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Buying a Used Bicycle

A Beginner's Guide

- Know what you want. Are you buying a bike for commuting to school or for riding trails in the woods? There is a bike for every purpose. Size matters. Know how to “size” a bike before you buy.

- Research. Google the brand before you buy it. Talk to your bike geek friends about specific bikes you are looking at. Ask questions at bike shops. Used bike shops have knowledge of a century of brands.

- Inspection. Rust, functioning brakes, working derailleurs, damaged components, bent frame, straight fork line, loose bottom bracket

- Spin the wheels. Are the wheels true? Do they wobble?

- Test ride. Does the bike fit you? Are you comfortable? Does it pull to the left or right? Does it shift well?

- Buy the bike you will ride!

Buying a used bicycle can seem intimidating to the uninitiated. There is a bike for every purpose and a quality varies widely across brands. But following a few simple tips will give you enough knowledge that you don’t have to take the seller’s word for it.

First off, as a bike shop owner, don’t ignore your local (used) bike shop. At our shop, the average customer tends to pay about half of what they would pay for the same quality bike at a new bike shop. Also, you can talk to knowledgeable mechanics that will help you find the right size and style for the riding you want to do. You won’t be paying yard sale prices, but at a shop you will also be receiving the knowledge that your bike is safe and will work well for your needs. If you buy a bike “as is” from a garage sale, you might find that the repairs needed put the bike out of your price range.

Furthermore, a reputable shop will give you some kind of warranty (ours is 30 days) that includes free work if something comes out of adjustment or starts clicking in a menacing way. The upside of making a purchase at a bicycle shop is a safe and reliable product that is completely ready to ride. It’s also a huge time saver. From right now, you could be riding a new (used) bike in half an hour.

When buying a bike at a shop, take your time. Ask a lot of questions. You can apologize for your lack of knowledge if you feel the need, but don’t feel guilty. Bike geeks love getting other people excited about bikes. Also, bike shop mechanics are paid to answer your questions. Besides, you are not the first person to ask that question, I guarantee it. In fact, you are probably not the first person to ask that question today.

But, okay, you want the best possible bargain. If you have the time to do the legwork and the patience to get your hands a little dirty, you can save money by shopping at yard sales and flea markets or, better yet, online classified sites like CraigsList or Re-Cycle.com.

Now, a bicycle shop has a reputation to uphold. They won’t be in business for long if they sell lousy products at inflated prices. Not so at a garage sale. They don’t have to worry about being in business tomorrow and you can’t assume that the seller who is trying to clean out a garage has your best interests in mind. You need a little education to protect yourself.

Shopping online allows you to do some quick research on each bike that interests you. Start by looking up the bike's make and model in Re-Cycle’s history sections. Then check out your bike’s brand at Sheldonbrown.com. Google your bike. See what comes up. The research is harder to do “in the field” at a flea market even if you have your handy dandy smart phone with you.

If you know any bike geeks, ask them for an opinion on a few bikes that you could see yourself riding. If you get the go-ahead, then you can head out to see the bike in person with some knowledge about the product. If you can stand him (most geeks and most bike geeks seem to be guys (if you know any girl bike geeks, we’re hiring)) for an hour or so, bring the geek along to look over the bike you might buy.

Before you head to the cash machine, know what you want. Do you want a road bike for fast or distant traveling on pavement or do you want a mountain bike for hardcore off-roading? Do you like to lean forward in an aggressive posture or do you like to sit up and take in the scenery? Even if you don’t plan on buying a bike from a professional shop go test-ride some anyway. Try out a few different styles. Find out what size fits you and what kind of geometry you prefer. Get a sense of what exactly riding a bike means to you. Your local shop’s mechanics will help you figure that out. (When you do buy a bike, go back and get your lock from the shop that helped you out.)

