help buying a used bike
May 11, 2007 9:02 PM   Subscribe

[UsedBicycleFilter] Any tips on buying a used bike?

I'm pretty clueless when it comes to bicycles--the last bike I got (7 years ago, I think) was purchased by my parents for me. This bike was, sadly, stolen a few weeks ago, and rather than buy a new one I've been looking for a used, good-condition bike-- and there's a "bike sale/swap fair" tomorrow that I thought I'd check out.

What should I be on the lookout for in a used bike? What should I test? Is it reasonable to ask to bike around the block (or further) before I make a decision? Can I offer a lower price than the seller is asking? How does bike sizing work (I'm about 6' tall), and how well should I expect a used bike to "fit" me? Should I expect needing to make some repairs? How do I know which bike sellers to trust, since I'm probably not buying from a store?

I'll be riding on city streets, probably not often longer than 5 miles, but I'd like to have the option of going on a day trip and expecting nothing to break. I'm also thinking of getting a fixed-gear bike, but everything I've heard/read tells me that if I don't know how to build/fix it, I shouldn't get one.

Comments? Advice? Everything is welcome.
posted by the_arbiter to Travel & Transportation (14 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Get a nice cruiser. They're heavy (but hey, you're not racing). Look for rust but I doubt it's hard to go wrong with a used bike if you actually see (/test ride) before you buy. good luck and enjoy!
posted by special-k at 9:11 PM on May 11, 2007

I vote against the fixie. Email me for reasons.

/fixie rider

P.S.: Cram here and here before the swap meet (Where is it? Sounds like fun.)
posted by Opposite George at 9:27 PM on May 11, 2007

One benefit of getting a fixed gear bike is that potential thieves will probably not be able to ride it. One downside of getting a fixed gear bike is that you may not either at first.
posted by hindmost at 9:36 PM on May 11, 2007

Someone recommended to me to go to the bike store and try out some new bikes to find what I liked and then look for used versions of the same ones on craigslist, etc.
posted by disaster77 at 9:43 PM on May 11, 2007

Can't help you on the swap, but I swear by getting cheap-o used road bikes/ hybrids. I'd buy a 'new' beater from St. Vincent DePaul thrift stores (you probably have a salvation army store nearby which is almost as good) every couple years for 10-15 bucks.

I looked for tires that were flat (then the bike is cheap!) but rims that spun straight. Also, check to see if the brakes and gears are bent up and really messed. If they're ok but sticky, that means they look damaged (and make the bike even cheaper!), but can usually be VERY fixed up by a bike shop.

I would get a $15 bike + $50 tune up with a new tube and for $65 and I'd be riding a pretty sweet roadbike that looked terrible so no one would steal it.

OTOH, older bikes will wear away sooner, dent the wheel, etc, but it's a steal compared to getting a mediocre newbie, or a used bike from a shop that is buffed and shined to make you pay an extra 30%.
posted by conch soup at 9:49 PM on May 11, 2007

Best answer: i'm no expert but I've bought a few bikes. maybe some others can elaborate. OK, what to look for:

spin both of the wheels and see if they wobble. (a tiny wobble is not a big deal, but a bigger wobble means the wheel needs to be repaired or replaced). also, look to see if the brake pads touch the tires as they spin. it's a minor adjustment but something to be aware of. look at the brake pads to see if the rubber is worn down - if so they may need replacing. squeeze the brakes and make sure they work OK. if you don't get enough of a response, you may need new brake cables. most of these parts are cheap, I think in the $5-$10 range, though wheels will be more.

look at the chain. if it's rusty, it may need to be replaced - not expensive, but it's a sign the bike was not well maintained. try shifting through all of the gears. (you may need to take the bike for a spin to do this properly. this is a reasonable request.) if you can't quite reach the highest or lowest, or if it feels stiff, a tune-up will probably fix it.

check all of the parts and make sure nothing is about to fall off. when I was young and naive, I bought an old used bike, and after a month I had a brake cable snap, and a month later the rear cassette just fell right off. a lot of the parts were really rusty and even a cursory inspection would have shown this. check the pedal bracket by grabbing one of the pedals and giving it a solid tug in and out. there should be little to no give. if it feels really loose, this is a big problem (deal-breaker).

fit-wise, make sure you can straddle the bike and plant your feet on the ground. make sure you are comfortable when seated, so that you can extend your legs most of the way to get a strong downward stroke. you will be able to adjust the seat later. make sure you can reach the handlebar and brakes comfortably when you're on the bike.

as long as everything is more or less solid, there's not much they can do to cheat you, and your bike should get you around just fine. i don't think you should need to spend more than $100 or so for a decent quality used bike, depending on what the market is like where you live.

fixie's are for advanced cyclists only. ride around on something cheaper for a while until you know what you're getting into.
posted by PercussivePaul at 10:34 PM on May 11, 2007 [5 favorites]

Check out this thread.
posted by marxchivist at 10:50 PM on May 11, 2007

Go shopping for new bikes and get fitted, the five minute kind that comes for free when shopping, preferably at a couple of places. Shop for the used bike armed with the dimensions of the bikes that fit you, all of them including tube angles, tube lengths, stem lengths..... You don't have to get them at the bike store you can get them off the manufacturer's site. Find something close enough to be able to adjust into the proper fit. Go back to the shops that fit you for parts and accessories, they make more money off of those than bikes anyway.
posted by caddis at 6:32 AM on May 12, 2007

I like fixed gear and I'm building my second fixie. They're low-tech, have fewer parts, and can be considerably cheaper for a high-quality ride than a geared bike.

