Help me buy my first bike!
August 14, 2014 8:39 PM   Subscribe

I've just learned to ride a bike for the first time as an adult, and now I'm trying to buy one. Catch: I know nothing about them.

I'm looking for a used women's road bike or possibly hybrid (I plan to ride mostly on paved bike trails, graduating to roads once I get used to dealing with my city's ridiculously aggressive drivers) with a frame size 19" or less (I'm about 5'3 1/2). I'm hoping to spend less than $200 for a ready-to-ride bike, and the less, the better. The used bike stores here don't go below $250, and $350 is standard. Therefore, Craigslist.

The problem is, I don't know enough about bikes to know what I'm getting! I've read enough on the Internet to be able to filter out some of the especially low-quality brands, but I don't know enough to be able to tell anything from a picture, and even in person I know I wouldn't recognize any mechanical flaws or be able to assess overall condition. I'd love to hear any tips you have to offer about how to pick out and assess a used bike -- or any general tips about bikes for the short, inexperienced city rider!

More specifically, I'd really appreciate guidance about the specific bikes below. Are any of them especially good brands, or especially bad? Do any serious faults stand out in the pictures? Any great values I should snap up, or lemons I should keep away from -- or should I just keep looking? If so, what should I be looking for?

Thanks so much for your help!

Saint Tropez LA Sport 421 - $150

Univega 18 speed hybrid - $180


Nishiki Hybrid Bike - $180

1980s Univega Mixte Japan 10 speed Silver blue - $200
posted by ostro to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (15 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
it's hard to tell via the internet if things are in good working order on a used bike. you need to see in person how much wear and tear the bike has gone through. if possible, try to rally a bike savvy friend to take with you when you go check out these bikes! also, keep in mind that while you want to spend less than $200, most bargains you find online might need some fixing or at the very least a general tune up to get it in good working order. or it may ride good now, but need some fixing soon down the road.

basic things: make sure the bike feels good to sit on and fits you well. check the brake pads and how well the brakes actually work - are they easy to reach and squeeze? when you test ride it, make sure all the gears shift in all levels and that it doesn't skip or require multiple clicks to get it into the next gear. check that the frame is sound and not bent or cracked anywhere. look at the tires for cracks and glass/general wear and tear. listen for abnormal grinding, clicks, squeaks. ask the person selling it when parts were last replaced and what parts you might expect to have to replace in the near future - you may not get an honest answer on this, but it doesn't hurt to ask.

good luck and ride safe!
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 9:02 PM on August 14, 2014

also one more thing - here is a great link to read through as well: buying used bikes for beginners. this is a good section on craigslist and what to check out on a bike when you are there in person.
posted by cristinacristinacristina at 9:09 PM on August 14, 2014

Unless you know how to maintain and tune-up a bike, I think you are going to spend a lot more than $250 on any of those options. If you buy a used bike from a bike shop, they will have given it a tune-up already. If you buy it from craigslist, it's probably been sitting in someone's basement unridden for a while, and at the very least, will not have had recent maintenance in the last couple of months, as most people will not take a bike for a tune-up if they know they are about to sell it. Getting the gears and brakes properly adjusted, greasing the chain, putting on new tyres and so on are all easy enough, but if you can't do them yourself, you'll be paying at least $100 for someone else to. And you can choose not to, but then your new-to-you bike is going to be pretty unpleasant to ride.

(I recently bought a second-hand bike in Australia, and our labour prices are way higher than yours, but the bike shop I bought it from charges $300 for annual tune ups, which made their $200-over-craigslist prices for their pre-tuned-up second hand bikes actually quite reasonable.)
posted by lollusc at 9:25 PM on August 14, 2014

This will never work. Do NOT buy any of those bikes. Check your memail.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 10:07 PM on August 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do you have any friends who ride bikes regularly and do their own maintenance? That's a reasonable price range, but only if that qualification is met.

Me and my friends have gotten non knowledgable friends good bikes for that much or less, but a lot of us are also basically bike mechanics(I have a full set of tools, my friends have work stands and everything, etc). They usually need... More than a bit of TLC if they've been sitting for a while. It's generally an afternoon of clean/lube/adjust, drink a beer, ride it around, adjust, repeat.

Does your city have any "local bike collective" type places? Mine has several which will let newbies build their own bike for free, with lots of knowledgeable instruction on the process, or tune up a bike and pay a modest fee to keep it while also getting knowledge on how to maintain it.

Those are my suggestions, if you don't want to pay $250. I'd go the friend route if I could.
posted by emptythought at 10:26 PM on August 14, 2014

Ah, Craigslist bike hunting. One of my favorite activities! Most things about a bike can be repaired by a shop, but beware of these DEALBREAKERS:

1. Run your finger under the downtube right near where it meets the head tube. The metal should be smooth. If there are any bulges or cracks, do not buy. The bike has likely been in a front-end collision, making the frame unsafe. It should be stripped for parts and the frame used for garden art.
2. Scrutinize the entire frame for cracks. Cracks are bad. Small dents in a steel frame are usually ok. Some minor rust is also ok, but not major rust.
3. Check to see if the seat will move up and down. Many old bikes have seized-up seatposts and are not worth buying.
4. Bring a magnet and check to see if the rims are steel. Steel often looks very shiny. (kinda like the Panasonic you linked to) You don't want steel rims because you'll have less stopping power especially in rain. The magnet should not stick to the rims.
5. Check to see if there is enough clearance to fit fenders, (at least 1/2" of space between the tire and brake bridge/fork crown), and also check for fender braze-ons (holes) on all four dropouts.
6. Also check to see if there is clearance to use wider tires. Always nice to have that option.
7. Flip the bike over to make sure the serial number has not been disfigured. (Stolen bike!) The serial number is usually engraved on the underside of the bottom bracket shell. While it's upside down, run it through all the gears.

