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Buying a Bicycle -- A Basic Guide: Buying a Used Bike

Although most of what is covered in this guide applies equally, regardless of whether you are buying a new bike or a used one, this section will deal specifically with things to consider when buying a used machine.

In today’s rapidly changing bicycle market, buying used is a more viable alternative than most new cyclists realize—and some of us old hands are reaping the benefits. Like personal computer technology, the premium for the newest and latest quickly recedes under the limelight of the next hot trend to become new and wonderful. So yesterday’s news is being sold off at deep discounts today. Meanwhile, what was new and wonderful last year is still pretty adequate—better in fact than what the same money can buy new today.

There is always a crop of much older bikes, such as the ten- speeds, three-speeds, and even old cruisers being cleared out of the garages of non-cyclists. If you know what you’re looking for, and are able to judge its condition, you’ll probably find some true bargains this way.

Before you go in pursuit of a used bike, it will be smartest to read much of the rest of this guide, because most of what is discussed there is equally relevant to an old bike as to a new one. Decide on the type of bike you’re looking for. But even more importantly, find out what size of bike you need. Then learn to distinguish between different quality levels, based on the construction of the frame and the components installed. Finally check the condition of the bike and its components, which we’ll discuss specifically in this section under “Checking it Out.”

Where to Buy a Used Bike

There are a number of sources for old bikes, and it pays to check out each of them—bike shops, newspaper ads, garage sales, police auctions, bike-swaps, bike club newsletters, and shops specializing in older bikes.

In general, you’re probably best advised to find a bike in a resource close to the bike business. You’re more likely to find a good used bike offered for sale in a bike shop or a bike club newsletter than in a junk store or the classifieds of a general newspaper, even if it’s usually at a higher price.

When a customer “trades up” for a more sophisticated or more fashionable bike, the shop may take in the old bike and either sell it for the owner on consignment or sell it outright. Although obviously bike shops have to live mainly off selling new bikes, this can be good business for them, because a satisfied customer of a used bike is likely to come back for repairs, accessories, upgrades, and eventually for a new bike.

Some bicycle-related charities, such as Trips for Kids in California, have annual bike swaps where all the bikes offered have been properly assessed for their value and condition. Finally, there’s even a monthly paper, The Bicycle Trader, devoted specifically to the buying and selling of used bikes and components ( 510 Frederick Street, San Francisco, CA 94117).

Bike Theft and the Secondhand Market

Unfortunately, there is a lot of bike theft, and much of it’s treated in such a cavalier fashion that it’s hard to make sure you’re not unwittingly encouraging it by buying a stolen bike. The best way to avoid it’s to steer clear of non-bike-trade sources for used bikes. Bike shops, bike clubs, cycling enthusiasts, and bicycle charities by and large make pretty sure they’re not selling hot merchandise. What you find advertised in the general press or in junk shops, or by some unknown guy at the corner of the street, is not always such a safe bet.

You should still check the bike over for any apparent tampering. For instance, if there are signs that someone tried to file away or otherwise obliterate the frame number (usually under the bottom bracket), it’s not a sign of great honesty.

Although the police efforts to register bikes have been well- intentioned, they’re highly ineffective in dealing with professional bike theft. Virtually all those police efforts have been local, and the bike thieves trade across city limits: the bikes stolen in city A, and registered there by the local police, are shipped to city B, where the police have records only of the bikes registered there, and none showing whether a bike was stolen in some other city. If you have good reasons to suspect that a bike offered to you is stolen, you should still inform the police, explaining specifically what evidence you have.

Checking It Out

So how can you tell whether a secondhand bike is in good condition? Riding the bike will give the experienced cyclist a quick clue to its condition. The best thing to do is to take a more experienced cyclist along, preferably one who is familiar with repairing bikes as well as riding them. However, if you’re not all that experienced, or if it’s a type of bike you’re not familiar with, you may be able to get a feel for the quality of the bike by checking some telltale details.

Fig.1. A display of used bikes outside a San Francisco bike shop. Although many shops will sell you a used bike, this store, American Cyclery does it in a big way.

Fixing up an old bike can be quite a money drain. Even on a cheap bike, a pair of tires and inner tubes will set you back about $50, and other replacement parts are similarly much more expensive than the price of the complete bike would suggest. Thus, what seems like a bargain—”only” requiring a couple of replacement parts like tires, chain, and seat—quickly turns into a bottomless pit. Expensive bikes may be worth it, but bikes that start out cheap when new rarely justify spending money to upgrade. As an example, you can buy a complete, though junky, new department store bike for $100. Getting one of those used for $30 but then having to replace $70 worth of bits and pieces does not exactly make for a bargain.

When looking at a used bike, assuming you’ve established it’s the right size, first check for rust. Don’t buy a bike with obvious signs of rust on parts of the frame, and especially on the moving parts. It’s a sign of neglect, and moving parts that have rusted won’t work smoothly, even with lubrication.

Next, check for any loose, damaged or missing parts. If they’re minor parts, such as handgrips or reflectors, it’ll be simple and cheap to replace them. However, if parts of the pedals, the wheels, the gears or the brakes are missing, you’re looking at a seriously neglected bike. That’s not a good sign, because you may well be dealing with a bike that will quickly develop serious problems in service. Unless the seller is prepared to go way down in price, and you know how to correct major problems, don’t buy a seriously neglected bike.

Check operation of the brakes and gears. Pull the brake lever and release it. Lift the rear wheel, turn the pedals, and change gears. If these things don’t operate smoothly, you may have to replace and lubricate the cables.

Spin the wheels and check whether they run smoothly without wobbling. Put pressure on the handlebars from side to side to make sure they don’t creak. Lift the front end of the bike and bounce the front wheel to make sure the headset doesn’t rattle.

Finally, if you feel the bike is in reasonable shape, take it for a ride to test the gears, the brakes, and the steering in action. You may have to leave the potential seller your driver’s license and a credit card, but don’t buy any bike—whether new or used—without having tested it on the road. And don’t buy a bike that doesn’t feel right when you ride it.

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