A friend reached out to me recently and asked what to look for in a used bike when shopping craigslist or other classifieds. I had no clue – I’ve only bought new bikes! The whole idea gave me instant anxiety which meant I had to dive in and learn more.
So I had a great chat with my boys at my local bike shop Block Bikes PDX on what to pay attention to and here’s what we/they came up with:
Ultimately, size matters. The bike has to fit the intended use (think: where do you see yourself riding? Step-through city cruisers are not mountain bikes.) and then frame has to fit the rider.
Now for the machine:
- Check for frame damage. You’re looking for not just obvious cracks, but also rippled paint or a crease on the top tube near the handlebar stem. This can be another indicator of an impact, collision, or crash which compromises the structural integrity of the frame and should be avoided.
- Next: Look for wheel wear. Chances are you will be looking at bikes with rim brakes. Most bikes have this style brake with arms on each side of the rim which hold brake pads and apply resistance to slow the wheel. As such, if the bike has not been properly maintained, serious damage may have been done to the rim which could result in wheel replacement or failure. Not a good place to be.
To look for wear on the rim, run your fingers over the rim of the wheel. This should not feel concave. If the rim feels concave, it means the brake pads are overdue for replacement and have been wearing away the rim of the wheel itself. For a treatise on rim brakes, visit Sheldon Brown’s epic posts here, here, and here.
If you can move the arms that hold the brake pads in place, that’s a good thing. If they can’t move, not the end of the world, but it will need some work. Wear on the brakes and cables is normal.
- Next: Check the bearings. The headset, wheels, rear derailleur shouldn’t wobble. They should only move in ways that the bike is supposed to move. Examples: crank arms move in a fluid circle, with no side-to-side movement; handlebars should rotate side-to-side like you would expect for steering, but should not wobble up-and-down.
- Check for loose spokes on the wheel. The spokes should have enough tension that there is no play in them. If spokes move around, or are broken, they can be replaced, but there is no way to know how long it was ridden like that, and the other spokes could have been stretched or damaged and wheel could be out of round. If you find loose or broken spokes, be prepared to have to replace the wheel, because that’s what it could come down to.
- Another thing to look for are any bolts with plier marks on them. Chances are whoever was tinkering with it has done more damage to whatever they were trying to repair. If the bike was taken to a shop, the mechanic would have the appropriate tools for the job.
- Finally, you can pitch meeting the seller at a local bike shop where they can give you a fair assessment of the condition of the machine. Most reputable sellers would want to know what condition the ride is actually in, and many shops will perform this service happily. This is recommended. Call the shop first to confirm they will do this for you.
- One last thing to remember: Brands are not as important when buying used. Department store brands will still be department store brands when you buy used, but that fancy road bike that was originally valued at $2k can be in just as rough shape after years of abuse. Brand and original price is not an indicator of value, ongoing maintenance and care is.
Shopping for used bikes isn’t easy and can be super intimidating for a newb – you might be buying a buttload of problems and expensive repairs with that $40 “deal” – but these tips are a great starting point to get you on a bike that is mechanically sound.
Happy buying, happier riding!