Also, as a personal rule, I stay away from ads posted in all caps because it just looks insane to me. Good luck!
posted by oxisos at 10:30 PM on August 14, 2014 [4 favorites]

I've occasionally seen local cooperatives which repair and sell used bikes - a quick web search didn't yield any local results for that, but I did see - free bicycle maintenance skillshare thing. Probably populated by super friendly people who will be happy to give you awesome advice, teach you how to fix things and spot problems yourself, and quite possibly may know someone who has a bicycle for sale. (I'm assuming Boston is correct in your profile..)
posted by dickasso at 1:44 AM on August 15, 2014

I bought a Trek Cruiser single speed with coaster brakes--over the years I bought three of them, in fact. they were that perfect for me. The advantages for me were:

1) Comfort--changed the seat to a nice cushy one and had the handlebars adjusted to fit me.
2) Maintenance - I bought the bikes from a bike shop three blocks from my house so, over the years, I could walk it to the shop for repairs, drop it off one the way to work, pick it up after work, get advice about any needs or problems I had with the bike. The guys got to know me and always took good care of me. The locks, baskets, panniers, tools were all sold right there and I added what I needed as I went along. Parts, service and expert repairmen were always available.
3) Price - the bikes are cute in a kind of retro way and well made--good value for the money. Cheap enough that if one gets stolen I haven't lost a small fortune and it wouldn't ruin me to replace it right away which, of course, I once had to do. After that I followed the rule that if I plan to take my hand off the bike I must lock it securely. (I was intending to commute to work on the bike--which I did--and because the bike is not expensive I was able to add a second bike after a while, just for color and backup. I couldn't have done this with a stylish, status bicycle.)
5) Quality - the new bike didn't have any unknowns like a second hand bike might -- something bent or busted that was concealed from my novice eyes--no surprise is a good surprise.
6) Ease - I really love the zen-like cruiser that didn't distract from my smelling the roses as I biked along the side streets and under the trees in the park because I didn't have to change gears or stand up or hunch over racing handlebars or wear streamlined bicycle costumes to glide through my morning and afternoon commute. I was serene on the bike and I brought home baskets of blooming plants on Saturday mornings, food from the Farmer's Market on Tuesdays, sometimes I even went to the Mall and sometimes rode on the levee and watched the ships make their way upriver. My city is flat and it is idyllic fun to bike here.

It's important to buy the bike you need for your purpose. This was mine.
posted by Anitanola at 1:58 AM on August 15, 2014

You really want to check out Bikes not Bombs! They teach inner city kids to in bike maintenance by bringing back old discarded bikes to life again. You can buy those bikes pretty cheaply. They also have clinics that might interest you. Good luck and have fun biking!!!
posted by brorfred at 5:27 AM on August 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you can stretch your budget a bit, check out breezer bikes. The uptown series is highly rated, and something like the uptown ex (~$400) would be a great first bike, especially since it comes with a rack and fenders.

That said, your city has some good coops. Go there and they will help you, many have bikes for sale, or likely you'll be able to find something good even via word of mouth. On preview -- Bikes Not Bombs is exactly who I was thinking of.
posted by susanvance at 5:33 AM on August 15, 2014

Response by poster: Just a few updates -- I know very few people in Boston, definitely nobody who could help me with this. My local Bikes not Bombs starts at $340/bike. Believe me, I know that a bike shop would be better, but even $200 is a stretch for me.

More broadly, I totally accept that, paying this little, I may end up with a crappy bike. But it's not a choice between a crappy bike and a good bike, it's a choice between a crappy bike and my city's bike-share program. Which costs extra after the first half-hour, so I'd prefer to avoid it.

Thanks for all the advice so far!
posted by ostro at 6:51 AM on August 15, 2014

An alternative: are you a low-income resident of the city of Boston? You may be eligible for a subsidized Hubway membership if you are; there's a number on the website to call and figure out if you are. One of the benefits of the subsidized member is a much lower signup fee ($5), and you have 60 minutes before you start getting charged extra instead of 30.
posted by Pandora Kouti at 2:02 PM on August 15, 2014

Just an anecdote that I used Hubway while visiting Boston and absolutely loved it. (And I'm one of those spandex-wearing riders back home.) Definitely a viable option for a sturdy, reliable maintenance-free bike if you leave near one of their 'stations'.
posted by Wild_Eep at 11:12 AM on August 17, 2014

Biking is NOT CHEAP unless you can do 95% of your own maintenance. It is fun, it is healthy, it is often efficient, but it is not cheap. Starting off with a cheaper bike here is a false economy. It only makes sense if you are money poor but time rich enough to put time and effort into learning how to do your own maintenance. Otherwise, I promise, you will be dismayed by how much you end up pouring into your bike. And that's even if you avoid getting your bike (or components of it) stolen - and a decent bike lock is far from cheap too.

I think time and money-wise, if the locations are convenient, bike share will be a much much better value for you.
posted by Salamandrous at 11:47 AM on August 17, 2014 [1 favorite]

Having read your update, I would still encourage you to check out Bikes Not Bombs in general:

1) A good starting point would be to take their free bike repair/maintenance classes. Go to these and you'll gain the knowledge on how to buy a bike (because you'll be able to spot problems), and also how to maintain it on your own - if money is tight this will otherwise be a problem, as Salamandrous mentions.

2) They really, really want to get you a bike, I promise. They have a lot of volunteer options and it is worth asking if you could work out a discount in trade or a payment plan (especially if you are demonstrating interest by going to the clinics).
posted by susanvance at 1:49 PM on August 18, 2014

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