How to Buy a Great Used Bicycle

ROLL OUT: Get your exercise, save money and pollute less by riding a bike. (Photo: Sarah_Ackerman/Flickr).

Other than walking, there's no more Earth-friendly mode of transportation than a bicycle. Bikes have an incredibly low manufacturing footprint compared to a motorized vehicle. They're cheap to operate, don't pollute the air, and provide more miles per calorie of energy than any mode of getting around known to humankind. Best of all, a properly maintained bicycle should last for decades.

All those factors makes a bike a good candidate for buying used. You can pick up a quality bicycle for a fraction of its original purchase price, and it will give you many years of reliable service. But you'll need to know what to look for.

We've put together a guide to help you locate a terrific used bicycle and assess its condition.

Where to find a quality used bike

By far, the best place to locate a ready-to-ride used bicycle is your local bike shop. If the shop is of any quality at all, you can be reasonably assured their used models have been vetted, adjusted and are ready to hit the road.

Private sales are another good option. Cycling enthusiasts looking to upgrade their equipment are a great source of lovingly ridden machines. You'll find them on eBay, Craigslist and specialized listings such as rec.bicycles.marketplace newsgroup.

Finally, there are the old standbys of garage sales, flea markets, pawn shops and police auctions. You can find some great deals here, but you'll also need enough bicycle knowledge to recognize which bikes are junk, and which are treasures.

Evaluating a used bicycle

If you have a question about the condition of a used bike, take it to a shop for inspection. Bicycles are simple and reliable, but they must be properly maintained for safe operation. Here's a checklist of things to consider before purchasing any secondhand bike.

Frameset: Paint chips are like beauty marks — they're inevitable, and add character. Expect dings and scratches. What you don't want, particularly in aluminum frames, are significant dents. These can act as failure points. Carefully check the lugs or welds where the frame is joined together. Welds should be even. Cracking of any kind is a show-stopper. So are bends at the dropouts (where the wheels attach to the frame). There should be no play in the front fork. Small areas of oxidation or rust are primarily just a cosmetic issue.

Handlebars: Never ride a bicycle with unplugged handlebars. If you can see the hollow of the bars, you must replace the handgrips or bar plugs before saddling up. In an accident — even a minor fall — unplugged bars are an impalement hazard. The bottom of racing-style "butterfly" handlebars should be roughly parallel with the ground. Replace worn or missing bar tape.

Saddle: Replace torn or obviously worn saddles. There should be no play whatsoever. Generally speaking, saddles should be adjusted parallel to the ground. Sitting in the saddle, your leg should have a slight bend at the bottom of the pedal downstroke. If your pelvis rocks when you are pedaling quickly, the saddle is probably too high. Lower it bit by bit until the rocking goes away. Verify that the seatpost clamp is free of cracks or obvious distress.

Brakes: Check for worn or dried-out brake pads. These must be replaced, along with frayed or rusty brake cables. Braking should feel positive. Look for cracked or bent brake levers.

Drivetrain: Wiggle the crankset. Side-to-side play indicates worn bearings or an improperly adjusted bottom bracket. The same applies to pedals. Replace a chain if it's rusty or has frozen links. Chains and rear gear cogs become mated with use, so chain replacement may require the purchase of a new gear cassette. Spin the freewheel and listen for the chatter of broken bearings. Lift the rear wheel — you may need help for this — and verify that shifting is crisp through all gears. You should be able to shift into the largest and smallest rear gear without the chain jamming or becoming unshipped. If this isn't the case, the gearing requires adjustment. On bicycles with rear derailleurs, inspect the rear brake hanger for bends or cracking.

Wheels: As with the crankset, side-to-side play in a bicycle wheel indicates poorly maintained hubs. Squeeze the spokes with your fingers. The tension should feel equal across the entire wheel. Loose spokes indicate serious problems. Rims require periodic adjustment to remain "true" (straight). Stand over each wheel and use the brake pads as a visual reference. Spin the wheel. A small amount of side-to-side motion can usually be corrected. Up-and-down rim motion cannot. Rims should smooth and free from road impact damage. Tires should hold the rated sidewall pressure. Replace tires exhibiting dry rot, worn tread, damaged sidewalls or tears exposing inner ply.

What should you pay?

Do your homework and find out the cost of new bicycles in your shopping class. A well-maintained used bike — ready to ride — will command up to half its purchase value. You'll need to take any necessary repairs into account as you size up a potential purchase.

So knock on some doors, get a good sense of the marketplace, and expect to find some good values. Then saddle up! Here's wishing you smooth roads and endless tailwinds.

Copyright Lighter Footstep 2008