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How To Buy A Used Bike

Submitted by on January 11, 2011 – 9:40 pm2 Comments

The bikes in this post are ones I bought used.  The first two were under $100 each and the third bike was closer to $150.

I get email from people who are eager to ride bikes again but don’t know where to start.  They’re not ready to shell out big bucks for a new bike yet they’re uncertain when it comes to buying a used bike.  Buying a used bike can be a fun event and one that’s rewarding on many levels.  It’s a great way to get started riding again, especially if you’re on a budget.  There are a few practical steps to be made prior to blissfully riding off into the sunset.

1980s Schwinn LeTour that was originally covered in grime and the paint job had lots of dings and scratches. I converted it from a road bike to a comfortable town bike (as shown).

Decide What You Want:
The first thing you have to do is determine what kind of bike do you want.  In other words, do you want a road bike, mountain bike, city bike, etc.  And where do you plan to ride it?  On the street, dirt tracks, or roof tops like Danny MacAskill?  And what is more important to you – comfort or performance?  Racing style bikes with drop down bars or mountain bikes with flat handlebars are not known for comfort yet they’re perfect for racing or riding on mountains.  Most people find sitting in a more upright position to be the most comfortable for extended rides.

So knowing what kind of bike you want is the first step.  One way of doing this is to look at what bike manufacturers are making these days and then see if you can find a used example.  Or you can learn about older bikes that might fall in the category of classic and vintage.  Buying a quality vintage Fuji or Raleigh road bike for under $200 is a very doable proposition.  Keep in mind you can convert an older road bike to very cool city/commuter bike without getting a second mortgage.

Changing the saddle (and handlebar) height is pretty easy. Make sure the stand-over height is correct for you.

If The Shoe Fits :
Knowing what size bike frame will fit you is next.  Without getting into crazy maths and endless commentary about frame geometry, keep this in mind – when you are standing over the bicycle you want at least an inch of space between your crotch and the top tube. That’s called the stand-over height and you determine that by measuring from the ground to the top of the top tube.

If you have a 30″ inseam then a bike with a stand-over height of 33″ is going to be way too tall for you.  If you want a fancier explanation about frame sizing, see your local bike shop.

Next is where to find a used bike.  There are a few basic avenues for that.

1980s Peugeot UE 18 that was covered in grime when I bought it. A little soap and water and aluminum polish and it looks like new.

Easy Street:
Head down to your local bike shop and see what used bikes they have on hand.  You’ll get to talk to a person who is knowledgeable about bikes and they should be able to answer all your questions.  Even better is that a reputable bike shop is not going to let someone roll out of their store on a bike that’s unsafe.  So chances are the brake and shift cables and whatnot have either been replaced or at least adjusted.  Everything is more likely to be in good operating order when you buy from a bike shop.

More Complicated Street:
is a popular spot for buying a used bike too.  The prices are often reasonable and finding what you want is entirely possible, though you might have to be patient in some cases.  The downside is you’re talking to, and meeting with, a complete stranger.  That can pose a creepy element.  I’ve bought several bikes from CL and never had a weird moment, but I have heard from others who have.  All ordinary precautions should be taken when meeting a stranger in a strange place.

Prior to that meeting you’ll want to minimize your chances of disappointment by asking some basic questions.  For some people rust is a deal killer, for others it depends on where and how much, so ask what parts, if any, are rusted.  When was the last time the bike was serviced (if ever)?  Do all the gears shift? Will the tires hold air?  What known problems does the bike have?  Keep in mind that most bike shops can replace the brake and shift cables for around $40+/-  or so.  They will adjust them for less.

Buying a used bike is a great example of re-use and recycle.  It’s one less bike that might end up in a land-fill.

And are you satisfied with the photos in the ad?  If not then ask for additional ones.  Occasionally you’ll come across a wanker who will position the bike so the flaws are not obvious in the photos.  Save yourself a trip across town and ask for better photos if you’re unsatisfied with the ones in the ad.  If the seller balks at answering your questions, or cannot produce additional photos, or cannot tell you the stand-over height (or size details) you have to decide if the bike is worth the risk of a trip.  Maybe instead you put your energy into finding another bike with a more user-friendly seller.

Fuji Special Road Racer was very clean and came with new tires

And keep in mind that there are some very reputable sellers on CL, after all I have been known to sell there and guys like Fred Demetrovich have made a second career out of fixing up used bikes and reselling them on CL.

Risky Street:
You can buy a bike from Ebay or other online sources.  I know many people do that with great success, and others have stories about getting burned.  Buyer beware – this is not a venue I’d feel comfortable taking but again, people do it every day and do so without problems.

The bottom line is buying a used bike is not rocket science. It’s something to feel good about because you’re utilizing something that would/could have ended up in a land fill. Buying a used bike can also be an inexpensive way to get started on a bicycle, or a way to add an additional bike to your collection without breaking the bank.

We’ll talk about new bikes next.


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Chris started riding a bike again when he noticed the Preston Ridge Trail being constructed across the street from his house. Since then he co-founded Biking in Dallas, has gone through countless Craigslist bike projects (some better than others) and can be found pedaling around town on a Electra Ticino with a camera in tow.

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