However, they don't ride anything like you're used to. If you don't like riding it, you won't, and you wasted your money. So get a geared bike you're used to, and when you have some cash saved (or a friend with a fixie your size), try it.

Used bikes can be good bargains but only if you don't have to pay somebody to repair it into usefulness. Shop with an knowledgeable friend if you can.

There's a recent thread in one bike mailing list about every retrogrouch's dream, the $5 bike. After $30 for tires, $10 for tubes, $8 for a new chain, $35 for cables and cable housings and $25 for a new seat, it's a $118 bike. And if you have to pay somebody to do the work for you, add another $80 or so, and you've spent half the price of a respectable new bike on something which still has a lot of worn-out, two-decades-old parts.
posted by ardgedee at 6:39 AM on May 12, 2007

You can usually find low cost rides at police auctions/sales. They are usually not the best quality and are of the "$100 K-Mart" variety. You should easily be able to find a decent used bike that has few miles on it for around $25-50. Just make sure that parts can be replaced and that they are all standard.

Fixed gear? Meh.... While I think the 18-speed bikes are too much to hassle with, a good ten speed will do everything you need. You definitely want comfort which is why el cheapo fixed gear isn't good. If you want to spend any money on upgrades, get a good seat that isn't going to make your balls fall off.
posted by JJ86 at 7:57 AM on May 12, 2007

This thread from the Classic & Vintage Forum is probably a good place to start. I've found the people there very helpful.

Just a laundry list of things that have (in the last year or so) screwed me:

Wobbly bottom brackets (the deal the pedals rotate on) on Ralieghs will be a pain to replace.

Check to make sure the seat-tube isn't out of round or otherwise messed up.

A little surface rust is OK, but keep an eye out for paint bubbles that may indicate serious structural damage.

Something to consider instead of a fixed-gear is a singlespeed freewheel. It's nearly as simple as a fixie, but a little less... extreme. Sheldon Brown has some good stuff on singlespeeds, too.
posted by clockwork at 8:55 AM on May 12, 2007 [1 favorite]

A mountain bike type frame with a single speed freewheel setup is a pretty good low-maintenance grocery getter with almost none of the scarlet letters given above to the monocog velocipede velodromatic hipstermobile (rather, fixed gear NJS track bikes).

That said, I built up a more cyclocross-oriented fixed gear bike this year and love it. Steel through and through, bombproof rims, etc. It gets 60% of the riding time, though that equals like 30% of the miles vs. the 20-speeded road bike (and an epsilon of miles on my junker MTB). 42x16 doesn't get you far fast. :)

So, in light of my recommendation, something like the Surly 1x1 or one of the On One frames is an example of what you can go with in the singlespeed MTB realm. It's harder to convert most traditional MTB frames, but with a little work that's certainly possible. Sheldon Brown's pages (already linked above) are a good starting point.
posted by kcm at 9:50 AM on May 12, 2007

I've had several bikes before (MTB, old road bike, etc.). Then I bought this. You say you'll ride it on pavement. I will never again buy anything other than a modern road bike for pavement. (I love MTB, but a mountain bike on the road sucks!) STI shifters, 120 PSI road tires, machined rims with side-pull brakes (no idea why Opposite George's second link disses them - they're used on all modern road bike brakes), and hyperglide cassettes add up to a nice ride.

I know it's expensive. To me, it's well worth it. It's also a bit of a headache w.r.t. bike thieves, but hopefully you have a safe enough place to lock it up. (And please don't store your bike outside!)

The popular opinion is that fixies and single-speeds are cool, and most people around here ride crappy MTBs that they don't know how to maintain, but I'll outpace any of them in any terrain without expending half the energy they do, especially from a stop. My bike also needs a lot less maintenance - the time I spend maintaining it is literally about 10 times lower than with my previous bikes. Fewer punctures, no chain jams or loosening parts, tires that hold twice the pressure a lot longer. Modern components just work better - a lot better.

So if I were you, I'd look for a good used road bike online, one made in the past decade.
posted by azazello at 4:55 PM on May 12, 2007

side-pull brakes (no idea why Opposite George's second link disses them - they're used on all modern road bike brakes)

The link is talking about a different kind of side-pull brake than yours (yes, it should be clearer on brakes.)

Newer bikes like yours use dual-pivot side pull brakes, which rock. The brakes the link talks about (and he even says he's talking about older side-pulls) are the older single-pivot side-pull brakes, which kinda suck in relation to newer designs.
posted by Opposite George at 8:41 PM on May 12, 2007

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