Alright, now you’re equipped with some general knowledge of cycling. And despite all of my advice, you’re standing next to a bike at a flea market. You think you might want to buy it. The only person you have to talk to is the owner of the bike. Don’t get lost in the luster of chrome and sparkly paint just yet. Check out a few things first. There are definitely deals to be had, but if you can’t spot a piece of junk, you could easily end up with something that you wouldn’t want even if it was free. And there is a lot more junk out there than good, solid, ready-to-go two-wheelers.

How does the bike look? Check for rust. Rust is a bad sign, but it doesn’t have to be a deal breaker. It gives you an indication of how long it’s been sitting around and where. If the nuts and bolts that hold the handlebars to the bike or the seat onto the seat post are showing a lot of rust, it might be best to walk away. This is a bike that has been sitting outside for a while. It was probably owned by a person who didn’t take care of it. Rusty cables can (and should) be replaced, but this is a cheap repair. Check the lugs (joints) that hold the frame tubes together. If there is more than surface rust here, be very careful. A compromised frame is a dangerous frame. You don’t want to be around when a frame tube cracks. You might end up on your face.

Flat tires are nothing. A tube change is cheap. A tire change is going to be a little more of a commitment, but a good bike is certainly worth it and new tires are good for many miles of riding (a good investment).

Grab the handlebars and squeeze the brake levers. Do the calipers on the wheels move when you squeeze the brakes? If they don’t, the bike needs work. It has probably seen a little bit of weather and the cables have rusted to the cable housing. Check the derailleurs (not every bike has derailleurs). Do the shifters move the derailleurs? If you don’t know what a lever or something does on a bike, ask the seller. Some things look strange, but just turn out to be different from what you’re used to.

Check for bent components. Bent components are rarely fixable and must be replaced. But be extra careful here. Bent components may indicate a serious trauma like a crash. A bent derailleur is one thing. A tweaked chainstay means a completely worthless bike.

Check the fork line. The top of the fork (above the curve) should line up with the head tube from which it emerges. If it is pushed back toward the rest of the bike, the bike has been in a crash. If this is a nice enough bike, it might be worth replacing the fork. On the other hand, a bent fork means trauma and trauma can render a frame useless. Check the lugs on the head tube. Is there any cracking on the top of the top tube and the down tube where these tubes enter the lugs? If so, the bike is scrap metal. It has been in a head-on collision. Also look and feel for “bubbles” or wrinkles on the underside of these two tubes. If you can feel a little ripple, the bike’s probably been in a crash.

No crash. Good. Grab one of the pedals. Try and move the pedal perpendicular to the bike (side to side instead of forward or backward). It should not be able to move at all. If there is a little bit of play here, the bike is going to need work (maybe a lot). A loose bottom bracket puts a lot of extra stress on the bearings, cups, and spindle and causes them to wear out much faster. It’s also indicative of a bike that hasn’t been well cared for.

Spin the wheels. Are they true? Does the rim wobble from side to side as it passes the brake pads? How much does it wobble? Does it touch the brake pads as it spins? A few millimeters of wobble, less than 10 is pretty fixable, but more than that and you might have to get a new wheel. Expensive.

After you have inspected the bike, ask the seller if it needs any repairs. Most people will be honest with you. Next, ask if you can ride it. A conscientious seller will have pumped up the tires and be willing to set you loose on the bike for a few minutes. Bring an air pump of your own (do not ride a bike with flat tires, you will quickly damage the rims). A good trick for sellers with crap bikes is to make sure one of the tubes is flat. This prevents you from riding the bike and finding out that it always pulls to the left because the fork was bent after a head on collision with a parked tree.

If you do get to ride the bike (bring and wear a helmet), test out the brakes IMMEDIATELY. Screeching brakes are very irritating, but not a mechanical defect. Very simple to remedy. Stopping power is what counts. Having said that, brake pads are relatively cheap to buy and install (disk brakes add some expense and require more expertise).

