Tips for Buying a Used Bike

Here’s what to look for when buying a used bike.
By Charles Haine
July 2, 2013
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Learn the ins and outs of cycling culture in “The Urban Biking Handbook.”
Cover Courtesy Quarry Books
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Across the United States people are leaving their cars behind and immersing themselves in the bicycle culture. The Urban Biking Handbook (Quarry Books, 2011) by Charles Haine offers an illustrated guide to cycling culture with repair and maintenance techniques as well as information on the health benefits of cycling. In this excerpt from part one, “The Ride,” learn what to look for when buying a used bike.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Urban Biking Handbook.

A new bike offers a few benefits: you know its history (or lack of one), it is generally covered under at least a 1-year warranty against defects of manufacture, and practically every reputable bicycle shop offers a year of free tune-ups with the purchase of a new bicycle. Whether these benefits are worth the increase in price is a decision every cyclist makes for himself.

A more common route to bicycle ownership is buying a used bike. Every community offers a variety of outlets for used bikes, from thrift stores to community bike shops to online classified services. Used bikes offer great value, but come with unknowns, such as their previous maintenance history. With most types of bikes, however, a quick visual inspection will reveal if the bike is a lemon.

What to Look for When Buying A Used Bike

Examine the frame carefully for any cracks or dings. Though minor scrapes are not a problem, and to some cyclists actually a benefit (someone else has taken care of that emotionally painful first scrape), cracks or major dents in the frame, especially dents or bends that create bulging, should be avoided.

Test the brakes. Before riding an unfamiliar bicycle, give the brakes a quick test by rolling the bike forward and backward while standing next to it and pumping the front and back brakes one at a time; both brakes should bring the bike quickly to a stop.

Take it for a ride. Give the bike a solid test ride — a minimum of twenty minutes, ideally on the terrain you’ll be riding in your daily life, up and down hills if you have a hilly area, over rough streets if you live where the paving isn’t up-to-date. Do the gears shift freely without much noise? A little bit of brake squeak is easy to fix, as is a little shifting trouble. If the bike is very difficult to pedal or otherwise feels clunky, trust your gut and walk away from it.

If you are new to cycling, nothing is more important than to test ride a variety of bikes before making a purchase. Bike salespeople can talk for hours about how different frame materials and geometries feel, but until you actually ride them it remains just an abstract theory. Even if you feel you might purchase a used bike, don’t be afraid to test ride a few new bikes. Bike shops generally offer the widest selection of bicycles you will find in one place, which will help you make decisions on size, material, and bike type. Also, you might discover the perfect new bike is worth slightly more to you than taking the time to hunt through the numerous used bikes. Even if you purchase a used bike, you will eventually need to purchase new items such as a helmet, a lock, and safety lights, and it is good to become familiar with the bike shops in your neighborhood, and find one where you like the vibe. (Never purchase a helmet used.)

Never underestimate the appearance of your bike when making a decision. Human beings are frustratingly shallow, and studies have proven that we use things more often when we think they look cool. Whether your taste is for neon graphics or understated colors, don’t be afraid to hold out for a bike that you would ride proudly every day.

Spotting a Stolen Bike

It’s important to look out for stolen bikes when shopping for a good used ride. If the legal or karmic ramifications of supporting bike theft don’t bother you, remember that the bike can also be confiscated at any time. One easy way to spot a stolen bike is if the deal is too good to be true. Shop around online and at local bike shops and you will get a general sense for the value of various bikes and components. A prestigious brand of racing bike with high-end components being sold on the Internet for the price of a low-end cruiser is probably stolen. Also, be on the lookout for individuals who seem to be constantly selling used bikes from their apartment or home.

Tuning in

While some riders may be skeptical and see the year of free tune-ups as a gimmick to get them back in the shop and more likely to purchase high-margin accessories, it can be a great perk. A brand-new bike will have a natural break-in period as cables stretch, the housing that surrounds the cables compresses, and spokes settle. Bringing the bike back to the shop two or three times for a tune-up in the first year, for free, can help make the bike precisely what you need. Regular tune-ups are also helpful for creating a baseline of what your bicycle is supposed to feel and sound like when riding; then, as it slowly drifts away from perfect adjustment, you will be more likely to notice and know what has changed.

Used Bike Checklist

• Ensure it’s a good fit for you.
• Check all parts thoroughly for cracks or bends.
• Check the braking system.
• Fill the tires and test ride.
• Make sure it’s not stolen.

Read more: Learn more about bikes in How to Choose a Bike: Types of Bicycles and How to Paint a Bike.


Reprinted with permission from The Urban Biking Handbook by Charles Haine and published by Quarry Books, 2011. Buy this book from our store: The Urban Biking Handbook.


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