public and sells for around $5,000 a set.
For some teams, bikes in the Tour are already available to consumers at high, if not astronomical, price tags. Trek, which provides bikes to Team RadioShack and its star rider Armstrong, sells every model of bike on the mass market that Team RadioShack races. The Speed Concept time trial bike that Trek developed for Team RadioShack, for instance, can be had for $17,000 or less depending on the paint job and components.
But if consumers want the experience--usually reserved for the world's top professional riders--of having a bike designed and optimised for their individual body, it's better to call Kevin Saunders of KGS Bikes. Former engineer Saunders insists that customers fly to his headquarters in San Antonio for an elaborate three-hour fitting session that tests them in various riding positions. He then commissions the building of a single frame, typically from Beverly, Mass.-based Parlee Cycles. At the highest end, including custom paint jobs for every component of the bicycle, Saunders has sold bikes for as much as $32,000. "We don't aim to get close," says Saunders. "We aim to get perfect."
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Image: Trek Yoshitomo Nara Speed Concept - Price: $200,000