What to Look for in a Used Bike

If you're looking for basic transportation, a secondhand bike can be a fun, inexpensive and eco-friendly choice.
By Megan Phelps
Oct. 30, 2007
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Forget gas, go green and get a bike. You'll save money, reduce your carbon footprint, get in shape, zip through traffic and get great parking spots.
Istock Photo/Mike Clarke

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Bicycles make great "green" transportation. Riding a bike produces no pollution, consumes no fossil fuel, and even helps you stay in shape. As an added bonus, bikes get some of the best parking places on the planet. (That's because you can park your bike almost anywhere. Yes, it's a dream come true!)

And if you're looking for basic transportation, a secondhand bicycle can be a smart choice. While you could pay hundreds of dollars for a high-quality new bike, you can get a great used bicycle for $30 or $40, and if you're lucky, for much less money — maybe even for free.

Previously owned bicycles are relatively easy to find, so don't take the first one you see. Instead, try these tips for finding a bike that's reliable and inexpensive:

Keep your eyes open. A few good places to look for secondhand bikes are Craigslist, thrift stores, police auctions, garage sales and Freecycle — roughly in that order. In particular, college towns are great sources for quality secondhand bikes because so many students have bicycles.

Research the brand. Some bikes are built so cheaply, they're really intended to be replaced rather than repaired. How can you tell? The easiest way is to spend a few minutes researching the brand online whenever you find a promising bike. Not only does this quick research help you avoid cheaply made bikes, you may also identify unbelievable deals. Many secondhand bicycles are sold at prices much lower than what they're worth.

Look for major problems. Some bike problems can be repaired, others can't. In general, the main thing you want to avoid is bent metal. Look to be sure the frame, forks and wheels are all in good shape. A little rust isn't a major concern, especially if it's just on the chain, but you can use it to bargain for a better price.

Consider your needs. If the bike is for basic road transportation, you don't need a mountain bike, and you probably won't want one — a bike with studded-style tires will just take more energy to pedal.

If you live in a relatively flat location, a three-speed or cruiser bike can be a lot of fun. If not, you'll definitely want something with a few more gears.

Be sure to choose a bike that's the right size so that it rides comfortably. If you're not sure, a bike shop can easily help you figure out what size you need.

Now make it road worthy. Once you've purchased a bike, it's a good idea to take it to a bike shop for a tune-up. It's inexpensive and they can let you know if there's anything seriously wrong with the bike — the brakes, for example. You'll also want to pick up any basic biking equipment you don't already have.

The main things you'll need are a lock and a helmet. Also check into lights for night riding, and a basket or panniers to give you some storage space. (You can easily make your own panniers, or even build a bike trailer to haul larger items. Either of these can make it much easier to use your bike for errands.)

You should also definitely consider fenders if the bike doesn't already have them. They're inexpensive, and they keep you from getting sprayed with all the mud and grit that get tossed up by the wheels.

Check out more bike resources. If you're going to ride often, you might want to learn how to do a few bike repairs yourself. A good basic book to get started is Zinn and the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance. Another good resource to check out for all things related to bikes is www.bikeforums.net.

Megan E. Phelps is a freelance writer based in Kansas. She enjoys reading and writing about all things related to sustainable living including homesteading skills, green building and renewable energy. You can find her on .

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Post a comment below.


2/7/2008 3:45:24 PM
A quick rule of thumb for spotting a quality bike is to avoid bikes with "one piece" crank arms (they're the skinny round ones). Aluminum rims are greatly preferred over steel ones. And look for wheels with quick quick release levers.

PATRICIA mackenzie
11/8/2007 12:00:00 AM
As far as upgrading or renovating a used bike: here in the Great Lakes area/Northeast, there aren't many used bikes for sale. When there is one available, usually renovation is needed. BUT there is a problem - a big one: LACK OF PARTS, including TIRES. I am on my third bicycle, one of them brand new from WalMart. One bike went down to over 600 miles on worn tires and needed new - can't get for size (26x1 3/8); one went down to a person (fat) who played with the front wheel and appears to have kicked the spokes out of true (plus a bad tire which I was able to get); and the third, the new mountain bike: bad innner tube, got replacement under warranty, then back brake went bad and can't get part from manufacturer or WalMart. WalMart is giving me my money back, when I can get the bicycle to them, and I purchased it a year ago July. But finding a good used bike is exceedingly hard, especially in my "size" - my legs needed a taller bicycle as I am a little too tall for the 26 inch. There is absolutely nothing available here to buy, used or new, inexpensively while I wait to get my other one back. I have waited eight years and am still walking.

EV Rider
10/31/2007 12:00:00 AM
Electric Bikes are beginning to emerge as serious forms of transportation, which makes good sense especially when gasoline prices are soaring to new and ever greater heights and just as we are being told to expect oil to reach $100 a barrel soon. Getting prepared for chronic fuel shortages should make more people consider the humble bicycle as an alternative means of transportation.Google 'Village Energy' for more .. EV Rider.Electric Bikes - Practical transportation for errands and short commutes.

CALVIN Rittenhouse
10/30/2007 12:00:00 AM
This article gives the basics pretty well. I would add to "make it roadworthy" toe clips and straps and also high-visibility clothing. The toe clips and straps really improve your efficiency in a painless way. The high-visibility clothing improves safety in daylight riding a great deal. (I have an ordinary construction-worker type safety vest. Even though I have worn bright-colored clothing for decades, I have been surprised at the improved response of car drivers.)

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