Change the gears. If you don’t know how to change gears, ask the seller. You are not fooling anyone. Pedal hard in each gear. See if the gears “skip.” Skipping can indicate a worn out chain or teeth. It could reveal a bent derailleur. It could just need a bit of adjusting. It could mean that you haven’t quite shifted into gear yet (this is not a mechanical flaw; you just need to shift a tiny bit more). Adjusting the gears is cheap and easy. A new chain is also relatively cheap, but a worn chain can often mean worn gear teeth. New gears can get pricey. A new derailleur can get very pricey.

Listen to the bike. Are there any worrisome noises? Bicycles do make some rapid clicking sounds as part of normal function (most notably while coasting without pedaling), but are there any rattles or repetitive clicks that don’t sound or even feel right? Does a part rattle when you hit a bump? If it does, something might be loose. If the bike is smooth and quiet, just enjoy the ride.

If you decide to pull the trigger and buy the bike, negotiate. It’s probably expected. The prices are often inflated to give the seller some room to move because so many potential buyers also expect to negotiate. You can usually get a few bucks knocked off the stated price. Having said that, if this is the bike for you and it is within your budget, don’t let it go just because the seller won’t budge.

Finally, one more plug for your local bike shop. Buying a used bike from somebody on the street often means dealing with repair issues. If you aren’t going to do any work yourself, plan on spending between $50 and $100 on repairs over the next year even if the used bike is in pretty good shape. If you are going to do the work yourself, plan on spending between $20 and $50 on parts and tools over the next year. But keep in mind that bicycle repairs can run much higher than this, so be careful what you pick up. If you don’t own a car, you will be riding more, and you will be spending more. Still it beats a year in gas and insurance and car payments and parking…and speeding tickets.

And last but not least, buy the bike you love. If you love it, you’ll ride it. If it is horribly overpriced and weighs a ton and was originally sold at Wal-Mart, but you are absolutely in love with it and will ride it everyday, buy it and ride it everyday. That bike will be your best friend. I dated a woman with four red bicycles (all different styles). She was much more excited about riding a bike if it was a red bike. She had more fun actually riding a bike if the paint was red. Each bike had its own name (Millie, Tillie, Rosita, and Betty). Buying the bike that is going to be the most fun is the WHOLE POINT of getting a bike. My bike is Carol.

Ask Lots of Questions
There are no dumb ones. Here are some of the questions we hear all the time at our shop (and we can answer them too):

How do I know what size I am?
Why do the handlebars look like that?
Why would you want skinny tires like that?
Aren’t you going to get a lot more flats with those tires?
I don’t know how to shift?
How do I know how much air to put in my tires?
How do I put air in my tires?
Why does this one cost more than that one?
What makes a bicycle fast?
What is a single speed?
What is a fixed gear?
What’s the difference between a men’s bike and a women’s bike?
Isn’t this middle bar dangerous?
How do I get on or off?
What if I need to jump off?
Don’t my feet need to be able to reach the ground?
Will this seat go down any more?
Can I get different handlebars?
Am I gonna flip over the handlebars if I squeeze the front brake too hard?
Why does anybody ride a single speed?
What is the best brand?
Is that a stupid question?
Where do you get your bikes?
Shouldn’t I get a road bike?
Can I do the work myself?
Do you guys do repairs?
Does it look too small for me?
Do you have any blue ones?
Do you work on these bikes? Are they ready to ride?
What kind of maintenance do I need to do on my bike?
How often do I need to get a tune-up?
How long will a bike like this last?
What’s the difference between one of these and a brand new bike?
How do I lock up my bike?
Aren’t wider tires more stable?
Can I switch seats?
Is this bike fast?
Is this bike good for hills?
Do I need reflectors?
Do I need a light?
What are the biking laws?

Here are some questions we often ask:
What was your last bike?
What kind of riding do you expect to be doing?
What kind of distances do you expect to be riding?
How does this bike feel?
Would you like to take it for a spin?
Would you like to borrow a helmet?
Are you going to be mounting racks or baskets on your bike?
Should we try raising the seat?
Are you carrying this bike up to a third floor apartment?
Do you have a color preference?
Do you have an interest in a single speed or do you prefer the option of gears?

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